Here in the UK, there’s a referendum planned for May 5th. That referendum is to decide whether the country should swap the current voting system (known as “first past the post”) for a new system called “Alternative Vote”, or AV.
While the question “why should I care?” is (perhaps) a good one, here at the Big Bad Blog we think a move to AV would be a good idea.
What is AV?
Currently, with First Past the Post (FPTP), when an individual goes to vote they are given a ballot. They mark their most preferred candidate on that ballot, and that’s it. Whichever candidate receives the most votes wins the election.
With Alternative Vote, instead of marking only their most preferred candidate, voters would mark the candidates in order of preference. A candidate needs 50% + 1 vote to win, and if none of the candidates win on the first ballot, the candidate with the fewest votes is dropped and the vote is re-tabulated. This continues until a winner is identified.
Why is AV good?
AV does two things, both of them positive.
The first of these is to correct the problem known as “strategic voting”. In a multi-party system, it is inevitable that strategic voting will occur. Traditional supporters of the Liberal Democrats will support a Labour candidate because she is the best chance of beating the local Conservative. A supporter of the UK Independence Party will throw their support behind a Tory candidate in a tight race with Labour because they understand that their party sits on the fringes and has no real chance of winning the seat.
Here at the Big Bad Blog, we have a problem with strategic voting.
The need for voters to vote strategically starves parties that are not traditional powers of votes, volunteers and candidates. People who might normally support such parties are instead driven to support the Labour or Conservative parties because they see one of these two parties as the lesser of two evils.
And it’s pretty shitty to have to vote for evil, even if it is the lesser one.
But the alternative (in first-past-the-post) is that votes are split, potentially allowing for a candidate who opposes the majority viewpoint of his constituents to represent them as their member of parliament.
Luckily, the second good thing about AV is that it presents the best opportunity for an MP to represent the majority of their constituents.
This dichotomy of the split vote versus the strategic vote creates a political landscape in which changes are both rare and small. There are no primary elections (like in the US) in which a party can find itself being redefined (as with Tea Party Republicans) or rejuvenated by a young rising star (as with Barack Obama igniting the Democratic grassroots in the 2008 US Presidential election), so a two-party system does not work. Instead, “third” parties must siphon sufficient votes for the big parties to reflect on their political ideologies.
Consider this scenario:
A constituency in which 70% of the population is left wing, 30% are right wing. All 30% of the right wing votes always go to the Conservative candidate, but support amongst the left wing is split as follows:
25% Liberal Democrat
20% Green Paty
In the First Past the Post option, supporters of these parties have two options: they can (artificially) marginalize one of the parties, but win the election (via strategic voting). Or, they can battle it out for supremacy, but ultimately be represented by a Conservative MP (who, with 30% of the vote, has more support than any of the other three parties).
In the current system, either the voters who would vote for the most marginal of the three left-wing parties (the Greens, in this instance) decide to vote differently, marginalizing the political impact of their vote; or the vote is split, and a left-wing constituency is represented inaccurately by a right-wing MP.
Neither of these is desirable. Strategic voting disregards the impact that votes for third party candidates has on majority candidates.
And split votes directly violate the spirit of democracy, as candidates with similar (but popular) ideologies lose to those with less popular (but more unique) ideologies.
In our above scenario, the Green Party would be dropped after the first round with AV voting — given that they are a left-of-centre party, their votes would likely go to the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, and eventually one of them would likely be pushed past the Conservative party and take the seat. The left-wing constituency ends up with a left-wing MP.
All the parties would see that a significant minority (20%) voted Green, and will try to adjust their own politics and policies to attract those votes in the next election. And the Green party would see that they are actually only trailing the Labour party (who eventually win the seat) by 5 points — not 30 or 40, as previously thought — and perhaps even become more relevant in local politics for that constituency. (And, if repeated in sufficient constituencies, nationally.)
Why people think AV is bad
As with everything, there are many out there who do not agree with the Big Bad Blog on this issue. They trot out several talking points, but none of the arguments move the Big Bad Blog much. We explore them here.
There is one that I see that is actually scary: It undermines the “one person, one vote” principle of democracy.
This, however, is a fundamental misunderstanding of what Alternative Vote actually represents. Run-off elections are not uncommon in many parts of the world, and they make sense — if there are a minimal number of votes that must be won, the top candidates are retained (the bottom candidate(s) cut), and the populace is polled a second time.
The Alternative Vote simply streamlines this process to be included in the original ballot.
In our above example, imagine that the 20% of Green voters have their second choice split as follows:
- 10% – Labour;
- 5% – Lib Dem;
- 5% – Tory.
