The referendum which will be presented to the British public on 5 May is one of the few opportunities in which we are able to participate directly in the democratic process. Politicians and political activists alike have seized upon the current public uncertainty advocating either the preservation of the current electoral system First-past-the-post (FPTP) or the introduction of the Alternative Vote (AV). However, the chance to shape our political future should not be taken lightly, and this important question merits an impartial reflection on AV’s potential for change.
AV does not represent an alien concept to the British public. Whereas voters select a single candidate under FPTP, under AV candidates are ranked numerically in order of preference. Each MP must win at least 50 per cent of the votes in their constituency in order to win the seat. If no candidate is successful after the distribution of first preference votes, the least popular candidate is eliminated.
Those voters supporting this candidate have their votes transferred to their second preference. The process is subsequently repeated until a single candidate achieves the 50 per cent requirement. Voters are therefore able to award their vote to their preferred candidate, safe in the knowledge that if they are eliminated their vote will still influence the final outcome.
The obvious difference under AV is that each elected MP would be able to claim an overall majority of support in their constituency, an advantage currently enjoyed by 34 per cent of MPs. Aside from this, both electoral systems are structurally quite similar. AV would continue to produce a single MP for each constituency, safeguarding the British parliamentary tenet of specific, local accountability between the public and their elected representatives. Secondly, contrary to assertions made by the ‘No’ campaign AV would maintain the principle of one person, one vote. Votes may be transferred but never multiplied. In a similar fashion, any difference in electoral results under AV would be distinctly moderate.
The Australian experience of AV over the last century has produced a markedly stable political system, much like our own. In light of this, AV does not constitute proportional representation and to that end, would not rectify the inequalities present in the current system. Parties such as UKIP and the BNP would continue to be excluded from Parliament as they do not enjoy the widespread support necessary to surpass the 50 per cent quorum. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland it would be expected that the results for nationalist parties would remain largely unaffected. The most notable effect of AV is its ability to more fairly represent the Liberal Democrats, awarding them with a proportion of seats which their popular support merits. As the Liberal Democrats are a centrist party they would be most likely to win second preference votes which may benefit them in closely run seats. However, any gains made would be relatively small. Research conducted by David Sanders at Exeter University suggests that the Liberal Democrats would have won only 32 extra seats, at the expense of the Conservatives and Labour.
Whilst minor parties may not directly benefit from the introduction of AV, experience in Australia suggests that the system encourages cooperation between parties. Due to the 50 per cent requirement, larger parties often engage with smaller parties offering them certain policy concessions in return for the second preference votes of their supporters. This would facilitate an informal negotiation process prior to general elections, fostering collaboration between parties.
The potential gains associated with electoral reform makes the political wrangling surrounding this debate inevitable. However, the reality of the situation is quite straightforward. A ‘No’ vote on the 5th will preserve a system which although flawed, is at the heart of the world’s oldest parliamentary democracy. A ‘Yes’ vote for AV represents a moderate reform option for British politics, maintaining the core principles of our democracy whilst altering the electoral system to better reflect the contemporary political environment of cooperation.