If the government has its way, on 5 May 2011 there will be a referendum on bringing in the alternative vote (AV) system for electing MPs. With the campaign not far off, and the opinion polls suggesting that there’s everything to play for, it’s time to start thinking more carefully about what arguments, stories and frames will work – and which ones will not.
Both sides will surely look to Australia, which uses AV to elect the House of Representatives and the equivalents house in every state except Tasmania, to back up their cases. We should expect to hear plenty of springboard stories from Australia.
Australia is, after all, an English-speaking democracy whose system of government is based on the Westminster model. No, AV would turn not UK politics into an bigger, old world replica of Australia's. But we can learn a lot from that country about which pro-AV arguments stack up and which will crash and burn.
A House of Commons that looks more like Britain?
A recent Lib Dem event posed the question: “this parliament does not represent us – time for the alternative vote?”
There’s no certainty that AV would produce a House of Commons that was more representative of Britain’s population. Take the issue of gender balance. Australia has used AV in every national election since 1919 and the dearth of women in the country’s political life was much commented upon, for many years.
The last Australian federal election, in 2007, delivered a House of Reps in which just 27% of members were women. This compares to 22% of British MPs today. Such gains that have been made in the representation of Australian women have had nothing to do with the voting system; rather, they can be explained by looking at how the Australian Labor Party (ALP) has used affirmative action programmes [click here]. The (centre-right) Liberal Party has rejected any sort of quota system, preferring to use a Liberal Women's Forum to lobby for more women candidates and to train and help potential candidates through the selection process. But it in the outgoing parliament, the party lagged well behind Labor for having women MPs, much to the obvious chagrin of some Liberal women.
No more safe seats?
Another suggested line of attack is that the current voting system lets too many MPs to stay in safe seats, breeding complacency and arrogance in our politics – one source of the expenses scandals.
The usual definition of a safe seat is that a two-party swing of 10% of more is required to change hands. According to the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), 44% of seats in the UK House of Commons currently fall into this category, compared to 35% of seats in the Australian House of Reps. This is a bit of a crude measure but it suggests that Australian MPs may face more competitive electoral contests than their UK counterparts.
Yet the evidence that AV would end the safe seat syndrome is hardly overwhelming. 32% of seats in the Australian House are “fairly safe” – that is, they need swings of between 5% and 10% to change hands. That figure is rather higher than the 26% of Commons seats that can be classed as “fairly safe”.
As for marginal seats – constituencies that are vulnerable to swing of 5% or less – the two parliaments are close to level pegging. 33% of Australian House seats are marginal, compared to 31% of seats in the Commons.
So, the ERS may be on safer, if less exciting ground, with its description of how AV would be better than first past the post.
One problem of the current system is that MPs are often elected with the support of only a minority of people voting in their constituencies. In the 2005 election, 220 MPs had majority support but 426 did not. This means that most MPs cannot claim to speak for the majority of their constituents, and sometimes the voters of a constituency end up with an MP most of them do not support or like. Under AV, each MP will have had to reach 50 per cent of the vote in order to represent their constituents in parliament, making them more accountable and representative.
The other problem of the current system that AV would solve is that people often have to decide whether to vote for what they really believe, or to cast a vote that will help decide who represents the seat in Parliament (‘tactical voting) . . . .
[AV] would increase voter choice in the sense that it would enable voters to express their second and sometimes third or fourth preferences, and thus free them from a bifurcating choice between realistic and ideological commitment or, as it sometimes is called, voting tactically.
Please note: You can find a new and updated version of this post, here.