Alternative Vote

An Eccentric Anomaly: Ed Davies's Blog

Next month (on 2011 May 5th) various parts of the UK are doing miscellaneous democratic things. The whole country, though, is voting in a referendum on a change to the electoral system for MPs in the House of Commons (the lower house of the parliament of the UK). The option is to replace the current first past the post (FPTP) system with an alternative vote (AV) system.

I think AV is horribly flawed and in some circumstances even worse than FPTP. Never the less, I'll be voting for it. Firstly, a vote to retain FPTP would be seen as a vote against any form of electoral reform (which we badly need). Secondly, I think AV would normally be slightly less bad than FPTP.

But what do I mean here by "better" and "worse"?

It seems to me that if a candidate A can get elected when more than half of the electorate would prefer another candidate B who doesn't get elected then you have a broken electoral system (unless those who prefer B are already represented by another candidate who has been elected). In FPTP this can happen easily because those whose first and only choice is any other candidate can't even express a preference between A or B.

Checking for this breakage is, of course, only an initial filter in the process of choosing an electoral system: it says nothing about how many representatives each constituency should have and how the views of minorities are to be reflected.

There are many problems associated with ignoring the preferences of those whose first choice is not one of the top two candidates (or, in safe seats, just the top candidate). A lot of people feel disenfranchised. Many people choose to vote tactically - voting for a candidate other than their first choice for fear of something worse. Minority parties get to make a lot of noise claiming that they would have done better but for this tactical voting.

The big flaw with AV, in my view, is that it gives precedence to those who vote for the lowest placed (and therefore, presumably, most fringe) candidates. Similarly, it also gives precedence to second choices over third choices. By ranking candidates a voter is stating preferences with no way of indicating the relative strengths of those preferences either within their own list or relative to the choices of other voters. It seems to me that any preference that any voter expresses should have equal weight to any other by that voter or anybody else.

I suspect that the practical effect of AV will be that people put their preferred candidate first and whoever they might have voted for tactically second. Third and further choices will be no more than decoration. If your preferences are Green-LibDem-Labour or BNP-UKIP-Tory and you vote in a Tory/Labour marginal then expressing your second preference would be as much a wasted vote as your first preference would be under FPTP. Consequently there will be very little change to the election results, other than a somewhat symbolic indication of the amount of tactical voting, which is why, of course, the Conservatives were willing to accept the scheme in the first place.

Still, a vote to keep FPTP is a vote to carry on with the rather narrow-minded and polarised two-party system we currently have where a large proportion of the population don't feel at all well represented by either of the parties which could plausibly dominate a government.