On May 5th 2011, the UK’s first legally binding referendum will be held. It will ask the question “At present, the UK uses the “first past the post” system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the “alternative vote” system be used instead?”, to which the answers will be Yes or No. It is arguably the most important political event of the last century.
Yet no-one seems to understand what AV actually is.
It’s not just the traditionally apathetic. A while back, my school (which prides itself on producing well-rounded, politically-savvy students) had a debate put on by the students asking if we should vote for AV. It was a dismal failure because neither side knew what they were talking about. And now, with less than three weeks remaining, I’m not sure that anyone’s really got much more of a clue.
So here’s a handy guide. You can cut it out and stick it to the back of your local No! campaigner. He’s probably a Tory anyway.
AV, or alternative vote, is the idea that for someone to be elected to serve a constituency, he or she must have 50% of the vote. To this end, you rank the candidates in order. You can put as many numbers down as you like. The first votes get counted, and the bottom candidate gets lost. Anyone who voted for the him or her gets their second votes counted. And so on. If your second vote has already been counted, your third is. Etc.
The major benifits are that at least 50% of a constituency want that person in power. In the 2005 elections, only three people got over 40% of the votes in their constitency. The rest had even less support. It would also prevent tactical voting. There would be no need to vote Labour just to ensure that the Conservatives didn’t get in, or vise versa. It would ensure that the people you vote for would be more accountable due to the fact that, without the default vote to prevent xyz getting in, they would need to ensure full support. On top of this, it would penalise extreme parties such as the BNP, hence the BNP agreement with the No! campaign. It is used in a variety of situations, incluing certain Oscar awards, leadership contests for all three major parties, and, notably, in Australia.
The No campaign supports FPTP. This is perhaps the simplest electoral system, where one marks a cross by the person you want to represent you, and whoever gets the most crosses wins. Advantages mainly revolve around simplicity, and it being the way we’ve done it since we first bothered with a parliament. The negatives are widely known: ‘safe’ constituencies, where one’s vote counts for very little; an unequal spread of representation for smaller parties; and that David Cameron supports it.
So who should you vote for? Well sadly I can’t tell you. Apparently it would be wrong. However, I would like to stem the flow of some of the misinformation on the side of the No! campaign.
For a start, we are told that AV will cost much more than FPTP. Well, this has now been confirmed, by the treasury, as false. See? This report was based on a look at Australia’s voting system, which is the size of Western Europe and runs twice every three years. A fair comparison? Perhaps not.
Secondly, the idea that the an election is like a race, is, well, nonsense. An election is a popularity contest. A popularity contest with far more hanging on it than a plastic cup at the end, but with that same sort of style nonetheless. The winner should not be whoever manages to make it through first, but who deserves it the most. AV is an attempt to do that, and it is certainly an improvement on FPTP where one can get into power with less than half your constituency supporting you, as happened last year with over two thirds of elected MPs.
A third frequently spouted myth is that FPTP supports one person = one vote, while AV doesn’t. FPTP supports one person who lives in the correct area, away from safe seats = one entirely tactical vote. AV, however, prevents this by ending tactical voting, and breaking down the effect of safe seats. While neither is perfect, AV improves the situation as far as possible without ending constituencies.
Or maybe AV is too complex. I doubt it. Pretty much everyone I’ve met has managed to grasp it fairly easily. Okay, maybe there’s a slight misunderstanding to begin with, but considering we’ve grown up with FPTP, AV has come remarkably easy. So when Baroness Warsi next patronises you, please tell her to shut up.
Other myths include the fact that AV encourages extremist parties (Nick Griffin is certainly voting against AV); that it weakens the constituency link (indeed, it strengthens it by making the elected MP someone that more people actually want); and that AV encourages coalitions (Australia have had fewer coalitions with AV than we have without it in the past 90 years).
Please vote how you want in the referendum. I hope that this post made you think about what you want out of your government. I tried to do it really impartially, but I struggled, and my phone deleted it twice, so I treated it as a sign. You may not believe in AV, you may want PR, or STV (my real favourite). Vote Yes in this refendum to show that our electoral system does not have to be set in stone, and should be changed to ensure that we have the best government ever. And if you weren’t going to vote at all, please at the very least vote for the people like me who have no voice. Thank you.