Why I’m voting ‘Yes’ to AV

The AV referendum is probably going to be our last chance to express a view on how to choose our MPs for quite some time.  I can’t see the issue coming back for about 20 years.  So if you’re concerned about our democracy (or, indeed, if you’re delighted with it the way it is), the vote on 5 May is a crucial one.

Whichever side wins, one MP will still continue to represent each local area; whichever side wins, the voting system will be almost equally likely to deliver majority governments.  We’re being asked, instead, which of two options is the fairer way of choosing our (single) local MP.

On that basis, in the full knowledge that the question here is AV versus FPTP and independently of the chances of any further reform, I’m hoping for a ‘Yes’ vote – and for what they’re worth, here are my main reasons:

1. With AV, a local MP will better reflect local people’s views

AV will make sure your MP’s views are nearer the real centre of gravity in your local area – and prevent a cohesive minority, who don’t really reflect most people’s views, from taking over instead.

For instance, imagine a seat where the Conservatives win 35% of the vote, Labour win 30%, the Greens win 25% and the Liberal Democrats and Socialists both win 5%.  Leave aside the fact that the Tories only got 35% of the vote: as a matter of pure common sense, looking at the political consensus in this area, would a Tory victory really be a fair reflection of how most people voted?  It would be the same if Labour won 35%, the Tories won 30%, UKIP won 25% and the Lib Dems and English Democrats both won 5%.  In both cases, FPTP delivers the seat to a party who is strongly opposed by most voters: AV would fix that.

2. With AV, no citizen will have to fear voting for their real first choice and getting their last instead

A general election should be your chance to weigh up what different parties offer, look at local candidates and make an honest statement of preference.  It’s the only chance you get to express your opinion on what kind of Britain you want and who you want in charge and, hopefully, have some bearing on the outcome.

But for too many people, elections have stopped being an expression of belief and become a glorified game of chess.  Keeping the enemy out becomes the only aim: voting ceases to function as an expressive act, a positive endorsement, and starts to be a defensive (often grudging) manoeuvre.  And people who might have voted Green, Liberal Democrat or UKIP (or Labour or Conservative, for that matter) end up hiding their true colours and walking away from the polling booth feeling cheated.  This is no way to run a democracy.

3. AV will make our political system a little more open

For better or worse, British voters have been gradually drifting away from the two largest parties.  Labour and the Conservatives barely won 65% of the total vote in 2010; in 1951, they won nearly 97%.  This has happened under a system which actively discourages voting for new parties.  At the last European election, Tory and Labour support fell as low as 43.4%.  Although I doubt we’d see figures quite that low in a general election, I do believe the current voting system is suppressing the real range of British public opinion.

There is an argument that the voting system should guard against a mass of tiny parties making the Commons unworkable: there’s not much of a democratic argument that it should try and stop any new political force from being given expression by the people.  But FPTP preserves our party system in aspic: and if we ever saw a real surge in popular opinion, the voting system would crush it.

We’ve got the proof from the 1980s.  The Liberal-SDP Alliance failed, but not because it couldn’t command mass support (25.4% of voters endorsed them even under FPTP) or because it had no credibility (the Gang of Four had all been Cabinet ministers).  Ultimately, people didn’t believe they could win and didn’t take the risk.  They might or might not have actually done so under AV: but if they had, an Alliance government’s economic policy would almost certainly have been a much better reflection of public opinion than Thatcher’s.  It is very hard to believe that democracy was well served by the actual outcome, whatever your politics.

4. AV will produce governments with a stronger democratic mandate

Even if you want majority governments, their declining electoral mandate ought to worry you – and AV can help there.  AV would, for instance, still have given Labour a majority in 2005.  But Liberal Democrat voters were pretty repelled by Michael Howard’s campaign: most of them would have ranked Labour above the Conservatives.  SNP and Plaid Cymru voters aren’t known for preferring Tory governments.  65% of people voted against Labour in 2005, but it’s almost certain that a majority of people preferred a Labour government to a Tory one: with AV, we’d have known that they did, and that broader (though, yes, less committed) support would have been expressed at the ballot box.

When we do get hung parliaments, we’ll also have a much better idea of what voters want their preferred party to do.  If Liberal Democrat voters in 2010 preferred a Labour-Lib Dem deal, we’d have known about it from their second (third, etc.) preferences: equally, we’d have a better idea of whether the country preferred a Cameron-led government from preference data.  With FPTP, we have no real way of knowing what voters want when no one wins outright: with AV, we do – and so politicians have fewer places to hide.

