AV: A more honest alternative

By Jonathan Bartley
January 17, 2011

Casting a vote is a way of registering and publicly demonstrating support for a candidate or a political perspective which we want to endorse. It is an act of ‘witness’ to what we believe is right or at least best. But it is one which is made difficult, and even discouraged, under present arrangements.

At general elections many of us are pulled in two directions. The particular candidate that we want to support may have little chance of winning, and so we may feel our only option is to vote for another candidate who has a more ‘realistic’ chance. We may even vote negatively, simply to try and keep a particular candidate or party from getting elected.

And this is something that gets reinforced. Many of us will be familiar with leaflets through our doors during general elections (sometimes with a dubious graph seeking to demonstrate vote share, saying: “Only (this party) can beat (the other party) here”. The literature reflects the reality that we are encouraged to vote tactically, albeit reluctantly, for the candidate who often isn’t actually the one that we may really believe is the best - or would best represent us.

If when we vote, we are responding to the question “who do you think should be your MP?” many of us are responding with an answer that isn’t accurate via the ballot box. Someone who prefers Labour in a Tory-held seat where the Lib Dems are in second place may (until now!) have voted Lib Dem. A UKIP supporter may opt for a Conservative candidate to keep a Lib Dem out. Someone who would prefer a Green may opt for Labour believing that their own candidate has no chance of success.

The Alternative Vote offers us a solution which removes the need for such tactical voting. As the Jenkins Commission Report observed: “[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.”

Put another way, AV allows us to vote with both our heads and our hearts. The Alternative Vote system allows us to truthfully express our real preferences in the knowledge that if our particular candidate does not win, our next preference can still be counted.

Not only does this encourage a more truthful vote, but it would also means that politicians get a much better idea of what kind of support they actually have. Many candidates will have found it hard to gain support simply because of the history of a particular seat, which may have been in the possession of just one particular party for decades, often with fewer and fewer voting at each election because they don’t see the point when a seat never changes hands. AV however, encourages the true feelings of voters to be expressed more easily, communicating a far more accurate picture, making it much clearer what kind of mandate the MP actually has.

But might a different type of tactical voting emerge under AV in which some parties try to encourage their supporters to give preferences to other parties which are considered the least threat to them? Andrew White suggests that voting tactically under AV would in fact be so complicated and involve so many calculations and judgements, there is little incentive to attempt it. Indeed, it could easily backfire on those who attempt it.

This is the first in a series of 20 posts exploring different aspects of AV

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

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