In a longer piece, Christopher Wheeler examines the case against AV from an academic standpoint.
In May of this year the citizens of the United Kingdom will have the chance to vote in a referendum which could change the way we elect members of Parliament from First Past The Post (F.P.T.P) system to the Alternative Vote (A.V.) system. Advocates of AV say that it is fairer than F.P.T.P and that it will help reshape and reform British politics but this is an inherently flawed and in most cases partisan analysis. It is true that the current British electoral system is not perfect but the main flaw is the noticeable bias towards the Labour Party which allows them to win elections on a much smaller percentage of support that either of the other two parties.
The Alternative Vote system is a heavily flawed electoral system which up until last year was regarded by the small number of advocates for electoral reform as a ‘miserable little compromise’, also there was no groundswell of public opinion for a change to the electoral system but the people of Britain are being asked to vote on a referendum that very few people want on a subject that is not one of the major priorities for a vast majority of the electorate. The Alternative Vote system is therefore a system that no one up until last year wanted and there was no groundswell of support demanding a change to the current system therefore this referendum was not demanded and has been forced on the general public for political reasons. The fact that nobody wanted this referendum or demanded a change to the Alternative Vote until May 2010 is just one of a number of major flaws in the argument for the AV system.
Firstly, it is neither proportional nor fair. In any analysis of past election results it shows conclusively that if anything the Alternative Vote increases the size of already large winning margins into absolutely colossal margins of victory for example in 1997 the already huge Labour majority would have been converted into an absolutely colossal majority. Even in tighter general elections under the Alternative Vote there is no guarantee that the result will be any more proportional or fair than under First Past The Post. In fact a Constitution Society Briefing Paper stated quite clearly that: ‘There is nothing in operation of the AV system which increases the correlation between each Party’s percentage of the national vote and the number of parliamentary seats it secures.’ Therefore AV does not produce either fairer or more proportional results than under F.P.T.P and that would therefore suggest that there is not much point in changing the system.
Added to this fact that AV does not produce fairer results is the fact that under the Alternative Vote different votes will carry different weights depending on who each person actually voted for. This therefore undermines the core principle of British democracy on one person one vote. Instead it means that people who vote for small or irrelevant parties will have more of an influence on elections than someone who votes for one of the bigger parties because they will have more than one vote in effect and therefore have more than one try at getting who they want elected. The Alternative Vote system is therefore neither fairer nor more proportional plus undermines the principle of one person, one vote and instead sends out the message that a voter can try again with their vote if their first choice candidate did not succeed.
Secondly, it does not fundamentally reform politics in anyway what so ever. The campaign for a yes to the Alternative Vote system claim that it will remove safe seats but this is just fundamentally wrong. It is blinding obvious that by definition someone with a safe seat has on average somewhere around 50% of the vote and therefore a change to the voting system will in no way impact on their chances of getting elected because in most cases an MP with a safe seat will clear the threshold of 50% in an Alternative Vote election at the first hurdle. Therefore AV does not remove safe seats because any MP who already has a safe parliamentary constituency will clear the threshold of around 50% quite easily especially due to the fact that AV is such a flawed electoral system that if not everybody uses all their preferences the winning candidate does not need to get 50% of the vote. The Alternative Vote also does nothing to remove the far more serious problem in the United Kingdom that the House of Commons does not hold the executive to account due to its lack of powers of oversight.
>Added to this is the fact that the same type of people with similar backgrounds will still on the whole be elected to the Commons and therefore a change to the Alternative Vote will do nothing to make politics in Britain more representative. AV will also not deal with any of the more fundamental questions in British constitutional politics at the moment namely the lack of devolution for England and the United Kingdom’s relationship with the EU both of which have much more relevance to the general public than an arcane question on the electoral system. AV therefore does nothing that its advocates claim because it does not fundamentally reform the structures and nature of British politics in any meaningful way and quite clearly does not remove safe seats which is what the YES to AV campaign is basing their entire argument about.
