Political Promise

We should vote Yes to AV…if only to stop the door slamming shut on further change

In Uncategorized on November 29, 2010 at 6:57 am

Following last week’s announcement of the cross-party membership of the NO to AV campaign, David Radestock examines the merits of the Alternative Vote.

As household names from across the party spectrum sign up to the ‘No’ campaign, the arguments in favour of AV are being gradually dismantled. Nick Clegg’s declaration that AV was a “miserable little compromise” are coming back to haunt him. Beckett, Blunkett and Prescott have taken senior positions alongside Conservative heavyweights Ken Clarke and William Hague. A recent YouGov poll put support for AV at 33% compared to 40% for first-past-the-post (FPTP). The royal wedding will shift attention from the referendum. The prospects for change look bleak.

The only current alternative is our existing electoral system, FPTP. In reality, however, this is not an alternative. The main arguments put forward in support of this system can be debunked easier than those for AV.

Simplicity is often put forward as a key strength of FPTP. Margaret Beckett wrote that “Our current system is tried, tested and easy to understand”. However, if the electorate cannot understand ranking candidates rather than writing an ‘X’, the country faces far greater problems than which voting system to use (the argument that it probably does anyway is not without merit).

It is also often claimed that FPTP provides a fair system of one-person-one-vote, while AV would give more power to those who had put less popular candidates as their first choice, meaning their second choices are bound to count. However, this is simply not true. Research conducted by the New Economics Foundation calculated the true value of a person’s vote and found shocking discrepancies. In Arfon one vote is actually equivalent to 1.308 votes, owing to marginality and constituency size. Meanwhile in Sheffield Brightside & Hillsborough a vote is worth just 0.002. This means that FPTP does not provide each citizen with the same democratic power, significantly damaging its credibility.

Maintaining a link between MPs and their constituents is perhaps the strongest argument in favour of FPTP. However a switch to AV would not damage this and may even improve it if every constituent felt they had had a role in electing their MP.

For many years, FPTP was portrayed as the protector of strong, majority government against the weak coalition alternative. However, this argument is being dismantled in front of our eyes. Not only did FPTP fail to deliver a majority for a single party, but the ensuing coalition appears robust and has been reasonably successful in achieving its objectives. Coalition government can and does work and FPTP is no longer needed to prevent it.

It is clear that the voting system needs to change. The change needs to go further than AV, which displays numerous flaws and represents a step sideward rather than forward. Proportional representation is the fairest and most direct system available. It directly reflects the will of the people and will force politicians to engage with every citizen, not just those in marginal constituencies. The main argument against it, that it creates weak coalition governments, is being disproved by the current administration.

However, the UK is quite a way from even considering this radical change.

This is why AV is necessary.

It may not be a huge improvement but it does represent change. If AV is rejected, the prospects for even more radical reform are bleak. Change begets change. Without the first step on the road to a more proportional, fairer democracy, Britain may forever be constrained by FPTP.

  1. Why is it “clear that the voting system needs to change.”?

    Can you explain what is so great about AV for democratically minded people? (Unless of course you are the Lib Dems and not a citizen in which case AV (or PR) is fantastic as however the country vote Clegg and the Lib Dems would be unsackable.)

    Your “stepping stone” argument is based on sand rather than substance. Clegg has said that a move to PR (favoured by the BNP as that’s how they won seats in the NW) would not happen for a generation. And the country wouldn’t wear another expensive change to the voting system when there are far better things to spend our money on.

    • Pat, there’s nothing democratic about a system that fails to adequately represent (FPTP) by skewing the importance of a vote. One man one vote is one of the most fundamental premises of democratic government, and FPTP damages this through the skewed role of marginal constituencies.

      David’s right, AV will not fully stop this, and in fact it can increase majoritarian outcomes i.e. cause more landslides, but it’s better than nothing.

      PR is a very broad term – it’s an umbrella term used to describe many different types of electoral system. And simply by associating the BNP with something, you can’t discredit it. The BNP also favour grammar schools, but you can’t discredit them purely because the BNP favour them. Further, if you say it shouldn’t be allowed because it helps the BNP, Cambridge University educated nick griffin and therefore helped the BNP, but you still wouldn’t abolish that.

      The type of proportional representation used to elect the BNP to the European Parliament would further almost certainly not be the type used in Westminster elections. The recommendation of the Jenkin’s commission, which was the official commission set up to look at electoral reform was AV+, substantially different.

      And there really probably actually aren’t that many better things to spend our money on – particularly given what can be solved for a relatively small cost through electoral reform: a reduction in political apathy; a decrease in executive dominance over the commons; greater engagement with the political process in general.

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