AV: A more consistent alternative

By Jonathan Bartley
January 18, 2011

As outlined in the previous post, AV would enable people to vote ‘with their heart as well as their head’. First Past the Post steers many people in the direction of voting for people they don’t really support, simply because they are considered to be the least worst option, or to keep another candidate out. AV empowers us to put our convictions into action without worrying about tactical voting. But there are other issues of consistency too, most notably with regard to the systems politicians themselves use, when compared to the system they want voters to use to elect them.

When MPs are themselves the voters, they have a clear tendency to choose AV (or similar systems) as their preferred voting system. AV (instant runoff) and other runoff systems are used to elect the leaders of their parties, chairs of select committees, the speaker of the House of Commons, and select candidates in local constituencies. The process of election of the speaker of the House of Commons for example was recently changed by MPs to require more than a 50 per cent majority, with candidates in last place being eliminated in each round of voting. The chairs of House of Commons select committees are also elected by AV.

It is notable that if the Conservative party leadership elections had been held under First Past the Post rather than a runoff system, their leaders since 1997 would have been different every time based on the first round result in each election. The eventual winning candidates in every case lost the first round. They however went on to win once everyone’s preferences were taken into account because they were the candidate that most people preferred.

Until this point however, MPs have not given us the opportunity of a system that they themselves use. The referendum on the Alternative Vote is the first time ever that we will have a choice in how we elect our MPs. And this is despite the fact that at election after election, millions of people have voted for a change.

Different parties have proposed different changes of course. It is well known that the Lib Dems have long advocated a referendum on electoral reform. As long ago as 1997 Labour promised in their manifesto a referendum on changing the voting system for Westminster – something which they failed to deliver. But the move toward AV was specifically backed in Labour’s 2010 manifesto, not just so people had a choice for the first time ever in the system that they use but, to quote the manifesto:

“To ensure that every MP is supported by the majority of their constituents voting at each election”.

The manifesto went beyond simply proposing that for the first time people should have a choice over the voting system in a referendum. The Labour party advocated a specific system – AV – and it did so for the reason of a specific principle - because Labour felt it was right that MPs should be supported by the majority of their constituents.

But these consistencies also highlight a number of inconsistencies. It puts those MPs who are backing the “no” campaign in an awkward position. The campaign claims in its new campaign leaflet that it is a “shame we are spending months debating the system”. Not a shame that we might adopt it, but that we are even having a debate at all. Is this a position which “No” MPs share? Do they also agree with the strange claim of the “No” campaign that AV allows votes (not preferences) to be counted several times, and that voting 'No'. “defends one person one vote”. If so, why have they already chosen AV and other runoff systems to conduct their own business? And most of all, why are they denying to voters a system that they themselves have chosen to order their own affairs?

Both the consistencies of AV and the inconsistencies of its opponents deserve further scrutiny as the campaign progresses.

This is the second in a series of 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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