An unbiased and helpful assessment of AV versus First Past the Post.

Photo of Paul BinksBy Paul Binks

Alternative Vote, “Yay” or “Neigh”

We’ll be asking ourselves whether to vote Yay! Or Neigh! on May 5th. But do we know enough to be content with our decision. Vociferous publicity is there to aid us, but with so many factions contradicting each other and unqualified celebrities being wheeled out for support, it’s like separating the wheat from the chaff to make sense of any of it.

The last time we were given this chance was in 1931 and we may have to wait as long for another. I’ll try to aid this process by separating fact from fiction.

Despite the perception that AV is a modern system, AV was actually devised by an American Robert Ware in 1871. As a Governmental election tool it was first used by the Colonial Territory of Queensland in 1893. It has been used in the Presidential election of Ireland, regional US elections such as California and our own main political parties’ leadership contests as well a host of others. But it’s only used by three National Governmental Elections; the Melanesian States of Papa New Guinea and Fiji along with our Colonial cousins in Australia. With Democracy being the superior form of Governance in the World this statistic seems peculiar and even stranger in that Australia and Fiji want to abandon the system altogether.

Looking at the systems may shed some light on this.

Most will be aware that AV works by listing candidates in preferential order starting from 1 to whatever number of candidates are standing. If a candidate achieves at least 50% of the 1st preferences then the contest is over and an MP elected. If not then the candidate who came last in the count is omitted and the 2nd preferences of those that voted for they are redistributed. This continues until a candidate achieves 50%.

First past the post (FPTP) works by each voter having one vote and whoever has the most votes wins.

The strongest argument for AV is that MPs will be more representative of their communities with a stronger mandate. This will strengthen the bond with the MP and dissipate the controversy surrounding their decisions. The problem arises when a MP attains say 15% of their votes from 4th or 5th preferences in a contest where they came 3rd initially. How credible could they be?

This will discourage diametrically-opposed debate as parties narrow their positions to win favour from supporters of the middle and the floating voter. A more well-round politics would be more representative of the country. But to have a balanced viewpoint there must opposing views.

In time there would be less to distinguish between the politics which would lead to a surrendering of traditional tribal positions, favouring a selection based on candidates whom are most trustworthy, or rather who are the most convincing performers. We only have to look at the Governorship of California to imagine this scenario.

Elections will appear like fairs as candidates trade their principles to appeal to non-partisan voters. This has been suggested as politicians working harder for their constituents. However, this referendum is upon us only because of the public backlash against the expenses scandal and the association with the Global recession which lead to the first hung parliament since 1974. If this period has taught us anything it’s that we are yearning for politicians with solid ethics and are preparedness to maintain these through adversity.

Tactical voting would be a thing of the past for those in marginal seats. Although the outcome would still be the same, but relying on a voter’s 2nd preference. This point has no relevance other than determining a party’s total support nationwide which would only be useful in a proper Proportional Representation system.

The great advantage is that parties would be able to present several candidates without fear of splitting the vote. This would present power to the grassroots. For examples, Tories could choose a traditional or a Neo-Conservative if they wish.

The heart of this debate is Democracy. There will be many voters who have a clear vision of the community they wish and will choose one preference only. They will be penalised if their preference does not win as they will have no further influence, leaving all others to determine the outcome. Some will have more votes than others.

In contradiction, it has been said that AV will end the hopes of extreme parties gaining a foothold. This could be true, but the supporters of extreme parties will influence the contest even if not by first choice. Winston Churchill expressed his fear of this when campaigning at the last referendum in 1931, stating “AV gives the greatest influence to the most worthless votes for the most worthless candidates.”

Maybe it’s a price worth paying, but do we want a society where no parties can ever break through our ancient landscape? As the BNP would be obliterated so would the likes of the Green Party and UKIP. It should be debate that discourages the contemptible from making a breakthrough, not the system, if we are democratic.

Finally we must consider the implications. The party coveting the central ground would improve its standing by taking seats from the left and right which will create continuous Hung-Parliaments and mean less conviction and more compromise.

It has been said that Politics would become more accountable but the exact opposite could be true. Manifesto pledges can be omitted under the guise of not being part of Coalition agreements. This becomes a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free-Card for any inconvenient or out of favour policy. In some cases they genuinely will be undeliverable as we have recently seen with the Lib-Dems failure to abolish University tuition fees. Either way Coalition partners will have carte-blanche privileges to redefine their Governorship from that promised to the voter.

In summary, AV has advantages and disadvantages. It’s clearly not flawless but then neither is our current system otherwise we would not be having this debate. But the key question is whether this is better than what we have and is it more democratic?

[Ed – Whatever you vote, be assured this is going to have to stay with us for a long time so I guess we should vote for whatever will be best for Britain rather than what will be best for our party.]


3 Responses to “An unbiased and helpful assessment of AV versus First Past the Post.”

  1. Julia Hines Says:

    I have to say I would agree that the decision ought to be made on the basis of the fairer system, not as attempt to gerrymander votes.

    I have to say I am pro-AV.
    I do not see any evidence that AV will lead to more hung Parliaments. Australia has had fewer coalitions than Britain.
    I think FPTP works well in a 2 party system, but once you have more than 2 parties you increase the chances of both a candidate with minority support being elected, and of people voting tactically.
    My vote is important to me; I want to vote for the party I support, not have to second guess what everyone else is doing.
    I don’t see AV as giving me more than one vote at all. To me it is just an opportunity to elaborate on how I feel. It is bit like asking your neighbour to buy you a can of Heinz beans when they go to the shops. When they return you find that Heinz beans were not on offer, so your neighbour has bought her preference, an organic brand (twice as dear and half as nice). With AV you get to say I want Heinz beans, but if that is not on offer, I prefer own brand. With FPTP you may have to opt for the safest choice, because if what you really want is not there, you might end up with something you really do not want. This is exactly how AV works; you make your first choice. If that is available, then fine, that is what you will get. If not then that choice is taken off the ballot paper and you can expand your preference.
    I like the fact that seats will be slightly less safe. I think it makes MPs work harder.
    I also think that the need to appeal outside your party faithful means that parties will be less influenced by their extremist wings, whether they are far right or left, which I think gives party leaders more strength & flexibility in negotiating their manifesto within their party.
    I am so disappointed with the catty campaigns run by both sides, but I do think it is important to vote on 5 May.

  2. ampersfa Says:

    I don’t necessarily agree with you, but I have to say that if the choice was between FPTP and true proportional representation then I would want to know more of the system on offer (of course) – we don’t want to end up like Italy, but some systems might be good for us.

    I honestly don’t know which way I will go on May 5th and will make up my mind finally when I am at the polling station.

    If I thought a vote for AV would then lead to more discussion on Proportional representation, I would probably vote for that. But as it is, I can see it will favour the Liberal Democrats, and the other two, but won’t do any good for the smaller parties – which I would like to see strengthened. Mind you, UKIP are already overtaking the Liberal Democrats in some elections.

  3. Julia Hines Says:

    You are right in that in many wards, and for many small parties, it will not make a huge difference. I do think a no vote on this will close discussion for many decades.

    It does not necessarily favour Lib dems in London either. Of the 6 seats which will change from marginal to ultra-marginal in London, 3 of those currently have Lib dem MPs, including Lynne Featherstone in Haringey.

    This site calculates how much power your vote currently has in influencing the outcome of an election, by looking at how safe a seat you live in, and how much that might change under AV

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