The Alternative Vote – a step in the right direction

In an ideal world I don’t think I’d have much to do with the Alternative Vote method of electing MPs, the option which will be put forward in next year’s referendum on Electoral Reform. I’m a long-standing believer in Proportional Representation and, whatever the merits of AV, it is certainly not proportional.

Having said that, there are many advantages of this system over the current First Past The Post method of electing our MPs. (The following passage is taken from the Electoral Reform Society’s website.)

The case for AV

  • All MPs would have the support of a majority of their voters. Following the 2010 election 2/3 of MPs lacked majority support, the highest figure in British political history.
  • It retains the same constituencies, meaning no need to redraw boundaries, and no overt erosion of the constituency-MP link.
  • It penalises extremist parties, who are unlikely to gain many second-preference votes.
  • It eliminates the need for tactical voting. Electors can vote for their first-choice candidate without fear of wasting their vote.
  • It encourages candidates to chase second- and third-preferences, which lessens the need for negative campaigning (one doesn’t want to alienate the supporters of another candidate whose second preferences one wants) and rewards broad-church policies.

Additionally the AV system would reduce (although not eliminate) the number of safe seats in the British Parliament. It is no coincidence that the worst excesses of the MPs’ expenses scandal occurred in the safest parliamentary constituencies – security seemed to breed a lack of accountability, complacency and contempt for the electorate.

Those who argue against the fairer votes campaign will tell you that FPTP is a simple system which provides strong government. The first part of that argument is true – FPTP is a simple system. However, the inference is that AV is complicated. This is clearly not true. The arrogance of many behind the ‘No’ campaign is clearly demonstrated by their view that voters are somehow not bright enough to be able to number their electoral preferences 1, 2, 3 etc. As for the suggestion of strong government only being possible through FPTP one only has to look back to the Brown, Major and Callaghan governments to demonstrate that, in recent years, this is not a given.

There is bound to be a heated debate in the run-up to next year’s poll and a taste of what’s to come can be seen by the choice of figureheads for the ‘No’ campaign. A selection of dinosaurs seems set to be wheeled out to tell us all, in essence, to leave things as they are because they know best. By contrast the ‘Yes to fairer votes‘ campaign offers an optimistic view that it just might be possible to change politics for the better.

Nick Clegg once infamously described AV as “a miserable little compromise” and to a certain extent he was right. I would far sooner see a referendum option on the Single Transferable Vote but the simple fact is that no such choice will be on the ballot paper. Britain will have a choice on 5th May 2011 whether to persevere with a system which worked well a century or so ago, but which seems a poor fit in the modern multi-party political framework, or to at least take a step in the right direction by – finally – making sure everyone’s vote counts. And what could be simpler than that?

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