What’s the Alternative?

If you have been anywhere near a TV, radio, newspaper or web browser in the last three months you will have heard about people fighting for democracy in countries across Northern Africa and the Middle East. In general terms they are fighting for the right to elect their chosen government, to kick out the dictators, to determine their own future. In Tunisia and Egypt the transitions were relatively bloodless. In Libya the majority of the population struggles to defend themselves from a better armed minority, the outcome uncertain.

Tunisia - reclaimed
Tunisia – reclaimed

Egypt - reclaimed
Egypt – reclaimed

Libya - wobbling
Libya – wobbling

Rulers in several other countries are cracking down mercilessly on their own people in fear of similar revolutions, but the secret is out and people are beginning to realise that they are not alone, that change IS possible. Another example of social media changing the world, but I digress…

The struggle for democracy

People spanning the entire political and social spectrum are united in their unstoppable desire to live without persecution in a free and democratic homeland. They are prepared to stand side by side and risk everything they hold dear in order to achieve this aim. The basic rights we take for granted, the political systems we feel so alienated by are their shining prize.

The struggle with democracy
We have democracy – yet we are still unhappy about lots of things as was evident be the huge March 26th demonstration in London in protest to government cuts.

Despite our democratic system people feel disenfranchised and ignored by their elected representatives.

 

Last year’s general election was very negative. Labour had completely lost it’s way, the majority of people couldn’t stomach the idea of the Tories but the Liberals weren’t deemed credible enough to take full advantage, hence a hung parliament. A great many people either didn’t vote or they voted tactically – ie: not for who they wanted but against who they didn’t want. There’s a wide held belief that politicians put themselves first, then their parties and finally the voters. Argue the ethics of this as much as you will but…

…until the interests of politicians and voters are aligned then nothing will change.

 

The shape of democracy
I believe that when it comes to the vote “democracy” should fulfill a few basic criteria:

Elect the candidate with the broadest range of support. Presently if there is a 50% turnout of voters and 3 serious candidates (say Con, Lab & Lib) the winner theoretically needs only 17% of the possible votes to win the seat. What sort of moral mandate can this MP claim to have when potentially 83% of the electorate don’t want them in power?
Each vote should hold an exactly equal value. Due to the slicing and dicing of electoral boundaries an MP in one parliamentary constituency needs less votes to claim office than a candidate in another constituency. An extreme example of this is The Western Isles where 22,000 are able to vote vs the Isle Of Wight with 111,000 potential voters. In takes potentially 5 times as many voters to elect an MP in the IOW.
The system should encourage people to vote positively – for the candidate they WANT. In elections now many votes are cast for a party people don’t want in order to oppose a party the want even less

A vote on a vote
On May 5th we the voters will have an extremely rare chance to shift the political landscape and consequently alter the mindset of voters and politicians when it comes to engagement on the issues we care about. On May 5th there will be a referendum where we can vote to introduce a new electoral voting system for electing MPs called the Alternative Vote (AV) or to retain the existing First Past The Post (FPTP) system. As referendum day draws nearer there is a lot of information and disinformation flying around concerning the mechanics of these competing systems and the potential implications of them. Here is my take on all of this.

First Past The Post

Voting process
You get to cast a single vote for a single candidate

And the winner is…
The candidate with the most votes wins, regardless of the number of votes cast

Arguments for…

It’s simple – the candidate with the most votes wins.
The vote count is relatively quick

Arguments against…

MPs can get elected based on low public support
Unless you vote for a party with a serious chance of winning your vote is wasted, leading to…
Tendancy towards high levels of tactical voting

Alternative Vote

Voting process
You can assign order of preference to one or more candidates from the available list.
In more detail: You write a “1” against your preferred candidate and if you have a second choice candidate you can choose to write a “2” against them, and continue if desired with ever increasing numbers against as many different candidates as you wish.

And the winner is…
If one candidate gets more than 50% of the votes they win
If no candidate gets more than 50% of the votes then the last placed candidate (Mr X) is removed from the equation and votes are redistributed to the remaining candidates based on the second choices of those for whom Mr X was number 1 choice.
The above process continues until one candidate gets more than 50% of the votes.
It’s much simpler to visualise this with the Electoral Commission AV voting diagram

Arguments for…

Electoral winners would reflect the majority view of voters.
Tactical voting is eliminated
Candidates will try to appeal to potential second choice voters reducing negative campaigning

Arguments against…

Opponents to AV argue that the system will cost more to administer than FPTP
The additional rounds of voting will mean that the vote count takes longer

Is there an alternative to the alternative?
The long answer is that there are many types of voting system. The Electoral Reform Society website lists ten types for starters, explaining how the rival systems works and their pros and cons. I can’t vouch for the neutrality of this website but it’s worth a read.

