Alternative ways to vote

Adam Campbell

As part of the coalition agreement that allowed the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to form a majority parliament last year, the government is committed to holding a public referendum on electoral reform toward a system with greater proportional representation.

The referendum, which will take place on May 5, coinciding with elections for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections, will see voters choose between the current First Past the Post System and the Alternative Voting (AV) system.

Under First Past the Post, voters make one choice and the candidate with the most votes wins. This system is known for its simplicity and is the second-most widely used voting system in the world.

AV sees voters mark their choice of candidates in a list of preference with a number. The first candidate to receive over 50% of the vote wins, and if this does not occur on the current count, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and those votes are distriubuted to the candidates marked second by the voters until one candidate holds 50% of the votes.

Although the ‘No to AV’ campaign were unable to grant Guardian an interview when asked, Matt Sinclair, Director of the ‘No to AV’ campaign said: “The big political decision facing Britain this coming year is whether we should change our electoral system from one which has served us well for decades to one which even many in the ‘Yes’ camp dismiss as a very poor substitute for the system they really want.

“I feel very strongly that the ‘Alternative Vote’ system would make politicians less accountable and make elections less transparent.
“Ditching our electoral system is not only of interest to political anoraks, it is a fundamental change that would affect the major policy decisions on tax, public spending, schools and hospitals for decades to come.

“Having spent the past five years campaigning against expenses abuses by MPs, I am keen that power is shifted from Parliament to the people, but the ‘Alternative Vote’ system would give people less control over the laws which govern their lives. Prescribing the wrong medicine doesn’t make patients better, it makes them worse.”

The interview follows below.

What are the advantages of the Alternative Voting (AV) system to the current First Past the Post system?
One of the big problems of the First Past the Post System is that most of us never get to elect an MP, most of our votes go straight in the bin. The AV system would change that, more of us will have more of a say over the MP we put it Parliament. We will get rid of this postcode lottery that we have, some MPs work hard, some don’t, all MPs will have to work hard. Why? Because they’ll have to aim to get more than 50% of the vote, that means they’re going to have to knock on more doors, deliver more leaflets, and talk to more voters. I think all of those things are going to be a good way to wave goodbye to the old politics and bring in a new era.

Will AV solve the issues that currently affect voting, such as low turnout?
Changing the way we elect our MPs isn’t the solution to all the problems with our politics and we should be forward about that. I think that it could make a lot of people feel that it is worthwhile voting again. A lot of us at the moment vote tactically, so we vote for the party we don’t want just to keep out a party we don’t want to see in power. So I think that more people would feel that it is worth voting again, because of instead of choosing between their head and their heart they can vote honestly for the party they want to win. Under the AV you pick your favourite, but if they don’t win, you still get to have your say

Given that at present only Australia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji have the AV system, and that Fiji is soon to scrap the system, why don’t more countries adopt the AV system?
Well the important point here is that I can’t think of the last country that adopted first past the post. I mean this is a personal decision for each country, what matters for us on May 5th is that we have two choices: we keep first past the post which is outdated, which was designed for a time when most of us, 95% or more voted for the two big parties Labour and Conservative, we don’t do that anymore, we chop and change our preference. So we are going to have a simple choice, do we keep an old and antiquated system or do we adopt AV, which is more fit for the 21st century.

Is it AV the best solution, or is it as Nick Clegg called it, “a miserable little compromise?”
Well the problems with the current system is that it’s really a politician’s fix – it’s fine for politicians as not all of them have to work hard day in day out, year in year out between election time to win voters support. I think we have a simple choice, is the AV better than what we’ve got? Does it give more of us more of a say? Does it put us voters back in the driver’s seat? Is there going to be more competition and choice at election time? All of those things I think will be the case under the Alternative Vote.

Will the implementation cause confusion, in both explaining it to voters and that the referendum coincides with Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections? Will this not be expensive to counter?
It’s a simple system, I have a two-year old who can now count to three, and I’m not suggesting that she should have a vote, but it is a simple system, it is as easy as 1-2-3. You number the candidates in order of preference. If we can vote in our millions on X-factor and Strictly Come Dancing using something very like the AV I think we can cope with this system. I think it’s going to be very easy to explain.
With regards to the coinciding of the referendum and voting, I think what this will mean some people who are going to be voting in elections will, hopefully, decide to vote in the referendum as well. I think that has to be a good thing, I think that overall there would be less cost to have them on the same day.

Will the AV system give “fringe” parties such as the BNP more power? Would it lead to more coalition governments?
The BNP have come out against the AV. Why? It will punish the BNP who profit from the current system, because they can slide in the back door. The new system, the upgraded AV will reward parties who have broad appeal, and I don’t think the BNP could be said to have the kind of broad appeal. I think the key thing is the BNP have come out against the AV.
There’s not a scrap of evidence that AV will lead to more coalitions. Coalitions happen when voters start to withdraw their support from the two main parties and start to chop and change their preferences and give their vote to other parties, that’s what causes coalitions. There’s not a scrap of evidence that there will be more hung parliaments or coalitions under the AV. There has actually been fewer in Australia who use the AV than there has been here.


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