It is easy enough to see why Nick Clegg supports introduction of the alternative vote for elections to the House of Commons. All the indications are that it would make it much easier for the Lib Dems to retain the parliamentary seats they currently hold – and they could well need all the help they can get after jumping into bed with a Tory party that seems intent on crashing the economy just as it did in the 1980s.
Why anyone apart from Clegg and his party should want AV is, however, something of a mystery. AV would do nothing to address the major flaws in the first-past-the-post system we currently use for Westminster elections, which are its gross disproportionality and its concomitant tendency to turn general election campaigns into battles for the votes of a few hundred thousand wavering voters in a hundred of so marginal seats. And AV might make these flaws worse.
AV is not, repeat not, proportional representation. It is not even a step towards it. It is the electoral system used in Australia for the House of Representatives, in which voters in single-member constituencies rank candidates on the ballot paper in order of preference (1, 2, 3, 4 etc) rather than putting a single “X” next to their first choice as we do in first-past-the-post elections in the UK. If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of first preferences, the second preferences of the candidate with the lowest number of first preferences are redistributed. The process is then repeated until one candidate reaches 50 per cent plus one of votes cast.
AV has two superficial attractions over FPTP. Every winning candidate under AV can claim to have the support (however grudgingly faute de mieux) of a majority of his or her constituents; and AV makes the practice of tactical voting much less of a guessing game for voters. A UKIP supporter in a Tory-Labour marginal who prefers the Tories to Labour, for example, would be able under AV to vote “UKIP 1, Conservative 2” with a reasonable level of confidence that the second preference would count rather than, as now, having to decide whether or not to put an “X” next to the Tory candidate’s name for fear of letting Labour in by “wasting” a vote on UKIP.
But there are downsides even to these attractions. Is a candidate in a three-way AV contest who wins by 51 per cent to 49 per cent with the help of second preferences, having trailed 46-29 on first preferences, more democratically legitimate than someone who wins a three-way FPTP contest 46-29-25? Why should your second choice have the same weight as my first choice?
AV encourages the worst kind of lowest-denominator politics – every marginal contest is a sordid scurry to be everyone’s second choice – and, partly because of this, it delivers more ludicrous landslides than FTPT whenever one political party is no one’s second choice despite having a solid core of first choices. Labour was massacred in 1983 under FPTP: it would have been worse under AV. Ditto the Tories in 1997.
Sorry, but this is a farce. FPTP is crap – but so is AV. We are going to be asked to choose between the two, if the government has its way, in a referendum next May. The choice is an insult. If the referendum bill cannot be amended to include a genuinely proportional third option, reformers should spoil their ballots in the referendum by scrawling “AV is not PR” across their papers.
UPDATE 29 JULY
The government's proposed question for the referendum on the voting system has been released:
Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the 'alternative vote' system instead of the current 'first past the post' system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?Put that way, I'll withdraw my plea for supporters of proportional representation to spoil their votes. Just vote no.
Cross-posted from Gauche