AV: the pointless sister of 'first past the post'

On May 5th, Britain goes to the polls in a referendum about the 'alternative vote' electoral system: but what exactly is the point of AV?

The NO2AV camp has focused on the cost of the system
Nic Conner
On 19 April 2011 15:32

What is the point of the alternative vote (AV)? Really, what is the point of it? I have been to many of the AV debates and listened to all the arguments and it seems to me that all the alleged benefits of AV are simply illusory.

The first benefit the Yes to AV lot propose is that it makes constituency elections fair since MPs will be voted in by a minimum of 50 percent of the voters. Wrong.

The only way this could happen is by making it compulsory to use all your preferences; this is not what would happen here in the UK if AV became our voting system. We would have the option to either use one preference or, if your seat had 20 people standing, 20 preferences. Radio 5 Live had a good AV debate where they asked the audience to join in a mock AV election, the winner won without hitting the 50 percent threshold. If you do the number crunching this would be a common theme under ‘UK AV’.

It would not really be 50 percent of the votes, it be something like 20 percent for the person the people voted for, then added onto that would be 15 percent of people’s second choice vote, 10 percent third choice vote, and five percent fourth choice vote. So not the 50 percent people actually wanted but more the 30 percent people disliked the least.

Yes to AV also claim that it will give smaller parties more of a voice. Well, again this is wrong. If you look at Australia, one of the three countries in the entire world who use it, along with Papua New Guinea and the military junta-led Fiji, AV has all but killed off smaller parties making it a two party system. Out of the 150 seats up for grabs at the last election in Australia 144 of them were taken up by the two main parties.

They say that smaller parties will gain because the bigger parties will have to appeal to the voters of smaller parties. This might come as a shock but politicians sometimes lie, and under AV politicians will have more reasons to promise more of what they don’t believe in and can’t actually achieve so as to appeal to voters not naturally allied with them.

One of my favourite lines from ‘Yes to AV’ is that it will end tactical voting. This is ludicrous. In fact it brings about much more tactical voting. You need to work out where to put your vote for the biggest effect. In Australia, on your way to the voting booth you have to, as they say down under, “run the gauntlet” of party activists handing out how-to-vote cards. These cards are the parties’ lists of how you should preference your votes. The ordering of many of the preferences is done behind closed doors as the parties strike deals and together work out where they will put each party on their list of preferences.

So under AV not much will change, and what will change will make matters worse. There will still be safe seats. There still won’t be a requirement for a genuine 50 percent of the votes. Bigger parties will still rule the roost. People will still have to vote tactically.

The Yes to AV camp knows all this, and most of their spokespeople have been quoted speaking against AV in the past since their real preference, of course, is for proportional representation, to which they hope AV is a stepping stone.

Is it really worth plumping for AV just so its current “supporters” can later say how bad it is and that we then need another referendum to get what they really wanted to start with?

It’s like dumping your long time girlfriend for her ugly sister that you don’t really like, just so you have a chance with her friend who probably wouldn’t go out with you anyway. AV is just pointless.

Nic Conner is a freelance campaigns consultant.  Follow on Twitter: @Niconner

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