Perhaps the most vocally expressed alternative to FPTP and AV is Proportional Representation (PR). Supporters of PR claim that this should be our adopted voting system and not FPTP or AV, which leads us onto…

The short answer is that on May 5th we only have 2 choices, so alternatives to these are irrelevant at this time.

Further Reading

First Past The Post Pro-FPTPhttp://www.no2av.org. I’m trying to keep a straight face and stay neutral on this but the stated arguments for FPTP and against AV smack of desperation. I can’t find many other websites in support of FPTP.
Alternative Vote Pro-AVhttp://www.yestofairervotes.org
Proportional Representation Pro-PRhttp://www.no2av-yes2pr.org

What to do?
I can only speak for myself. I don’t think AV provides a panacea but I do believe it is a significant improvement on FPTP. Imagine voting for your preferred candidate whatever their perceived chance of winning. Even if you know they won’t win you can express your preference but use lower ranking votes to ensure your general wishes are reflected in the overall scheme of things. The potential benefits as I see them?

Parties with wide support that have previously been frozen out by tactical voting will receive all their votes
Candidates have to appeal to all voters so that they can pick up 2nd votes, reducing negative campaigning
A by-product of the above point is that the views of secondary parties are more likely to be adopted by the leading parties meaning that widespread public opinion can no longer be ignored

I don’t believe in abstaining from the vote on the basis that it is not a perfect solution as opportunities for any vote on reform seldom come around. In addition, should FPTP be retained it’s exponents will take this as a mandate to keep things in check for much longer – a bit like the party that takes power with the backing of 25% of the population saying that their “success” is valid.

Most likely you are already familiar with much of the above due to the ever increasing coverage of the forthcoming referendum, so why am I telling you what you already know? Because we need to be proactive in standing up to those who would try to deceive us into uncertainty in the hope we will abstain or vote against change.

When politicians realise that their arguments are full of holes they try to move the debate away from the facts because they know they will lose that battle. Instead they attempt to scaremonger and create uncertainty. This for instance taken from the No to AV website:

The change to AV will cost up to an additional £250 million. Local councils would have to waste money on costly electronic vote counting machines and expensive voter education campaigns.

 

There’s no mention of how they come to this figure – it looks like a number plucked out of the air. And even if the figure was true is cost a reason to forgo democracy? Even then we can play the spin-doctors at their own game and point out that such an outlay would represent a huge boost to employment in these hard economic times.

And this from the No 2 AV – Yes 2 PR website:

The notion of AV as a ‘stepping stone’ to PR is wishful thinking: No country has ever moved from AV to PR.

 

I don’t honestly appreciate the subtleties of PR but suggesting that we should vote no to PR and so provide FPTP campaigners with ammunition they don’t deserve is laughable – in fact it is a prime example of tactical voting – one of the few things that followers of all parties agree is a bad thing. Furthermore the implication that we should forgo evolution because it is not revolution is self defeating and baseless. Finally I can’t help thinking that the people with most to gain from No 2 AV – Yes 2 PR are the FPTP crowd. Is it beyond the realms of possibility that they have covertly put their weight behind this as a means to confuse indecisive voters into a No vote?


So there are no guns pointed at us, our basic freedoms are not withheld from us by the state and we are lucky to be in this situation as others fight for these rights, but I am not complacent about or satisfied with the status quo. The status-quo that sees bailed out bankers on massive bonuses again while swathes of public sector workers are axed. The status-quo that facilitated the MP’s expenses scandal. The status-quo that compels politically savvy voters to vote for candidates they don’t want while a new young generation of voters feel so estranged from modern politics that they don’t bother to vote at all.

The 5th May referendum provides us with an extremely rare chance to cast a positive vote that might just breathe life back into our tired and broken political system.

 

In case you didn’t guess, I will be voting in favour of AV on May 5th. I will be doing so for positive reasons.