AV – the unanswered questions

Posted on: 05 May 2011 by Alexander Hay

The proposed new system is neither radical nor practical enough

AV may well be a shot in the dark

Today, apparently, history will be made. Voters will get to choose whether the UK keeps its First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system or try something (vaguely) new in the form of the Alternative Vote (AV) model.

It seems the majority of voters favour FPTP at present, if the latest polls are anything to go by, but the final result will depend on the turnout for the local elections, in which the referendum question will also be posed.

But even as the PR firestorm escalates and reaches the point where representatives of both sides start being rude to each other on the internet, no one has actually asked or answered the question - why AV and not any other model of electoral reform?

What we have at the moment is the equivalent of a restaurant offering only one flavour of ice cream and everyone arguing over whether they like raspberry ripple or not.

Why can't we ask our 'waiters' (or rather, politicians) if they have any other flavours? (Or perhaps spotted dick with custard, or the electoral equivalent thereof.) How can we have faith in AV when we're not being trusted to pick from any other alternative system?

After all, if we're going to have an electoral reform debate, then surely other options are available too. How about more regular elections? Or an upper house with real powers, its members elected proportionally based on the percentage of the vote their party received at the last election?

Or maybe we should go not for an electoral model in every case, but call up people to serve as legislators in the same way we're called up for jury service. Why not true proportional representation? Or just make FPTP votes equal? Instead we're being offered either one sort of change only or no change at all.

This brings us to another unanswered question. Why are there so many people who are keen on AV? Well, if you look at who those supporters are, you get your answer.

Nick Clegg is keen on AV because it lets him look like a radical reformer while remaining wedded to the Tories. The other Lib Dems are all in favour because it means more seats. Ed Miliband got the Labour leadership precisely because of an AV-based system used by his party.

Meanwhile, Labour itself calculates that a never ending coalition between Labour and the Lib Dems will keep the Tories out for ever more. (Many Conservatives, naturally, favour FPTP because they're more likely to retain their seats.)

Then there is what happens if a 'Yes' vote prevails tomorrow. What if the new system turns out to be riddled with flaws and actually makes people even less willing to vote?

The Australian hypocrisy of compulsory voting wouldn't go down too well in the UK. And if the AV system leads to our first BNP MP or three, expect a fair few angst-ridden Guardian editorials, but not much more will be done.

The adoption of AV will be, for at least a generation, a one-way process. There will be no chance to reverse or replace it with something better for quite some time. It seems rather foolhardy, then, to risk so much on something that appears second best.

Yet will electoral reform really be a cure for our political woes? If the same kind of person continues to be elected, and for the most part, it will, then all AV will do is change how a politician wins but not what that politician represents.

We now have a political class in this country and any attempt to reform our politics must, by definition, include challenging the often cosy and distant nature of Westminster politics. Perhaps it's not electoral reform we should be pursuing, but rather, a better kind of politics regardless of how we vote for it.

It may well be the case that AV is simply a trap - a distraction from genuine debate about introducing real proportionality into our system or making our politicians more accountable.

At a distance, it LOOKS like a radical change, but what it is in effect is a complexifying of the existing FPTP system, where the process of voting is made more time consuming rather than more representative.

What AV is really about, in the end, are the same old machinations, weak-wristed compromises, murky-headed schemes and impracticalities of our political system. In other words, AV will simply be an updated version of business as usual.

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Alexander Hay

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