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04/05/2011

No to FPTP & AV, Yes to Tapas

...or more accurately, why I'm going to vote for the introduction of the Alternative Vote with the intention of eventually opening up the way for Proportional Representation (Single Transferable Vote).

A referendum on the voting system for electing MPs and their political parties to House of Commons, and in turn deciding on the British government, is set to be held on the 5th of May. Voters will be asked whether they want to replace the existing First Past The Post system used to elect Westminster MPs in favour of the Alternative Vote system. It could prove to be the beginning of a historic leap forward for our political system, an opening up of a Pandora's box or if the public decide to vote no, which is looking increasingly likely, a re-affirming of the status quo.

Its one of those big decisions that I'm excited yet anxious about - political reform being one of my passions. And I'm struggling to make my choice. Looking at the various guides to voting systems (this being the best so far) and reading through debates about their apparent pros and cons reminds of sitting in a restaurant staring at a menu. I've been building up all day for this and I'm starving but what do I plump for? A few dishes appeal, a few sound risky but interesting, others not to my taste at all - sometimes I struggle to understand the ingredients. And you know where this often leads? I end up going for what I already know whilst wondering what could have been - usually looking enviously at the person-opposite-me's dish.

This decision is in many ways bigger than choosing a local MP or a government. You can act to vote out an MP or government if they're not fit for purpose. Similarly, you can put a unpalatable dish to one side and decide not to choose it again. However, in a country adverse to revolution (not many countries tear down their monarchy then invite them back a decade later) and keen on talking up its tradition of evolution (which generally translates as procrastination and a preference for the status quo), the chances are we won't get another chance like this in our lifetimes. It's like being asked to choose a dish that is then served up every time you go out for the rest of your lives - there's a lot of scope for regret!

So, having looked at the guides - and keeping with my restaurant scenario - imagine you are out with 9 friends at a Spanish restaurant, La Tasca maybe. It's a birthday party and the group has decided to share a paella. There's a discussion about which to go for, perhaps a little tense in places, but fortunately no accusations of 'Nazi tactics'. The group ends up taking a vote, but the outcome depends on the system used... 

Option 1 - First Past The Post

Each member of the ten strong group casts a single vote for their dish. Paella de Carne gets 3, Paella Valenciana gets 1, Paella de Mariscos gets 4, Paella de Verduras gets 2. Under this system, the Paella de Mariscos wins out - a distinct seafood dish but one that leaves 6 members of the group unhappy. The outcome is not representative of the likes & dislikes of the group - and some members of the group quietly resolve not to bother taking part next time, perhaps making their excuses and staying at home instead.

This is the system we have now - it's simple, it's easy to understand, it's served the British public for centuries. Yet in the 2010 General Election it lead to 2 out 3 Westminster-based MPs not having majority backing within their constituencies. The knock-on-effect is voter apathy ("my votes are a waste"), negative campaigning ("if you don't vote for me, you'll get them") and tactical voting ("I'll vote for him, who I don't like much, just to stop her, who I hate") - for a small minority, the next step is to affiliate with political movements outside of the democratic process.

Option 2 - Alternative Vote

With this system, each member of the ten strong group vote ranks the paella dishes in order of preference (1st choice, 2nd choice, 3rd choice, 4th choice) - initially with the same result;  Paella de Carne gets 3, Paella Valenciana gets 1, Paella de Mariscos gets 4, Paella de Verduras gets 2. Because there is no outright majority, the least favourite is wiped out in an instant run-off with the 2nd preferences of those voting for the least favourite now added to the final 3.

This has two most-likely outcomes - this leads to our diners either voting for the nearest dish to their original choice ("the next best thing") or voting for the least disliked, mildest dish ("the least worst thing"). So it is likely that the Paella de Mariscos or Paella de Carne has been chosen as 2nd preference because of the seafood or meat element which they particularly like. Or alternatively - though less likely - the blander vegetarian dish gets picked as 2nd preference because it doesn't contain the seafood or meat element which they particularly dislike (as Churchill would perhaps put it, "the most worthless votes cast for the most worthless dish...").

Either way, the eventual dish selected still does not proportionally represent the group. There will still be a level of dissatisfaction. Under this system, members of the group are also still inclined to vote tactically / negatively. And it favours either the most popular dishes or least worst dishes - minority tastes tend to get pushed out.

