Embarassingly bad arguments from the “No to AV” camp on BBC News

May 5th could be a monumentous day for British politics. As part of the deal which brought us the Con-Dem coalition, the country will go to the polls to vote in a referendum on adopting the Alternative Vote (AV) system for electing MPs. Currently, the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system is used, in which the candidate with the most votes wins.

At first glance, FPTP looks fair enough. However, it’s often the case that the winning candidate scoops less than 50% of the vote, and the returned candidate therefore trots off to parliament with a mandate from less than half of the turnout. AV seeks to redress this problem.

It’s a fairly simple solution. Rather than just putting a cross next a candidate, the voter lists the candidates in order of preference. If one candidate has more than 50% of the 1st preference votes, then fine, they win. However, if no candiate reaches this threshold, then the candidate with the least 1st preference votes is eliminated and their 2nd preferences transfered to the remaining candidates. This process continues until someone has over 50% of the votes.

The arguments for the AV system are plentiful. It’s not perfect by any means, but it does give a more accurate representation of the will of the electorate. It works particularly well for “split” votes. Say, for the sake of argument, there exists a constituency with three candidates, two right wing and one left wing. The electorate votes 60% right wing and 40% left wing. Under FPTP, the left wing candidate receives 40% of the vote and is elected, while the two right wing candidates receive 35% and 25% respectively. Clearly this is unfair, as the majority of voters voted for a right wing candidate. Under the AV system, the second right wing candidate is eliminated and their votes passed on to the first, meaning the first right wing candidate romps home with over 60% of the vote.

For me, nothing represents how unfair FPTP is than this graph from the last general election (courtesy of allaboutchris.co.uk):

Votes by percent and seatsHow is it in any way fair that the third largest political party in the UK gets 23% of the votes in an election, yet gets less than 9% of the seats in parliament? Small wonder that the Liberal Democrats want AV!

So, it’s my firm opinion that AV is much fairer and therefore much better than FPTP, so I’m supporting Yes to Fair Votes. However, what about the other side? Is there a case for voting “No” in the referendum? A “No to AV” campaign does exist, and Matthew Elliot, the director of the campaign, has written an opinion piece for the BBC News website.

According to Elliot, the case against AV can be boiled down to a few key points: cost, the Lib Dems being made kingmakers, and politicians clamouring for votes:

At a total cost of £250m…

Yes, elections are expensive. Adding an extra element to get a fairer election would cost more money. But what price representative democracy? If you are going to argue along the lines of cost, why not turn this country into a military dictatorship and dispense with elections altogether? That would be far cheaper!

After each general election, the UK would face a Hung Parliament and we would have to wait patiently while the Lib Dems played one party off against the other behind closed doors.

Of course, there is no guarantee of this scenario after every election, but if that is what the electorate votes for, then that is what the electorate gets. I really don’t see how disenfranchisement to avoid a hung parliament is in any way justifiable.

Instead of MPs that take a principled stand, AV would create a legion of bland politicians that would tell you whatever you wanted to hear and ditch their promises at the first sign of trouble.

And how would this be any different to how politicians behave now?

Amazingly, this opinion piece doesn’t even attempt to deal with fairness or the will of the electorate. It’s just a series of non sequiturs, and it just sounds a bit desperate to me. In short, vote “Yes” to AV in May!

5 Comments

  1. Matt

    You suggest that ‘fairness’ is an important element of a political system. Might I suggest that the most important feature of a political system is one that creates an effective, stable, process, that allows for legislation to be passed and poor governments to be removed.

    The concerns over PR is that it potentially erodes these two features, that mark the practical value of democracy. So, for example, with Italian PR, there is a serious struggle to form a stable government, and the lack of stability leads to huge levels of corruption, and well, Berlusconi.

    With the German system, we see can example of the inability to kick a failing government out of office. When voters decided that they didn’t want one of the two big parties (SDP and CD) and voters left the ruling party en mass, the result was a ‘grand coalition’ where both parties were left in power. This inability to punish failure take away a key perk of democracy.

    There are clearly arguments for PR. But I don’t think its sensible to go in blindly thinking that its a system that is clearly better. Its a total change of political culture, and not one that will necessarily be an improvement.

