It’s less than a month to go until the country has to choose between the current system we use to elect MPs – first-past-the-post – and the Alternative Vote. Exciting, eh? I think it’s clear that not many people care deeply about this issue, so it’s a shame that the first nation-wide referendum we get in thirty-odd years is not of more demand.
But which way should we vote? Personally I’m not old enough to vote, but hopefully I can persuade a few people here. If I could, I would vote yes to AV – on balance, although both sides make good and bad arguments.
The main thing that would have held me back from considering AV was if it made hung parliaments more likely. But really it doesn’t. Since Australia introduced AV in 1918, they have had fewer of them than we have (and, if the current coalition government is anything to go by, it’s not as if the current system is immune to them either). And this is because AV is not a form of PR and does not claim to be. It simply makes MPs more representative of their constituents as a whole.
The first-past-the-post system can longer claim to represent the British people. Back in 1950 we had a strong two-party system, with as much as 86% of people voting Labour or Conservative. Since then that figure has slumped to 65% (in last year’s election). We now have three main parties in England, and four in Scotland and Wales.
While our current system works fine elsewhere, in two-party countries like the US, it’s clearly grossly unfair for us. Last year the Lib Dems (though I know that for many this is not an example that will attract sympathy) got 23% of the votes but less than 9% of the seats. UKIP came fourth and got about five times as many votes as the Irish Democratic Unionist Party – but didn’t come close to winning a single seat. How many seats did the DUP win? Eight.
AV could certainly mean a few more minor parties winning some seats, by letting people know that they can vote with their heads and hearts and they don’t have to vote tactically to make a difference. However, the most likely way it would change is making everyone’s vote count. If you vote for a candidate and he wins, great. If you vote for a candidate and he doesn’t win, your second, third etc. choice still means you have a voice and can decide the outcome.
And before any anti-AV people say that this is unfair and means one person’s vote counts more than another, that’s exactly what happens with first-past-the-post. If I vote Conservative in Surrey, my vote will count more than a Mancunian’s vote for the same party; vice versa Labour. If I vote Green anywhere other than in Caroline Lucas’ Brighton seat, my vote won’t count nearly as much. At the end of the day, if I vote for a minor candidate and deep down I know it’s pretty unlikely they’ll win, why shouldn’t my second preference be counted so I can still have an influence on the outcome?
And obviously, it would mean that the vast majority of MPs would be elected by a majority of their constituents. It is incredibly unfair that MPs can be elected with under 30% of the vote, so that a clear majority of their constituents don’t support them. See here for a good example of how FPTP unfairly splits votes, and how eliminating the problem by introducing AV would solve many other problems as well.
Generally, AV is far fairer than the current system, without leading to more unstable governments (and let’s face it, even if it did it’s better to have occasional instabilty than an ongoing cycle of the same old Lab-Con-sensus). And if you are a supporter of real proportional representation and you think AV is too much of a compromise, just remember this will probably be the only chance we get for decades to change the voting system. If we say no, we are rejecting change and a whole generation will miss out on it.
But again, it’s a shame that the referendum we’re getting is really just a coalition deal that doesn’t prey on people’s minds much. I doubt much more than a third of the electorate will bother to turn up and vote. What we really should get is a referendum on leaving the EU, for which a yes vote would make a huge difference – for the better, in the minds of many, many people who care about this issue.
Still, this is the choice we’re being offered, so if we want any kind of reform, we should go for it.