Much has been said and written already about the 5th May referendum, when British voters will decide whether UK Parliamentary elections should be carried out under the First Past the Post (FPTP) or Alternative Vote (AV) system. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have already summarised the case for and against the change surprisingly well. Here’s my perspective, though, and possibly a different way of looking at the matter.
The first thing to get clear (at least for the purposes of my discussion) is what the AV vote is not about. One of the problems of the British electoral system is that voters are (or at least think they are) being asked three questions, but are allowed to give only one answer. Under the current system, we vote for an MP, an individual to represent our local area in parliament. We do not, in fact, vote on which party should be in government. Nor do we vote on which person should be Prime Minister and run the country. The three questions are constantly conflated, but under FPTP we only have a say on the first.
Certain reforms would address this problem. Proportional Representation would mean that voters are asked at the polls which party they want in government. Mixed Member P.R. would split the questions of constituency MP and national government and ask both separately. A separate Presidential election would allow voters to choose the leader of the country.
Nothing this radical is involved in the switch to AV. AV asks the same question as FPTP: ‘Who do you want to be the MP for your constituency?’ This means that all the discussion about the effects of AV on the proportionality of parliament or the possibility of coalition government seems to me to miss the point. John Prescott has claimed that AV is a good system for electing individuals (it was the system under which he was elected deputy leader of the Labour party), but a bad one for electing governments. But neither FPTP nor AV are about electing governments, they are systems for electing individual MPs. It is on their merits for this purpose that I’ll try and compare them here.
Comparison is difficult, not least because the economist Kenneth Arrow has long since demonstrated that there is no such thing as a perfect electoral system. Under different circumstances, different systems best reflect the popular will. This can be illustrated with a couple of examples.
Example A: Socialist Split
A. Black (Conservative) 40% B. Brown 60%
B. Brown (Democratic Socialist) 35% A. Black 40%
C. Green (Social Democrat) 25%
The left, true to form, has split, dividing almost equally between the Social Democrats and the Democratic Socialists. Their division stems from some obscure point of doctrine, so there is little substantive difference between them. However, the rift is too bitter to be patched up. Nevertheless, the socialists are all adamant that they would prefer a socialist representative (of any stripe) to a dreaded Conservative. In this case, the FPTP seems clearly to misrepresent the views of the constituency, producing a Conservative MP to stand for a majority of socialists. AV, by contrast would allow the social democrats to use their second preferences to keep the Conservative out.
Example B: Genuine Third Party
A. Butcher (Socialist) 45% B. Baker 55%
B. Baker (Conservative) 35% A. Butcher 45%
C. Smith (Liberal) 20%
Suppose that the Liberal supporters are genuinely liberal, with no real sympathy either for the Conservative or the Socialist. On balance, most of the liberals are more scared of the Socialists, and so their second preferences give the election to the Conservative candidate. In this case, it seems that the FPTP result is better, fired by the positive vision of the Socialist supporters rather than the ambivalence of the liberals.
This example is not straightforward, and many people may have a different intuition that the AV result is preferable. However, these conflicting intuitions seem to get to the heart of the dispute. To put it crudely, FPTP gives victory to the candidate that most people like; AV to the one that fewest hate. AV is for those who fear that a vocal minority can sneak someone despised by the others into power. FPTP is for those who reject this conservative line of thought.
FPTP is best when people vote for a candidate they want to get in; AV when they vote against a candidate they want to keep out. The trouble is that we can never know in advance whether more people are casting their votes for or against politicians.