On 5 May 2011, electors in the UK will be asked to vote on the relative merits of the UK's current, "First Past the Post" electoral system (FPTP) and the "Alternative Vote" (AV) for UK General Elections.
The "No to AV" and "Yes to Fairer Votes" campaigns are now in full swing, both trying to stimulate interest in the topic amongst a largely indifferent electorate. Whatever your views on the referendum, it seems to me that some very dubious arguments have been deployed by those who support the retention of FPTP.
A miserable little challenge
To begin with, it's disappointing that David Cameron has chosen to ridicule his deputy, Nick Clegg, as a way of advancing the case for retaining FPTP. Cameron has seized on a comment made by Clegg before the 2010 election, in which he described AV as "a miserable little compromise". Of course AV is going to be seen as a compromise by anyone who advocates full-blooded proportional representation (PR). So it is not surprising that Clegg, as leader of the Liberal Democrats, would make such a statement as part of his pre-election positioning. However, the realpolitik of post-6 May 2010 demanded a retreat from 'pure' ideology by the leaders of both the Lib Dem and Tory parties. So, at its best, Cameron's comment is disingenuous. At its worst, cheap political point-scoring threatens to undermine what remains an important - and so far successful - relationship at the head of the Coalition Government.
What is more, as regards the debate on the voting system, it does not follow from Clegg's comment that AV is a worse system than FPTP. All that he was saying was that AV falls well short of his party's preference for a system based on the Single Transferrable Vote (STV) or some other form of PR. But that's not on offer. AV is.
So what of the other criticisms aimed at AV by those who are against a change in the current system? My thoughts on some of the main points that they raise are set out below:
- AV is too complicated
The AV system requires voters to indicate their order of preference for the various candidates, by writing the numbers 1, 2, 3 etc alongside candidates' names. If advocates of FPTP really do consider that this is too complicated a process for the people of the UK to master, it doesn't say much for their view of their fellow citizens. And, clearly, Education Secretary Michael Gove has a bigger job on his hands than he might have thought, in seeking to raise the general standards of literacy and numeracy!
Of course AV takes longer to count than an election based on FPTP, but that does not make it a more complicated system from the viewpoint of the voter – which is what the criticism implies. Nor, as an aside, does a switch to AV mean that major expenditure will be required to provide automated vote-counting machines, as has been claimed by a number of commentators who are opposed to AV. A few more pencils should suffice!
- AV means an end to the principle of "one person one vote"
This, on the face of it at least, is a clever challenge. The claim that the transferring of votes between candidates means that some electors will have more votes than others – and hence a greater influence on the outcome of the election – has face validity. And even Shirley Williams appeared, mistakenly, to concede this point to Andrew Neil during Thursday night's This Week programme. This myth reinforces the suggestion that AV is unfair and undemocratic. For example, in his recent speech to the Welsh Conservatives, the Prime Minister argued:
"It is a system so undemocratic that your vote for a mainstream party counts once, while someone can support a fringe party like the BNP and get their vote counted several times."
If this were true, it would indeed be unfair and undemocratic. And this line of argument also seems to imply (intentionally, no doubt) that AV increases the chances that fringe candidates will be elected. But it is simply not the case that some people will have more than one vote or that some people's votes will be counted more times than those of other people. As at present, each voter will have one vote and one vote only. But, unlike today, AV increases the likelihood that each person’s vote will contribute meaningfully to the result of the election. In effect, by ranking candidates in order of preference, an individual voter is saying to the Returning Officer,
I want you to allocate my (one) vote, in the order that I have indicated, until one of the candidates gains majority support and is elected.
So how can we respond to the claim made by the "No to AV" campaign that this approach is unfair and undemocratic?
First, irrespective of the number of times that a vote might be reallocated during the counting process, it will only count once to the eventual result. In other words, as in the present FPTP system, AV preserves the principle of one person one vote.
But those opposing AV go further than this. They argue that, during the process of arriving at the final result, some ballot papers (but not others) are counted more than once. They suggest that ballot papers on which the highest preferences have been cast for minority parties are counted several times, whereas those cast for mainstream parties are counted only once. This is essentially the point made by David Cameron, above. Again, though, this is all 'smoke and mirrors'. Consider instead what happens in practice.
