Why We Shouldn’t be Afraid of the Alternative Vote

On  May 5th we are asked to decide whether we should change our parliamentary voting system from ‘First Past the Post’ to ‘Alternative Vote’.

I would hazard a guess that, like me, many of us don’t really know what that choice means. What is an ‘Alternative Vote’? Alternative to the current system? Alternative to the person we actually voted for? Here is what I’ve found out – and a bit later on – what I think about it.

First Past the Post – It’s very simple and usually produces a clear result – a winner – a loser. It is therefore popular in emerging democracies and is a lasting legacy of our imperialism in many Commonwealth countries.  The Seats are allocated geographically to constituencies. Each constituency has only one seat/member of parliament. Each voter has only one vote and votes only in his or her constituency. The candidate who has the most votes in each constituency is then elected to parliament (and by the way in England under the current system if the votes are exactly tied after the second recount – the recording officer decides on the toss of a coin!).

The party with the most seats/members is then asked to form a government by the monarch.  That is assuming that they have more seats that the other parties combined. If they don’t they will have to come to some agreement about forming a coalition or attempting (unlikely) to form a minority government.

The Alternative Voting System – The Seats are allocated geographically to constituencies (as now). Each constituency has only one seat/member of parliament (as now). Each voter has only one vote but this can be transferred to their second preference candidate if their first preference is eliminated – they will still only end up with one vote per voter per constituency.  How does this work?  The voter will be asked to mark the candidates on the ballot paper by preference.  If at the first count a clear winner with the most first preference votes is achieved (they must get over 50% of votes to do this) then that person is elected to parliament.  If there is no clear winner, then the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and their second preference votes are allocated to the other candidates. This process goes on, eliminating the last on the list until a candidate emerges with over 50% of the vote.  The government is then formed in the same way with the party with the greatest number of votes being asked to form a Government, or with no clear winner, form a coalition government.

This is not the same kind of proportional representation that is used in most European countries.   Most European states use a mix of different systems where voters vote for party lists – and then seats are allocated to candidates chosen by the party. Or by a mixture of ‘constituency’ type alternative voting with additional seats chosen by party lists. Depending on the mix this can lead to hugely divided voting – eg Belgium where there is still no government after 250 days of coalition negotiations, or strong majority governments such as in France.  The version proposed for the UK is unlikely to produce either of these extremes or to give undue representation to extremist or fringe parties.

The chief advantage of AV over FPTP, and the reason I personally think it is a good idea, is that it gives voters a greater chance of making a difference and having their vote count.

In the 2005 general election in the UK 52% of the votes cast were for losing candidates (a further 18% were ‘wasted’ in unnecessary extra votes for candidates who had already achieved their majority). That meant that only 30% of votes cast actually made a difference and brought in the winning government.

Whilst the AV system is unlikely to favour extremists the main criticism is that it would create a greater number of non-majority governments, forcing parties into coalitions and that in the coalition the smaller party or parties would have a disproportionate influence over the larger one in a way that doesn’t necessarily reflect the electorate. However if you look at my example from 2005, above, a majority government voted by FPTP doesn’t necessarily reflect the electorate either.

Think what we could be facing in terms of cuts and concessions to bankers if this was a Conservative majority government? Or, for the sake of political balance, think what a Labour third term might do to the economy.  Even from a position of political weakness the Lib Dem’s have, as part of the coalition, provided a brake on some of the policies of their partner.  Their supporters have been empowered to vocally and actively address their MPs and party in a way that indicates they feel more responsible for having voted for them than perhaps Conservative or Labour voters do. 

Since the war the differing ideologies of Conservative and Labour have converged and yet political battles are still fought as if they were on opposing sides of a Cold War wall.  Somewhat disingenuously / hypocritically Ed Milliband writes (in the Guardian 17 Feb) of “exaggerating disagreement in order to create false black and white choices under first past the post” – I am forced to agree with him – it is these false black and white choices that are no longer appropriate to our social and political landscape. Continuing to cling to old ideologies will lead to more of the same and we will be stuck in an Escher drawn game of snakes and ladders forever. For a new politics to emerge – one that will be capable of taking us forward as a country (not back into some Victorian capitalist/philanthropist dystopia) the nature of political thought has to change.  By bringing smaller parties into the mix, by more truly representing people we can get a greater engagement by the public with politics and the changes necessary to make things work.

AV allows us to make a greater difference with our vote. By accepting that we have made a difference to the make up of the government, we are also forced to take responsibility for the government we get and for the implementation of its policies both at local and national level.  The more involved we are in our own society the greater change will be possible.

I will be voting ‘Yes’ to AV on May 5th.

More information on different types of voting systems and who uses what around the world can be found at good old Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Table_of_voting_systems_by_nation

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