Referendum Day approaches and the polls are tightening. The public at large has yet to show much interest, but the referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) is an important event in our political history. Yet nobody can be surprised that the quality of public debate is abysmal. If the arguments put forward by the Yes campaign, desperate not to lose people in technical detail, look a little weak, those of the No campaign seem like a calculated assault on our intelligence. The campaign is being fought on emotions: natural British conservatism pitted against the feeling that our current system is part of a stitch-up perpetrated by the political establishment on the people. I hope this post lifts the level of debate a fraction.
Not that I want to deny the importance of emotions in making decisions like this. I will start with mine. My views about proportional representation (PR) have fluctuated a bit over time; but my views on AV, from the beginning political consciousness in the 1970s, have always been in favour. First past the post (FPTP) is an outrage; a primitive system that belongs to the age of rotten boroughs and not a modern democracy. AV is an elegant answer to its most egregious features, and the one that is most appropriate to the British culture.
We start with the system of single member constituencies. This is embedded deeply into the British political culture, though I do not regard it as sacred. This carries with it the idea that an MP represents her whole constituency, not just the party and voters that put her there. This is indeed what most MPs claim to think. But if the election is contested by more than two candidates with broad appeal then the process rapidly degenerates into farce and the winner can be elected on quite a small minority of votes. You need a degree in game theory to make your you are voting for the right candidate. This is so obviously wrong that in most elections for an executive office, where you choose one candidate from a diverse field, the system has been abandoned, if it was ever used – from small societies up to presidents of countries, and even Mayoral elections in the UK. The job of an MP is a serious job, and surely exactly the same logic applies to them as to the London Mayor or the Leader of the Conservative Party.
And that should be enough. But the consequential results of the system don’t make it any better. As this video using animals explains, the system soon resolves into a two party system. Any candidate who wants to challenge the party machine and stand against the official candidate usually fails, and worse, lets in the candidate from the opposing party. So a lot of the process of democratic choice is handled by two party machines which do not have a strong incentive to be democratic themselves, for example in the way they select candidates. Of course, if you are a party machine politician you are inclined to think that this is a wonderful political system, but it is fundamentally undemocratic. It is quite clear from the declining combined vote share of the Labour and Conservative parties that the British are losing confidence in the two party system.
So what is the solution? PR is popular, but brings with it plenty of problems of its own which are not directly relevant to the debate. If you support PR the risk of voting No is that a No result is likely to kill the question of electoral reform for generations. The Americans have developed a system of primary elections, which have the effect of undermining the party machines and making them more democratic. It has the major virtue of making all safe seats competitive. The odd Tory proposes it for the UK. A second alternative is to stage run-off elections in seats where there is no overall winner – the French system. Both these systems require a second full-scale public election. They both have the advantage of simplicity: electors make a single choice at each election – the most attractive aspect of FPTP. But two elections mean doubling up the cost, and campaigning costs in the US system are astronomical, giving rich candidates a big advantage. And they both seem un-British. They require a more prolonged period political campaigning. The British like the drama of a competitive General Election (such as last year), but quickly tire of the electoral process. And anyway, neither system is being offered to us in the referendum.
Which leaves AV. This is a built-in run-off system, requiring voters to think ahead about how they would vote if there was a run-off. It loses the simplicity and immediacy of the single decision, but the whole process is decided in a single, easily comprehensible process in a day. How quickly the British would take to it is less clear (we can guarantee that the political parties’ campaigns will try to confuse the picture rather then help explain it), but they would get used to it eventually. It has settled down well enough in Australia, a country that has a very similar attitude to politics to Britain, though its effects there are difficult to disentangle from those of compulsory voting. Incidentally, the suggestion made by David Cameron that polls show that Australians would prefer to move back to FPTP does not stand up to close examination. What many Australians in fact dislike is being forced to mark a preference against all candidates for their vote to be valid – and we are not proposing that in the UK. In Australia AV has not undermined the two party system, as it happens, but it has surely made the two main parties more sensitive to the risks of breakaway groups and so more democratic themselves. Australia’s parliamentarians are a quirky, spiky lot – the sort of people to hold an executive to account, even if it is often not a pretty sight. All in all AV is a beautiful British compromise and I will be voting for it.
I will look at other arguments in the AV debate in later posts. This one is long enough!