The battle over the Alternative Vote has been waged with the gusto and precision of a professional wrestling match; punches have been thrown as opponents jeer from across the ring, but after every round politicians turn to rest without so much as hurt feelings. AV does not get the passions of the nation pumping, it does not impart revolutionary hopes of a brighter, more democratic future; frankly, it barely sparks interest. This is for a simple reason: the British public do not care about AV.
First Past the Post is not faultless; whether you have been offended by the coalition’s formation, startled by the small margins with which MPs win their seats or shocked by the laziness of MPs, we can all say that First Past the Post has robbed us of justice in one way or another. Indeed, if there were a voting system which could remedy all of these complaints and provide voters with a proportional but fully functional government, a referendum would be of far more interest. However, AV is not the problem-solving system we are searching for. It will not rid the world of unpredictable coalitions, MPs with small support bases or laziness.
AV has been shown to promote the interests of smaller parties, creating the need for coalitions much like our current, much loved and admired government. Coalitions, that is, without sturdy manifestos, without a clear and decisive party line with which the opposition may argue, and without any policy coherence. Coalitions allow parties to break pledges in the name of cooperation, meaning that, as those who marched in December know, parties create a blame game with no accountability.
Looking to small margins, the aim of AV is to ensure that all MPs need at least 50% of votes in order to win their seats, a result which few MPs can currently claim to have gained. However, this is only guaranteed to be true if all voters rank every candidate, a practise which is not only improbable but counterproductive. The claim that all MPs should have 50% of the vote stems from the idea that each vote is worth the same amount, but surely, to paraphrase Churchill, this means only the most meaningless votes, reallocated the greatest number of times, are used to meet the quota.
This is all electoral maths really; the value of votes can be counted in any way. The real issue is a view which has never been put more succinctly than by my mother- “I don’t want to vote for anyone else”. How is it that AV campaigners can claim that voters will be more informed and make considered choices when AV goes against all principles of decisive voting? When my mum, now taken as the paradigm of British democracy, takes to the polls, she weighs up her options votes for the person she thinks will do the best job. She does not want anyone else. There is no reason that the second vote of someone who has failed to make a viable first choice should count against her guided and decisive political wisdom.
Finally, look to the claim that AV will make MPs work harder, a claim forced home by endless political broadcasts of normal, approachable voters, whose megaphone-wielding and vaguely stalker-ish activities hold their lacklustre and wasteful MP to account. It’s true that some MPs have well-earned reputations for their inability to listen to constituents or read expenses laws, but it is not true of everyone. MPs work up to 80 hour weeks, travelling, dealing with claims from all constituents regardless of their first, second or third preference votes, and visiting village fetes in between. Most MPs work hard. Most MPs respect their constituents. Most MPs would not need to change their ways under AV, and those that would could just as easily be voted out by organised opposition under First Past the Post.
After aggravating the problems of First Past the Post, would AV actually be able to help budge Britain towards a more proportional system? Well, maybe. To answer that would not only be to predict the outcome of the referendum but also the actions of governments of the future. It may be that AV would succeed, vote in a government who owe their support to the system and create a rush to make it even harder to form an effective government, or it may be that AV would remain as the “miserable little compromise” that the British voters supported, a stranded half-step even further from proportionality. The most compelling argument for AV is that it is the chance to vote for a change, any change, it may prompt more change; but, in the words of James Wharton, a Conservative MP, “it’s a chance to vote for the wrong change”.
So, rather than continue the wrestling match, exchanging petty insults and dodging half-hearted jabs we should throw the deciding punches. AV is not proportional, it’s unpredictable, it devalues first preferences and it does not ensure more change; that’s why the British public do not care about AV. I only hope that May 5th will provide the knock-out.