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Is the Alternative Vote the answer? Is it even the right question?

2011 April 17
by Paul Vallely

Does Christianity have anything distinctive to say, a reader asked last month, about how we should vote in the referendum on the method we use for electing our Members of Parliament? How Would Jesus Vote, as the Votiness Movement might put it.

The search for ethical integrity is an understandable impulse, given the wild dishonesty of both sides in much of the debate over whether our First Past the Post system should be replaced by the Alternative Vote. It’s not been an attractive ad for modern politics. The advocates of saying No to AV have resorted to some pretty crude tactics, dismissing it as too complicated and too costly – with emotive ads like the one showing a bawling new-born baby with the words: “She needs a maternity unit NOT an alternative voting system”.

The AV enthusiasts, on the other hand, have resorted to ad hominem associations, as if being on the same side as Colin Firth or, heaven offend, Richard Dawkins, were some kind of argument. If the BNP are against AV it must be a good thing, their argument goes. This is all as paltry as suggesting that we should say No to AV to give its most prominent advocate, Nick Clegg, a bloody nose for his Great Betrayal of progressive politics.

So how do we determine the common good? The first step is to strip out vested interest.  It may be understandable for individuals to moan: “I’m in a safe seat so my vote is always wasted”. But that impulse is as partial as that of the opponent who says “we don’t need change because my party gets into power fairly often”. Personal interest is no argument. Nor is that of those politicians who work out what will give best results for their party and then construct the argument backwards from that desideratum.

But systems are not value-free so let’s start with some values. AV is more honest, advocates say, because it removes the need for tactical voting, producing a more truthful result in which politicians get a much better idea of the support, and mandate, they actually have.  But a tactical voting is still possible under AV, as a perceptive paper by the Ipsos Mori Social Research Institute revealed in February – and in ways which sound completely counterintuitive until you see the maths. Voters could easily change their current behaviour faced with a new system. AV tactical voting might be even less “honest” than the current system.

So which produces greater justice? AV means that parties will need to listen to a wider range of voices. The Conservatives, for example, will need to pay greater heed to social justice, or green issues, since they will want to attract the second preferences of voters who are not party of the core Tory vote. But that will also make politicians more bland and centrist in their caution not to alienate anyone. The system will squeeze out maverick politicians who have traditionally put principles before popularity – on nuclear weapons, abortion, gypsy rights, faith schools, religious liberty or anything outside the metropolitan consensus.

Which is fairest? AV ensures that every winner is acceptable to at least 50 per cent of those voting. But the winner will be the least-disliked rather than the most-liked candidate. The two are not the same thing, as the last Labour leadership showed where David Miliband was the most-liked but was trumped by his brother Ed who was the least unpopular. The BBC’s politics department did an interesting thought-experiment in 2009 taking 100 voters and asking them to put four voting systems in order of preference. They then counted the result using the four respective systems. Each found in its own favour.

Fairness, in the end, does not lie in the maths. Tim Harford of the Financial Times, who applies the techniques of economics to non-economic issues, has shown a percentage of seats in parliament does not equal the same percentage of political power; the Lib Dems got far fewer seats than Labour last time, yet one has power and the other has none. And if we go for proportional representation why should that proportion reflect party preferences rather than voters’ race, religion or gender? Anyway, fairness has become a slippery notion in Coalition Britain. Fairness is what Cameron and Clegg demand as they insist we look at the world through their eyes; justice what we see when we look through the eyes of others.

The AV debate is also bedevilled by inaccurate comparisons with other countries. AV hasn’t increased the likelihood of hung parliaments in Australia, where it has been in use longest. But enthusiasts omit to say that voting is compulsory in Oz, as is ranking every single individual on the ballot form. And there is no significant third force, like the Lib Dems, there.

In the UK it’s likely that AV really will mean more hung parliaments, simply because it will almost certainly increase the number of LibDem MPs – requiring Tories or Labour to get an even bigger lead over the other than at present to get a majority. That would mean more post-election coalition negotiations. It is hard to see how deals in backrooms – smoke-filled in the case of Nick Clegg – can be said to be more honest, fair or open than a system where the horse-trading is done before the election, and voters end up with several packages on the table from which to choose.

Look at opinion polls in the past and you find that the British have always rather liked the idea of electoral reform. But we have also always preferred a system likely to lead to stable majority government. That Ipsos MORI report showed that public opinion can be swayed either way, depending on how the question was worded.

None of which suggests that the public detects much in the way of a moral core to the decision. One of the great impulses in politics is a public determination that “something must be done” about this or that. A lot could turn on whether that mood is in the air. But even if it is, it is far from clear that that “something” is the Alternative Vote.

from Third Way

All voting systems are unfair to part of the electorate. But are some more unfair than others?

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