Disclaimer: this blog post is written from a purely personal perspective. Just like all the other posts on the blog in fact, but as this is a relatively unusual foray into politics for this blog, for work reasons I want to emphasise these views are expressed in a solely personal capacity.
In the online world, and to an extent in the real one, I’m surrounded by mostly excellent, right-on, progressive, liberal-to-left people (I’m not commenting on how many of those adjectives apply to me). And on recent Twitter evidence, they are generally inclined to vote yes to the Alternative Vote… dare I say, almost as a reflex action in favour of reform? Probably not coincidentally, a recent poll showing a strong lead for ‘no’ across the country has London, where I live, evenly split on the subject.
So maybe it feels hard to come out as against AV (though anyone who knows me will likely know my views). This post is for anyone else who feels similarly: don’t be afraid, it’s OK. It’s also partly inspired by MJ Hibbett‘s ‘yes’ video, which I’ll put at the end of the post for balance – it’s good fun, even though I don’t agree with the arguments. If Hibbett can do a song, I reasoned, maybe I can at least do a blog post. For the avoidance of doubt, this is not going to spell out acronyms or explain the systems: it assumes you know the basics.
Before we dive into detail, here is my thinking in a nutshell.
AV won’t make much difference either way. It certainly won’t solve any problems, least of all the ones that its advocates say it will. There is no compelling case for change. Whether you prefer AV or FPTP is a marginal call and, as much as anything, a matter of taste.
There’s more to democracy than the electoral system
Most of what I’ve read and heard about AV and FPTP over the last few months has been essentially incorrect. Both main campaign groups have, in my view, argued their case with a dispiriting disregard for accuracy. The biggest single myth – or lie, if you prefer – about AV is that it will make any significant difference to how we are governed.
Calculating the outcomes of past general elections under AV will inevitably be an uncertain science, but the best estimates suggest that few, quite possibly none at all, of the post-war elections would have resulted in a different government (though some majorities would have been different, one or two more parliaments might have been hung, the February 1974 one might not have been). Some others might have prompted rather different politics due to the subtly different parliamentary arithmetic, but it’s impossible to say that there would have been truly significant consequences.
There are far more important factors in deciding who governs us than whether we have AV or FPTP (a switch to a proportional system would, of course, be a substantial change, and this blog post would read very differently if that was the choice before us). The redrawing of the constituency boundaries and reduction in seat numbers will have a massive impact on the next election, much greater than a switch to AV, by removing a long-standing bias in favour of Labour (and I’ve no sympathy for Labour claims of gerrymandering, as an aside: Labour had 13 years to do something statesmanlike and correct the bias, but instead they lay back and enjoyed its benefits, which was nothing short of gerrymandering by omission). That will be true whether the eventual election is under FPTP or AV, although in fact the legislation only allows for AV to be used with the new boundaries .
Other political factors are also more influential. Last year’s general election is a perfect example: under AV, it probably would have produced a hung parliament in which a Lib-Lab coalition was fully arithmetically viable, as well as the Lib-Con one. But the political factors that led to the current coalition – the Conservatives’ higher placing in the popular vote, the antipathy between Brown and Clegg and Labour’s cack-handed negotiations, deliberate or otherwise – would have led us to the same government.
More significant still is the choice on offer from our politicians: the strength of the rhetoric often disguises just how close the consensus on many issues, not least the all-important macroeconomic ones, has been in recent years (until c.2008, at least) between the three main parties. Whether or not Ed Miliband’s policy review leads Labour to break away from the Thatcherite consensus that has dominated British politics since the dawn of New Labour will be far more significant to the next election than the system the contest is fought under.
Politics and government are, therefore, the result of much more than an electoral system. Reform of the electoral system should never be mistaken for significant political reform.
Myths about AV: the ‘no’ camp
So much, then, for the big picture. What about the claims for and against AV? Starting with the no camp, some of their arguments have been downright peculiar. The claim that AV will be more expensive because it require electronic voting machines appears to be pure fiction – just as well for them (and their opponents) that nobody thought to empower the electoral commission to police the truth of claims made!
Equally strange is the claim that AV will help the BNP. In fact it will reduce the chances of smaller parties like the BNP, Greens or UKIP taking a seat – under FPTP they might be able to sneak in with 35% now and again, but it will be harder for them to get 50% or close to it. As a curious aside, although the BNP leadership advocates a no vote, their voters are overwhelmingly inclined to vote yes according to polling.
Thirdly, the no campaign claim there will be more hung parliaments under AV. Technically this is true, but not by much: certainly claiming it will become routine is scaremongering. As with so much else in the debate, other political factors are far more significant to the likelihood of a hung parliament: if the Lib Dems don’t recover from their current slump, we would appear to be heading into a new era of two party dominance, which makes hung parliaments under either or AV or FPTP far less likely over the medium term.
Myths about AV: the ‘yes’ camp
Many of the myths peddled by the yes campaign are not so much calculated fiction as spectacular misreadings of the likely working of AV, were it to be introduced. First on this list, and perhaps the most interesting aspect of the whole issue, is the question of safe seats.
