In this week’s Easter double issue (out today in London and the rest of the country tomorrow), the New Statesman endorses the Alternative Vote (AV). We argue that AV, though not a proportional system, would represent a significant improvement on first-past-the-post. Here, for Staggers readers, is this week’s leading article in full.
Were one founding a new democracy, it is unthinkable that first-past-the-post (FPTP) would be adopted as the electoral system. It penalises small parties, wastes votes and encourages politicians to concentrate their policies on swing voters in marginal seats. FPTP might have been tolerable in 1955, when Labour and the Conservatives won 96 per cent of the vote and 99 per cent of the seats. But it is unfit for a three-party era in which political loyalties are more fluid. In the last election, Labour and the Tories won just 65 per cent of the vote but ended up with 87 per cent of the MPs. It was with good reason that post-apartheid South Africa, the former eastern bloc countries and the young democracies of Latin America all chose to adopt proportional models of voting, rather than FPTP.
On 5 May, for the first time ever, the British people will have a chance to reject FPTP and replace it with the Alternative Vote (AV). AV is not the system that we would have chosen. In some circumstances, it can lead to even more disproportional outcomes than FPTP. As the Jenkins commission on electoral reform noted, had the 1997 election been held under AV, Labour’s majority would have swelled from 179 to 245. A genuinely proportional system, of the kind we support, remains the more desirable option.
But AV would represent a significant improvement on FPTP. It would lead to fewer wasted votes, greatly reduce the need for tactical voting and ensure that most MPs are elected with at least 50 per cent of the vote in their constituency. By requiring candidates to win second-preference votes, it would also encourage the parties to engage with all voters. The adoption of AV would enable the creation of a more pluralistic political culture, in which parties emphasise their similarities, rather than merely their differences.
The relentlessly negative approach of the No to AV campaign has only highlighted the paucity of the arguments for FPTP. In their desperation to preserve the status quo, the opponents of reform have claimed that AV would benefit the British National Party, that it would be “too expensive” and that it would prove to be too “confusing” for the electorate. In reality, no system is better at keeping extremists out; AV would not require expensive voting machines; and a system that is already widely used by businesses, charities and trade unions would not prove too complex for the electorate.
AV is not a panacea and, taken alone, it will not repair Britain’s broken democracy. Reform of the voting system must be combined with the creation of a fully elected second chamber and the introduction of a written constitution. An increase in the number of directly elected mayors, as Andrew Adonis writes on page 74, is another measure that could address the democratic deficit. But it would be careless to miss an opportunity to reject the voting system that has done so much to discredit the UK’s political system.
Those such as the former Social Democratic Party leader David Owen who have argued for a No vote in the hope of securing a more proportional system in the future are playing a dangerous game. As the Chancellor, George Osborne, has said, a No vote on 5 May would close the question of electoral reform “for the foreseeable future”.
Not only would FPTP be preserved but it would be strengthened by a victory for the No campaign. A Yes vote, by contrast, would increase the possibility of a subsequent transition to proportional representation (PR). The claim that there is no appetite among the public for reform will have been exposed as a myth.
If the next election results in a hung parliament, the Liberal Democrats will no doubt demand a referendum on PR as the condition of any coalition. But that is a battle for another day. For now, the priority is to deliver a death blow to the unfair, undemocratic and unrepresentative FPTP system. It is for this reason that we encourage progressives of all parties to vote Yes to AV on 5 May.