Thursday 5 May 2011

I voted #yes2av

I wanted to inform you that I voted Yes to the Alternative Vote system on the UK election reform referendum today. My reasons are two-fold, which I will explain in detail. First, I want parties to work together in Parliament. Second, I want MPs to have to work harder for their constituents. I have gathered together my thoughts on this rather late, I'm afraid. By the time you read this we will likely have been told the referendum returned a negative result. That's a shame, because I really think it would have changed British politics for the better. If you already understand how AV is meant to work, you can skip the explanation and go on to paragraph 2. AV is not such a complicated animal as some in the NO camp would have you believe, nor is it an inversion of democratic principles. It is really quite simple. In a general election a voter may provide not only his/her first choice but may also list alternate choices in order of preference. A voter may choose anywhere from zero to the maximum number of alternates from the pool of candidates. A candidate standing for a seat in the House of Commons must receive at least 50% of the total votes returned in their constituency in order to claim victory. In the event that there is no majority, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and all remaining second choice votes are tallied and assigned. This process repeats with third choices, etc until either a candidate has a majority or all votes have been tallied.

This proposed system has been much maligned by the supporters of the current First Past The Post system, who claim among things that it would turn losers into winners. I think that the critics who are honest about it are perhaps failing to think the process through to its logical conclusion, instead thinking in terms of the numbers that are seen under the current system. The current system of FPTP is admittedly simpler. All votes are tallied and the one candidate who receives the most votes is the clear winner. When there are only two viable candidates this is perfectly fine. However, when there are several candidates who are likely to garner significant proportions of the vote, the voter must think carefully about his/her vote. Where there is little prospect that one's preferred candidate will win the election, one is tempted to use one's vote tactically by voting instead for the perceived lesser of two evils. In a so-called safe seat, the candidate representing one party is expected to win the most votes, probably by a significant margin; however, depending on the field this may be well short of an overall majority. What we end up with in a safe seat is a candidate selected based on his/her appeal to the core of the party. When this candidate is inevitably elected, we find that the majority of the constituents who did not choose that candidate feel disenfranchised.

Under AV, we would likely see candidates selected not solely on the basis of their party appeal but also for their broad appeal to the constituency. In other words, the leading party candidate would be chosen with a view to capturing an overall majority or close to it. Moderation is favoured over strong ideology. This is a victory over tribalism and can only be a good thing. Since candidates need to consider how voters from other parties might choose alternates, it is to their advantage to have the broadest appeal. On the other hand, it is to their disadvantage to engage in dirty campaign tactics as voters from other parties would not be impressed by this. This improves the tenor of politics, which again can only be a good thing. When the more moderate candidate is installed in Westminster, we can expect that he or she will be more willing than the ideologue to work with members of other parties in order to draft important legislation, lest he/she risk alienating the cross party constituents that gave favourable alternate votes. This, combined with the fact that there would likely be fewer safe seats and therefore more hung Parliaments, ought to promote cross party cooperation. Again, this can only be a good thing. We should not be afraid of hung Parliaments and coalition governments. The nature of coalitions would change if the aforementioned changes happened. In Germany, where proportional representation is the model, it is simply taken for granted that the government will be a coalition. There is nothing at all wrong with this. It is highly democratic. AV could well move Britain away from petty tribal politics and towards a healthier political ecosystem. When voters feel that their votes are not wasted, that there is a good chance they will get at least some of what they want, hopefully they will then become more engaged. It is an iterative and organic process and it has to start somewhere.

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