Labour’s Alternative Vote system is a recipe for permanent inertia

This post was written by Reuben on April 24, 2010
Posted Under: Democracy

Electoral reform is an odd thing. Lots of people want it but for as many different reasons. For some, there is a basic democratic imperative to ensure that parliament reflects more proportionally the expressed will of the people . For some Lib Dems, getting rid of first past the post might primarily be a tactical necessity. For me it is about the kind of radical democracy I want Britain to have.

Sadly I believe that the alternative vote system proposed by Brown will take us further from the radical and dynamic democracy that we need. Single member constituencies will be maintained, but voters will rank candidates in order of preference. If no canditate gets more than 50% of the vote, then second preferences will be taken into account to determine the winner.

When I put the case for PR in the past, I argued that the current system artificially maintains the dominance of the major parties, and systematically excludes smaller and newer parties from political representation. And while the Alternative Vote system might lead to a fairer distribution of seats amongst the big three, the AV system – by redistributing votes from smaller parties to the biggest – will not fundamentally challenge the exclusion of minority tendencies.

Perhaps more importantly, AV is a recipe for an inoffensive democracy, and I don’t mean that in a good way. In a deeply unequal and differntiated society such as ours, any politician wishing to make serious use of the political process must, by necessity, champion some interests at the expense of others. Yet politicians who rely on clocking up second preference votes to win polls will, by contrast, be compelled to offend the fewest people possible. A politician with a bold vision that inspires a substantial portion of the electorate to pick him as their first choice will not be returned to parliament. A politician who seems tolerable to the widest section of people, will.

The major arguent in favour of AV is that, by keeping single member constituencies, it keeps hold of the good old constituency MP, capable of going to London to speak up for the men and women of his locality. Yet the idea of the constituency MP – returend to parliament to represent 100,000 odd people who happen to live is his or her constituency – is to some extent romanticised garbage. Throughout his or her careers an MP will be called upon to take decisions which disavow the interests and values of substantial sections of the constituents. In this sense the idea of a “constituency mp” owes more to our sentimental attachment to place and province (perhaps a curiously british disease) than to political reality.

By contrast, a truly proportional system – which does away with single member constituencies – is arguably more honest. An MP is elected not as the “member for lancaster” but as a socialist, conservative or liberal”. They are their to speak for those who have chosen to support their agenda and stand to benefit from it. As such we, the citizens, are represented not merely as residents of particular localities but as agents.

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Reader Comments

Richard T

The other, and to me the stronger, argument is that it transfers power from the party to the voter.

We have a party list system for the European Parliament where the party choice gets elected and the voter cannot express any preference. Under single transferrable voting, we get to choose who gets in. As an example, should I be a Labour voter in say Leicester and I cannot stand my Labour MP, I have a choice of holding my nose and voting the party ticket, voting for another more preferable candidate outwith my party preference or abstaining. Under STV I could happily vote the party line on say 2 of the 3 and give my xteenth preference to the one I cannot stand. That gives me the power and not the party machine.

Written By Richard T on April 25th, 2010 @ 11:14 am

On a related point to Richard’s, the big danger of PR (at least assuming you have a closed list system, which is pretty much the only practical option with 600+ seats up for grabs) is that it will greatly reduce the space for dissent within parties as you could easily have candidate lists drawn up by party leaders, who would most likely choose party loyalists to stand. I think the best way is probably to have a combination of the two, (i.e. AV+) – elections to the Scottish Parliament and London and Welsh Assemblies already have a top-up system like that (though without the AV aspect).

Written By Owen on April 25th, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

Either that, Owen, or you’d see a big rise in party membership so that you maintain some popular control of lists. Wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Written By Jacob on April 25th, 2010 @ 2:06 pm
Tom F

Owen – I think it is possible that PR ‘will greatly reduce the space for dissent within parties’, but this should be more than compensated for by making the majority of seats more competitive. Internal debate seems important in a system where two parties have 2/3 of the seats sewn up, but it is surely a poor second (in terms of transparency & genuine democracy) to genuine inter-party debate.

Relatedly, in a close-fought seat a party that deselected a popular local ‘rebel’, or who seemed too blatantly to impose a central office candidate, would run the risk of losing.

Written By Tom F on April 25th, 2010 @ 6:20 pm

Jacob: I doubt that electoral reform in itself would be enough to get significant numbers of people joining political parties though it would probably help to some extent, especially for smaller parties. Even if it did, though, large memberships don’t necessarily entail greater internal party democracy – for example, the Tories have over 100,000 members and IIRC don’t get a say in choosing their leader until voting by the parliamentary party has narrowed the field down to two candidates.

Tom: I think you understate the importance of debate within parties. Aside from anything else, it’s not practical (or even desirable, in my view) to have a party splitting to form new parties whenever its members have a disagreement.

Just to make clear, I do think some proportionality is vital, that FPTP badly needs to go and even that Reuben has a point about the connection between an MP and their constituency being largely romanticised crap; it’s just that I have some reservations about pure PR too.

Written By Owen on April 25th, 2010 @ 6:39 pm

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