A Fair Voting System At Last – part 2

Sid Cumberland

Yes to AV?

Two years ago I wrote about the possibility of reforming our out-dated voting system (see here). Things have moved on, and I thought it might be a good idea to address some of the issues again.

The first point to be made is that while AV is not the system Liberals prefer, it is the only one on offer. I would argue that although it does not address all the issues (in particular it does not offer proportional representation), it does address some of them, and for that reason is worth voting for.

David Cameron has proposed an alternative view – he does not want AV. You can read here the speech he gave on the subject on 18th February 2011. If you have not read it yet, I would recommend that you do. It’s not often that you get a chance to see such political dishonesty, dissimulation and disingenuity in print. I’d guess Cameron skipped his Oxford lectures on voting systems – I’d give it a delta minus if I were his tutor! I shall come back to this speech later; but in the meantime let’s have a look at some of the arguments being deployed against AV.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

This is the plaintive cry of the political dinosaurs, Tory and Labour, who have benefited from the current system. The Conservatives want to keep things the way they are (that’s where they get their name from). The First Past The Post system has served us well for 200 years, they say – why change it? It’s traditional, it’s our heritage! (To be honest, I’ve no idea why Labour are so fond of the old system, other than self-interest. But I can’t help feeling that if John Prescott, Jack Straw, David Blunkett and Margaret Beckett are opposed to something, it must have some merit.)

It’s worth taking a quick look back over the history of voting in this country, and seeing what has changed. In 1432 Henry VI established that male owners of property worth at least forty shillings (quite a lot of money in those days) were entitled to vote. In England that was the only voting qualification until the Reform Act of 1832, which gave the vote to 1 in 7 adult males. (As you might expect, the Great Reform Act was promoted by the Liberals and opposed by the Tories.)

The next big change came in 1918, following the Great War. Millions of returning soldiers were given the vote, along with women for the first time – as long as they were over the age of 30 and fulfilled certain property criteria. In 1910 fewer than 6 million of us could vote; in 1918 it was just over 16 million.

1918 also saw voting restricted to one day, instead of being spread over several weeks as it had been before – a point we’ll come back to later. From 1928, all adults over the age of 21 had the vote, and in 1969, the voting age was reduced to 18. The UK electorate now numbers nearly 40 million.

The Conservative logic that now wants to keep FPTP would also have the vote restricted to property-owning males of 21 or over. But the Conservatives are capable of changing their minds (sometimes rather slowly) when circumstances change. In 1918, for instance they felt they had to extend the vote to the soldiers who were returning home from the horrors of the Great War.

So – has anything changed that might make the FPTP system less than adequate as a system for electing our MPs? Here are a couple of graphs which show why the current system is no longer adequate:

graph showing decline in two-party politics
Figure 1: the decline of two-party politics
This first graph shows the steady decline of two-party politics in the UK. In 1951, very nearly 97% of electors voted for either the Conservatives or the Labour party. With two parties polling nearly 50% each, it seems reasonable enough that one or other of those parties should form the government. By 2010, however, the percentage of voters opting for one of the two main parties had fallen to just over 65%, and the argument for simply passing power from one to the other becomes less persuasive. Supporters of FPTP claim that it produces stable government – but at what cost? As the number of people voting for neither of the two main parties rises, the number of people who feel unrepresented in Westminster rises too. FPTP over-represents larger parties, and under-represents minorities. This is shown quite clearly in the next graph:

votes and seats in the 2010 general election
Figure 2: votes won compared with seats
The two biggest parties got 65% of the vote between them – and nearly 87% of the seats. The Liberal Democrats got less than 9% of the seats, despite having 23% of the vote. Smaller parties fared even less well. This happens because support spread over a wide geographical area, is unlikely to help you overtake the local entrenched interests – usually Tory in the countryside, Labour in the cities.

Will AV mean more hung parliaments?

No. Australia has used AV for 100 years and has had just two hung parliaments in 38 elections (1940 and 2010). First past the post in the UK produced hung parliaments last year, in February 1974, in 1923 and 1929 and twice in 1910. It has also produced parliaments which became as good as hung after the elections of 1950, October 1974 and 1992.