The yes campaign claim that AV will have the effect of “tackling ‘jobs for life’” by forcing “complacent MP” to “sit up and listen, and reach out to the communities they seek to represent.” Well, MPs with safe seats will usually have at least getting on for 50% of the vote already (64% of MPs have 44% of the vote locally or more) and are therefore overwhelmingly likely to nudge over 50% with ease under AV, and many of them (a third of all MPs) have a clear majority – surely these are just the MPs that advocates of AV should be most in favour of? Certainly these MPs don’t need to reach out any further to their communities – they already enjoy considerable support from it, and will not be under any risk from AV.
Now, there are certainly some seats where the MP might be fairly comfortable under FPTP, but not especially close to 50% – certainly in those seats the contests will be a bit closer. But I’d be willing to bet there are not that many of them (I wasn’t able to find any readily accessible analysis on this – happy to be pointed towards some). Moreover, there is a trade-off: under FPTP, even a large majority can be overhauled – no MP, even superficially safe ones, can count themselves safe and neglect their constituency. Michael Portillo is always cited of course, but there have been plenty of examples since then: one thinks of Lorely Burt overturning a 10,000 majority in Solihull in 2005, or Lembit Opik losing what should have been a safe seat after (I understand) a somewhat complacent reluctance to campaign locally. Challengers who eject apparently safe MPs usually do it by grabbing some of the sitting MP’s vote and reducing splits in the anti-incumbent vote, but the margins are often tight – in these seats, getting over the 50% mark will be too big an ask for many of these challengers.
Connected to this, I wonder if there will be an increase in the incumbency effect under AV. It’s a well-documented phenomenon of British general elections that MPs amass a personal vote: a sitting MP will attract more votes than a fresh candidate of the same party standing in the same seat would be able to. I suspect – and I’d be grateful to be pointed towards any literature on this point – that under AV many voters might not like a sitting MP’s party, but will be willing to give them a second or third (etc.) preference vote because they feel they have done well for the locality – perhaps a friend or relative approached them for help, or they opened their child’s primary school fete and so on – all the kinds of thing an incumbent can do to build their personal support, but that a challenger cannot.
Combine these factors and it may even be that fewer seats change hands under AV than would under FPTP on the same swing (again, pointers to authoritative literature for or against this suggestion are welcomed).
Similar considerations apply to the yes campaign’s claim that MPs will have to “work harder”. The seats in which a candidate has to work hardest to win is a tight marginal, where the winner might only get 30-odd per cent of the vote – yet this is also a scenario that the yes campaign claims is objectionable.
Looking further at the only ‘yes’ leaflet I’ve so far received, the headline attempts to suggest that what they suggest is a broader political malaise can be remedied by introducing AV. “Expenses scandal” says the top line. This has been looked into, however: there is no correlation between margins of victory or safeness of seat and the size of an MP’s expenses claim.
“MPs in the dock” continues the leaflet. If AV somehow prevents individuals from acting criminally, I must have misunderstood how it works. “Your voice not being heard” it concludes. See above re safe seats.
Finally, while I’m not sure the official yes campaign has claimed this, I’ve been struck by Nick Clegg claiming (I think repeatedly, though it might just have been reported multiple times with a bit of an interval) that AV is operating successfully in the London mayoral elections. It isn’t – those elections use the Supplementary Vote. Though from the other side of the debate, none other than Boris Johnson has made the same error.
Matters of taste
If there is a yes vote, let me emphasise I won’t be terribly upset (and not nearly as upset as the opinion pollsters, who are predicting a decisive no vote); nor will I be especially jubilant if the result is no. It really doesn’t matter very much. None of which is to say that there isn’t a difference between AV and FPTP. But it’s a marginal one, no more than swapping a Jack of Spades for a Jack of Clubs – certainly not the decisive gulf that both camps would have you believe exists between the systems.
Firstly, it is true that AV makes it harder for smaller parties and independents to get a seat in the Commons. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Well, it’s a matter of taste – there might be something to be said, depending on your politics, for shutting out Dr Richard Taylor, the BNP or the Greens, but for my money the presence of smaller voices enriches British politics (usually).
It’s also true to say AV is more complicated than FPTP, though in the grand scheme of things it’s really not that tricky to get to grips with. Good thing or bad thing? I’d say there’s nothing wrong with adding a bit of complexity if there’s a clear reason for doing so… there just isn’t one of them, as we’ve seen.
Perhaps most significant for me is the question of second, third, fourth etc. preferences having equal weight with first preferences – it makes me uneasy, instinctively. I’m also uneasy about the fact that you can’t tell when you cast your vote whose column it will end up in. What happens if you cast a first preference vote for the candidate who ends up third, but a second preference for the eventual winner… who nonetheless wins without requiring the redistributed votes of Mr Third Place? Has your vote been ‘wasted’ even though you’ve got a candidate you were happy with? AV brings every bit as much potential for peculiarities and anomalies as FPTP.
That’s quite enough of that
There is much else one could discuss – the desirability or otherwise of hung parliaments, for instance. But I think this post is long enough already. I’ll finish by asking whether changing one aspect of general elections can ever be especially sensible – as we’ve seen, it will inevitably have consequences for the nature of the government and House of Commons we end up with, and while the consequences of the shift to AV would be minor, a shift to a proportional system could be much more significant. If we do want to reform general elections, we should be looking in the round at the whole structure of the relationship between the executive, the legislature and how we translate votes cast into one or both of these. Tinkering solely with one element such as the electoral system is, I can’t help but think, the Frank Spencer approach to constitutional reform.
But finally, as promised, here’s MJ Hibbett arguing the case for change: