Alternatives

This article on BBC News has angered me for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, the main thrust is that a number of trade unions, including my own, have come out against the Alternative Vote (AV).  Secondly, opponents are quoted in the article as pedalling a number of myths about AV.

It’s the second point I want to deal with in the greatest depth, but let me just fill in the gaps for those who have no idea what I’ve just written about.  As part of the coalition agreement when our new government was formed, the Conservatives and LibDems agreed that there should be a referendum on changing the voting system for the House of Commons – albeit that the parties would agree to differ when it came to the referendum (Conservatives against, LibDems for), and that the proposed change, the Alternative Vote, wasn’t even the LibDems’ preferred system and was in fact described by their leader and now Deputy PM Nick Clegg as a “miserable little compromise“.

Wikipedia is probably your best friend on how AV works, but in a nutshell it’s about ranking candidates in numerical order, and then using second preferences until someone achieves 50% of the vote and thus a true majority backing.  Aussies (and others) will be familiar with it, as will most Brits who’ve voted in a variety of elections in students’ unions, trade unions, community groups and even – ironically – the system that got AV opponent David Cameron elected as Conservative leader.

The idea behind AV is that it ensures that whoever wins in a constituency has the backing – even if partly made up of second or third preferences – of over half the voters.  It prevents, therefore, the big problem you get with Commons’ current system (First Past The Post) whereby a large number of MPs do not have majority backing, perhaps coming first with only 30-40% of the voters in their constituency.  To give an example, you may have one MP who won on 40% of the votes, but the second-placed candidate would have won if the third-placed candidates’ voters all or mostly felt that he (the second-placed candidate) would be better than the winner.

I could go on about it – I am an electoral systems geek – but I’ll not, with the final nerdish note that those who are familiar with the Single Transferable Vote will recognise AV as simply STV in a single-member constituency.

Anyway.  Firstly, my trade union, Unite, has come out against AV, alongside a surprisingly large number of unions.  This is astonishing because unions are – or at least used to be – one of the main proponents of constitutional change in this country, fighting against the vested establishment interests in favour of a society and a polity that is inclusive of all its people.  To oppose constitutional change that is going to help improve our democracy (albeit just a small step) is absurd, counter-productive and contrary to what unions stand for.  Mind you, this is a union that – like others – fund the right of centre, pro-business, pro-war Labour Party, so I perhaps should be less surprised and angry, and instead be more disillusioned and flabbergasted.

That’s something of a political rant, though, so let me stick to the merits or otherwise of AV by expanding on my second concern – that the BBC News article I linked to at the beginning of this post raised some of the myths that the “no” side tend to advance.

Myth 1: AV gives minority parties more influence

A commonly raised fear about AV and other voting systems under the PR banner are that extremists and nutters get more of a chance.  Well, the cynic would say we’ve plenty nutters in parliament already as a result of FPTP – you don’t have to look too closely at Northern Ireland’s MPs to find apologists for terrorism, sectarianism, religious extremism and bigotry, and other examples can be found in the three British nations too.  The fact is, AV doesn’t benefit minority parties.

Take the UK’s resident nutters, the BNP for example: at best, they might come third or fourth in some of their strongest constituencies, perhaps second on a really good day for them.  Are opponents of AV really suggesting that plenty folk out there would give the BNP their second preference, such that they’d overtake the first-placed party?  Absolutely not.  Chances are that voters for all the mainstream parties would sooner give lower preferences to each other than to extremists like the BNP.  Indeed, the BNP know this and they are actually firmly against AV as a result.

And in any case (part one), if AV did benefit minority parties, what’s wrong with it benefitting “nice” minority parties like the Greens or hard-working, intelligent independent candidates?  You can’t lump the BNP in with all other minority parties and treat them morally and politically the same.

And in any case (part two), small parties like the BNP are most likely to influence results by being eliminated first and having their votes redistributed to more mainstream second preferences: thus actually minimising their influence, if anything.

