Tag: electoral reform

Clown-car democracy

As the general election approaches we are being urged to vote, often with the pious imprecation that it doesn’t matter who we vote for just so long as we vote, because voting is important. After the election we will be told that we have spoken, meaning will be drawn from the deconstructed lemon cheesecake of the results.

But it’s all a bit of a lie: we live in a clown-car democracy.

Come May the 7th we’ll all leap into the clown-car and try to make it bend to our wishes. Some will try to honk the horn and get water squirted in the face for our troubles, others will wrench the steering wheel to the left or right and discover themselves heading in completely different directions. A bouquet of flowers will spring from the exhaust when someone puts an indicator on. The ringmaster will look cheery throughout.

We’ve all been trained to think that it’s entirely reasonable that a party might get 10% of the votes in the country but only one MP out of 650; that a party with a little over a third of the vote should have absolute power; that our political opponents can be described as “scum”. We’ve all been trained to accept sordid sexual metaphors when grown ups work together despite differences.

Yes to AV!

Alongside the local elections on the 5th May, we will all have an opportunity to vote in a referendum on voting reform*. The choice is between keeping the current system, First Past the Post (FPTP) or switching to the Alternative Vote (AV) system.

The Liberal Democrats use Single Transferrable Vote (STV) to elect their leaders. Labour uses straightforward AV. The Tories use a system to elect their leader which is substantially equivalent to AV: a ballot is taken with all candidates standing; if more than two candidates are standing then the last placed candidate is knocked-out and the ballot is repeated – this process is continued until only two candidates remain. In this two candidate election the candidate with most votes wins. The Tories could have used a straightforward FPTP system, but they didn’t: if they had then David Davies, not David Cameron, would have won the 2005 leadership election.

AV is substantially similar to this process of successive ballots but rather than a sequence of ballots, a single ballot is held with voters ranking candidates by preference. In common with the Tory system, the last candidate is eliminated after the first ballot but rather than return to the electorate for another round of voting the second preferences of the people who voted for the loser are inspected and votes redistributed accordingly. This process is repeated until one candidate has more than 50% of the votes.

The Tory leadership election is not identical to AV because the electorate can switch votes between rounds, whilst in an AV election the rankings are chosen and frozen at the time of the first (and only) ballot. With electorates of tens of thousands the Tory leadership system could not be used for parliamentary constituencies without substantially increased cost and time taken to conduct the election, I will assert that it would produce the same result as AV.

These political sophisticates have rejected FPTP as a method of choosing who represents them, why do so many of them not support the same for us?

AV will not bring great changes to our elections, the majority of constituencies would return the same MP under AV as they currently do under FPTP. The benefit of AV over FPTP is that tactical voting, where you attempt to encode your preferences with a single X by second guessing who everyone else will vote for, becomes largely irrelevant.

We are not being given a choice between FPTP and an ideal electoral system, we are not being asked whether AV is a perfect system for voting, we are being given a choice between FPTP and Alternative Vote. Personally I would prefer a system of proportional representation, but that isn’t on offer.

In the absence of a better choice I will vote “Yes to AV”!

*The BBC have apparently banned themselves from describing the choice of AV over FPTP as “reform”