Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 18 March 2011

The week before last, Tribune published a letter from Terry Ashton, one-time general secretary of the London Labour Party, arguing that my last column had not substantiated my claim that the alternative vote is worse than first past the post for parliamentary elections. I know it’s not done for columnists to abuse their privileged position to take issue with letters to the editor, but what the hell – this one needs to be thrashed out.

My starting point is that the main problem with first past the post is that it is not proportional. It is based entirely on single-member constituencies and has no mechanism to ensure that the share of parliamentary seats won by parties reflects their overall level of support.

Indeed, in most general elections of the past 80 years, FPTP has yielded spectacularly disproportionate results, the beneficiaries being the Conservative and Labour parties and the losers the Liberals (and their successors) and other smaller parties. At the last general election, the Conservative Party won 36 per cent of the vote but 47 per cent of Commons seats, Labour won 29 per cent of the vote but 40 per cent of seats and the Lib Dems won 23 per cent of the vote and only 9 per cent of seats. In five out of the last eight general elections – 1979, 1983, 1987, 1997 and 2001 – parties have won landslide Commons majorities on much less than half the vote.

Now, proportionality is not the only criterion by which electoral systems can be judged – and supporters of first past the post argue that its main strengths are precisely a function of its disproportionality, that it usually delivers clear victories for either Labour or the Tories and that it tends to prevent extremists from gaining a foothold in parliament. Post-election haggling over coalition arrangements is the exception rather than the norm under FPTP, they say, and the disproportionality of the Lib Dems’ representation excludes them from undue influence as perpetual king-makers.

As it happens, I believe that the benefits of proportionality – both in giving legitimacy to the electoral system and in allowing relatively easy development of new parties – would out-weigh the supposed disadvantages. But this is irrelevant in the context of the May 5 referendum.

The referendum gives us a straight choice between AV and FPTP; and, despite the claims of some of its proponents, AV is neither a proportional system, nor a “more” proportional system than FPTP, nor a step towards a more proportional system. AV is simply preferential voting in single-member constituencies. Voters mark their ballots “1, 2, 3, 4 …” instead of “X”; if no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of first preferences, the second preferences of the last placed candidate are distributed, and so on until one candidate reaches 50 per cent.

So what makes AV worse than FPTP? Advocates of AV say that it has the advantage of ensuring that every MP is elected with 50 per cent or more of the vote – but it also turns electioneering into a desperate battle for the second, third and fourth preferences of fringe candidates. It eliminates tactical voting in the sense that it makes it unnecessary for voters to make considered choices between voting for someone they want and voting for someone with a chance of winning – but it does so only by allowing some voters more than one bite of the cherry.

The worst problem with AV, however, is that it in the long term it would probably be even less proportional and even less conducive to pluralism than FPTP. No one can know precisely what its effects would be in Britain – and guesswork based on recent general elections has been rendered obsolete by the Lib Dems’ entry into government with the Tories.

But the 90-year experience of Australia suggests that AV has even more of a tendency than FPTP to force politics into a de facto two-party mode.

In Australia, elections for the lower house of parliament, the House of Representatives, are a stand-off between the centre-left Labor Party and a permanent conservative coalition of the Liberal and National parties (as they are now known). One reason the conservative coalition became permanent is a function of AV: each right-wing party needs the second preferences of supporters of the other to win seats – so each formally recommends that its supporters give their second preferences to the other to keep Labor out.

Parties outside these two blocs are more effectively excluded from the Australian House of Representatives than they are from the House of Commons. Partly because of this, landslide parliamentary majorities on minorities of first-preference votes are more common in Australia even than landslides for minority-supported parties under FPTP in Britain.

Of course, the disproportional effects of AV could be mitigated if it were used in conjunction with regional top-up seats, as recommended by Roy Jenkins’s Independent Commission on the Voting System in 1998. But “AV-plus” isn’t on offer on May 6 or at any time afterwards. Nor is what Australia has that Britain has not – an elected upper chamber with a quasi-proportional electoral system under which smaller parties have repeatedly won representation.

If we vote yes, we get AV pure and simple, without an elected second chamber, and we get it for keeps. And, even though it puts me in the same camp as the dreadful David Owen on an important issue for the first time in 30 years, that’s why I’m voting “No to AV, Yes to PR”.

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