Finally …

Unless trends change radically, we can expect a number of things to happen under FPTP in the coming years.  MPs will be elected with ever lower levels of public support.  Governments will win majorities with smaller and smaller mandates from the voters – Labour’s 35.2% of the vote in 2005 could just be the start of things to come.  Whether we get a government in line, even roughly, with the people’s wishes will become more and more a matter of luck, electoral geography and how many parties split the vote on which part of the political spectrum.  And by the way, we’ll probably get a few more hung parliaments, whatever the voting system.

AV isn’t perfect and it won’t fix every problem.  But it’s a better and a fairer way of choosing our representatives than the one we’ve got.  MPs will have stronger mandates from their constituents – not a perfect mandate, not the whole-hearted support of everyone in their area, but a reasonably broad base of support in a multi-party system where voters can cast an honest preference.  Governments will rely on broader support than they do now – and because they’ll need to maintain (qualified) support from other parties’ voters, they’ll be wise to govern in a way which reflects that broader support.  And our political system will be better able to give big shifts in public opinion some form of expression, rather than just bottling them up.

If you want to be able to vote with your heart and your head at the same time; if you want governments to listen to a broad swathe of the people; if you want a politics which lets new people and new ideas into the debate: vote ‘Yes’ on Thursday.

If we get fairer votes, we need some better stats too

If AV is passed by referendum in a month’s time – which I hope it is – voters will be able to give much more information about their real preferences than they currently can.  That is, of course, the point: by giving second (and third, and so on) preferences, voters will no longer have to choose between heart and head.  They can choose both, all on one ballot paper.

Against that, ‘No’ campaigners pit the fear of more coalition governments.  I don’t accept the premise that these are a bad thing; better a compromise government, reflecting a plural electorate, than winner takes all on 35% of the vote.  But that’s an argument for another post; AV is perfectly capable of delivering majority governments, and in Australia it generally does.  In a British context, majority governments would be more legitimate, too: by allowing the expression of subsequent preferences, most governments would be shown to have a base of (partial) support extending well beyond their total share of first preferences.  The fact that most Liberal Democrat (and SNP and Plaid Cymru) voters preferred a Labour government to a Conservative one in 2005 would have been made explicit and measurable in second and third preferences: and Labour’s mandate would have looked much stronger as a result.

But even where AV produces hung parliaments, it will produce hung parliaments where the will of the electorate is made a little clearer. Looking at the spread of their voters’ preferences, the party or parties which held the balance would have a much clearer idea of which partner their voters would prefer; and if the second-placed party had a much wider support base among the electorate as a whole than the first-, we’d be much more likely to know about it. So an AV hung parliament would be more democratic than the FPTP version: it would be that bit clearer if a party defied the popular will and chose the ‘wrong’ coalition partner, and that bit easier to punish them later.

The Australian election of 2010 provided a good example of how AV can help clarify an unclear result.  A strong Green vote cut the Australian Labor Party’s voteshare down to 37%, well behind the Liberal/National Coalition’s 44%. But when the full preferences were tallied and allocated to one of the two major groupings, the ALP had 50.12% of the vote: a very small lead, but clear. When given a choice between the two options, the Australians’ voting system allowed the politicians to see which option they preferred. FPTP would have given no such clarity.

The slight snag is that, under British counting procedures, we might well not be given the information which AV creates and makes available. The Australians record the full preference data for their elections, allowing much more information to be gleaned from them – even if you vote for a leading party in your constituency and your other preferences never need to be used, they’re still kept on record. In Britain, by contrast, we tend to perform the minimum checks on our ballot papers compatible with making sure we get the right winner – which means that a lot of that preference data would probably be lost in our version of an AV count.  We wouldn’t necessarily get an equivalent of two-party-preferred voting data (in 2010 this would presumably involve a Labour-Conservative, Labour-Liberal Democrat and Liberal Democrat-Conservative analysis) here.

Technocratic though it sounds, the time could come when that information matters.  It matters because, when no one party has won power and politicians therefore have to strike bargains, this information leaves them with fewer places to hide.  A party whose voters split 70% in one direction but then went the other way in its choice of coalition partner would live to regret it: and they’d have been warned in advance, too.  But equally, if the people expressed a clear preference for one leading party or another overall, they’d still stand warned: and if they ignored it, again, they would be likely to pay for it.  The democratic basis of a coalition would be much better spelled out for all parties: and that would help to make sure that coalition did reflect the broad wishes of the electorate.

So hung parliaments and coalitions shouldn’t necessarily be feared; AV doesn’t necessarily create more hung parliaments; and when it does produce hung parliaments, it provides more information than FPTP about the outcome voters would prefer.  But if we want to have that information to hand, we need to make sure it’s recorded.  So if there’s a ‘Yes’ vote, a polite word in the ear of the Electoral Commission might be no bad thing …