So Why Say No to AV? Some Flimsy Arguments

So I’ve been trying to decide on the merits of AV, the proposed Alternative Vote system which might be introduced in the UK.  Just now, Westminster MPs are elected on a first past the post system – in May, the UK electorate will vote in a referendum whether to adopt AV or not.  So, there are two important ports of call in finding out more: Yes to AV, and No to AV, the two main websites advocating each vote.

Before approaching these websites, I’ll admit that I was marginally in favour of AV, but I recognised that such fundamental reform to government should be based on empirical data, not a vague feeling about three inches above my stomach.  I’ve tried my best to be even-handed, and give each side a fair hearing.  Of course, we’re dealing with politics, so clean, verifiable empirical data that is actually reliable goes straight out the window, and replaced with scraps of dog-chewed data that have been smeared in questionable, jingoistic, polemic politician-slaver, and then churned through the inky mills of Fleet Street.  Repeatedly.

I’m going to put aside the ‘cost’ argument, as I find the whole idea repugnant  – should Bevan have changed his mind about the NHS because of costs? You’d be better off  justifying why AV is a bad idea, instead of mewing that even if it is a good idea it’s too damn expensive.  There’s never a good time to do the right thing, and there’ll always be something that seems more urgent in the short term.  But if AV could give us fairer and stronger government, and ultimately better funded, consistently higher-quality public services in the long term, then up-front expenses shouldn’t be putting us off.

That aside, what else is there? the No site says

Voters should decide who the best candidate is, not the voting system.

Absolutely – can’t argue there.  In an ideal world, the voters will always have the first say in which candidate wins – it’s the best definition of democracy I can think of.  But I didn’t vote for the Tories, and they got in (with the Lib Dems, who I did vote for).  The Tories managed to establish a coalition thanks to the voting system, and that decision was made at a distance from the voting public, behind closed doors.  That was not my decision – I didn’t want the Lib Dems to enter a coalition with the Tories, but they did anyway.

The point remains – individual voters do not decide who the best candidate is, the voting system does by aggregating the votes according to the choosing of the voters.  We have been given the choice of FPTP or AV, and it will define every future election.  Our votes will be cast in the context of whatever system we vote in – it is one of the means by which democracy is made imperfect.  The best we can do is reduce the level of imperfection – I’m still not convinced that AV a bad thing yet.

Let’s move on to stronger arguments from the No camp:

three out of the last four elections would have been more disproportional under AV

Can someone show me what the last four elections would have looked like under AV? How would they even know? What percentage of the electorate that voted recorded their second and third preferences?  I’m interested to know how the No camp inferred this data – polling statistics may be sufficient to indicate hypothetical preference, but that still seems like a long way from writing that preference down in a voting booth.  Also, what exactly does ‘disproportional’ mean in this case? I find it confusing.

The No camp continue:

It sticks to the principle of ‘one person, one vote’

And AV doesn’t? Apparently, some people get to vote lots of times if they’re voting for fringe parties.  Complete bunkum! Let’s think why: when the first preference votes are counted, fringe parties will get much less than mainstream parties by definition.  If no-one has more than 50% of the first preference vote, the least popular candidate is discounted from the ballot.  That means that the mainstream candidates will move on to the next round of voting, and the fringe candidates are very likely to disappear early on.  If anything, mainstream voters get lots of ‘votes’, and fringe voters will see their candidates eliminated early on.  Their specious arguments aside, AV is still ‘one person, one vote’.  What’s happening is that the ‘vote’ is no longer a single X, it’s a list of numbers.

OK, I’m not going to make an exhaustive list of counter-arguments (after all, that’ll spoil the fun for you!), so I’ll end with my absolute favourite:

It’s the most widely used system in the world

This is the most ludicrous reasoning I’ve seen in any political situation.  It invites the classic mother’s rejoinder: “Well, would you jump off a bridge if everyone else was doing it?” It says absolutely nothing about the quality of FPTP, except that as a relatively simple system it has been used for a long time.

Also, their list of countries which use FPTP include – for example – Canada, India and the USA,  all former colonies of the UK, so of course they’ll use the same bloody voting system! AV was only invented in 1871, shortly after the UK’s Second Reform Act of 1867, which gave all working-class men the vote for the first time.  It’s quite natural for a new voting system to take time to become popular – early adopters (like Australia) need to provide sufficient empirical evidence to begin convincing other countries to take it on.  So, if you happen to present this “everyone else is doing FPTP” argument to me, don’t be surprised if I struggle to suppress a snigger.

Well, you may think I’ve made my mind up, and to some extent I have.  But I’m open to persuasion – is that the best you can do, No to AV? Show me a good argument and you might have an extra vote!


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