A better choice of voting system
AV would be an advance on the UK’s current approach
On May 5, with a palpable lack of enthusiasm, Britons will vote in the first national referendum since 1975. The poll will decide whether to change the voting system for future general elections.
To say that the campaign has disappointed is an understatement. Far from seizing the opportunity to explain the intricacies of the choice before the nation, and how it might affect British politics, the two camps have relied largely on calumny and hyperbole to make their case. A chance has been lost to re-engage with a public whose attitude towards politicians still veers between scepticism and open contempt.
This newspaper does not see change as a panacea. But there is a case for Britain switching its existing first-past-the-post system – which offers a simple choice but has become less representative in an era of multi-party politics – for the alternative vote.
This is not because AV will make MPs vastly more hard-working or less inclined to cheat on their expenses, as its supporters claim (dubious contentions anyway given that it is people, not voting systems, that set the tone of politics). True, it favours candidates that reach out beyond party lines because in many seats they need second preferences from defeated rivals to prevail. But while this may cut the number of safe seats – in theory making MPs more responsive to their constituents – it will do so only modestly. According to the New Economics Foundation, a think-tank, the average number of seats changing hands at elections will increase to 16 per cent under AV, as against 13 per cent under the existing system.
The change may be further diluted by the fact that voters will not be obliged under AV to rank choices. Many may simply “plump” for one candidate, making elections a halfway house between AV and FPTP.
The real appeal of AV, and why Britain should vote for change, lies in the fact that it is more sympathetic to smaller parties. FPTP, a winner-takes-all system, may have served Britain well for many years because its politics used to split naturally into two big teams. They no longer do. At last year’s general election, the Conservative and Labour parties won just 65 per cent of the vote.
Under FPTP there are no prizes for coming second. So voters who do not think their favourite candidate can win often cast ballots for other representatives with stronger hopes of success. FPTP thus tends to drive voters towards two big parties and under-rewards smaller blocs for the votes that they win.
This bias is often held up as one of FPTP’s virtues: it tends to ensure decisive single-party government. But one-party electoral victory is increasingly purchased at the expense of legitimacy. It is troubling – and a sign of how unrepresentative the big two have become – that more than a quarter of the electorate vote for parties that they anticipate will exercise zero influence. Coalition governments – more likely under AV – are not necessarily indecisive as Britain’s radical Conservative-Liberal Democrat administration shows.
AV would allow voters to register their support for their first-choice party, however slim its hopes of success appeared. Smaller parties should have their true levels of popular support recognised at the ballot box. The results should be less unfair to the Lib Dems, in particular.
AV is not ideal. Many seats will remain uncompetitive, and parties with concentrations of support will do better than those with a shallower national following. AV is not – as opponents claim – an extremists’ charter. But it is better than FPTP given a multi-party system. It preserves the constituency link – a vital bulwark against untrammelled party control of MPs, and one reason why this newspaper is opposed to making the bigger leap to proportional representation.
As a cause, AV does not engage strong emotions. It was once likened to Oscar Wilde’s description of James Whistler, the artist, in having no enemies but being greatly disliked by its friends. The No camp has pointed out that its main cheerleader, the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, once called AV a “miserable little compromise”. In fact, AV is neither a miracle cure nor a disaster for British politics. It should on balance make elections a little fairer.
After a dispiriting campaign, the electorate may shrug its shoulders and stick with what it knows. While that would not be the end of the world, it would leave Britain with an electoral system imperfectly designed for its politics. A chance for a modest and reasonable fix would have been lost.