AV: Is it the Answer? Is it even the Question?

This May voters will be asked a fundamental constitutional question. Yes or no to AV? Prior to this piece I had no preferences on the matter and I was in the rare position of having a completely open mind. I decided to approach this question based mainly on the Electoral Commission’s independent guide to the referendum[i]. From this leaflet I have developed some brief autonomous views on the proposal.

The 2010 general election exposed the frailties of the first past the post system. The majority of voters (52%) were in favour of the Lib Dem and Labour policy to stimulate growth in the economy and cut the deficit over a longer period. A minority (36%) voted for the Conservative program to tackle the deficit straight away. The latter prevailed against the wishes of the majority[ii].

The alternative vote takes into account a greater proportion of constituents’ votes to determine the outcome of an election. It ultimately provides the winning candidate with a stronger mandate. This seems to be a much fairer and more democratic arrangement.

By counting the second votes of each losing party in the order of elimination, candidates would be wise to appeal to a wider range of political convictions. This is dependent on each constituency’s political composition. It could result in an even heavier dose of realpolitik populist sentiment being injected into our democracy. Candidates will try to engage instrumental minority parties, whose preferences could then determine the outcome of an election. A shallow dilution of nominees’ core ideological beliefs could be a potential outcome. This could be seen as a positive. MPs would address the issues of a wide range of constituents rather than the old party faithful. It could also lead to stagnant middle ground politics or even overtures to the far right or left. In my own constituency of Dagenham & Rainham the third party was the BNP with 11.2% of the vote[iii]. This significant percentage suggests that these voters’ second preferences could have been instrumental in deciding the 2010 result.

Party politics can also decide your approval or objection to the referendum. Various parties could be damaged or benefit from this change which makes this system both attractive and undesirable for partisan reasons. To this end we could follow our own party allegiances but the long-term impact is far too important to let short-term self-interest determine where your vote lies.

I do not claim to be an expert on this issue and have merely cast a brief impartial eye over AV. There is no question that there is scope for greater fairness in our electoral system but I am not sure AV is the answer we are looking for. Nevertheless if the referendum results in a ‘no’ vote this issue will be buried for another generation. AV could be the start. A ‘yes’ result could spur the debate on to fairer reforms but there is no guarantee that this will be the case. Do we play safe and retain an imperfect but secure system or do we take a leap of faith in the pursuit of something better. That is the question.

T.Southall

April 2011


[i] (The Electoral Commission, 2011)

[iii] (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/election2010/results/constituency/b29.stm)

Bibliography

The Electoral Commission. (2011) ‘Local elections and referendum on the voting system used to elect MPs to the House of Commons’.

Where they stand’ (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/election_2010/8515961.stm?subject=economy#subject=economy&col1=conservative&col2=labour&col3=libdem) (Accessed 20th April 2011).

BBC Election 2010’ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/election2010/results/constituency/b29.stm (Accessed 17th April 2011).

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