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21 February 2011

A liberal case against the Alternative Vote

Why liberals should vote "No".

By David Allen Green

Are all liberals bound to vote for the Alternative Vote (AV) in the upcoming referendum?

Is there any sound reason for a sensible person of good faith and enlightened views to do other than support the introduction of this particular voting system?

There are certainly some bad reasons for opposing the introduction of AV. Some complain of the cost: but that surely is a second-order problem if it is indeed the correct electoral methodology. Others say that it may help re-elect party X or “let in” party Y. However, one really should not support a constitutional reform simply to advantage one party or disadvantage another. (That said, most constitutional reforms, from the 1832 and 1867 franchise extensions onwards, have actually been for party advantage.)

And not all those who oppose AV do so for vested interests. As someone who broadly supports the Liberal Democrats, and certainly welcomes the effect they have on an otherwise brutal Conservative government, my opposition to AV cannot be written off as political self-interest.

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There are two good reasons for any liberal to oppose the introduction of this proposed voting system.

First, AV is not in fact a good form of proportional representation. Because it retains the single member constituencies, there is no inherent reason why the national shares of the vote would be reflected in Westminster. AV also does nothing to deal with the very safest seats — those where the winning candidate already gets more than 50 per cent — and so, in such constituencies, the losing votes will be as “wasted” as before. And other seats will just be as “safe”, depending on whether the there is a natural Tory/Lib Dem or Labour/Lib Dem majority.

Second, the practical operation of AV is fundamentally undemocratic and offensive to the principle of equal treatment of voters. In the less safe seats where AV is triggered, the votes cast by those who favour the most popular candidate are not of equal value to the votes cast for less popular candidates. The second and third choices of the voters favouring the most popular candidate are just disregarded. If all second and third votes were given equal value then the overall result may well be different. The charge that AV means repeated bites at the cherry for some voters but not others is impossible to rebut.

Indeed, no one really wants AV. It is a compromise. It may not even be a step towards proportional representation. AV retains many of the faults of the current “first past the post” system while treating the votes cast by voters in an unequal way. National shares of the vote may still have no national impact, and safe seats and wasted votes remain. AV is a rotten system, and so it should be opposed on 5 May.