On 5 May 2011, voters will be given the opportunity to answer the referendum 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?
I am intending to vote YES. Here I describe some of the reasons behind my decision to do so. Further, I explore some of the debating points raised by both the “Yes to AV” and the “No to AV” campaigns.
FPFP and AV
Firstly, a description of the two voting systems, from the point of view of a voter:
How FPTP (‘First Past The Post’) works: Each voter votes for only a single candidate (i.e. you put an ‘X’ next to your preferred candidate). The single candidate with the most votes is declared the winner.
How AV (‘Alternative Vote’) works: Each voter puts all candidates in their preferred order, ranking them with ‘1’ as their preferred candidate, ‘2’ as their second preference and so on. If a candidate receives >50% of first-preference votes then they are elected. If no candidate gains a majority on first preferences, then the second-preference votes of the candidate who finished last on the first count are redistributed. This process is repeated until someone gets over 50%.
Note that if there are only two candidates, FPTP and AV are logically equivalent. It makes no difference, because whoever gets more votes will automatically have >50%. However, when there are three or more candidates, differences emerge. (This fact in itself gives a clue as to why FPTP has been used historically – in the past there were usually only two parliamentary parties and so FPTP was not an unreasonable way to elect in those circumstances. In 1951, Conservative and Labour got nearly 97% of votes between them: a genuine two-party system. In 2010, however, it was only 65%: no longer a two-party system).
How AV works
A way to explain why AV can produce a fairer result than FPTP is as follows: let’s take an example where there are three candidates and FPTP gives voting percentages as 60% for candidate A, 25% for candidate B and 15% for candidate C. Under FPTP rules, candidate A would be elected; under AV, candidate A would also be elected because they have >50%. However, let’s consider what happens if the voting percentages were different: 40% for candidate A, 35% for candidate B and 25% for candidate C. Under FPTP, candidate A would be elected because they have the most votes; however, under AV, since no candidate has >50%, no-one is declared the immediate winner. Second preferences then come into play. Depending on these preferences, either candidate A or B could be the eventual winner: it depends on how the second preferences of candidate C are distributed.
The above 40/35/25 split is a good example of how AV can give a fairer result: how it does this depends on how voters treat the relative merits of A, B and C. Let’s say that candidate A is generally well-liked by those who vote B and C and picks up plenty of second preferences: it’s likely that they will be elected, having 40% of first preferences and a reasonable number of second preferences. Because candidate A is generally well-liked, AV makes sure that candidate A is elected: this is a fair result. However, conversely, if candidate A is universally disliked by those who vote B and C, it’s possible candidate B will pick up most of the second preferences from C-voters, thus giving B >50% overall: this is a fair result because although 40% gave their first preference to A, 60% of voters preferred someone else! The FPTP result of electing candidate A as the winner might have meant that 60% of voters end up with an MP they actively dislike! (It’s worth pointing out that this happens all the time at General Elections. Most MPs were elected with <50% support. That is, a majority of voters have an MP they didn’t vote for!)
With more than three candidates, AV does generally a good job finding a candidate with the most broad support from the electorate.
Advantages of AV
- It ensures that winning candidates have the support of >50% of their voters, where support doesn’t necessarily mean ‘first preference’. This is particularly important when there are many candidates, where a FPTP winner might have only ~20% of the vote.
- It almost entirely eliminates any need to vote tactically. Voters can put their first-choice candidate first without worrying that they are “letting someone else win”. For example, in a seat where the winner is expected to be candidate A or candidate B, under FPTP a vote for party C might be considered a waste; if a C-voter actively dislikes candidate A, they might be tempted to vote for candidate B to “stop candidate A winning”, since they consider candidate B winning a better result than candidate A winning. Thus in these situations FPTP encourages people to vote for someone other than their main preference. Under AV, a C-voter can confidently vote C as their first preference, knowing that if C doesn’t get many votes overall, their second preference will be counted. The ‘C-voter’ described here would vote: First preference: C, Second preference: B, Third preference: A. This also shows that AV and FPTP can change a voter’s voting patterns to be closer to their real opinions: someone’s first preference under AV might not be the same as the single party they would have chosen under FPTP. AV thus encourages more honest voting.
