There has been much pillorying of Gordon Brown's Alternative Vote proposals on the Lib Dem blogosphere of late. On some counts the detractors are pretty much spot on. Gordon Brown is probably doing this as a desperate attempt to win over some tactical voting Lib Dems at the next election. Yes, STV would be more proportional and yes, AV could create "Anyone but X" backlashes against an incumbent government that could bring about large swings of power. The argument that AV could bring about less proportional representation than First Past the Post isn't really valid though. As soon as voters are asked to rank candidates in order of preference you can't judge proportionality by the relationship between a parties 1st preference vote share and their seat share. One of AV's strengths is that is asks more than the FPTP question: "which of the candidates that have a realistic chance of winning would you rather represented you in parliament?" It asks "How would you honestly rank the candidates in order of preference if you knew that supporting your favourite candidate over your tolerated candidate will not benefit a candidate you emphatically do not wish to represent you?" An AV result might not more proportionally represent people's first preferences, but it will certainly more accurately represent their stated preferences.
Also, we need to ask how proportional the STV - the liberal's favoured system - would be and would we really want greater proportionality. STV is not a system of proportional representation. Electoral systems do become more proportional the greater the number of representatives there are representing each seat, but where would it be proper to stop? One representative per seat is on the same continuum as 10 representatives per seat. If we don't go far enough, people will complain about their views not being represented. If we go too far we risk opening parliament up to fascists, communists, anarchists, religious fundamentalists and - if we get it properly wrong - monster raving loonys and Melanie Phillips. Do we want a dozen or so BNP MPs in parliament? Is there a point in proportionally representative democracy where people's opinions become better represented than their best interests?
How would STV work for geographically remote constituencies? Would the Western Isles remain represented by one MP while areas of London get 10? How fair would it be for the people of the Shetlands to be not only competing for their MPs' time with people on the Orkney Islands, but people on the Mainland 200 miles away?
Also, what makes you so sure the people would vote for STV? Are you certain that the voters aren't rather fond of the constituency link? The last referendum on replacing FPTP with STV was in May last year in British Colombia and was voted down by 61.3% to 38.7%. If AV were to become a reality I suspect pushing STV would be even harder and AV would not be a stepping stone to STV, but an end in itself. I think all Liberal Democrats should be happy with that.
In those countries that actually have STV already there's certainly not a consensus that it is the best political system around. Last week Mick Fealty of the Slugger O'Toole blog was a guest on the House of Comments podcast discussing electoral reform with Mark Thompson (Mark Reckons): http://houseofcomments.com/ (Feb 3 about 30 minutes in). His contribution was really rather critical of STV in Ireland, stating that it "favours the interests of the parish over the state" and that STV had created a parliament of social workers rather than a parliament of legislators. Having multiple candidates from each party running for election from each constituency often means representatives have to be slavishly attentive to their constituents and especially their local party members if they wish to gain the necessary support to be re-elected. Do we want our MPs to be spending time fussing over an unsteady constituency wall or a badly written policing bill? Are safe seats actually a good thing for democracy? How much time do MPs in marginal seats spend seeking out and grinning at fairly meaningless photo opportunities?
So STV is far from perfect, but what of AV, the electoral system that is actually on offer? Firstly, I should explain that the polls you see in the media on voting intention aren't opinion polls. They are likely behaviour polls. Every election carried out under FPTP* does not encourage the public to vote honestly for the candidate they favour. AV would grant us the right to vote for the party whose policies we genuinely support without fear of "letting the wrong one in". I for one will support honest representation whenever it is offered to me and I ask all Lib Dem MPs to do the same.
If you see safe seats as bad for democracy then you can build mechanisms into the system to combat this. By way of example, compelling two-term incumbents with substantial majorities to to go up against an alternative candidate from within their party should keep them honest whilst not harming the chances of that party being represented.
Negative campaigning could damage a party's chances of gaining second preference votes from supporters of the candidate they have attacked. Might AV bring about positive, policy-focussed campaigning?
Perhaps the most striking and important example of how AV could have changed history can be found in the American presidential elections (From Wikipedia): "In the 2000 presidential election in Florida, George W. Bush defeated Al Gore by 537 votes. Ralph Nader received 97,421 votes, which led to claims that he was responsible for Gore's defeat. Nader, both in his book Crashing the Party and on his website, states: "In the year 2000, exit polls reported that 25% of my voters would have voted for Bush, 38% would have voted for Gore and the rest would not have voted at all." " Had Nader's supporters been able to express a second preference, it seems likely that George W. Bush would not have been President of the United States of America.
First Past the Post prevents any minor party becoming a major party as in their infancy a vote in their favour will always be regarded as a wasted vote (Most dramatically demonstrated in the US). This is fundamentally undemocratic. It discourages those whose views are similar to an existing candidate's from standing as they might reduce that candidate's chances of victory. That is also fundamentally undemocratic. Should a single issue candidate wish to stand under AV they would be able to point to voters honestly voting for them as a true demonstration that the issue is important to the electorate. Under FPTP, even if people share their views, they will not be able to support them without "wasting" their vote and losing their say in the battle for first place. This is also fundamentally undemocratic.
I hope the amendment tabled by the Lib Dems to ensure that the next government is compelled to return to parliament should they wish the referendum to be shelved is passed. This bill may be the desperate act of a Prime Minister trying to cling to power, but that is no reason to vote against the greatest opportunity Britain has ever had for a better democracy.
Honest representation is essential for this country to move towards genuinely progressive politics and I will tactically vote Labour at the next election if this bill passes and I believe it will help eliminate the tactical vote from all the elections that follow. I will do the very thing I despise to hasten its demise.
We should not support this bill because it will benefit the Lib Dems, but I shall leave you with John Cleese and the thought that AV might free the voters who believe in Liberal Democrat policies to actually vote for Liberal Democrat candidates: http://bit.ly/c1o7M2
*A misnomer as their is no vote share "post" in each constituency which you need to pass. Theoretically the BNP could win a 5-way marginal with 21% of the vote. AV would be more fittingly called First Past the Post as the first person gaining more than 50% of the vote is elected.