AV, and why it matters.

February 18, 2011

Come May 5th, I will be voting “Yes” to Alternative Vote. Let’s get that bit out of the way. For the first time in my life, we have a chance to change the election system and I for one am not letting it pass me by so, on May 5th, I’ll be heading for the polling station and sticking a great big tick next to Yes, with a 2nd preference going to “Fuck Yes”.

You, of course, are free to decide one way or the other. But I want to look at the reasons why the “No to AV” campaign believe you should vote “No”, and why they’re fundamentally wrong.

AV is costly

The No to AV campaign claim that AV will cost “up to an additional £250 million”, and that “local councils would have to waste money on costly electronic vote counting machines”.

Let’s start with the vote counting machines. The May 5th referendum is not a referendum on introducing vote counting machines, and – personally speaking – I really hope the idea of vote counting machines is scrapped. I don’t trust electronic voting machines, and I don’t trust the companies that make them to make reliable, dependable machines with a proper paper audit trail. My reasons for not trusting voting machines, however, have nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not AV or first-past-the-post should be used for general elections in the UK. AV no more requires electronic voting than does first-past-the-post.

This is dishonest. There are arguments to be had for voting either for or against AV, this is not one of them. (As has been pointed out here, the cost also includes the cost of the referendum; this is a “pulled it out of my arse” figure).

AV is complex and unfair

AV isn’t particularly complex, but it is a little more complex than first-past-the-post. The complexity of the system however, is not in voting, but in properly counting. As a voter, all you really need to know is that you put a “1” against your first preference (the person you would normally put a tick against). You may then put a “2” against your second preference, and even a “3” then a “4” against people you may have voted for had the other lot not been in the race. From a voting point of view, AV is no more complex than first-past-the-post.

Whether the voting system is fair or not entirely depends upon what you want from a voting system, and what you consider to be “fair”. Neither AV nor first-past-the-post can be qualitatively described as “fair”, rather they are both systems designed with competing values, and competing end-results. Under first-past-the-post, the winning candidate simply needs to convince more people to vote for him than his nearest competitor; if he or she can do this then they win the election. Is this fair?

Well, doesn’t whether it’s fair depend upon what outcome you want? Picture a common scenario. Candidate A and Candidate B support popular Proposition X. Between them, they manage to get 60% of the vote. Candidate C is against popular Proposition X, but can only gather 31% of the vote. Under first-past-the-post, Candidate C is elected and the hugely popular Proposition X fails. Is this fair? Once again, it depends entirely how you determine “fair”.

Is AV a “losers charter” as the “No to AV” campaign call it? Surely that depends upon what you mean by “winner” and “loser” in an election? In the above scenario, did Candidate C really win? He “won” because he was “first past the post” and the rules say he won, but he didn’t gain a majority of the vote. He simply “won” the game.

AV is a politician’s fix

This is an interesting claim, especially given that it has traditionally only been the Liberal Democrats that have supported a change in the voting system, with both Labour and the Tories lending their weight to the status-quo. If anything has been a politician’s fix, it’s been the first-past-the-post system we’ve had all this time.

There is an interesting argument here though, and it’s the one where I think the “No to AV” and “Yes to AV” both really need to get their act together: that AV leads to more hung parliaments.

Not only is this claim almost certainly true, it should be utterly central to whether or not AV become the new system governing our elections. Because at it’s heart this is the central question of the referendum: how should our governments be formed? Should a government voted for by a minority of the people be permitted to run a majority of the parliament, as currently happens, or should a government be representative of the views of the people that elected it?

It’s easy to use words like “strong parliament” when discussing our current voting system, because we have seen successive governments that can safely ignore the people, and ignore complaints and opposition because it does not matter. There is no need for “back-room deals” when you can force legislation through parliament; legislation that most people did not vote for, and oppose. It’s also easy to look at the current LibDem-Conservative coalition and say “See! This is what happens under AV!”, and see this as the future of governments under AV.

But let’s be quite clear here: the current parliament, and the current government, was not formed under an AV voting system. Promises made (often remarkably foolish promises; and yes, I’m looking at you Clegg) were made under the first-past-the-post system, where the “winner” has traditionally been able to force through whatever legislation they wish. Promises were made to the electorate because they were made under the understanding that it only takes a minority of the vote to utterly control parliament.

So yes, AV almost certainly means more hung parliaments. It means politicians will have to argue, cajole and persuade. It means compromises will have to happen. It means it will be very hard for a single party to entirely get its way, unless that party has genuinely persuaded a majority of people that they’re right.

And election fought under AV will not be fought in the same way. AV will force politicians to engage with their electorate. It will not be enough for the politicians to pander to their traditional voters, safe in the knowledge that there is really no practical way to oust them under the current system. The politicians will need to learn to start listening to a broader range of voices; they will – heaven forbid – actually have to represent their constituency, and not just their supporters. And I think this is why – far from being “a politician’s fix” – AV scares the crap out of many politicians, because these politicians have only ever had to play at party politics, and have never had to listen to a constituent outside their party in their whole political careers, and I think AV will change that.

Scare the crap out of a politician on May 5th. Vote Yes to AV.