Arimathean Essay

The Alternative Vote, an alternative to common sense.

(By ‘Elijah Luce’, April 2011)

I am utterly convinced that the worse conceivable system of voting for a government at a General Election would be by the ‘Alternative Vote’ system (AV), and that at all costs we must vote “NO!” in the upcoming referendum.  AV is such a complex (and thus expensive) system to administrate that is impossible to say what effect it would have on the makeup of a future parliament, however it can be shown that whatever the result it will be less representative of the electorate’s desires, less democratic, more opaque and subsequently will make the electorate feel they are less in touch with the political system.  Yet the proponents of AV say it would be the opposite of all these things, so why do I think they are so wrong and that AV would actually endanger the political system and democracy of this country.  I would like to try and explain the misconceptions and the downright untruths that I believe are being promulgated by the “vote YES!” campaign.

I am distressed to see that the “YES!” campaign has managed to garner the vocal support of a number of my fellow ‘luvvies’ in the entertainment business.  Unfortunately this seems to have been engendered by the fact that certain people in the entertainment business love to be seen to be championing a ‘progressive’ agenda, without troubling to consider if the cause they are advocating is actually progressive or not.  This anti status-quo stance has lead the ‘YES!’ campaigners to proclaim that after recent political scandals (such as the expenses row) the politicians must be held greater to account, as if a vote for AV will somehow punish our wicked political masters.  This is considered a worthwhile deception by the ‘YES!’ campaign who see politician bashing as a stance that may go down well with the voters, however there is of course no reason whatever to believe that AV will produce incorruptible politicians, or that it will challenge the political mindset of those seeking office.  In fact there is good reason to believe that quite the opposite is the case as AV favours ‘career politicians’ over ‘conviction politicians’ as I will endeavour to show later. 

It is also claimed that AV would affect any assumptions by sitting MPs that they have a job for life, but again there is absolutely no basis for this assertion.  The only politicians with a right to believe they are invincible are those who currently command around or more than 50% of the vote, and they will still win their seats in the first or second round under AV.   If a politician has committed any indiscretion that would warrant his constituents wishing to get rid of him, then they can vote him out very simply and transparently by First Past the Post, however under AV there is no telling how second and third preferences may influence the final election.  A lack of transparency and uncertainty involved in the allocation of second and third places of voters whose first preference parties have been eliminated is predicted to throw up some extremely unexpected (and unwanted) results.  This is tacitly acknowledged by the ‘YES!’ campaign, who say that AV will prevent tactical voting (that is voting against a candidate to keep them out), but surely it is a part of our reformed democratic process that voters should have this option if they are particularly concerned that a certain candidate should not be their parliamentary representative.

One of the most unfair aspects of AV is the very fact that most voters’s second and third choices will actually not be considered.  The proposed system anticipates that the party with the lowest support in any constituency (where the leading candidate does not command an overall majority in the first round) should be eliminated and the voters who cast their votes for this candidate should have their second choices distributed amongst the remaining candidates (and so on for as many rounds as is required until one candidate has an overall majority).  Of course, in each round the voters whose preferred candidate has not been eliminated continue to have a voice, in that their first preference is considered in each round until such time as their candidate is elected or eliminated, so it could be argued that in each round the principle of ‘one man, one vote’ is maintained.  In practice however this is far from the case.  Firstly, the voters for the party with lowest support are virtually guaranteed to have their second, and possibly third and fourth, choices registered. 

As politics in Britain currently stand the national party with the lowest overall support is the British National Party.  This means that voters whose first preference is for the BNP candidate in their constituency are the ones whose second and third preferences are most likely to be considered in subsequent rounds.  As Baroness Warsie puts it, BNP voters get the chance to vote again and again.  It must be acknowledged that the hierarchy of the BNP are against AV, but that is because their only interest is in their own political power and the prospect of gaining parliamentary seats.  They are either too thick or completely indifferent to the fact that their natural supporters will be given considerable succour in that they can continue to hold their repulsive fascist views, whilst secure in the knowledge that their vote for the BNP in the first round is not wasted since in the second or subsequent rounds it may well be their second choice votes that helps to secure victory for the winning candidate. 

A big claim on the part of the ‘YES!’ campaign is that AV will “make your candidates work harder for your votes”.  This is an outrageous deception, since the only votes that a candidate from a major party needs to work hard to get are the second choice votes from voters whose first choice is for a minor party, such as the BNP.  To put it another way, if a candidate wants to win under AV he must make his policies appear attractive to voters whose opinions are the least representative of the constituency as a whole.  What exactly does “work harder for your votes” actually mean anyway?  Put simply this means a candidate who can make the promises with the broadest appeal at the election, whether or not he has any intention, or is even able, to implement these policies when voted into power (think Lib/Dem and the Student fees ‘promise’ applied to every politician in every constituency).  This is why AV favours ‘career politicians’ who are accomplished in spinning their promises, over ‘conviction politicians’ who actually believe in the agenda upon which they are standing.

