03 May 2011
Your Choice In Thursday's Electoral System Referendum
How we decide who represents us in our democracy is a critical question and one that ought to be answered by the public, not politicians whose opinions will naturally be skewed by self-interest. For this reason, I am delighted that one outcome of the coalition is a public referendum on electoral change.
Being a local association chairman for the Conservative Party and a supporter of Yes2AV since last year, I am in the unusual position of having a foot in both camps for the referendum campaigns and an insight into both.
Talking to 'ordinary voters' and to supporters of each side, it appears that many people have felt insulted or patronized by the Yes and No campaigns. Some may even decide their vote on that basis, or due to a particular dislike for Baroness Warsi/Nick Griffin/David Cameron/Chris Huhne/Ed Miliband/Nick Clegg/Insert as appropriate. My view is that we have a chance to vote on an issue which is more important than one individual, party or campaign and that we should look at the issue itself. I think we would all do well to consider the issue on its merits.
Personally, I think that the merits of AV can be illustrated by asking ourselves pertinent questions about the system.
1. Will AV be a system that engages more people in politics?
First-past-the-post is a misnomer. There is no post. A party needs only beat the second placed opponent and can win by ensuring its core vote gets to the polling station and attracting a few tactical voters by warning of the dangers of the main opponent. Under FPTP when door-knocking, if you encounter a non-supporter the temptation is to get to the next house or persuade the voter that their planned vote would be wasted. These are not a viable tactics under AV. In seeking to pass the 50% support test under AV, a politician who wants to win has to be interested in your other preferences and is therefore likely to engage with a wider group.
At the macro level, FPTP has led to a focus on ‘key voters’ in swing seats reducing the number of people parties engage with over the years. The electoral calculus doesn’t work like that under AV forcing parties with ambitions to win seats with 50% support to spread their nets more widely.
2. Under AV will more people walk away from an election feeling like their vote/participation was worthwhile?
Unambiguously, AV gives voters more choice. Whilst some people who have always voted for one party and wish to continue to do so will not see the personal benefit, many will appreciate the opportunity to vote with their heart (first preference) and their head (next preferences) or simply to rank candidates. By elimination of the phenomenon of wasted votes, barriers to entry are reduced, meaning that our politics is likely to become more dynamic with new ideas coming to the fore and a greater range of options at the ballot box.
What’s more, AV provides more information to politicians. MPs who were elected after several elimination rounds will know where their residual support came from and second placed candidates will know where they failed to garner the support. To use an example, we all know how Ed Miliband passed David Miliband on the later rounds of the Labour leadership vote which provided both with a great deal of useful democratic information.
3. Will AV be a system that strengthens Parliament?
Whilst I don’t think that politicians elected on FPTP are illegitimate, there is a perception problem when people can keep a straight face whilst questioning the mandate of a coalition government which jointly commanded 60% or so of the votes in the 2011 General Election. It is the case that under AV all MPs will need support of at least 50% of those expressing a preference. That has to improve the legitimacy of MPs to be our elected representatives.
As mentioned above those elected will know exactly where their support came from as a result of the information provided in the count. If somebody ran on a single issue platform (say a planning issue), the true importance of this issue to voters is likely to be concealed under FPTP because of the risk of wasting your vote. This is less so, under AV where voters can use their first preference to make a ‘protest’ on an issue of importance to them safe in the knowledge that they can still influence the overall result.
The fact it isn’t used in many countries is irrelevant. It may lead to a tendency to moderation (not extremism as Baroness Warsi argued) leading to insipid all-things-to-all-men characters being elected, but I suspect that exciting, radical candidates can still break through.
Yes, AV costs a little more (it’s marginal), is more complex (it’s marginal) and incorporates delay (it’s marginal), but these are prices worth paying for a better system.
In summary, AV is a system which strengthens Parliament, supports a dynamic free market in ideas, is likely to engage more people in the political process and make more people feel like their vote was worthwhile. In my opinion, these are good reasons for any Conservative to support it, but most of all anyone who is a fan of true democracy. What do you think?