AV or not AV: that is the question no-one's asking
After a tortuous period of deal-brokering behind closed doors, the Coalition has largely settled in to government. This may not be the ideal state of affairs from a Conservative standpoint, but the recent Lib Dem poll slump has had the serendipitous effect of binding the party to any Conservative-inspired policies or decisions, irrespective of their popularity. Yet almost as widely covered as the coalition agreement itself was the announcement that Cameron had conceded a referendum on electoral reform to the Lib Dems. On May 5th 2011, we will therefore be asked whether we wish to change the method by which we elect our representatives. In this article I intend to spark the debate by making the case against such change.
In seeking to contest the wisdom of ushering in the Alternative Vote (AV) electoral system, I do not wish to convey the impression that I see no case for electoral reform whatsoever. Whilst firmly of the belief that the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system is intrinsically suited to the Westminster model, arguments for increased proportionality and a more amiable, collaborative dynamic between the major parties are legitimate, and have their place in any sensible discussion surrounding electoral reform. The problem lies, however, with those who attempt to portray the Alternative Vote system as a paragon of adaptation; the answer to all the flaws inherent within FPTP. This perspective, as I hope to demonstrate, rests entirely upon dubious logic.
The Electoral Reform Society, in making their case for AV, use a phrase which recapitulates this: it is their claim that the proposed reforms “represent a logical progression” from the current system. This seems a strange choice of wording; straight away, all those who are thinking of voting ‘no’ in May are ‘illogical’ by default. The Society goes on to assert that AV will ensure that “all MPs have a real mandate” in future elections, the implication being that under FPTP MPs do not sufficiently reflect the will of the electorate.
Yet if enhancing the proportionality of the system is their concern, it is difficult to see why it is AV and not some form of proportional representation which is being propounded as the solution. In the electoral aftermath, the Guardian published the ERS’s own data which showed that, had the 2010 election been conducted under AV, the proportion of seats would have been remarkably similar (though perhaps crucially with a slight increase in Lib Dem support). Fundamentally, it would have still given the largest number of seats to the Conservatives within the context of a hung parliament, with negligible gains for any party outside the ‘big three’. If linking vote share to seat numbers in a fairer manner is truthfully the purpose of reform, then why not the Northern Irish-style Single Transferrable Vote, under which minority parties would see genuine gains?
Even if - as Nick Clegg professed earlier in the year – the biggest change that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill (and the associated referendum) would institute would be to erode the concept of ‘safe seats’, there are ways of achieving this without obliterating a system which has delivered strong and stable government for generations. The government’s ideas surrounding recall mechanisms, or even the increased use of local referenda, would allow for transparency and legitimacy to permeate those seats in which incumbent ministers face little incentive to enact the will of their constituents. In looking to demonstrate the futility of AV in giving those elected to office a more legitimate mandate, the recent Australian general election serves as a stern warning. The Liberal/National Coalition led the contest on first preferences. They even led on second preferences. However it was Labor who came out of the negotiations as the party of government. The Miliband saga, in which a majority of MPs and Labour Party members backed the losing brother, only serves to accentuate the injustices inherent in the AV system.
Arising from this is that which I consider to be the Alternative Vote’s most innate flaw. It is certainly true to say that the system is no more representative or proportional than the current system and certainly not the most effective way of increasing accountability in safe seats. But above all else, AV fails to make an imperative distinction: the choice between the most liked and the least hated is not the same thing. Under FPTP, for all its flaws, the winning candidate will always command the highest share of the vote; namely, he or she will always be the candidate expressly preferred by the greatest number of people. It may not always be 50%, but it will always be genuine, first-degree approval. Conversely, the situation under AV (with the reallocation of preferences from eliminated candidates) permits candidates to be elected if they are at least vaguely approved of. As Matthew Elliott of the Telegraph argues, “candidates will win, not by being the most popular, but by being the least disliked”.
Amidst the interminable barrage of words from the ‘yes’ campaign in the coming months, it will be almost too easy to come to view the introduction of AV as the policy of a third party seeking to enact one of its key manifesto pledges. Yet when taking to the polling stations next May, remember that the policy was nowhere to be found in the Lib Dem manifesto. Remember that Clegg, in the run-up to the election, sought only genuine proportional representation, denouncing AV as “a miserable little compromise”. But above all else, remember that this is nothing more than the fallout from Gordon Brown’s death-bed conversion to electoral reform in a cynical attempt to woo the Lib Dems and thus prolong his tenure.
The Conservatives had to offer it; the Lib Dems had to take it. Neither wanted it.
And it is we who face being left with it.