Vote For AV!

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Branch Sec provides a personal view of why he’s voting YES for AV.

The anarchist Emma Goldman once wrote “if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal”.  This cynicism was aimed at the fact that voting once every so often seems to produce the same kind of governments decade after decade but it was also an attack on representative democracy, a system with deep flaws in terms of the influence members of the public have on the policies that it produces.

Since I got the right to vote I’ve only once voted for the candidate that actually won the election.  The choices between candidates and parties is often weak and it’s no surprise that people spoil their ballot papers or simply fail to turn up to the polling booth.  It’s also hard not to empathise with Emma Goldman’s view as there is so much wrong with our democracy: the unelected House of Lords, the Monarchy, government secrecy, the government sitting in Parliament, the fact that the public does not directly elect the government (I could go on and on).  Frankly when you start looking at the potential for reform it’s hard to stop.


A referendum is looming upon us in which we get the chance to decide whether we want our MPs to be elected by the First Past the Post (FPTP) system (as is currently the case) or the Alternative Vote (AV) system.  I guess this is a vote that could actually change something.  PCS supports the campaign for AV as it moves the country towards the more radical change of proportional representation (where the percentage of votes cast closely resembles the percentages of each party sitting in Parliament.  It has been PCS policy for a number of years now to support a move towards proportional representation.  I’m conscious though that this will be a referendum where many people turn off; it will be a referendum where many don’t take time to understand the issues.  I studied democracy at masters level and spent a lot of my time for years before, after and during those studies reading democratic theory and how it has been put into practice and I want to explain to you why I’m going to be voting for the AV system on May 5th.

When I was studying democracy and looking at it from a blank canvass I used to imagine the systems that could be created in its name.  I saw democracy in the extreme and at university I as able to think about how it could work.  For example I would prefer direct democracy to representative democracy.  This would mean people forming assemblies in their local communities with people representing themselves on localised councils.  I’d like to see a workers democracy where the workers replace the bosses in the boardroom on a rota basis.  I’d like to see each individual being the monarch of their own lives, without heavy authority ever looming over them.  I’d like to see a world democracy where countries are replaced with functioning institutions and war is a thing of the past.  Yep, I did a lot of dreaming at university but when you look at the curve of human progress you can’t fail to be optimistic about the long term prospects for freedom and prosperity.  We might get somewhere one day!

There are those who want to flick a switch and make everything right immediately (Emma Goldman probably fits into that group) and there are those who see that small changes and tweaks help in that journey along the curve of human progress.  AV isn’t going to fix the British democratic system for reasons I will come on to but it gets us somewhere further than we are now.  The vote on AV is a compromise arising out of the agreement between the Tories and the Lib Dems when they formed the coalition government.  It’s not really what the Lib Dems want because it isn’t a proportional system but it’s as far as the Tories would allow them to go.  Importantly it tests the water in terms of whether the British public have an appetite for electoral reform.  I hope they do.

The Competing Systems

FPTP  – Under FPTP you vote for a candidate in a constituency and when all the votes are counted the candidate with most votes wins.  Simple.  What’s wrong with that?
Well for a start if you have more than two candidates standing in the constituency you can end up with the winner getting the seat on less than half the votes cast, which means that most people would have preferred someone else.  In other words they’re not popular at all despite just winning!
When you roll that up to a national level you can end up with a government having a majority in parliament despite most people in the country voting for something else.  This routinely happens in the UK, which could be why we suffer from unpopular government followed by unpopular government. 

Proportional Representation – Under a proportional system the MPs would more closely reflect the votes cast so if the Tories got 30% of the vote you’d expect them to get around 30% of the seats.  Under the current system they can quite reasonably get more than half the seats on a similar percentage.

AV – Under AV voters list the candidates in their constituency in order of preference.  When the votes are counted, if a candidate gets more than half the votes cast they win.  Simple.
However, if the top placed candidate has less than 50% of the 1st preference votes those cast for the last placed candidate are re-opened and the 2nd preferences on those ballot papers are counted and added to the totals already amassed.  If a candidate now has over half the votes cast then they win.  If not then the votes cast for whoever is now last get re-opened and their 2nd preferences are counted.  This happens until a candidate gets more than half the votes cast and therefore wins the seat. 

The plus side of his system is that every MP would therefore have officially been supported by over 50% of their electorate.  Governments will therefore be more popular from the get go!  However, detractors will point out that the system is less than fair in that it ensures that some people effectively have their votes counted more than once.  The fact that these votes are likely to come from people supporting minority parties and perhaps even far right, racists parties will be an issue for some people.  Mind you, it makes it less likely for minority parties to do well as they still need to amass more than half the votes cast to get a seat.  Advocates claim it will lead to less tactical voting because people will know that their votes have a better chance of making a difference. In other words people will just list their preferences genuinely because they know they will be counted.  However, I predict it will produce more tactical voting as most people will be very careful about who they choose for their 2nd preference, which could make all the difference.

I’m also hoping that AV would produce a better group of politicians.  They would all have to be very careful not to simply gain the support of those core voters already aligned to their parties.  They will need our second preferences to win (except in a handful of areas where certain parties already get over 50% of the vote).  This should lead to parties with a wider appeal and a more professional attitude.  It could safeguard against extreme policies and corruption.

Don’t Miss this Opportunity

The point though is that neither system is perfect; far from it.  Keeping the current system ensures that we have what we’ve known for so long.  Changing means that we get a greater say in the running of the country via electing politicians who will really need to work for our support.  The problem I have in missing this opportunity to change our electoral system is that we don’t get these opportunities very often.  The British constitution being “un-written” rather than in one place and enshrined in one law, means that it is a fabric of laws and conventions.  Pull a thread over here and it has consequences elsewhere.  Leave the fabric alone and it will be stable, very stable.  No changes, not ever.  Whilst I can honestly say my university daydreams never included a desire for AV to be implemented in the UK I’m worried about what might happen if we don’t grasp this opportunity.

If we miss this opportunity then we will likely lose the right to change our electoral system for decades to come.  Maybe it will take centuries for another referendum like this.  So we have a choice not just between voting systems but also a choice between our right to change and losing that right for generations.  If AV gets through, it may not be perfect but we will see further change and it will come soon enough because we will have shown our appetite for change.  Political parties will realise that we want to modernise our system and they will look at what else we might want.  Perhaps they will start looking at my list of complaints above.  Maybe one day we will edge towards a true democracy.  Emma Goldman (now turning in her grave to be quoted twice  in an article on electoral reform) also wrote: “To the daring belongs the future… when we run out of dreams we die..”  It isn’t too daring to vote for a change like AV but think of the dreams it can eventually lead to.

Good luck in coming to your own conclusions.  Whatever happens get yourself informed of the choice in the referendum and make your voice heard!

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