No to AV: The Case Against Electoral Reform

Posted on April 11, 2011

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The second of our two-part series looking at issues surrounding the UK-wide referendum on the electoral system on 5 May 2011. The first part, Yes to AV: The Case For Electoral Reform, can be found here.

Sir John Stokes, known for his robust views, once said that there ‘is no better qualification for a minister than to have been to Eton and served in the Guards’, and that the Commons benches should have more retired military Officers, ‘more squires, landowners, and country gents’. He was considered an eccentric, but in place of the aristocratic ideal of noblesse oblige – a moral ecology in which those born into privileged positions were supposed to have instilled in them a sense of duty toward their perceived social inferiors – we now have a faustian pact between politicians and voters, the former pledging to enact measures which financially benefit the latter if they elect them to powerful positions.

It may be impossible to bring back the officers and the gentlemen, but the way to get the ‘new politics’ that supporters of Alternative Vote (AV) want to see is by encouraging ‘gentlemanly’ ideals – themselves timeless and classless – in the modern political class, and in order to do this, we need to foster these ideals in the wider national culture. Along with chivalry and integrity, a defining characteristic of a gentleman was the way in which he used power to help others, rather than to help himself. The current referendum is part of a ‘blame the system’ culture, and feeds the lie that our problems can be solved simply by reforming institutions and procedures. Just as regulating banks proves ineffective without virtuous bankers, changing the voting system will make no difference if the political and social culture is one of self-interest and careerism instead of public service and dedication to the common good. After the initial excitement, voters will moan in despair the morning after the General Election upon waking up next to same crowd of poseurs it went to bed with the previous evening. The referendum is asking an irrelevant question, and – despite its supporters waxing lyrical about ‘transformation’ and ‘change’ – will do nothing to change our political culture, but much to distract us from the more important debate that we should be having about standards in public life.

For those who stand to benefit from the current low standards, it is important that we should not have this debate, and that is one reason why – having taken a break from bashing the House of Lords (perhaps to divert attention from themselves) – they have given us this referendum instead. At a time when trust in politicians has never been so low, empowering them to change fundamental features of the constitution shows all the wisdom of letting a demented elephant loose in a ming vase warehouse.

Supporters of AV could claim that a ‘yes’ vote extends our involvement in the electoral process. Who would not welcome this? More power to the electorate may sound very appealing. Instead of having one vote that we can cast only once, we would have as many votes as candidates on the ballot paper. Yet there is an inherent bias surrounding the value of voters’ secondary preferences – a third or fourth preference is worth the same as the first. As Daniel Finkelstein argued in The Times recently, taking secondary preferences into account is one thing, giving a tenth preference the same weight as a first is quite another.

Instead of putting all their support behind one candidate, voters under AV would be able to spread their support, much like spreading bets across the field at a race-course. It is impossible for each bet to win, but the blow of one’s losses is softened. Most gamblers do not go in for such a complex method of betting. Both horses, and voting in General Elections, are a long way from the complex world of investment banking in which slick traders are used to spreading their bets. Understanding the complicated relationship between one’s votes under AV, and the possible outcomes of an election, requires a much more cumbersome approach. Its supporters are keen to play down this level of involvement, arguing that it will encourage candidates to work harder to win votes, and that they would do well to appeal to those voters who might list them as second preferences.

Whilst some will relish the opportunity to vote in such a calculated way, there will be others for whom the idea of having to list one’s twelfth preference will be baffling. Some will do the number-crunching and vote tactically, others will simply vote for the candidate they genuinely support – exactly as happens under the present system (what was that about ‘change’?). While Britain took a week to form the Coalition Government (a highly unusual result), Australia took almost three weeks just to work out the result of their General Election last year – such is the complexity of AV.

Statistical training in schools may improve as students grapple with the complexities of AV. Those so trained may also improve their capacity for effective gambling. We may see greater interest in politics as voters will have to know more about individual candidates in order effectively to establish their preferences. But none of these advantages is cited by its supporters.

Instead they claim it is fairer (which it is not), that it will bring an end to tactical voting (which it will not), that it can provide us with a Government that more people support (which it cannot), and that it will herald the dawn of a new and glorious era in British politics in which politicians and people will lie down together as the lion and the lamb in peace and harmony (do they really believe their own rhetoric?).

First-Past-the-Post – a system trusted by half the world – is simple and elegant. My vote is of equal worth to that of the Prime Minister and the street sweeper. General Elections are a time of great levelling and should remain that way.

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Posted in: British Politics