In a little under nine months, the British people will be voting on changing our voting system from First Past The Post (FPTP) to the Alternative Vote system (AV).
The Liberal Democrats want to go much further and have the Single Transferable Vote system (STV), while the Tories hate the idea and want to keep things as they are. Labour put AV in their manifesto, but are fighting it now because that’s what Labour do.
So it’s a compromise.
But it’s a compromise that solves one of the two main problems with our voting system, and will make it easier to solve the other one, so I would urge you to vote yes in the referendum.
There are two main areas where our voting system is unfair. The first is proportionality, which AV does little to address. In the last election the Tories got an MP for every 35,000 people who voted for them, Labour got one for every 33,000, the Lib Dems one for every 120,000 and the Greens one for every million or so. That’s not fair, and should be changed, but unfortunately while the Lib Dems and Greens want to change that, Labour and the Tories don’t. I wonder why?
But there is another aspect which is equally unfair, and that is preferentiality. First Past The Post, our current system, is a winner-takes-all system. But it may well be the case that the majority don’t support the winner. Imagine a case where you have three parties – the Evil Bastard Party, the Quite Nice Party and the Very Nice Party. In a constituency, 34% of people vote for the Evil Bastard candidate, 33% for the Quite Nice candidate and 33% for the Very Nice candidate. The Evil Bastard candidate then wins – even though the Quite Nice supporters would rather have the Very Nice candidate than the Evil Bastard, while the Very Nice people would rather the Quite Nice candidate. The vast majority of people are then unhappy with ‘their’ MP, who represents ‘them’.
This kind of thing does happen – my friend Dave often uses the example of Hazel Blears, the Labour MP for Salford and Eccles, who is horribly unpopular. It’s probably fair to say that in that constituency most Lib Dems would have preferred the Tory candidate to her, and most Tories would have preferred the Lib Dem (and the Socialist Worker candidate stood as TUSC/Hazel Must Go!). So that constituency has an MP who 60% of the voters wanted out.
The Alternative Vote fixes that.
How It Works
Everyone is given a ballot on which is listed all the candidates who are standing, The voter then ranks them in order. If one candidate gets more than 50% of the first-preference votes, that candidate is the winner. Otherwise, the lowest-scoring candidate is knocked out, and the second-preference votes from them go to the other candidates. This carries on until one candidate has more than 50% of the votes. This means that whoever wins, more than half the voters think they’re not the worst alternative.
An example – imagine we have four parties (Red, Blue, Yellow and Green) and nine voters who vote as follows:
Voter 1 Yellow Green Blue Red
Voter 2 Yellow Blue Red Green
Voter 3 Red Blue Yellow Green
Voter 4 Red Blue Green Yellow
Voter 5 Yellow Green Blue Red
Voter 6 Red Green Blue Yellow
Voter 7 Blue Green Yellow Red
Voter 8 Blue Red Green Yellow
Voter 9 Green Red Yellow Blue
Round 1 – We have 3 Yellow, 3 Red, 2 Blue and 1 Green first preferences. Green is eliminated as it has the fewest first preference votes, and the votes redistributed:
Voter 1 Yellow Blue Red
Voter 2 Yellow Blue Red
Voter 3 Red Blue Yellow
Voter 4 Red Blue Yellow
Voter 5 Yellow Blue Red
Voter 6 Red Blue Yellow
Voter 7 Blue Yellow Red
Voter 8 Blue Red Yellow
Voter 9 Red Yellow Blue
Round 2 – We have 4 Red, 3 Yellow and 2 Blue , so Blue are eliminated
Voter 1 Yellow Red
Voter 2 Yellow Red
Voter 3 Red Yellow
Voter 4 Red Yellow
Voter 5 Yellow Red
Voter 6 Red Yellow
Voter 7 Yellow Red
Voter 8 Red Yellow
Voter 9 Red Yellow
We now have 5 Red votes, which is more than 50%, so Red wins
Advantages Of The System
The principal advantage of this system is that there is no longer any such thing as a ‘wasted vote’, and allows people to vote *honestly*. The VAST majority of people in this country, in my experience, don’t vote so much out of support for one party but to keep the other lot out. This is one reason, for example, why so many people are screaming ‘betrayal!’ at the formation of the coalition. Many people supported Labour, but because Labour couldn’t win in their seat, they voted Lib Dem to ‘keep the Tories out’, rather than because they actually supported us.