In terms of our political system, we have to question whether the Alternative Vote will genuinely alleviate the problems of apathy, negative campaigning and tactical voting - and whether it will prevent those with special interest / non-conformist causes from feeling marginalised.

It could also lead to a more placating form of political campaigning ("all things to everyone") whereby candidates and their parties ditch distinct ideology ("the battle of ideas") in favour of media image ("the spin cycle"). And we know where that kind of approach has taken some parties and our political system as a whole.

The point is we don't really know what the impact of the Alternative Vote on a mass scale will be - will it revolutionise our politics for the better or worse? Or just lead to more stagnation? We are in many ways heading into the unknown.

If we look to the Scottish experience of the Alternative Vote - the system having been used in 32 by-elections - the candidate who secures most first preference votes typically ends up the winner. The pattern of election outcomes with AV is more or less the same as with First Past The Post because only a half to two thirds cast a 2nd preference and too few voters cast sufficient number of preferences to take anyone past the 50 per cent mark. Based on this albeit limited experience of Alternative Vote in the UK, we could argue that the Alternative Vote would not radically change things for the better or worse. It is little more than surface-level tinkering, which is reasonably predicted to give, at the most, a small increase in seats to the Liberal Democrats as the usual second 'least worst alternative' choice of centre-left and centre-right voters.

There may also be a very slight increase for UKIP and the Greens which have some weight as increasingly common second preferences to Labour and the Conservatives but there would be other special interest / non-conformist parties such as the English Democrats, Health Concern, Christian Alliance Party, Respect Party, British National Party, Trade Union and Socialist Party etc. which continue to be marginalised by the voting system despite nationally polling in the hundreds of thousands. And whilst some politicians may argue it is a good thing that parties like the BNP are marginalised, this is surely against the very principle of a liberal and pluralistic democracy?

In short, it would appear the Alternative Vote referendum is simply a £80million question of whether to shift the chairs on the titanic. However, there is a third option which Nick Clegg and his party long campaigned for until they accepted a referendum on this "miserable little compromise" (his words).

Option 3 - Proportional Representation (Single Transferable Vote)

OK, take yourself back to the restaurant scenario...

The plan was for a great big dish of paella - but nobody could agree which one. Then some bright spark half-asks, half-suggests, "Why don't we have tapas instead?"

The group agrees and instead of ordering one single dish, and all the issues that brings, they vote on multiple dishes according to their preferences - working out roughly at 2 seafood dishes, 2 meat dishes, 1 vegetarian dish. The bill is higher, but just about everyone is happier as their distinct tastes are catered for.

In terms of dealing with the problems facing British politics, there is good reason to believe that Proportional Representation (Single Transferable Vote) offers the most effective solution. Used in similar cultures such as the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Australia, this system allows voters to vote for individual candidates (as opposed to party lists) in order of preference. Voters rank the candidates in order of preference; first preference votes are the first to be looked at, and the votes are then transferred if necessary from candidates who have either been comfortably elected (according to a pre-defined quota system) or who have done so badly that they are eliminated from the election.

In most instances, a number of representatives are elected for each constituency - which in the UK would require an increase in the number of MPs or the re-drawing / merging of constituencies. This would likely cost more and cause more initial instability than a transfer to the Alternative Vote. However, as the Electoral Reform Society notes, the inherent proportionality of this system alleviates the issue of wasted votes, tactical voting and negative campaigning. In terms of making MPs more accountable to their constituency (one of the arguments made for the Alternative Vote although questionable), this system removes safe seats because of its acute sensitivity to all votes and because constituencies would have a number of representatives working in what effectively would be a marketplace.

Unfortunately, Option 3 is not an option - so where does that leave someone like me? I am convinced of the need to change our voting system but I'm unconvinced by the merits of the Alternative Vote. However, the danger in voting 'No' and contributing to a resounding victory for the No to AV campaign is that electoral reform is then put off the agenda along with other much needed changes (fixed term parliaments, recall procedures for MPs, fairer party funding, compulsory voting, the none of the above / dissenter's option etc.).

So I will be somewhat reluctantly voting Yes to AV tomorrow - to at least demonstrate there is some public thirst for change and if there is sufficient swing, to show that change really can happen in this country - with a view to the British system then 'evolving' towards Proportional Representation (Single Transferable Vote), amongst other things.

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