    • Tom

      Hi Matt, thanks for commenting. I’m not saying that ‘fairness’ is an important element of any political system, but it’s the most important feature of a democracy. If you believe in one man one vote, why endorse a system like FPTP? That system makes some votes count more than others depending on where you live (tactical voting etc). And again, if the electorate vote for a hung parliament, then that’s what they get. Surely the whole point of a democracy is governance by the “will of the people”, not whatever outcome may be best according to political analysts?

      I can see what you are saying about grand coalitions and stability, but you make voting sound very negative, as if it’s purpose is to kick out a government if they screw up. Voting should be positive, where you vote for who you want to win, rather than against who you don’t. Also, I’d rather be in a political system here the politicians are grown up and can reach compromises, rather than a winning party ruling essentially by decree for five years.

      Yes, PR will be a total change of political culture. I’m hoping it will eliminate tactical voting and get rid of some of the negativity in UK politics. AV isn’t ideal, sure, but I still think it’s better than FPTP.

  2. The AV system is really a bad voting system.

    An important claim of the supporters of the AV is that “It penalises extremist parties, who are unlikely to gain many second-preference votes.” Well, yes, if you assume the following:

    ———-

    You are a Labour voter. Therefore, you are not in any way going to vote for Tories. So you are left with the option of voting for the LIB-Dem, or any other party – all of which are extreme in one way or the other – may it be the Greens, the BNP or the Loonies.

    So, if you decide that voting for the Lib-Dem is not your wish, you will be voting for a party that have one major theme engraved in it’s manifesto that is close to your heart. That will also be the epitome of Tactical Voting – You will be trying to pass your party a message that this or that issue is important for you.

    That will put to shame the other claims of the yes campaigners for AV: “It eliminates the need for tactical voting.”

    Now, how stupid can the UK voters be! You are lead into the best laid down trap: The Lib-Dem said that the AV is a compromise instead of having the proportional voting system.

    This is not true. The AV is a lot better for them than the proportional voting system – as many UK voters will indeed avoid voting for a small extremists party – so they will vote for the Lb-Dem – they will think that they really do not have another choice for the second preference. The Lib-Dem will than be piggy carried to victory in many constitutes with the combined second choice of the two main party’s voters.

    And at the same time, we will have some small and extremist parties in our Parliament – just like in the proportional voting system.

    ————

    With two thirds of the MP’s lacked majority in their areas, one should not be blame to think that the Lib-Dem will become the biggest party in the Parliament. Now, that may not be a bad thing, you might say. Well, the fact is that if that happens, it means that the Lib-Dem won because they where the forced ‘there is nothing better to vote for as second choice’ for most voters.

    Well. ‘nothing better’ is not really a political endorsement.

    The Lib-Dem went to government for the AV and the AV alone – and not for the ministerial jobs at the current government, as James O’Brian from LBC claims. That calculation is the long term motivation. It promises all the current Lib-Dem MP’s government jobs in the future.

    That is nothing less than the biggest political fraud ever. It is only one step down from a military putsch by the Lib-Dem, with the same effect of a revolution.

  3. Lee Bateman

    One of the main issues you raise against AV is the possibility of small, extremist parties, getting a small number of seats because voters have them as a second choice because of a core issue that is close to their heart.

    I for one cant think of a better thing for British politics. Certainly, the thought of the BNP achieving power repulses me but if a proportion of the electorate think that some of their core issues need to be discussed on a wider political front then so be it. The idea of the tactical vote being used to pass a message onto other parties is no better accomplished than by giving that one policy party a small representation in government. These small parties (bnp, green etc) often do not have many policies outside their core issue so would be happy to move into minor coalition if it means that their issue was guaranteed representation in parliament. We have seen this with the lib dems and AV, we might not see referendums every parliament but at the very least more free votes on key issues that would have previously seen MPs whipped into the party line.

    Fair enough, it may mean a short wait while discussions go on behind closed doors before a government is formed but this might not just involve the lib dems like it did at the last election but say for eg. The greens with a dozen or so seats and maybe even the BNP with a couple. What would come out of this? well i hope it would be a government with an obligation to address the issues raised by the small parties which give it support.

    Just a small thought.

    • Tom

      It’s a perfectly valid thought! I think that politicians should be able to get on with each other and come up with coalitions. The current system of FPTP usually gives one party the power to make decisions unchallenged for up to five years, at the very least the Lib Dems currently have the power to go ‘hold on a second…’.

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