The A.V. Debate

Stephen Puttick on Alternative Vote in the UK.

For those of you not aware, Britain is currently engaged in a most bloody civil war. In 1642, the late Oliver Cromwell caused a bit of a stir when he decided to kill the King and bring representative democracy to the United Kingdom.  Now though, Britain is fighting about something far more interesting and of far greater importance – voting systems!

Before entering into a more intelligent discussion, allow me to set the scene of the battle. In the Blue corner we’ve Her Majesty’s Government, led by (a somewhat saturated) Conservative leader, David Cameron. And in the (slightly more progressive) Yellow corner we’ve also Her Majesty’s Government, this time led by Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. Yes, that’s quite correct, the two parties in the coalition Government are pitted against each other leading up to the May 5th 2011 referendum. First-Past-The Post (FPTP) is currently used for elections to the House of Commons, and the Liberal Democrats have been asking for reform for some time.

Next year, the British public will decide upon whether to change from FPTP voting to Alternative Vote (AV). Indeed, a referendum was one of the conditions laid-down by Nick Clegg during the coalition discussions post-general election and is a major section of the Conservative – Liberal Democrat Coalition Agreement. The change would form part of the changes that are being enacted under the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Act 2011 (another notable change being the reduction in seats from around 650 to around 580). There’s a lot of proverbial dirt (read: non-argument) being thrown around regarding this issue, so let us now depart on a most worthwhile discussion about the future of British elections.

For those of you unaware, First-Past-the-Post is an archaic, simple, unrepresentative method of electing leaders, period. Basically, in single-member constituencies, the winner is the candidate who receives the most votes (not necessarily, nor usually, the majority). The system has been used in Britain since, well, ages, and it is arguably one of the reasons British politics is so two-party oriented (see Duverger’s law). This said, FPTP can lead to the disproportionate exercise of power by minor parties during the election process, by creating factions on either side of a given political spectrum and ‘robbing’ votes from one of the two major parties. The system creates high levels of vote-wastage (18% of votes cast in the 2005 UK General Election were surplus to requirement, in contrast, 52% [note: majority] of all votes cast were for unsuccessful candidates), and because of this, FPTP is also susceptible to the unpleasant art of gerrymandering – changing electoral boundaries to increase the majority of your opposition in a given seat – thereby ‘wasting’ more votes and weakening the support of one’s opposition in a neighbouring constituency. So, it would appear we’ve an open-shut case- FPTP is bad and should go. No! Don’t be so silly! This is the sacred electoral process we’re talking about here – ‘let us continue on’, as I’m sure that bloke Socrates once said.

Alternative vote is a confusing, costly and problematic method, period. Under this system, the candidates in a given seat are ranked in order of preference, the first preferences are counted, the candidate with the lowest number of votes removed from the count, their second preferences transferred to said candidate, etcetera – you’ve got it, it’s the House of Representatives! Unlike in Australia (less New South Wales), the process would not allocate preferences exhaustively. The biggest issues for AV are the cost, complexity and the conservatives. That’s the systems explained; now, like Cromwell before us, we soldier on to address the arguments currently being thrown around in the UK reading the said issue.

As one would expect, much literature exists both in favour and against the movement towards AV in the UK. One source I found was from and one of my favourite arguments in this little pearl was that AV is a bad system because the British National Party may gain some kind of representative position in British politics. I mean please, even the most dogmatic political hack can see this for what it is- a ridiculous, unsubstantiated, fear-driving, false dichotomy.

Another, more legitimate concern (as mentioned above) is the inherent complexity of AV.  Now, one does not wish to bring into question the intelligence of my British brethren (something said political parties seem most content doing), however I do feel that the complexity with AV is a small issue worth pointing out. In Australia, our most glorious political parties spend much time studying the many eventualities that can result as candidates fall and votes re-distributed – this later leads to tactical preference deals and the publication of the ‘How-To-Vote’ cards we all know and love. As said though, this is but an issue of minor consequence, the more urgent issue is educating people on how AV works. Once this is done, I feel said brethren are most capable of numbering in small boxes 1 – x and understanding why elections result in the outcomes they do.