Just as an aside, though – and this is a defence I’d put forward for PR systems like STV (my favourite system, incidentally) – in the extremely unlikely circumstances that a BNP candidate (or any other extremist) got into parliament, surely it papers over the cracks if we attribute that to the voting system.  No, it’s the fault of the people who voted for them!  You don’t keep extremists out by gerrymandering the voting system against them; you defeat them by addressing the societal causes that lead people to extremism, and you provide robust, passionate defences of the mainstream.

Myth 2: AV undermines FPTP’s principle of equal votes

I almost laughed when I read this.  FPTP is based on the principle of equal votes!?  Come off it.  Sure, each voter has one vote each, but that’s just the same as in AV.  FPTP, however, is riddled with imbalances and inequalities when it comes to the value of people’s votes.  Here’s a few off the top of my head for starters:

  • The only votes of any value are those for winning parties in each constituency.  All other votes (and arguably all votes for the winner that are above and beyond the second placed candidate) are entirely wasted because they achieve nothing.
  • That in turn leads to vast inequalities in terms of the value of parties’ votes, as I blogged not long after the last General Election.  If you want to make the most of your vote, move to Northern Ireland and vote DUP: it only takes 20,000 of you to get your candidate elected, unlike the Green Party of England and Wales who need over ten times as many voters to get someone in.
  • In a marginal seat, parties will chase your votes with urgency because just a few hundred switherers could affect the result.  In a safe seat, your vote isn’t worth chasing as it’s either taken for granted or too weak to change things.

While I am on a roll, let me move on to some other myths that spring to mind.

Myth 3: AV will lead to cuts in public services

No2AV poster

This is perhaps the scariest aspect of the anti-AV movement – the claim that babies need medical care, not AV; soldiers need body armour, not AV, and so on (see here for more details).  So… we choose democracy over public services?  It costs money to have a decent voting system?  What rubbish.

Sure there’ll be administrative costs, but FPTP (like any voting system) costs millions as it is.  And are the administrative or set up costs a reason for not doing something that improve things in the long term?  If we answer yes to that question, we’d never have had devolution or indeed would never make any major change to anything, anywhere, ever.

Myth 4: AV leads to unstable government

What, in the way that FPTP doesn’t?  Think back to the 1992-97 parliament, when John Major saw his wafer-thin majority eaten away by defections and by-election losses.  His party was riddled with ideological splits, and the weak government was replaced emphatically (and exaggeratedly – another weakness of FPTP) in the 1997 election.

What AV might lead to – just as FPTP does – is minority or coalition governments.  And that’s great, because it forces parties to talk to each other.  Say what you like about the “selling out” of the LibDems in government: the fact that two parties sat down to talk about where they agree and disagree on policies, and how they can find a platform they broadly agree on as a basis for government, is infinitely better than one party deciding for itself with no recourse to others.

However…

All this is not to say that AV is perfect, or as good as STV, which is by far and away the best voting system for this country (and, probably, most countries).  Nick Clegg’s right – it is a miserable little compromise.

But it’s better than what we have now, and if we can convince people that it’s a change worth making, maybe one day soon after we can change it again to something better.

Hope springs eternal, after all.  What an interesting day May 5 will be – Scottish Parliament elections and the AV referendum to boot.  Great news for electoral system geeks such as myself.

3 thoughts on “Alternatives

  1. Well put.

    I drove past a ‘he needs bulletproof vests, not an alternative voting system’ poster yesterday and was absolutely horrified. Such a tasteless billboard. I’m quite happy for people to disagree with AV, but to make nonsensical and non sequitur arguments to appeal by scandal is just mortifying. If only articles like yours could reach a wider audience so that simply the facts for/against could be better known by those who need to decide.

  2. I haven’t seen that poster except on your blog, and agree it is dreadful. Only one person needs to write a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority and they will investigate. If they agree that it contravenes their guidelines, they can oblige the publishers to remove it.

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