On BBC TV’s Question Time [Thursday 14th April] Michael Howard smugly declared that the Alternative Vote was “nobody’s first choice” . Given that his own party has set the agenda of the referendum on electoral reform which will take place on May 5th, restricting it to a choice between First Past the Post [FPTP] and the Alternative vote [AV] this was a particularly cynical piece of rhetoric. The Liberal Democrats’ preferred choice would have been Single Transferable Vote, though they would no doubt have been content with one of the other Proportional systems on offer.As it happens, on the same Question Time panel we heard Peter Hain declare that AV was his preferred voting system. Nevertheless there is a real danger that because AV lacks passionate support from any quarter, that the electorate will fail to engage fully with the discussion taking place and will have the wool pulled over its eyes by the Labour Tory political establishment who for the most part reject change and are desperate to hang on to a system which has served their interests well in the past.
The unfairness of First Past the Post is least apparent to those who, from time to time, have seen their chosen candidate elected and, more critically, their chosen party form a government. It is at the margins of politics where the unfairness of FPTP is most conspicuous; given that these margins are frequently populated by racists, fascists, bigots and the just plain bonkers, it is easy to portray this democratic deficiency as an asset.
The margins however are also an important route for the entry of new ideas into our political system, and are the potential stamping ground of parties who can engage those so thoroughly turned off politics over the decades by the Labour Tory double act. In UK politics the Green Party are a good example of this; in Scotland I would cite the Scottish Socialists, despite their rather spectacular fall from grace in recent times. Also, the Conservative Party, a distinctly marginal force in Scottish Politics, have gained representation in the Scottish Parliament through Party lists and have not only provided the Parliament’s speaker but also, to the surprise of many people, engaged constructively with the minority SNP administration to secure legislation compatible with their own agenda.
The margins have for many years been the location of one of the blander factions in British Politics – the Liberal Democrats. To their credit however, the fact that voting reform is actually on the agenda at this moment is only because they have managed to emerge from their marginalised ghetto to stick a toe in the electoral door, much to the chagrin of the Labour and Tory parties. The irony is that the current unpopularity of the coalition – and the Lib Dems in particular – threatens to scupper the limited – though genuine – opportunity for reform of our politics which AV presents.
Rather than analyse the unfairness of First Past the Post, let me focus on the arguments that are currently being deployed against AV. Pre-eminent amongst these is that AV increases the likelihood of coalition government and that this is undemocratic because it inevitably involves a stitch up between political parties after an election has taken place. This argument is given particular spice by reference to the current coalition and in particular to the public way in which, before the election, the Liberal Democrats sought the votes of students by signing a pledge to scrap tuition fees, and then, following the election, swiftly ditched this commitment in their coalition agreement.
This objection – undemocratic coalition building – might carry some weight if the manifestos implemented in government by successive Tory and Labour administrations over the years had actually been endorsed by a majority of the electorate. The arithmetic of FPTP however means that not only are MPs frequently elected on the basis of minority support within their constituency, but governments are elected on the basis of minority support within the country. The Labour government elected in 2005, for example, only had a 35.3% share of the overall vote.i Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1983, following the euphoria of the Falkland’s war, gave her a mandate of only 42.4% on which basis she proceeded to drive through the most divisive political programme of the last century. The claim that AV is undemocratic should be set against the consistent and unacknowledged democratic deficit which has arisen from FPTP elections.
Analysis of an AV result will actually provide important information to parties as they seek to build coalitions following an election. Had the 2010 election been conducted under AV for example, it is quite possible that a majority of those giving their first preference to the Liberal Democrats would have given their second preference vote to the Labour Party.ii This would have amounted to a mandate for a Lib Dem, Labour, bits and bobs coalition; whilst this option may not have been popular with journalists, there is every reason to suppose that it would have been marginally more popular with the electorate than the present administration and curiously, more popular with the Lib Dems themselves – with the probable exception of Nick Clegg.
Caroline Flint raises to my mind a rather original objection to AV. On the Labour No to AV website she says: “One vote is all I need to vote for the party I believe in – Labour. Why should those who vote for fringe parties have the chance to vote again and again until their vote finally decides the outcome?” This is a rather blatant use of rhetoric to turn one of the strengths of AV on its head and misrepresent it as a weakness. AV clearly offers greater freedom than FPTP to the voter to communicate their views to politicians. First preference votes for the Green Party, for UKIP, and we must also admit, for the BNP, provide important information about the minds of the electorate from which Ms Flint and others would benefit. AV offers a voter the opportunity to express these views and still cast a vote in favour of the Labour Party or one of the other parties more likely to actually win the seat.Perhaps however Ms Flint’s lack of warmth for AV arises because in 2010 she won her Don Valley seat with only 37.9% of the voteiii…
A further argument used against AV is that it will give excessive influence to small parties who, following an indecisive election result, will ring concessions from larger parties desperate to establish a governing majority. There are certain kinds of proportional systems – notably those which make the country a single constituency – which encourage division of parties into splinter groups, each of which may hope to win a few seats at an election. Clearly – and Israel offers a good exampleiv – the proliferation of parties can greatly complicate the building of coalitions and lead to unstable governments easily held hostage by extremist factions. Other systems of PR greatly mitigate these difficulties and have consistently produced stable governments. The conflation of certain flawed systems of PR with AV is a further piece of cynicism on the part of those who oppose change. AV is less susceptible to this problem and indeed encourages people when they cast their vote to think through the compromises which government inevitably involves.
Under first past the post both the Labour and Tory Parties have actually concealed their own, sometimes bonkers factions, quite ready to extract their pound of flesh should the electoral arithmetic be finely balanced. In the case of the Thatcher government, the bonkers faction actually took control of the party and ran the whole show for more than a decade.
Let us conclude by admitting that AV is an imperfect system. It will not deliver proportional, – and therefore fair representation – in parliament. It will not reliably resolve all the other problems of FPTP. It will however increase peoples’ sense that they can safely vote for the party which truly reflects their point of view without effectively wasting their vote. This may result in some parties gradually moving from the margins to occupy the centre stage, but in other cases will result in the big parties contending for power rethinking aspects of their policies to neutralise these marginal elements. The referendum on May 5th offers an opportunity to revitalise our politics; such an opportunity will not come again within a generation.
ii Peter Hain expresses a different view as regards how he believes 2nd preference Lib Dem votes would have been cast, stating: “The evidence suggests Liberal second preferences would break pretty evenly, in the current political climate possibly more so to the Tories, so Tory opponents could not claim AV as a pro-Labour device.” http://www.peterhain.org/default.asp?pageid=195&mpageid=51&groupid=2