In my earlier posts on the alternative vote (AV) in advance of the forthcoming referendum, I have focused on the positive case for the reform, and considered some of the practical consequences. Now it’s time to consider some of the arguments being put forward by people advising us to vote No, in support of first-past-the-post (FPTP).
The leading argument from the No camp, to judge by the reporting on the BBC, is that AV undermines the principle of one person one vote. Partly this argument is used simply to confuse matters, alongside the idea that AV is complicated. But the more serious point is that idea that people who vote for candidates who are eliminated get another go, so it seems like they get a bonus. Meanwhile, as my local Conservative leaflet puts it: “This means that supporters of the major parties, the Conservative Party and the Labour party, will not have their votes counted more than once”. This is a candy floss argument that disappears if you try to think about it. AV is in effect a succession of run-off elections, with the loser of each election being eliminated between each round. The voters of the top two parties are counted in every vote, without their votes needing to be transferred. Far from being disadvantaged, they are setting the agenda.
But this argument leads to a more subtle one. Voters of the eliminated candidates influence the outcome, and these voters are less deserving. This is endlessly backed up by a quote from Winston Churchill that AV would give power to “the most worthless votes for the most worthless candidates.” A group of prominent historians were somehow persuaded sign a letter to The Times in support of the No vote, that managed to put this quote alongside the argument that AV undermined “one man, one vote”. We can summarize this juxtaposition so: “FPTP means one man, one vote as long as you are not worthless.” Supporters of AV argue that it is precisely the principle of one person, one vote that means that we must count the views of people who initially back less popular candidates. Even if they support the BNP. Far too much has been said about the BNP in this debate already; the BNP does not support AV for reasons that I talked about in my last post on AV.
There are rather better No arguments on offer, though you rarely hear them. Brendan O’Neill of Spiked offers two. The first is that AV will tend to promote insipid middle of the road candidates. He doesn’t try to justify this claim very hard, but I think the argument goes like this: when making their choices voters will put less offensive candidates above ones that are more offensive to them. That means that major parties with a real chance of winning a seat have an interest in selecting inoffensive candidates. A conservative candidate, for example, will be trying to pick up second preferences from both UKIP and Lib Dems; Labour candidates will be after the Lib Dems too, and the Greens and any fringe left candidates, as well as hoping for some of the UKIP votes; this might be done simply by being less offensive than your main rival. But it is hard to make the case that this is any more true under AV than FPTP, where the major parties fight hard for these voters’ one and only vote on the basis that only the top two parties count. Also if a candidate is too insipid voters won’t preference them at all. There is a more strategic argument too: FPTP suppresses spoiler candidates (i.e. breakaways from the major parties) because by standing these candidates might simply let the real enemy in. If it is more likely that major party candidates will be challenged by breakaways, as would be the case under AV, won’t politics become more dynamic? Mr O’Neill spoils his own argument by praising the spikiness of Australian politicians, which he puts down to compulsory voting. But since Australia uses AV, this shows that at worst AV is not much of problem on this front. Australian politics is full of challenges by independent candidates, many of them successful; AV helps them. (Incidentally there is an interesting analysis of the impact of AV in recent Queensland and New South Wales state elections here, important because they use the same system that is being proposed in the UK, rather than the full preferential system used in Australian federal elections.)
But Mr O’Neill also fields a much stronger, if less tangible, argument for FPTP, which comes close to the real reason why most ordinary No voters are going that way. FPTP is simple, direct and dramatic. The voter focuses his or her mind on making a single, dramatic choice. The votes are counted and the election resolved in a very clear process. This strengthens the bond between the system and the ordinary voter. AV is by no means a complicated system, but it does reduce the immediacy and drama of the process. Is this enough to tolerate the problems of FPTP, with the power it gives to unaccountable party machines? I say no. And if it was, I would replace FPTP with a system of run-offs, like they use in France and Italy, which have the best of both worlds, but are much more expensive.
Which leaves me with the real reason that major party establishment types want a No vote. FPTP makes it very hard for rebels in their own ranks to challenge the officially selected candidate, for fear of letting the opposition in. AV makes it much easier for party rebels. Candidate selection processes are subject to heavy influence from party hierarchies and give the established order real power over our political system. Now, ask yourself, is that a good reason why ordinary voters should vote No? Ed Milliband is very brave to see through this to wish for a more democratic political process, and support the Yes campaign. He is consistently under-estimated by the politicos that dominate what passes for political debate in Britain. It will be good for the country if he wins this vote.