Say “Yes” to AV!

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My reason for supporting AV is simple: it would create a fairer system of government that Britain deserves.

After weeks of haggling, Parliament finally passed the necessary legislation to set the stage for a referendum on changing the voting system for Britain’s general elections this coming May. A “Yes” vote would abandon the current “first past the post” (FPTP) system and adopt the “alternative vote” (AV). Both the “Yes” and “No” camps have now begun to campaign for their sides. I throw my weight—whatever its worth—behind the “Yes” camp.

There are many points of contention between the camps—how much AV would cost, whether people would understand, who in the world use it, whether it will boost or kill small parties etc. My support for AV is based solely on the belief that that would create a fairer and more contestable political system.

The current FPTP system allows electors to pick just one candidate on the ballot paper, and whoever gets the most votes wins. Simple and effective—but is it fair? British Members of Parliament serve two purposes: on a constituency level they represent the people in central Government, holding it to account; on a national level, the numbers of MPs from one party determine whether that party can form a Government.

In principle, in a constituency with three main contesting parties, under FPTP, a candidate needs to win only 34% of the vote to represent that constituency. Multiply that nationally, the winning party will not need anything close to a majority of votes to form a Government to raise our taxes, make our laws or take us to war. In 2005 Labour won 62% of seats with only 41% of the vote. Supporters of FPTP argue quite rightly that the current system allows strong Governments to be formed, but democracy is about building representative Governments, not strong ones.

AV would change that. It would allow voters to rank candidates by order of preference, and the winning candidate must garner at least 50% of the votes. More people’s votes must be counted to find a winner, rather than the 34% in the example given above. It would end the system where, for example, a Labour candidate in a constituency with an inner-city population greater than the suburban or rural population can ignore the latter’s preferences, because the suburban and rural second-preference votes can now also count against Labour. It would mean that every candidate must work harder to persuade people to vote for them, even as a second choice.

Supporters of FPTP fret that the chances of creating hung Parliaments are greater under AV, but that’s not a disaster. Politics, especially national politics, shouldn’t be about one party that hasn’t achieved a majority imposing its agenda on people who didn’t vote for it. In fact, we value compromise and consensus between stakeholders in all our social relationships—family, friends, couples. Why should national politics be any different?

FPTP supporters say that AV won’t bring the change it is intended, but stagnation in popular participation in national politics is partly due to apathetic voting culture encouraged by FPTP. Winning AV won’t change that overnight, but it would be the first step for people to re-engage with national politics. After all, it is the former that the latter is supposed to serve.

And now, you can make it happen, by voting “Yes” on 5 May.

Click for more information about the “Yes” and “No” camps.

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Want to revolutionise the way we vote?

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A vote counter at work

"What do you mean I'm counting it the wrong way?"

Parliament began the new term by debating the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. If passed, the system of deciding who governs Britain could change forever. But how? Today’s and tomorrow’s posts attempt to explain.

On the first day Parliament returned from summer recess, it began debating the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. The Bill was a key demand for Liberal Democrats to join the Conservatives in coalition, and will be an important test of the strength of their partnership. If passed, the Bill would do two things. First, it would enable a referendum to be held on the future voting system for electing Members of Parliament. Secondly, it would reduce the number of constituencies from a record high of 650 to 600, and even out the number of people each MP is meant to represent. Let’s first look at the proposals for a referendum on the alternative vote.

The referendum, to be held next May alongside elections in all the four nations, will ask the electorate whether they want to replace the current “first-past-the-post” system of electing MPs with the “alternative vote” system.

First-past-the-post is very straightforward. It basically means “majority wins”: whoever receives the most votes wins the seat. However, many criticise it for its unfairness. if 51% of the electorate votes for Party A, and 49% Party B, Party A’s candidate can hardly claim to have won over the electorate. Choice is also limited, as many voters might have to opt for who they think will win, rather than who they hope will win, as process known as tactical voting (e.g. a Liberal Democrat-supporter votes Labour instead of Lib Dem because she wants to “keep the Tories out”, rather than truly wanting Labour to win).

The ultimate result of FPTP could be that the party that commands a majority in the House of Commons, which becoming the governing party, may be enjoying only very weak popular support. For example, after the 2005 election, Labour only took 35% of the popular vote, yet ended up with a 157-seat majority over the Conservatives, who won 32% of the vote.

A system of alternative vote would change how people cast their votes. Instead of picking one candidate, people will list candidates by preference: 1, 2 and 3. If a candidate gets more than 50% of first-preference votes (i.e. “1”s), he wins. But if that is not achieved, the candidate who holds the fewest “1” votes will be eliminated, and the second-preference votes (the “2”s)  of those ballots will be distributed among the remaining candidates. Eventually, a candidate will obtain more than 50% of the vote and win. This system is praised by some to be fairer, as the winner would have to have gained at least half of the electorate’s approval.

But the price of “fairness” could be to complicate the composition of Parliament. Majority governments will be harder to emerge, and more hung Parliaments will produce more coalitions. But the British people have now seen how a hung Parliament can work, and may decide that having them once in a while to keep party politics in check is beneficial. Of course, another drawback is to increase the workload of vote-counters on election night.

Of course, the AV system itself is not alien to Britain, as it and its variants are used to elect the party leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties and the mayors of London and other cities. The Conservative party is against the proposal, but was forced to accept the referendum as part of the coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats. It is expected that Conservative MPs will vote the Bill through to allow the referendum to happen, but campaign against changing the system next May.

Tomorrow we will look at the other half of the Bill, which proposes to reduce the number of MPs and to “equalise” the size of constituencies.

Do you support the first-past-the-post, alternative vote, or another voting system? Let me know!

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