The referendum on whether we should go for the proposed Alternative Voting system or for the traditional first past the post system is coming up in May, and we are now beginning to see politicians spout all sorts of half-truths on the subject. The key thing to remember during the debates amongst politicians is that their views are slanted by self-interest – they unconsciously (or perhaps consciously) want the political system that gives the best results for themselves, rather than the system that best suits the voters.
So we have to rely on our own minds to decide which voting system is best for us, and not trust the politicians.
The traditional system was first formally put in place nationally in The Representation of The People Act 1832, although the first past the post system had been used in various constituencies for centuries before that. Given the contraints of a medieval country, it is quite a good system – simple to administer, easy to understand, and not especially unrepresentative of the population making up the electorate when the number of electors for each MP was vastly less than today.
Today is quite a different matter. The first past the post system means that everyone who did not vote for the elected MP feels disenfranchised, and those who hold differing views to the majority in a safe constituency are very much excluded from the political process. And it can be a very high proportion of the electorate – in one constituency in last year’s election, the MP who was elected had the support of just 37% of the voters.
So how does the Alternative Voting system work ?
Well each voter lists their candidates in order of preference – 1 for their favourite candidate, 2 for their next favourite candidate, etc. You can even list just 1 preference if you are a first past the post fan, or list every possible candidate in order of preference if you want. If nobody wins 50% of the votes, the candidate with the least number of votes is excluded and the next preference from those who voted for him or her are distributed amongst the remaining candidates; this process is repeated until a candidate does get more than 50%. Or presumably there is just one candidate left!
There have even been politicians who claim that the Alternative Voting system is too complex for the voter to understand. Ok, the distribution of votes may be a little tricky for those simpler voters, but ordering your preferred candidates is the important part – and simple enough for the overwhelming majority to understand. Frankly politicians who go around insulting voters should be voted out in the next election!
Is the Alternative Voting system fairer than the first past the vote system ? Well, a bit fairer. Very safe constituencies are likely to carry on being safe constituencies, and minority views are still likely to be under represented (if represented at all!) in Parliament. It certainly is not proportional representation, and doesn’t even come close.
But it does hold several key advantages over the first past the post system :-
- Firstly, it allows people to vote with the real belief of what candidate should be elected without regard to the likelihood of victory. Those who hold minority views (say perhaps Green party supporters) always have a difficult decision to make under a first past the post system – do they vote for the party they want even though it has no hope of victory ? Or do they vote tactically to vote for the candidate they would dislike the least ? With AV, they get to do both.
- Secondly it ensures a fairer result in a three-horse race between three candidates. As an example, in a traditionally Tory constituency, it is possible for Labour to slip in, if the Tory vote gets split between the Conservatives and the Liberals. Given the choice a Tory may well wish the Liberal candidate to win if the Tory candidate cannot. Any election system that can return an MP with a minority of the support is flawed.
There are those who do not like the Alternative Voting system because it does not go far enough. It is only a relatively minor improvement to the first past the post system, and there is some inclination to vote against it for that reason. Whilst understandable (and I’m in favour of going further too), it is not the right way to look at it. Whilst we can criticse politicians for not going far enough, or for not giving us a wider choice to choose from, the question to answer here is which voting system do you prefer ? First past the post, or AV ?
Given the choice, I would say that AV is a step in the right direction. It doesn’t go far enough, but we have not been given the choice of saying “something better please”.
So I would say “Yes” – let’s vote for something a little better than the status quo. You are free to make up your own mind, but be wary of listening too closely to the politicians!