Arguing over AV is a waste of political time

On the 5th of May you will get the chance to vote in a referendum. As a political landmark (the first UK-wide referendum since 1975), we should all be feeling pretty excited. Direct democracy, the empowered people. But somehow the reaction to this particular referendum has been lukewarm to say the least.

The referendum is on the voting system we use to elect our MPs; ‘first past the post’ or a new system called ‘alternative vote’ (AV). There is now a campaign in progress for both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to the AV system but both campaigns seem to struggle to find convincing arguments to persuade us.

Firstly, it is worth pointing out that despite what its critics claim AV is not a complex voting system. It is very simple. Rather than casting one vote for your preferred candidate in a general election you number the candidates in order of preference. If a candidate gets over 50 per cent of the first choices they win. If no-one gets more than 50 per cent, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and their second and third choice votes are redistributed. This continues until a candidate has more than 50 per cent of the vote. So what effect will this have on results? The answer to that is even simpler. None.

neither side can claim one system is more democratic than the other

It would be fantastic to argue with conviction either for or against the AV system but the truth is that it really does not matter either way. This is apparent from the campaigns on both sides. Neither side can claim one system is more democratic than the other. The major criticism of ‘first past the post’ is that unless you vote for the winning candidate your vote does not count – so called wasted votes. Yet this is still true under the AV system, regardless how many preferences someone has. To test just how much effect the AV system would have had the BBC has calculated the outcomes of every election since 1983 if the AV system had been used. The result? Not one single election outcome would have been different. So then, why AV?

Perhaps one of the reasons it is difficult to have strong feelings on the issue is because politicians themselves are not excited about AV. The Liberal Democrats, the pre-election supporters of electoral reform, did not mention AV in their manifesto, neither (unsurprisingly) did the Tories. It is obvious that AV is the product of a Coalition compromise; the Lib Dems wanted Proportional Representation, a completely different electoral system, and the Tories would never have accepted this. Instead we are being offered a system that nobody really wants or cares about.

So, in conclusion, all I can say is vote whichever way you like, it will not have a meaningful impact but perhaps we should be asking if this is the right time to be holding referendums on politically inconsequential decisions.

3 comments

  1. Interesting article, just a couple of points of contention.

    Firstly, speculation about the outcome of past elections isn’t particularly helpful. We have little to no idea how millions of people would have cast their preferences, so any such ‘calculations’ are hardly reliable evidence in the argument.

    Secondly, it is true that neither party wanted this. It’s a bit of a half cooked measure, or indeed, ‘a miserable little compromise’ as I believe Nick Clegg called it a while back. However, is it not surely better than what we’ve got?

    There are literally millions of wasted votes in this country. Something like 111 (maybe a few dozen more, still not that many) constituencies matter in general elections. 111 out of 650. Any system that will mean less wasted votes – and AV will, if only slightly – is surely somewhat more democratic?

    Noone is saying it’s perfect, but it’s an improvement.

    But to dismiss it as completely inconsequential? A bit flippant, if you ask me.

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  2. “To test just how much effect the AV system would have had the BBC has calculated the outcomes of every election since 1983 if the AV system had been used. The result? Not one single election outcome would have been different. So then, why AV?”

    But surely if AV was in use people would have voted differently in the first place?

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  3. 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.

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