Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Sorting the good arguments for AV from the bad (revised and updated)

I will be voting “Yes” to AV on 5 May.

But in some ways I will be doing so in spite rather than because of the case that has been put forward by the “Yes” campaign.

For a start, I’m not convinced that AV would make “lazy MPs” work any harder. Nor is there any evidence that the 2010 expenses scandal would have been averted under AV. The causes of the scandal were relatively low pay for MPs, generous expenses, a lack of openness, and old-fashioned greed in too many cases. They could have surfaced under any electoral system.

Another argument is that the current voting system allows too many MPs to stay in safe seats year after year, thereby breeding complacency and arrogance in our politics – one source of the expenses scandals.

Let’s look at the evidence. We are being offered the same “optional AV” system as is used in the Australian states of New South Wales and Queensland. Voting in Australia is compulsory, making valid comparisons a little tenuous, but following the March 2011 state election in NSW, 55 of the 93 seats in the state parliament (59%) are “safe”; that is, a two-party swing of 10% of more is required for them to change parties.

According to the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), 44% of seats in the UK House of Commons currently fall into this category.

OK, last month’s NSW election saw an electoral landslide of historic proportions, that made a lot of conservative coalition candidates much bigger margins than they would otherwise have enjoyed. Still, before the 2011 election, 44% of the seats in the NSW parliament were considered “safe”.

And in Australia’s Federal House of Representatives, which is elected using the non-optional form of AV, 40% of the seats are now “safe”.

In short, the evidence that AV would end the safe seat syndrome is hardly overwhelming.

So, why change to AV?

First, even though AV is not a “proportional” voting system, it would be fairer to third parties and independent candidates than first past the post (FPTP). The ABC’s elections expert Antony Green has shown that in NSW and Queensland, middle ground independent and minor party candidates have better chances of winning under AV rules than under FPTP. They can still win from first place, and have new opportunities to win from second place on preferences. But candidates from the extremes of politics find it harder to win under AV because they need to achieve a majority of support after the distribution of preferences, not just a majority on first tally of votes.

As the Financial Times said in its leader (26 April 2011):

The real appeal of AV, and why Britain should vote for change, lies in the fact that it is more sympathetic to smaller parties. FPTP, a winner-takes-all system, may have served Britain well for many years because its politics used to split naturally into two big teams. They no longer do. At last year’s general election, the Conservative and Labour parties won just 65 per cent of the vote.
And, it must be added, 86 per cent of the seats in the Commons.

The FT went on to explain how the current system drives voters to vote tactically:

Under FPTP there are no prizes for coming second. So voters who do not think their favourite candidate can win often cast ballots for other representatives with stronger hopes of success. FPTP thus tends to drive voters towards two big parties and under-rewards smaller blocs for the votes that they win . . .

. . . AV would allow voters to register their support for their first-choice party, however slim its hopes of success appeared. Smaller parties should have their true levels of popular support recognised at the ballot box. Theresults should be less unfair to the Lib Dems, in particular.

The elegant words of Roy Jenkins sum up the second part of the case for AV:

[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.

Third, AV would enhance the democratic legitimacy of the House of Commons. Under first past the post, MPs are often elected with the support of only a minority of people voting in their constituencies. At the 2010 election, two out of three MPs were elected without the support of the majority of voters. In other words, most MPs cannot claim to speak for the majority of their constituents.

Under AV, each MP would have had to reach 50 per cent of the vote in order to win. They would need to reach out across party lines to win the support of a majority of voters. As a long time observer of Australian politics, I don’t buy the argument that AV would make election campaigns nicer and more cuddly. But candidates would, most likely, work harder and MPs would be more representative of the people they are meant to serve.

No, AV is not a miracle cure for the ills of British politics. But it would make for a politics that are better than what we have now.

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