Thursday, 31 March 2011

What's the Alternative?

In case you haven't heard (and apologies to my American readers), there is a referendum on 5th May to decide whether or not to change the UK voting system to the Alternative Vote (AV). I've been asking friends and acquaintances what they think and I'm surprised at how few understand what the vote is really about and what's at stake.
Which means, of course, that it's time for a post.
The first problem is that the referendum is happening at the same time as several other votes which seems to be confusing people. One person I spoke to thought the polling card they received was "only for the local council and I can't be bothered with that."
Not true - and when I explained there was also a referendum of national importance on the same day it was the first time they'd heard about it. Somehow this referendum hasn't captured public attention, and that's worrying because the issue at stake affects all of us. This is a crucial vote - if the outcome is 'Yes' then all future elections will use the Alternative Vote and our current system will be tossed into the dustbin of history. And if the result is 'No' then, to quote one commentator, "that will finish voting reform for a generation".
What difference will this make to us? What is the Alternative Vote? Who is promoting it, and why?
If you don't know, read on.
Our current system is 'first past the post' and the name describes it well. Every voter has one vote and can vote for just one candidate - the one they think most worthy of their support. All the votes get counted up and the candidate with the most votes wins.
As the eponymous Meerkat would say, "Simples!"
Critics of the system, however, say that if you vote for a minority candidate your vote is effectively wasted; since your candidate can never win, your voice never gets heard. And when you multipy that up across all the seats in the country, the party that 'wins' might do so without the support of the genuine majority of all those who voted. There was plenty of argument on those lines after the last election gave us the first hung parliament since 1974. (Some, of course, think parliament ought to be hung, particularly after the expenses crisis, but that's another story).
By contrast, under the Alternative Vote you don't select one candidate but rank all the candidates in order of preference, your favourite gets '1', your second choice '2' and so on. If the top candidate gets over 50% of the votes cast, they win and that's the end of it. If they don't, the funny business starts. Since the top candidate got less than 50%, the lowest-scoring candidate is eliminated (since they clearly can't win), and the votes of those who ranked that candidate first get re-examined. The second-place choices of all those people then get allocated to the remaining candidates to see if that puts any of them up to 50%. If it does, that candidate wins. If it doesn't, then the votes for the next lowest candidate get reallocated and so on until somebody wins.
The Yes campaign say that makes AV fairer and reduces the number of safe seats by forcing candidates to appeal to a wider cross-section of the voters than just their traditional core support. They also say the AV removes the need for tactical voting by freeing voters to honestly express their preferences in the knowledge their vote will never be wasted.
I have several problems with this.
Firstly, it's too complex. Anyone can put an 'X' beside the candidate of their choice, but having to number candidates in order of preference will be too off-putting for some. Must I number them all? Can't I just choose one? Can I pick my first, second and third and leave the others blank? Or should I just give up altogether and not bother? Actually, you can choose just one - but only if you mark the candidate with a '1'. If you put an 'X', your vote won't be counted.
What a mess.
Secondly, since I live in a 'safe' seat where the candidate of my choice never stands a chance, my vote under this new system is almost certain to help elect someone who is only my second, or even third, choice. How wonderful is that? At least under the current system my vote, although 'wasted', genuinely expresses my preference. Under AV it gets redirected to elect someone I rated only second best, and yet they have the gall to tell me that's better. I'm afraid I'm with David Cameron on this one: "When it comes to our democracy, Britain shouldn't have to settle for anyone's second choice." (Vote referendum: Clegg v Cameron, by Brian Wheeler, BBC News, 18 February 2011).
And thirdly, introducing AV will clearly benefit the smaller parties - which is why you'll find most of them in favour of it. The Liberal Democrats have never yet managed to win a majority under the current system or even come close, so from many elections across many years it's clear that their policies - voting reform included - simply haven't been attractive enough to the British people. Yet due to an accident of fate here they are, and their prize for getting a share in government is the chance to drink from their personal holy grail - to change the voting system to one that favours them more in the future. Now why, do you suppose, they might want to do that? Is it to reform democracy and make things fairer for the voter? Is it to usher in a nobler age of "new politics"? No, I fear it's actually old politics at it's cynically-motivated worst - politicians once again furthering their own interests and using the electorate to do it. Sorry, my Right Honourable friends, but in this case I strongly suspect the emperor has no clothes...
The key question, though, is what do you think? And will you turn out on May 5th to express that opinion? You ought to - it's your vote, after all, and that's what this referendum is all about.

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