AV: The fair alternative

By Jonathan Bartley
January 17, 2011

The referendum on whether we should use the Alternative Vote (AV) system to elect MPs to the House of Commons, offers us a small but significant change which could make a big difference.

The arguments over AV have often centred on speculation about the extent to which the new system would (dis)advantage any particular party. This can sometimes be informative – for example, the BNP are opposed to AV because they realise it would make it impossible for the party to get someone elected to Westminster in the same way that they have succeeded in local council elections under the First Past The Post (FPTP) System.

For most of us however, calculations about electoral advantage will not be central to how we decide to vote. (Indeed, for some, the priority placed on self-interested calculations may raise questions in themselves). Other factors such as what it might mean for the accountability of MPs, how we do our politics, order our public life and what it means for our everyday lives will be more important.

Following the MPs expenses scandal, it was pointed out that there was a correlation between involvement in the scandal and “safe seats”. At the May 2010 general election the correlation between some safe seats, low electoral turnout and social deprivation was also highlighted. It is also notable that beyond democracy groups, a wide range of civil society groups who work with some of society’s most vulnerable people are backing the “yes” campaign, believing that it will make a significant difference to their lives. It is worth noting too that a number of charities have been attacked for allegedly supporting the 'Yes' campaign, by the 'No' campaign. (The Charity Commission has now issued guidance to say that it is acceptable to be involved in the referendum, provided it is within charity objectives).

Whatever one feels about the validity of these perspectives, it is clear that such issues cannot be divorced from debates about electoral reform.

The Report of the Independent Commission on the Voting System (The ‘Jenkins Commission’) observed that “Fairness in representation is a complex concept... and one to which the upholders of First Past the Post (FPTP) do not appear to attach great importance”. In the referendum campaign however issues such as ‘fairness’ should be central.

Over the next few weeks (hopefully!) I am going to post a series of reflections which will draw out some of the dimensions to the AV debate which relate to these kinds of issues. I will link to them below as I write them.

AV: The fair alternative
1. A more honest alternative
2. A more consistent alternative
3. A more just alternative
4. An anti-extremist alternative

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.