If you're looking for an explanation of AV, and an example of how it might have worked had it been in play in the Chippenham constituency, see [here]
. Now - what are the arguments for and against?
It's said that AV would cost £130 million to bring in. I don't the figures at my fingertips, but in some ways that sounds rather high. And in some ways, that's just 2 pounds a head which is a small price to pay for some of the benefits. I don't understand some politician's comments that the cost would mean that we couldn't do something else like provide proper body armour for our troops in Afghanistan. I think that's a false linkage to claim, unless that particular politician rates our forces so poorly that their protection is near the top of his cutting list - so he'll probably cut their protection if he decides to give further support to the Greek banking system.
The current system is far easier to understand than AV - or is it? We could find "first past the post" simpler just because we're already used to it, and a system of ranking candidates really isn't that hard.
The complexity comes in the counting. That's up to the returning officers and clever computer programs. And the results at each stage could be published, as I did in the previous article, for anyone who's interested in seeing what happened.
It's been suggested that an AV system would "condemn us to a permanent coalition". I'm in agreement that there would - very likely - be more coalition goverments, but I don't like the use of the word "condemn". If you're an activist for any major politcical party, I can appreciate that you'll be greedy for power and want an absolute majority of seats to implement your full program. But actually a co-operation between parties helps to round off the extremes. You do need some sort of party structure; 655 independents are going to unmanageable. But although the activists may scream against power sharing, the silent majority may just find it rather attractive, and it might help eliminate pendulum policies where successive governments reverse previous sets of decisions, at great cost to the public purse (far more than that £130 million, I'm sure!)
Bias to established parties?
First past the post is attractive to parties representing areas of the political spectrum that are dominated by a single grouping. So if you have 2 "left" parties and one "right" party, the right party will win. And the right party will fight tooth and nail to stop any other right parties building up support. This reminds me of the child who has climbed a ladder and then tries to stamp on the fingers of anyone else climbing up. Much better to have a system in which parties on one side of a spectrum can co-operate. The AV system improves this somewhat ... but only somewhat.
UK elections have been decided on about 100 marginal constituencies for decades. And that means that in many places, voters have no real individual say. "Put a blue rosette on a donkey and it will win" - English Shires comment. "Red, in every time" - Industrial Wales. But look at the numbers, and you'll find that there are very many constitencies which are not marginal in which the number of votes taken by the winner is well below the 50% mark. With AV, there will be - somewhat - a move towards bringing people back in. So that may lead to ...
There's likely to be more change of MP under AV; I'm not sure if this is a good thing or not - on one side, it's certainly no bad thing for a sitting MP not to be able to rest on his laurels for parliament after parliament, but on the other hand there is a need for some continuinty; arguably our system already suffers from the need for parliament and governments to do popular short term things so that they're re-elected, at the expense of changes that would be a really good idea but wouldn't show through for a number of years
Let's say that I like my MP (I do, actually - and I liked some of the other candidates we had at the last election). I would like to have a "crack" at standing for parliament - I've got ideas, I believe I have a modicum of support - BUT if I stand and bring out that support under a "First past the Post" system, I'm likely to draw it away from the person who (after myself) would be my second choice.
So the First past the post system discourages the responsible alternative candidate from putting him / herself forward, as he / she would almost inevitably damage the chance of other candidates near him / her ... but it encourages irresponsible and frivellous candidates.
Using AV, good alternative candidates can put themselves forward without fear of splitting the vote - votes will transfer as appropriate, and they can test the waters / build up support over several elections.
In a voting area (constituency) where there is a clear first round leader, voters will tend not to bother. Where votes are transferrable, this tendency to apathy will limit itself to far fewer constituences where the winner even after several rounds is clear.
If a candidate wins on less that 40% of votes case, there are 60% of the active voters who don't identify with / feel that they own the elected MP. But if there have to be at least 50% of active voters supporting the successful candidate, then there's a considerably higher "ownership".
My own view?
That's between me and the ballot box - I am voting, but I'm not campaigning. I'm choosing between a very simple system that leads to pendulum politics, and a more complex but fairer system which will result in a lot of coalition politics. (written 2011-04-25)
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