The Referendum

1. Does the current system need replacing? I wouldn’t go so far as to say it needs replacing. Unlike some people, I never claim that First Past The Post (FPTP) is undemocratic. Every adult gets a free, secret vote, and participates in the election of representatives. If it’s not replaced, it does need reforming though. FPTP is not fit for purpose. It’s designed for a country without political parties – where each MP represents their constituents and isn’t at the beck and call of a party whip – or with only two political parties – when it will give a fair result in the number of seats. (Although, as the elections of 1951 and February 1974 showed us, even with just two parties, if it’s a close race it’s not always the biggest party that wins.)

The Alternative Vote (AV) is, in effect, a version of FPTP, rather than a replacement for it. Although we’ll number the candidates on the ballot paper, rather than just marking one X, it operates very similarly to FPTP, using the same constituency system (although, coincidentally, the constituencies themselves will be changed).

2. Should we replace FPTP with AV? Well, not if we can help it! There are two good systems of proportional representation. One’s called the Single Transferable Vote (STV) and the other’s called the Additional Member System (AMS). Both of these systems are used successfully in all sorts of elections around the world. AV is not proportional representation. In many cases you’ll hardly be able to tell the difference in the election result under AV compared to what it would’ve been under FPTP.

Hardly any countries use AV. Australia’s one of them, and, following last year’s Australian general election, I got the impression that AV is not particularly well-liked there. There were rumblings in one seat (in Perth, I think) where the “winner” “lost”. And you can look forward to plenty of that if AV is introduced here.

FPTP stinks. AV is also shit, it just doesn’t smell as bad.

In 1998, the Independent Commission on the Voting System produced what is generally known as The Jenkins Report. It stated in its conclusions: Within this mixed system the constituency members should be elected by the Alternative Vote. On its own AV would be unacceptable because of the danger that in anything like present circumstances it might increase rather than reduce disproportionality and might do so in a way which is unfair to the Conservative party. With the corrective mechanism in operation, however, its advantages of increasing voter choice and of ensuring that in practice all constituency members (as opposed to little more that half in recent elections) have majority support in their own constituencies become persuasive. (Chapter 9, paragraph 2) (Emphasis added)

The “corrective mechanism” mentioned is to have top-up seats. This mechanism is used under AMS, and has been introduced already in the UK for the elected bodies of Scotland, Wales and London.

So, AV isn’t proportional. What it does do is ensure that every MP has at least 50% support in their constituency. This is very important in itself, but it has other beneficial effects. It means that, in theory, there’ll be no more wasted votes. Tory voters in Liverpool and Labour voters in Surrey have a chance to elect someone a little more to their taste, perhaps. And this will also mean that politicians won’t be able to ignore these areas at election time. Remember that in recent elections, the parties have concentrated their campaigns in marginal seats, ignoring the rest of us, taking the rest of us for granted.

3. What’s the best protest vote? Supporting the retention of FPTP is a very establishment – and somewhat reactionary – position to take. Voting to replace it should be an easy decision to make. And yet a part of me thinks that if the vote is lost it’ll “serve them right” – “them” being the Government, and especially the Lib Dems who struck a deal with the Tories on the basis of something as mediocre as AV.

At the same time, the No campaign has resorted to some dirty tricks so it’s lost a lot of my sympathy. The posters saying nurses/soldiers etc. need more resources, not an alternative voting system, also stick in my craw. It seems to me if our nurses and soldiers are going to be working their arses off on our behalf, they should at least know that the government that’s making the decisions has the support of most of us. To take one example, Labour ruled from 1997 to 2010, making choices about how to spend billions of pounds of our money, including sending our troops into various battles, on the basis that a paltry 25% of us supported them at three elections. Our nurses and soldiers deserve better than that.

4. How are you going to vote? I’m going to vote Yes. For all the drawbacks of the system, and of the process that’s brought us to this referendum, it’s hard to escape the principle of the thing. Too many of our representatives are representing too few of us. Having AV will change that. We won’t like AV, but it’s a step in the right direction.


Posted May 5, 2011 by dadge

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