The questions that Alternative Voting poses

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Posted on: 08 March 2011 by Alexander Hay

Will AV make things better, worse or just more complicated?

Ken Clarke seems to have developed a unique argument against AV, according to the BBC - it seems the new system would result in more 'odd' politicians, which may well come as a surprise to those who think they're all bizarre anyway.

This does raise an important question, however. Can there be too much democracy? We are, after all, a constitutional monarchy with a democratic element, as opposed to a pure democracy. Those who think this might be a good idea would do well to look at Switzerland where a decentralised and far more electorate-driven system results in xenophobia and not being able to officially live somewhere if the locals don't like you.

AV may be a move in that direction, but it might instead be a remedy for our democratic deficit. After all, a system that requires an MP wins 50% of all the votes is at least one where politicians have to work for a living.

But again, we have a similar situation in Australia where you have to not only vote for a candidate but rate them in order of preference from an often bewildering array of candidates. Worse, down under you're forced by law to vote, which rather defeats the point of democracy.

After all, if you can't choose not to vote, then that's hardly a system that respects your choice but sees you instead as a tool in its self-legitimisation.

Fittingly, the last serious discussion for this to be introduced into the UK was under the previous Labour government, as it grew increasingly authoritarian. By contrast, at least AV wants to give people more choices than restrict them.

But this isn't a debate about getting people into the ballot box so much as what they do once they're inside it. Will we get a more democratic system? If AV voting leads to the UK's first BNP MP or a slew of seats for fringe parties like UKIP and the Socialist Workers' Party then the political landscape will certainly have been changed, but not necessarily for the better. We may have to accept that no system is perfect and fiddling about with the one we've got may simply complicate matters.

And yet has First Past The Post really been good for the UK? Sizeable areas that have and always will be Labour or Tory aren't so much democrat (or rather, publicly accountable) as dynastic and stagnant. Might not a system that allows minority voters a greater say count at least for something?

As turnout falls and politicians grow ever more despised, the answer may well have to be AV. But it may simply be another political trick - the biggest supporters of the measure are the Liberal Democrats, who still like to style themselves as the third alternative, or perhaps the least of three evils. Given the bad blood they have fostered and the vindictive nature of the British electorate, they might find that AV is no friend of theirs either.

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Alexander Hay

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