If any candidate obtains over 50 per cent of the votes in the first round of counting, they are be declared the winner. In such instances, AV delivers the same result as FPTP. If, however, no-one commands majority support on the first count, the least popular candidate is eliminated. The votes of those people who have chosen that candidate as their first preference, which under FPTP would become wasted votes, are then be reallocated according to the declared second preferences. The revised number of votes cast for all candidates are then recalculated. In other words, all votes are taken into account (i.e. 're-counted'), not just those that are transferred from other candidates. This simple, straightforward process is repeated as many times as necessary, until one of the candidates is declared the winner.
- AV means that those who come second or third could be declared the winner
To illustrate this point in his anti-change speech to Welsh Conservatives, David Cameron likens AV to a 100-metres sprint in which the gold medal is awarded to a runner who has finished second or third in the race. In response, and to use the Prime Minister's own language, this is a crazy suggestion. In no way is this analogous to what happens under AV.
A better - though still imperfect - analogy is to think instead of a multi-round contest, such as the pentathlon. The ultimate winner might well be in second or third place at the end of the earlier rounds of the contest (events). But they rightly triumph in the end because they accumulate more points than their opponents when all rounds have been completed. It is the same with AV. The winner is the candidate who has accumulated the most votes at the end of the counting process.
The legitimacy of majority support
"One person one vote" is a primary measure of a system's democratic credentials. But, according to the argument put forward by the "No to AV" campaign, AV fails to satisfy this criterion. Despite this challenge and the headline-grabbing rhetoric of the anti-AV lobby, we have earlier seen that the system does indeed preserve the principle of one person one vote.
More than this though, there is another touchstone of democratic accountability that is enshrined within the UK parliamentary system. Governments are only formed when one party can command a majority in the House of Commons, either on its own or in collaboration with others. The present UK Coalition Government is a successful example of the latter.
If we think back to the events of May 2010, it is universally recognized that no single party "won" the General Election, because they all fell short of the number of seats required to achieve an overall majority. The Conservatives are only in government today because Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrat MPs identified them (rather than the Labour Party) as their 'second preference'. When the Liberal Democrat votes (i.e. MPs) were 'reallocated' to the Conservatives via the Coalition Agreement, David Cameron secured a sufficient mandate to become Prime Minister of a legitimate, majority government.
Unlike FPTP, AV is designed to apply a similarly stringent test to the election of MPs in individual constituencies. That is to say, if voters use their ballot papers as intended, a candidate will only be elected if they are able to secure an overall majority of the votes cast.
If any candidate obtains over 50 per cent of first preference votes, they achieve this position unaided and without the need for any further rounds of counting. Otherwise, just as the Prime Minister was required to do when seeking to form a Government in May 2010, the successful candidate also needs to gain the votes of people whose preferred choices are to see other candidates elected. In a sense, they too have to secure a sufficiently large coalition of support amongst electors to achieve an overall majority. In an election based on AV, the order of preference of candidates indicated on each ballot paper enables this ‘coalition-building’ task to happen routinely during the counting process. And the legitimacy of an individual's election is then underscored by their having gained the majority support of the electorate.
Clearly, if some voters decide not to rank candidates in order of preference, and their first-choices are eliminated at an early stage in the counting process, they forego the opportunity that AV provides for their vote still to count towards the eventual result. In such cases, an MP can be elected with fewer than 50% of the votes. It is unfortunate on those occasions in which this happens, because it means that the winning candidate is robbed of the added legitimacy that comes from having the majority support of his or her constituents. But this is, of course, the situation that occurs in most constituencies under the current, FPTP system.
Making the case
In summary, it seems to me that there are major flaws in the main arguments that are being used to attack AV, as exemplified in David Cameron's speech to the Welsh Conservatives. However, I don't feel that these have been adequately exposed to date.
It is important that those who cast their votes in the 5 May Referendum (whether for or against change) do so from a properly informed position. Not on the basis of the easy-to-swallow but ultimately misleading sound-bites offered by those who are fronting the "No" campaign.