In recent weeks, both sides of the AV debate have launched a number of claims and counter-claims, some harder to support than others. Robin Archer finds that the vehemence of this debate has thrown a smokescreen over the real case for AV – that it will increase the democratic legitimacy of parliament, reduce the number of ‘wasted’ votes, and ensure a clear line of accountability between voters and their governments. Far from being a “miserable little compromise”, AV is actually a mature and thoughtful compromise.
The AV referendum campaign is a disgrace. The Yes campaign is bad. The No campaign is worse. Both are so keen to use the brightest colours and stir the most visceral emotions that they have not just exaggerated or obfuscated the issues but have built their arguments around claims that are either willfully misleading or completely fictitious.
The No campaign is particularly disingenuous. They claim that AV would cost a quarter of a billion pounds because of the cost of voting machines, when all you need is a pencil and paper. They claim that it is terribly complicated, when you only need to know how to count. They claim that it will favour BNP extremists, when it will actually favour centrist candidates. They claim that it is somehow anti-British, although apparently not when it elects British-to-the-bootstraps Mayor Boris Johnson. They claim that it is a Ruritanian system, when it has been used for almost a century in Australia, which not only shares Britain’s Westminster heritage, but is one of the oldest and best entrenched democracies in the world – older, dare we recall, than Britain itself. To cap it all off, they centre their whole campaign around the absurd claim that AV gives some people more than one vote, when in fact it simply enables all voters to provide more information about how they want their vote to be cast.
The Yes campaign is little better. Their argument that AV will give voters a ‘stronger voice’ is reasonable enough. But what are their other main claims? They say that there are now too many safe seats, even though most seats will still be safe under AV. They claim that AV will tackle ‘jobs for life’, when the turnover of incumbents will scarcely change. They claim that it will make MPs ‘work harder’, when they work very hard already. They also falsely imply that AV will help deal with the parliamentary expenses scandal. And in general they try to ride, and are happy to stoke, the current visceral antipathy towards politics and politicians. Finally, they are prepared to make a case for AV against FPTP, but not against PR, which many of them privately prefer. This is the real significance of the fact that their main backer is the venerable Electoral Reform Society (original name: the Proportional Representation Society).
Yet there is actually a good case for AV – not as some sort of half-way measure or fall-back option, but as the best system in its own right. There are three main reasons to support its introduction.
First, AV would go a long way to solving the growing problem of democratic legitimacy that arises when MPs are elected without the support of a majority of a voters. When most voters supported one of the two main parties this problem was usually small. But the proportion of voters doing this has been falling for decades: from 95 per cent in the 1950s to 65 per cent now. As a result, about two-thirds of MPs are currently elected with only a minority of the vote. As the vote-share for smaller parties continues to grow – driven by underlying changes in the economy and society – the likelihood of MPs being elected in this way continues to rise, and, along with it, the problem of their legitimacy. Where smaller parties share a third of the vote, a third of the vote might be enough to elect one of the big parties. Where smaller parties share half the vote, a quarter might suffice. Under AV, when all voters rank candidates, an MP can only be elected with the support of at least 50 per cent of the voters. When ranking is optional, 50 per cent may not always be reached. The former (the system in Australia) is preferable to the latter (the system on offer in the referendum). But either way, AV would significantly increase the democratic legitimacy of parliament.
Second, in contrast to FPTP, AV would remove a serious problem that faces ever more voters and distorts the outcome of elections. The problem is that if these voters express their true preference they will waste their vote. To avoid this, many feel compelled to vote for a candidate who is not the one they really wish to elect. As the political sociologist Maurice Duverger pointed out in his classic work, Political Parties, electoral rules affect the outcome of elections in two ways. Mechanical effects are a result of how the electoral formula translates votes into seats. Psychological effects are a result of how voters (and potential candidates) modify their behaviour to anticipate these effects.
The main psychological effect of FPTP is the fear of casting a wasted vote. The main consequence of AV would be the elimination of this effect. No longer would potential candidates for smaller or emerging parties have an incentive to desist from running, and no longer would supporters of these parties have an incentive to desist from voting for them, for fear that by acting on their true preferences they would merely be letting in their worst enemies.
Third, in contrast to PR, AV would ensure that a clear line of accountability between voters and governments remains the norm. This point has been almost wholly ignored. For advocates of PR, what matters most is the relationship between votes and legislative seats. The ideal system is one in which opinions in the legislature represent in microcosm opinions in the voting population. But for many people, elections are principally about the formation and demise of governments, and democratic accountability is best served when the decisions of voters determine who is in or out of office. Under PR, hung parliaments would be the norm.
This would threaten the ability of voters to choose a government in two basic ways. Prospectively, it would limit their ability to determine who will form a government, because this would frequently depend on post-election bargaining. Retrospectively, it would limit their ability to sanction a government, because it would no long be clear which party should be held responsible for the outcomes of government policy. Under AV, as at present, there will only occasionally be hung parliaments. Since the Second World War, there have been two in Britain and just one in Australia. Thus, the choices of voters will typically translate directly into the formation of a government, and the accountability of that government to the voters will remain strong.
In many respects the introduction of AV would be quite a small change. Indeed, it is the kind of incremental change – one that goes with the grain of the existing system – that you might think a genuine Burkean conservative would favour. The outcome in the vast majority of seats would be the same. In the average Australian federal election, the distribution of preference changes the outcome in only 6 per cent of seats.
But far from being a “miserable little compromise”, AV is actually a mature thoughtful compromise – a compromise that delivers significant improvement while acknowledging that there are trade offs between competing democratic requirements. Had Labour been less divided, it might have made this argument its own – distinguishing itself from both the Tory effort to preserve in aspic the illegitimate outcomes and distorting effects of FPTP and the Liberal pursuit of a permanent seat at the PR negotiating table.
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