But of course this works every way – there are Tories who vote Lib Dem to keep Labour out and Lib Dems who vote Labour or Tory to keep the other party out. (There don’t seem to be many Labour or Tory supporters who vote for the other big party to keep the Lib Dems out, at the moment, but there probably will be in any future FPTP elections). And there are many, many supporters of smaller parties who know their party hasn’t a chance, so vote for the least-worst option.
But if we have AV, at the next election you don’t have to hold your nose. You put the party you actually support in first place, and then if the Legalise Cannabis And Criminalise Sodomy Party (or whatever tiny fringe party most closely matches your views) doesn’t come first, you haven’t ‘wasted’ your vote, and haven’t failed to keep the party you hate most out.
It also has a number of other advantages:
It brings increased representation for smaller parties, but would still keep out rabid extremists. My guess is that it would lead to more Lib Dem MPs, a couple more Greens, and possibly one or two from some of the hard left parties (especially if the various fringe parties co-ordinate their efforts like in the last election, where RESPECT and the Greens worked together). On the other hand, no party that was *hated* by the majority could get any seats, so AV would actually make it *less* likely that the Bastard Nazi Party would get in. (Other far-right extremists, like Racist UKIP, might get a seat or two, but that’s a small price to pay for greater democracy).
It would also mean that a lot of the negative campaigning – ranging from “X Can’t Win Here!” (because now they can) through to personal abuse against candidates – would have to stop. Currently if you’re a Labour politician in, say, a Labour/Conservative marginal, it doesn’t matter if you alienate every Lib Dem supporter by saying “people who vote Lib Dem worship Satan and think Jo Brand is the funniest one on QI” because you’re trying to persuade people not to vote Lib Dem. Under AV, you want them to give you a high second preference, so you’d be more likely to say “I have the greatest respect for my Lib Dem opponent, and urge my voters to give her their second preference” in the hopes that she’d say the same about you.
It would get rid of many safe seats – at the moment, Hazel Blears and her ilk are immune, because unless everyone who doesn’t want her as MP rallies round a single candidate, she gets in by default. Now, so long as she’s the least popular option, out she goes.
And for those who are unhappy with the coalition, it helps send parties a message. If, at the last election, the majority of Lib Dem supporters had put Labour second, and the majority of Labour supporters had put the Lib Dems second, then both parties would have a very strong incentive to work together, knowing that would be what their supporters wanted. On the other hand if the majority of Lib Dem voters had put the Tories second, then it would mean that the Lib Dems would have a clear answer to the cries of ‘betrayal!’
The only disadvantage I can see – and it’s quite a big one – is that AV is not proportional. But then neither is our current system – and a preferential non-proportional system is better than a proportional non-preferential system like the horrible D’Hondt system we use in the European elections. The system the Lib Dems want – and that I think is the best myself – is called STV (or the British Proportional System), and is both proportional *and* preferential. But the interesting thing is that STV and AV are essentially the same system, except you merge several constituencies together and then have the top few candidates become MPs, rather than just the top one. That means that if AV goes through, it would be pretty trivial to change to STV in the future if enough people want that (and since AV would probably lead to increased representation for parties which want a proportional system, that change might happen in say ten or fifteen years).
So while AV isn’t my favourite system, it *is* my *second-favourite* system, and I’d rather have my second favourite than my most-hated. If you would too, vote “Yes” in May 2011.