Let me pose a hypothetical, though entirely possible, scenario to show how appallingly unfair AV may be in practice.  Imagine a constituency in which the Labour candidate (for example) has the largest share of the first preference votes, and just behind him the Tories (for example) have the second largest, with a number of other parties below them, including the BNP with the smallest support.  The BNP are eliminated in the first round and their second choice votes are distributed amongst the remaining candidates.  Let us suppose that the Tory candidate (for example) has made all the right noises during the campaign to win the majority of the BNP voters second choice, so much so that he is able to overtake the Labour candidate and command over 50% of the votes cast.   How representative of their views would those Labour voters think that the election had been?  Their candidate had the largest number of votes, their own second choice votes had counted for nothing, and they now had a Tory representative with the assistance of BNP voters, the two parties they may well have ranked lowest.  What is more the voters for the candidates from the other parties standing played no part in this election as none of their preference votes counted in the final outcome.  It is therefore certainly not the case that the Tory candidate commanded the greatest support, as the second choices from the other parties standing may indeed have swung the final vote in favour of the Labour candidate or possibly a third candidate altogether.

So who actually favours AV as a voting system, apart from career politicians, the politically naive, and those who think that politician bashing makes them look good?  Frankly no-one, certainly not any of the main political parties in Britain!  Even the Lib-Dems called AV a “squalid compromise” before the last general election, however they are now supporting AV, not because they believe in it but because they see it as a stepping stone to ‘proportional representation’ which is what they actually want.  This is political hypocrisy at its worst, to campaign for something you know will be injurious to British democracy in the hopes that it will prove to be so unpopular that the public will support another system which will disproportionately benefit your party.   If you think that AV will be hugely successful and popular then you could hardly think that the electorate would then want it changed for PR; if however you think AV will be so unpopular that the public will demand it is changed to PR then why support it in the first place?

Similarly the Labour party are not supporters of AV, as the likes of Margaret Becket are prepared to admit.  Mandelson summed up their true position by openly declaring that voters should vote ‘YES!’ as a way of bashing the Tories.  Please note, Mandelson backs AV, not because he thinks it is a good idea, but because it is an opportunity to score an opposition point against the elected government at the cost of lumbering the country for years to come with an election system that he knows to be injurious. 

The Labour party know better than most how injurious AV can be as it is the system that has lumbered them with the leader they did not want.  In the leadership elections in 2010, David Milliband held a substantial lead of 3.5% over his brother Ed Milliband, and continued to hold a lead over two subsequent rounds.  It was not until the forth and final round when all the other candidates had been eliminated that Ed, with second, third and forth choices behind him just managed to beat his brother’s majority.  The votes of the electors for the Labour leadership can therefore be summarised thus: first round – we don’t want Ed, second round – we don’t want Ed, third round – we don’t want Ed, forth round – we’ve got Ed, how the hell did that happen!?

Most of my friends know that I am a member of the UK Independence Party, being one of its longest serving members having joined just after its formation in 1996.  I regret to say that they have decided to support AV, and I am therefore at odds with my party over this matter.  UKIP is badly served by the current FPTP system, which favours smaller regional parties, such as the DUP, SNP and Plaid Cymru, but not parties such as UKIP where support is geographically dispersed.  At the last General election UKIP polled just under a million votes but won no seats, whilst the regional parties polled just over a million votes and have 25 seats in parliament.  Even the Greens, who got about half UKIP’s national vote, now have one seat thanks to the ‘unique’ priorities of the Brighton electorate.  UKIP has shown itself to be the forth party in British politics, coming forth in successive General elections, as well as coming second in the last European elections, beating Labour and Lib/Dems, and recently coming second in the Barnsley by-election, beating the Tories and Lib/Dems.  Their opposition to FPTP is therefore understandable, however I do not believe that they have made any substantive case for AV or explained how it would benefit either the party or the British people.

It must be remembered and acknowledged that a second or third choice is actually a vote for the candidate you don’t want; the only choice that represents the voter’s actual preference is the vote for their first choice of candidate.  How many seats would be decided at a election under AV by accumulating the votes for the candidates who the electorate have indicated by second or third preference that they did not want as their chosen representative.  This is why wherever AV has been used in the World to elect a National Government it has proved to be generally regarded as unfair and unpopular.  Its lack of transparency and unpredictable results will make the British people feel even further divorced from politics.  Friends of mine who support AV have accused me of not trusting the British people’s ability to understand the complexity of this system, to which I take exception.  I oppose AV precisely because I believe I can see through its complexity to see the damage it could cause, and I am sure that if the British people have this explained to them they would also reject it.

The system of AV being proposed is also very different to the AV+ system that was proposed by the Jenkins Commission in 1998, which was originally suggested as the system that should be put forward for this referendum.  I am not sure what I feel about AV+, which has many of the drawbacks of AV but attempts to mitigate these by giving voters a second vote to elect a county or regional representative.  This ‘top up’ system giving duel representation is something that I approve of, and have suggested something of the sort in my essay entitled “Reforming First-Past-the-Post is an Each Way bet” (click to link to to this essay) written last year just after the 2010 General election.  However I dislike the involvement of ‘regional party lists’ suggested by the Commission and I can see no reason why it need have any AV untidiness; I believe that the aims of the Jenkins Commission can still be achieved using the FPTP system as I explain in my earlier essay.

The principles under which ‘First Past the Post’ was introduced after the Great Reform Acts of the early 19th century, were those that were believed to be the fairest, most transparent and most democratic means of electing a National Government.  I confess that I have my doubts about this, and in my essay on “Reforming First-Past-the-Post is an Each Way bet” I have suggested an alternative to FPTP that harks back to some aspects of the system used before the Reform Acts.  I have no doubt however that AV has nothing whatever to commend it in the debate which we should properly have over the Electoral system.  I hope and I pray that the British people will appreciate this, and vote ‘NO!’ in the referendum on

The Alternative Vote, an alternative to common sense.