Bringing our new totals to:
- 35% – Labour;
- 35% – Tory;
- 30% – Lib Dem
Some people now claim that those who voted Green have voted twice! This is unfair!
They are right – those people have voted twice. But it’s not unfair, because so has everyone else.
What happened was actually a run-off election. The Green candidate was struck from the ballot, and everybody’s top choice (without the Green candidate) was counted again.
Other arguments are equally weak:
The BNP will get more votes under AV. This is almost certainly true, as some BNP supporters likely vote strategically. But trying to silence a political party should not be the basis under which democratic institutions are built. The BNP would also receive fewer votes if those who vote for the BNP were all shot. This does not make shooting BNP voters to be a reasonable – or democratic – suggestion.
AV is complex. Rank these fruits according to your personal preference: Apple, Banana, Orange, Pear, Strawberry.
You might have had trouble deciding whether you like pears more or less than bananas, but here at the Big Bad Blog, we strongly doubt that you found the exercise hard to follow.
What is complex is trying to game the system by, say, ignoring your second choice for your third so the third choice doesn’t go out on the second ballot. FPTP, on the other hand, is easy to game — if you’re on the left, vote for Labour; on the right, Conservative.
At the Big Bad Blog, we do not want a system that is easy to game, so this “complexity” does not really worry us.
The Alternative Vote is a step towards Proportional Representation. This is simply blatantly untrue. The Liberal Democrats — who are the party that has pushed for AV — want proportional representation, but have settled for a referendum on the alternative vote instead. Because of this, “AV is a step towards PR” is argued.
But AV is actually a FPTP system — it is just such a system with run-off votes, instead of one that causes strategic voting, vote-splitting, and MPs with less than 30% of the vote to head off to Westminster.
How will people vote?
With that said, despite our belief in the superiority of the system, we are expecting the vote for AV to fail for several reasons.
Quorum is unlikely to be met. The Lords have rightly set a quorum for the referendum to be binding. Given that voting is the mechanism by which a democracy is run, it makes sense that the means by which the vote is carried out should not be changed by a small group.
But that very quorum is the thing most likely to cause it to fail. We suspect that most voters are simply voting for a Prime Minister, or voting for the ruling party. They put an X beside what, to them, represents David Cameron or the Labour party, and are done with it. As such, they do not much care whether MPs from individual constituencies broadly represent the overriding political leanings of said constituencies. It is too abstract.
So there is a strong possibility — perhaps even a probability — that quorum will not be met.
The recent election had a 65% turnout, but that was the highest turnout in over a decade for a general election. By-elections, European Parliament elections and local elections tend to get lower turnouts.
It is easy to see how the referendum might not achieve quorum on this basis.
Even if it does, we would have to wonder how the vote would go.
Power in the UK traditionally swaps back and forth between the Conservative and Labour parties. Excepting National/Coalition governments, this has been going on since 1922. More recent history shows the Conservatives gaining power in 1979, and finally being kicked out in 1997 by an electorate in a vote that was more an indictment of the Tories than it was support for Blair’s New Labour.
That Labour party, of course, stayed in power until 2010, where it was voted out. Again, I say Labour was voted out in favour of the current Conservative-led coalition, not that the coalition was voted in. The recession, never-ending wars in the Middle East and an expenses scandal were the root causes of change, not a change in the political philosophy of the electorate.
And Thatcher’s Tories? The beneficiaries of out-of-control inflation in the late 1970s and the “winter of discontent” that preceded the election. And the Labour government prior to Thatcher? A majority of three seats, which took two 1974 elections to achieve.
So both the Labour and Conservative parties do well by the status quo. One left-of-centre party, one right. When the public grows dissatisfied with one, they move to the other. Under the current system, a vote for a third party is thrown away – little more than an act of protest without any real impact.
So the Conservative and Labour parties do not want AV, at all. And neither do their hardcore supporters. Without AV, they get to set the entire political agenda – voters choose between the agenda on the right (Conservative) and the agenda on the left (Labour), without much input into either. AV would change that, and force the mainstream parties to speak to issues in a manner that resonates with the public.
But these parties are also the most popular in the country, with the largest support bases. If they agree on an issue, it may be decided — there is a good chance that people who vote Labour or Conservative in most elections (which is most people) will vote “No” simply because this is what those parties want.
So who will vote “yes”? Supporters of fringe groups will, as will those — like your blogger — who feel that democracy works best when MPs best fit the political views of their constituency.
Unfortunately, we appear to be outnumbered.