May 4, 2011 by Rhi
It’s late, and I’ve been at work all day, but I felt I had to write something about the referendum tomorrow. I’ve been reading both sides slinging mud at each other for weeks now, but having some experience in studying several forms of PR, I felt that – for once – I’m pretty confident I can comment on this one.
I like the idea of voting reform. I think that First Past the Post is a system for simpler times. The main argument I keep hearing against AV is that it means that someone’s “second” choice might actually win the election. You only have to look at the result of the Labour leadership contest to see this in action. Despite David being ahead for the majority of the rounds, when the last round was reached, his brother Ed Milliband took the crown.
But that’s in a small election, with very definite groups of people voting for candidates. Using that argument against AV in the UK, to me, shows a considerable lack of understanding as to the political landscape as it lies at the moment. The idea of solid party support across the board no longer exists – as was demonstrated by the hung parliament at the last general election. The idea that a voter could conceivably stand at the ballot box and say “Well, I’d like X to be my MP, but if not enough people agree with me, then I’d be happy enough with Y, and then, at a push, Z” does not compute, apparently. But as the lines between the main parties begin the blur increasingly, surely so does the support which they garner from amongst the populus. There are an awful lot of safe seats out there, where a lot of people who don’t support the incumbent feel that there isn’t much point in them voting. AV is legitimised tactical voting. It allows voters the chance to say “This is who I want, this is who I’d prefer” and, by not putting anything beside a particular candidate, “This is who I most certainly would not like, thank you very much”.
There is no one party in UK politics which I feel properly represents my views- but I definitely have a preference of one or two above the others. AV allows voters to have their voices heard in a way that First Past the Post just doesn’t.
The No argument I really don’t like is the one that says that AV is soooooo complicated that people will never be able to understand it. Bollocks. I’ve counted elections with AV, and it’s perfectly simple. You count the 1 votes, then the candidate with the lowest votes has their votes collected in again, which are then recounted, looking at the ‘2’s instead. And so on it goes. All the counter needs to be know is who was eliminated first, and what number they’re looking at on that candidates ballots. What’s the one downside? Well, it might take a bit longer to count. Which means the government might not be decided by sunrise the next day. I’ll take that risk if it means that more people get to actually feel as though the marks they put on the ballot paper count for something.
PR has been working well in Scotland and Wales for over 10 years now, through the Mixed Member System. There have been majority, minority and coalition governments in that time. What the results have meant, is that MSPs and AMs have to, shock horror, act like adults working for the good of the country who elected them, rather than being tied solely to party lines. It means there has to be discussion, and that no one party can introduce something that will disagree with the rest of the electorate who didn’t vote for them. It’s not wishy washy, it’s working as a unit, as well as individual parties, to make things happen. And it also means that sometimes opposition parties have to admit that the ruling power has had a good idea, and support it – rather than just simply taking up a contrary stance because that’s what the opposition do. In this respect, it actually leads to a more robust opposition – one that can actually call the government to account. A balance of power, instead of winner takes all.
First Past the Post is outdated and past it’s best. In 1996 I wrote a report on whether our current voting system represented the views of the country, and concluded that, quite frankly, it didn’t. And yet 15 years on, the same system is being touted as being perfectly fine as it is. Better the devil you know is no justification.
The British public are not imbeciles. I’ve presided over Welsh elections, and even the dottiest old lady understood the explanation of the voting system there, when it was explained properly and with no bias. And AV is much simpler that MMS. They deserve the chance to have a more representative parliament, when the old party flags of Red, Blue and Yellow have become so mixed that they risk becoming a great brown sludge. Without voting reform, I fear that turnout at elections will continue to fall, and the current feeling of misrepresentation by great swathes of society will increase. We need to use this chance tomorrow, because God knows when we’ll get another – if at all.