In any case, the supposed benefit of FPTP – that it produces clear cut results, or strong government – is only a benefit if we’re prepared to give up on the idea that the distribution of seats in Westminster ought to reflect (roughly) the way we voted. In 2010, the Tories managed to garner 36% of the vote, Labour 29%, and the Lib Dems 23%. It is quite clear that no single party had a strong mandate from the voters, and that the coalition represents the views of a substantial majority of the electorate.

Cameron’s speech

David Cameron said in his speech on 18th February: “The idea that everyone has an equal voice and an equal vote is deeply enshrined in our existing electoral system. The principle of one person, one vote is what makes our democracy fair.” But he is wrong. We have many seats in this country which never change hands, and which are never likely to. Instead, politicians have focused more and more on a small number of swing voters in a small number of marginal seats. The rest of us sit back and wait for them to choose our government for us.

He also said: “Caroline Lucas, the country’s first Green Party MP, only got thirty-one percent of the vote in her constituency.” I’m not sure what point Cameron thought he was making here; but this particular case highlights the weakness of the current system. 69% of the electors in Brighton did not want Caroline Lucas to be their MP – but she is, thanks to the vagaries of the FPTP system.

Cameron also claimed that AV is so complex that it is ‘only understood by a handful of elites’. This suggests that he thinks we are all stupid. Using AV, instead of marking a cross by the name of the candidate you want to win, you put a number 1 by your top candidate, followed by a 2 for your next favourite, followed by a 3 – can you see where I’m going with this? Do you think you could manage that? Well, the Australians can – and the Irish have for many years managed the more complex STV with no trouble.

The benefits of AV

Nick Clegg gave a speech the same day as Cameron; you can read it here.

The pluses of AV that he highlights are these:

• MPs will have to work harder to get your vote – and will have to appeal to a wider range of voters; they won’t be able to just rely on their core supporters

• MPs will be less likely to have a ‘job for life’ – which led to the expenses scandal of the last parliament

• We will be able to vote for the MP we actually want, instead of voting for the MP we dislike least

• We will not be represented by MPs most of us didn’t vote for

The anti-AV campaign has already given up on arguing about the merits of AV, and has been busy spreading rumours and lies. Their anonymous backers have paid for deceitful adverts claiming that babies will die if we vote for AV, on account of its expense. That’s fantasy. £130 million of the money they say it will cost is for electronic voting machines – no one thinks we need them – and they don’t use them in Australia. Also included in their made-up figures is the cost of the referendum – which, of course, will be the same whatever the result.

Let’s leave the last word on the anti-AV campaign to Anthony Green – the election specialist for Australian broadcaster ABC – who has written reams debunking the myths surrounding Australia’s AV system “for those readers in the United Kingdom” who he says have got it all wrong.

“We’ve used AV for 90 years at all levels of government. And Australia has never used voting machines to conduct its elections,” he said. “They need to get their facts right about Australia and AV. The point is you get better representation. That’s what AV is all about.”

Will AV give us better representation? Yes. In the next couple of months you will hear a lot of people claiming that FPTP is quick, simple and easy to understand. I don’t think that is compelling enough for a modern democracy. I’d say we want fair and legitimate in preference to quick and easy.

A final thought. Tory MPs use a version of AV to elect their leader. (They have multiple ballots, with the weakest candidate dropping out at each stage. For the final ballot, all party members are involved.) Had they used FPTP, David Davis would be their leader now – he got 62 votes first time round (that’s 31.3% of Tory MPs) to Cameron’s 56. But after Ken Clarke and Liam Fox had been eliminated, David Cameron eventually got 67.6% to Davis’s 32.4%. Apply his cynical arguments against AV to the leadership election, and David Davis would now be leader of the Tory party!

More information here …

And a great article here …

… which includes the excellent line:

“If you go to the pub and order a pint of Carling but they are out of Carling and you choose a pint of John Smith’s instead, you’ve still only had one pint.”