Adding to the above arguments is the very important fact that under AV the best candidate will no longer win. This is because in marginal seats the best and the brightest will not get to the around 50% threshold especially if they are interesting or hold radical thoughts and views instead they will be beaten by mediocre candidates with little or no personality but who are so bland as not to offend who will clean up on the second preference votes not because they are any good but because they are a dullard who has not upset anyone. This in turn will make the final death knell of the battle of ideas because even now it is often said that there is no real difference between the parties well if there is a yes vote for AV this will undoubtedly become true as the parties will become a great mass of ineffectiveness unwilling to challenge the status quo or reform in order not to offend anyone. Therefore under AV the blandest candidates and parties will triumph and nothing will ever get done on important issues because the inoffensive, dull politicians will be too scared to do anything that might harm their popularity.
Tactical voting which is already a phenomenon in this country will become even more prevalent this will in the long run mean that we will have the situation they have in Australia where political parties hand out information on who to vote for in order of preference in order to manipulate the vote to their advantage. Therefore under AV the political parties are given much more of the power in deciding election results instead of the electorate. The fact that the political parties rather than the people will be in charge of who becomes the government leads nicely on to the fact that at any close election under the Alternative Vote system the third party namely the Liberal Democrats will hold the balance of power therefore they will decide the outcome of elections rather than the general population.
The Alternative Vote will consequently mean that the politicians rather than the people will decide who their governments are and will ultimately mean more coalitions and the Liberal Democrats in many cases being the kingmakers and holding government positions. The experience of the present coalition has shown that in many cases this is a bad thing as the Liberal Democrats have been shown to be the ultimate in bandwagon jumpers during election campaigns and then not delivering on their pledges. The Yes to AV campaign have stated that under AV coalitions are not the norm and cite Australia as an example but they are showing a profound ignorance of Australian politics due to the fact that every Liberal government in Australia for decades has been as part of a coalition with the National Party. Therefore AV will take power away from the people and hand it to the politicians and in most cases will be beneficial to the Liberal Democrats therefore explaining their support for it.
Fifthly, apparently the current First Past The Post system cannot cope with multi party politics but it has done in the past and still seems to at the moment. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there have been decades where multi-party politics has been the norm in the House of Commons and the voting system was not changed therefore to argue that just because there are more parties winning more votes in the country the voting system needs to be changed strikes me as flawed. Also multi-part politics in a First Past The Post system seems to have worked in Canada for decades and therefore if Canada can make it work why are some of our politicians claiming that multi-party politics needs a fundamental change to the electoral system. Therefore the current system has worked and continues to work in changing circumstances and therefore why does it need changing.
Added to this the proposed change to electoral system is all for political advantage. It can be argued that almost any of the major changes to the electoral system and procedure in the past 200 years have come about in part due to attempts to gain a political advantage and this is no exception. The Liberal Democrats support change because they have been in the electoral wilderness for so long but when they were the natural party of government they were not overly keen on electoral reform. Ed Milliband and the Labour Party have also found a zeal for electoral reform which only emerged when it was almost certain they were going to lose the 2010 General Election. The Labour Party’s commitment to electoral reform is all to do with electoral advantage and this can be seen quite clearly throughout their history because between 1992 and 1997 they were committed to electoral reform but then when they became the government electoral reform suddenly seemed less important.
Finally if the advocates of AV wanted real change they would go the whole way and offer real electoral reform by giving people a variety of systems to choose from. However, this referendum is not about really changing British politics it is about political gain for the Liberal Democrats and their fellow travellers at the expense of everything else.
In conclusion the benefits of First Past The Post are that it is quick, decisive, tried and tested and seems to produce the government the country wants or at least accepts. AV just leads to backroom deals, tactical voting and no real choice just bland parties and non entity politicians to scared to introduce real reforms that the country actually needs. The referendum itself is just an exercise in legitimising an Act passed for purely partisan reasons and if passed does nothing to deal with the real areas that need reforming in our political system such as the weakness of the House of Commons, the unfair devolution settlement and the rise of the lobby fodder political class.