- The elimination of tactical voting leads to less negative campaigning by candidates and their supporters. Since second preferences from voters are important, candidates are more likely to try to appeal more broadly rather than alienating traditional voters of other parties. Positive campaigning from candidates is likely to engage more voters overall and help lead to higher voter turnout at the election itself, which is a Good Thing, democratically-speaking;
- I’m going to be honest and say that I don’t agree with every argument that’s put forward in favour of a “Yes” vote. I’ve seen “Yes to AV” campaign posters stating that AV will help prevent things like the Expenses Scandal and will eliminate safe seats, thus requiring MPs “to work harder for our vote”. I must admit to being slightly confused by this, because I’m not sure I see the validity of these arguments. AV is a voting system and so it cannot really influence how an MP behaves once elected. Further, AV will not eliminate safe seats. It might make some seats slightly less safe, but could equally make others slightly more safe. The elimination of safe seats in their entirety requires the use of a completely different voting system, probably one with multi-member constituencies;
Advantages of FPTP, disadvantages of AV?
Many arguments are put forward by the “No to AV” campaign regarding reasons why AV is a bad idea or why FPTP is better. I list some of the more common arguments here, together with comment regarding why I believe they are wrong or misguided. Generally, the reasons put forward by the “No to AV” campaign are negative reasons against change, rather than positive reasons in favour of FPTP:
- “AV is too complicated.” Some claim AV is too complicated for voters. Hardly! Given that one only needs to be able to count up to the number of candidates standing in your seat, this isn’t going to be such a big deal. Preferential voting of this sort is already used in various elections and almost everyone will already have had experience of voting this way. It’s true that the count of votes will take a little longer than under FPTP, in the cases where second preferences need to be counted, but it won’t take much longer in most circumstances;
- “AV gives some people more than one vote” Not at all: it gives everyone one vote, but makes sure that that one vote has the most chance of making a difference! Each voter gets one vote and everyone’s vote may be counted several times, depending on how many ’rounds’ are required for someone to end up with >50%. A second preference is not a second vote, it is an ‘instruction’ regarding how you want your (only) vote to be cast if it would be wasted because your first preference candidate cannot win! Under AV the winner is typically a candidate to whom >50% of voters gave their first or second preference: that means that most voters have ‘helped to elect’ the eventual winner. Under FPTP, especially with a split vote among many candidates, a very small proportion will have ‘helped to elect’ the winner;
- “AV is too expensive.”, “Give soldiers more body armour rather than changing our voting system”, “Use the money for changing a voting system to help save the lives of babies with cancer” etc. There has been a lot of scaremongering and campaigning of this type. I think this says a lot about the people making those statements, rather than the use of AV;
- “I’m voting no to AV because I want proper proportional representation, such as STV”: This argument is rather different and I agree with the underlying sentiment wholeheartedly. Proper proportional representation would be a great improvement to the electoral system and I support that. However, this referendum is not about that. It’s about a choice between FPTP and AV: it came about as a political compromise in the Coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the LibDems. (Ideally, the Conservatives would not have wanted a referendum at all; the LibDems would have preferred more proportional reform.) “Yes to AV” is a step in the right direction towards proportional representation, because the preferential voting method used by voters in such a system is the same as in AV. Voting “No to AV” because you want deeper reform is ultimately a futile gesture, because your ‘No’ vote will be lost amongst those who are genuinely anti-reform. If the final result of the referendum is a ‘No’, then that will effectively block chances for electoral reform for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, a ‘Yes’ result will suggest a mood for positive electoral reform that could lead to further reform in future;
- “The LibDems wanted this AV vote and I’m unhappy with the LibDems’ role in government, e.g. tuition fees: I’m going to vote NO because it’s a vote against Nick Clegg and the LibDems”. If you’re a traditional LibDem voter and feel a sense of ‘betrayal’ for any reason, voting ‘NO’ is futile way to express this! You’d be ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’. It’s likely that one of the reasons you voted LibDem was to see electoral reform. If so, vote ‘YES!’. If you really want to show displeasure at the LibDems, vote ‘YES’ to AV and then put LibDems as your last preference at the next election! Remember that David Cameron is part of the ‘No to AV’ campaign, so you will be voting for him if you vote “against Nick Clegg”. The Conservatives are broadly behind the ‘No to AV’ campaign because the FPTP system benefits them! Both Conservative and Labour obtain an unfairly high proportion of parliamentary seats relative to their vote, at the expense of all smaller parties; many established MPs are behind “No to AV” for that reason.
So I therefore encourage you to vote “YES” on 5 May 2011! AV may not be the best thing since sliced bread, but it’s an improvement over FPTP and a ‘Yes’ vote will show popular support for future electoral reform. Vote YES!