In my recent post criticising the ‘Alternative Vote’ (AV) system, I explained why the system is unfair, and why it effectively privileges voters for fringe parties over those voting for mainstream parties. I argued also that AV effectively gives them more votes. Defenders of AV such as Norm Geras and Alex Massie deny that this is true. However, the pro-AV camp appears to be making two, contradictory arguments in defence of the system: 1) that it does not give those voting for extremist parties more votes than moderates; and 2) that it does, but that this is a good thing.
Hence, The Independent newspaper defends AV on the grounds that
‘the curse of the first-past-the-post system – the argument that a vote for a smaller party is “wasted” – would be eliminated at a stroke, because the second preference votes of lower-placed candidates would be reallocated if the first count failed to produce a clear winner. The public will be able to vote for the person they want to represent them (as their first preference) without having to agonise about whether they are effectively disenfranchising themselves if they choose a candidate representing a smaller party.’
Under the present First-Past-The-Post system, each voter has one vote and a choice over how to cast it: either they can express their unhappiness with mainstream politics by voting for a fringe party, in the knowledge that the fringe candidate has no chance of winning, or they can vote for a mainstream candidate whom they may or may not actually like but who does have a chance of winning. Because they only have one vote, they cannot do both. Under AV, however, they can have their cake and eat it.
Thus, a BNP supporter wishing to express his disgust at what he feels is the failure of mainstream politicians to keep the hordes of job-stealing, council-house-queue-jumping foreigners out and the pesky, halal-munching, integration-avoiding Muslims downs, but who when push comes to shove would generally vote for the Tories since they’re at least a bit tougher on immigration than Labour, could now do both: he could cast his vote for the BNP candidate and thereby boost the BNP’s share of the vote nationally, in order to send out a clear message to the decadent, unpatriotic liberal elite running the country that the silent majority is angry with the way things are, AND could then have his vote transferred to the Tory candidate; a vote that will then count just as much as a first-preference Tory vote from an actual Tory supporter.
I call that having two votes instead of one. Someone voting with their first-preference vote for Labour or another mainstream party, by contrast, has done just one of those things. The Labour voter has voted for a party with a chance of winning; the BNP voter has voted for a party with a chance of winning AND boosted the votes of another, fringe party that has no chance of winning, but that will undoubtedly claim greater legitimacy and make political capital the more votes it gets. So AV would provide a definite incentive to vote for a fringe party while putting a mainstream party as your second choice, so as to make the most of your vote.
Responding to my last post, which used an example to show how supporters of the fringe party would receive an unfair advantage over the supporters of the mainstream party because the system redistributes their votes first, Norm has given a counter-example of what he suggests is an equally unfair result under the existing system:
‘In Lower Zogby by the Fen 35 people vote Tory first, 33 vote Labour first, and 32 vote LibDem first. But the Labour voters would prefer the LibDem to the Tory, and the LibDem voters would prefer the Labour candidate to the Tory. As is, with first-past-the-post, the preferences of 67 out of 100 people to have a candidate elected other than the Tory are nullified, where with AV Labour would win.’
Certainly, there are unfair aspects of the existing system, and unfair results possible under it. I’m not convinced that the example Norm cites is particularly unfair, since it involves, after all, the candidate who won the most votes winning. But if one concedes that it is unfair, then it is unfair in practice; in that particular instance, the LibDem and Labour candidates have split the left/liberal vote and allowed the Tory to win. In another instance, it might be an anti-Labour majority that is split between the Tories and the LibDems. The AV system, however, privileges the voters for fringe parties in principle, since if you are a fringe-party supporter, the system will always work in your favour – or at the very worst, will never work against you. The First-Past-The-Post system is fair in principle but unfair in practice; the AV system is unfair in principle.
Having said that, Norm’s example points to a genuine pragmatic argument for voting for AV, one that has been made by Timothy Garton Ash, Polly Toynbee and others: the fact that under the existing system, the liberal portion of the British electorate is split between the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, bestowing a structural advantage on the Conservatives, and that the way to end disproportionate Conservative success at the polls is to abolish First Past the Post. This argument appears much weaker after last year’s general election: the Conservatives failed to win under First Past the Post, but were rescued by the Liberal Democrats; instead of joining with Labour to form a centre-left government representing Britain’s ‘natural liberal majority’, the LibDems gave the non-victorious Conservatives a parliamentary majority to implement a radical Thatcherite programme for which they had no popular mandate. AV would make more such Con-Dem coalitions likely.
My solution for the electoral split in the centre-left, is for the LibDems to experience electoral meltdown at the next general election and effectively to disappear as a significant party. Instead of which, AV would breathe life into the discredited and moribund LibDems, empowering future Nick Cleggs to play kingmaker between Labour and the Conservatives after future elections. AV would exacerbate the split in the centre-left, not make it go away.
Visit the ‘No to AV‘ campaign site.
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