A lot has been said and written about the forthcoming referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) system. As many have commented the level of debate has often been poor and come down to shameful ad hominem arguments or simply criticising the other campaign. There are many good articles already out there on this issue (I recommend Gower on AV in particular, LibDem Voice has some good ideas too) but I thought I'd set out a simple post outlining the positive reasons why I plan to vote yes to AV. It is not intended to criticise the "No" campaign; this is a plea for AV as a positive step for our democracy. Here goes:
AV is FPTP
My first argument is that AV provides a genuine first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. The current system doesn't actually have a fixed "post". The current race is not set up with a target other than to beat the other candidates and one vote is enough to do this. This can (and does) mean that in some constituencies the winner can have 30% of the vote as long as the other 70% is suitably split between between the other candidates.
AV is quite different. The "post" is set at 50% and the winner is the first person past this fixed target and guarantees that whoever wins has a democratic mandate from a majority of the (voting) constituents. No longer can candidates rely on a "core" vote safe in the knowledge that most of the time 40% of the vote will suffice. Candidates are compelled to reach out to a broader range of voters because even those who don't put them as first preference may be important.
AV preserves and enhances the principle of "one voter, one vote"
A dearly cherished principle of parliamentary democracy is that every voter is equally important. AV preserves this principle and, I believe, develops it. As a recent letter to the Times observed AV is, in essence, a highly efficient way of holding a series of elections in which candidates are knocked out one by one until a candidate has the democratic mandate of getting to the 50% "post". In each round of voting each voter gets one vote and the (reasonable) assumption is made that if your first preference candidate is still in the running at any stage then they will still be your first choice. If your first choice has been eliminated then your second/third/fourth choice gets your vote.
This seems highly reasonable to me, much akin to presidential "run-off" votes that other countries have when there are more than two candidates. However, instead of the costly and time-consuming process of having separate votes, it is done through the simple process of ranking candidates in order of preference.
By doing this we enhance the "one person, one vote" principle by ensuring that no vote is "wasted".
AV reduces the potential for "tactical voting"
Although there is clearly some scope for "tactical voting" under AV it is greatly limited. Where the current system can lend itself to voting for a candidate one doesn't really want in order to avoid getting an MP that one definitely doesn't want, the AV system encourages us to vote for people we DO want, safe in the knowledge that we can still express dislike for other candidates through our other preferences. Our voice is heard in the first round of voting (even if we don't expect the candidate to win) but we can still express a preference for a candidate we think is likely to be in with a chance. Surely this is a good thing.
Consensual politics is good politics
Much has been made of the idea that AV is likely to lead to more hung parliaments and coalition governments. Am I the only one who doesn't think this would be a bad thing? Many people argue that clear majorities produce "strong" governments who can get through significant change. My perception is that large majorites produce governments that can steamroll policies through Westminster with little consultation. This can be done even without clear democratic mandate in terms of vote percentage (have a look here for a few examples).
Under coalitions or small majorities government is forced to seek consensus and a "middle way". Is this a bad thing? I am glad that we have a Lib-Con coalition in that I am glad that the Lib Dems have the power to put in place safeguards which I suspect would not be in place if the Tories were governing alone. Under this government we have seen a significant increase in the personal income tax allowance and many packages to support poorer students who will be put off by larger tuition fees (and I am cross that not more has been made of these). This comes as a direct result of forced negotiation and discussion as a result of a hung parliament. Good. Hung parliaments are not a bad thing by definition.
(On a separate note, it is rather difficult to "model" the results of previous elects had AV been in force given that we do not know what other preferences would have been expressed. It is hard to predict whether AV would in fact lead to more hung parliaments).
AV preserves a constituency link
One reason I prefer AV over proportional representation (PR) is that it preserves a clear link between the voter and their parliamentary representative. I am lucky enough to have an excellent MP (Julian Huppert, who makes excellent use of new technology to keep constituents informed - good man) and I do think it's important that an MP represents a particular group of people and is accountable to them. AV ensures that an MP will represent their constituents and that a majority will have expressed a preference for the person elected.
There are many reasons to vote AV and the main ones for me have been outlined above. I sincerely hope that people will engage in honest debate on this issue and seek arguments rather than sling mud. If electoral reform does not go ahead on May 5th then I fear it will not do so in my lifetime. Now is the time! Yes to AV!