Alternative Vote Reflections

Alternative Vote Reflections

by Andrew Goddard

In a few days we get the chance to decide whether or not to adopt a new electoral system. The choice we are being given is limited – either the current mis-named ‘first past the post’ (FPTP) system or the Alternative Vote (AV). While many would have preferred other options, this is the choice that has to be made. Sadly, little attention has been given to the details of the two systems, perhaps because they are so similar. However, there are important differences and they suggest that if we decide to stick with FPTP, we are saying four interesting things about our attitude to electing MPs.

First, by rejecting AV we are saying we do not wish all our MPs to be elected by 50% or more of those voting. This is the major change that comes with AV (although if voters give only one or two preferences it is possible for someone to be elected on the final count with less than 50% of all those voting). This is why, despite what the ballot paper and common parlance would have us believe, AV is the true “first past the post” system. Under our current system there is no post which candidates seek to be the first to get past. In the past, most MPs were elected on over 50% of the vote - in 1955 only 6% were not - but now most (in 2010, just over two-thirds) are elected with the support of a minority of voters. In fact, the proportion of the voters needed to win has sometimes been below 30% in recent elections. Under AV, however, every MP has to secure over 50% before being elected and the first past that post – the same in every constituency - is the winner.

Second, rejecting AV says we do not wish to be given greater choice between candidates. One could view FPTP as AV but with only one preference allowed to be expressed. This means that those who wish to give only one preference under AV can still do so. Nobody is going to be required to number all the candidates. Those who want to be able to express only one choice can simply stop numbering at ‘1’ on principle (rather than because the system is too complex for them). We live in a society where choice has multiplied enormously in recent decades and we face multiple choices on a daily basis from TV stations to supermarket shelves. In politics, many – including most of those strongly opposing AV – work to enable greater choice. In such a context, to stick with FPTP and its “one option only” ballot will be a thought-provoking outcome. It is not as if AV leads to hyper-choice (as can happen under STV with dozens of candidates to number). The choice under AV will often involve choosing about the same number of boxes as people choose when they play the lottery. Deciding to retain FPTP would raise the question as to why we do not want to be able to express our preferences more fully when it comes to electing our leaders. Is it that we are so disillusioned we find it hard enough to vote for one candidate and party and do not want to have to consider ranking them all? Do we think it best for our politicians not to know how we rank them? Or have we just not realised amid all the propaganda that those opposing AV are opposing greater choice?

Third, sticking with FPTP would be saying that we do not want to eliminate the problem of a ‘wasted vote’ or to reduce the likelihood of ‘tactical voting’. One of the major difficulties with FPTP is the limits its single choice puts on those whose primary sympathy lies with a clearly minority candidate. This might be a minority in just some constituencies eg Conservative voters in a Labour-Lib Dem marginal. It might be a minority in every constituency - an environmentalist who would like to support a Green candidate, a Christian who would like to support a Christian party, or, yes, a racist who wishes to support the BNP. Voters in this situation face a stark choice. Do they vote for their first choice anyway knowing that they are effectively ruling themselves out of any influence in the election – a ‘wasted vote’? Or do they vote not for their preferred candidate but for another candidate more likely to challenge for top place – a ‘tactical vote’? AV eliminates the ‘wasted vote’ by allowing you to vote for your real first choice and to state subsequent preferences should they be bottom of the poll and eliminated from the race. Under AV ‘tactical voting’ is still possible but it is much more complicated and if it occurs it is because of a conscious attempt to try to work the system. It ceases to be something people feel forced to do because the system itself prevents them expressing their preferences.

Fourth, if we reject AV we would also appear to be saying that it is best for politicians and others to have the minimum amount of information possible about what we want when we vote. AV may slightly raise the chance of coalitions but, as we know, FPTP is increasingly likely to produce such an outcome. The problem with a hung Parliament is that once the people have spoken it is up to the politicians to decide what to do with what they think they’ve heard. Under FPTP it is hard to tell whether, for example, Lib Dem voters tended to favour Conservative or Labour. While AV does not allow a full knowledge of all preferences (some seats are won outright with no transfers) it certainly gives more information than FPTP. The result under FPTP is, for a start, quickly discovered. In weighing up and defending any subsequent deals, there will therefore be data about voters’ wishes that can be analysed to evaluate the extent to which the outcome reflected the election results. Parties will be asked how they would recommend supporters use their other preferences (and cannot evade it by saying they simply want them to use their single vote for them) and pollsters will likely ask similar questions. This means that, under AV, greater light on the voters’ wishes will be shed into the smoke-filled rooms of any post-election deals.

Although no electoral system is perfect it would be very strange were we to reject AV to stick with the present system that gives voters less influence. Why turn down the chance to adopt a system which would represent a gradual evolution that keeps constituency MPs but requires them to secure support from over 50% of those voting, gives voters greater choice, eliminates wasted votes and provides greater information if the election produces a hung parliament?

For helpful detailed analysis of the arguments for and against change see the latest Theos booklet, Counting on Reform by Paul Bickley and Iona Mylek and the Briefing Paper on AV by Alan Renwick for the Political Studies Association.

Andrew Goddard is on the Fulcrum Leadership Team and Tutor in Christian Ethics, Trinity College, Bristol.

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