Speaking of ‘How-To-Vote’ cards, I read that one of the reasons why AV is a bad system is because it results in the distribution of aforementioned cards – that is to say, people are forced, yes forced, to vote how to preference candidates – um, no. Jokes aside, the complexities of AV lead on to a number of other benefits and problems, however, the complexity as an issue in itself is hardly a worthy argument against this better system – AV one, FPTP nil.

Another argument I find most delightful is that AV undermines the most treasured of principles we all know and love – ‘one-vote one-value’. This gem of a phrase does not mean, ‘one-vote one preference’ – it’s that simple. Listen up, the attempt to pull the wool over our eyes failed solidly! This said, I do recognise that the system of AV does afford minor parties, and the votes of some voters more power. This is not a problem; it’s one of the reasons why AV is the better alternative. Way back when, John Stuart Mill wrote a most eloquent defence of individual liberty and protection from ‘the tyranny of the majority’ – whilst we can debate all day about how Stephen managed to extrapolate one of the underlying principles of On Liberty into the AV-FPTP football match, I do feel that the representation of minority views should be an important part of any democratic system. Yes, AV affords better representation to minorities, nor will this hold Britain to ransom – it just means that members of the Commons will have to work harder to represent the many and varied views in a given constituency. In a somewhat related vain, cross-party support for the ‘NO campaign’ does in no way reflect the benefits and issues concerning each system. I make that three-nil.

Conducting elections under AV is more expensive: fact. Is this, or should this be a problem, though? High costs are never good – but when it comes to electing representatives of the people, I feel we can afford some higher costs, if, and only if, it gives us a better outcome – and I think AV does. The costs of an election should not decide whether or not it should be held – this applies to both the referendum itself, and the processes being voted upon. However, let’s not extrapolate this principle to the workings of the public health system – or is it too soon to be making jokes (read: stating facts) about how inefficient the National Health Service is?

An argument that I care a little more for, but still don’t support, is that AV is a compromise- the result of a backroom deal shaken on late at night (over a gin or two) between Cameron and Clegg that does not do enough. Proportional Representation (PR), as used in the Australian Senate, is often cited as the real solution. PR in multi-member constituencies is seen to represent the diversity of opinions to a far greater extent than even AV. Naturally this would be so – multi-member-constituencies allow for a far greater scope of opinions to be expressed in the legislative body than single member ones. A PR-revolution is different to an AV one, though. A change to PR is not simply changing how you tick (or don’t tick) the box- proportional representation would require the complete reconfiguration of the British electoral system. This point is, however, moot – let us now shy away from major change (but of course, only if it’s necessary).

The fatal flaw with PR is that it’s a system that rarely delivers an absolute majority to one party or closely-aligned group of parties – it leaves small parties/individuals with a balance of power (and of course, this is never good- it’s how we end up with a carbon tax). I would assert that, the Westminster system of politics depends on the ability of an electoral system to deliver majorities, or in rare cases a simple case of hung parliament. In the house of review, PR works well, in the junior chamber, it does not. Added to this, and as an important note, the absolute power of minorities within the passage of legislation is different to minority representation in the election itself. Besides, members of the Conservative and Unionist Party can hardly criticise AV for not delivering, unless they support PR or something similar.

You’ve probably noticed by now, that there’s a lot of hilarious rhetoric following the referendum campaign – I’m going to use the final paragraph of my little piece to mention some of the best. From, the official website for the ‘NO campaign’, I read that ‘voters should decide who the best candidate is, not the voting system’- dear me, how wrong and misguided I have been, to think that regular and free elections for a choice of political parties ensures fair representation. Another that amused me, also from says that ‘we [the insufferable bigots] can’t afford to let politicians decide who runs our country’ – I could handle this one on a number of levels, but I’m going to go with the whole, ‘members of a given legislative body decide who the Prime Minister will be, not the people directly’ (see: Westminster System or Kindergarten curriculum) description.


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