Ideological Centralisation is greater under FPTP, not AV. A reply to Dr D. S. Moon

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In the recent debate on the Alternative Vote (AV) held by The Exchange, Dr David Moon highlighted his opposition to adopting the AV system in the form of a very interesting theory on ideological centralisation. The theory advocates that the AV system will accelerate the rate of ideological centralisation in British politics as parties scramble for second and third preferences in each constituency in order to gain election. The theory then stipulates that seeing as MPs in Parliament will all be so similar, no diversification in ideas and policies will arise.  This article opposed such a view for two reasons: i) First Past the Post (FPTP) stunts diversity to a much larger extent than AV; ii) examples of countries which use AV show that new ideas are not limited.

The FPTP system in the UK is an outdated system that emerged in 1688 when only 10 per cent of the electorate could vote. When Britain moved close to universal suffrage in 1918, just three parties existed able to gain significant representation: the Liberal Party, the Tory Party, and the Labour Party, though many new parties were founded hopeful capitalise on the new ideas and demands of popular sovereignty. Sadly though, Britain has had a two party system dominated by the Labour and Conservative parties who between them enjoyed over 90 years of power during the twentieth century [1].

Voting patterns of recent elections have shown downward trends since the 1960s in actual voting share for both parties; in 1964, the Labour and Conservative parties amassed between them 87% of the popular vote; in 2010, they gathered a total of approximately 65 per cent. Nonetheless, the parties still have a similar number of seats between them now as they did in 1964.

How? Take the example of the Liberal-SDP Alliance in 1987 to demonstrate the restrictive nature of FPTP; the resurged Liberal Party formed an alliance with the newly founded Social Democratic Party to contest the 1987 election. Though acting as a new voting option providing diversity and choice for the electorate amassing 25 per cent of the vote, the Alliance were rewarded with a pitiful return of 3 per cent of parliamentary seats. The Labour party achieved little over 3 per cent more of the popular vote, but around 1000 per cent more seats [2]. The system clearly favours a two party system, robbing parliament of diversity. And how about the Greens as a contemporary choice? Why is it that under the PR system used to elect members of the European Parliament, the UK Green Party is consistently successful with its vote share and currently has four MEPs, but under the FPTP general election it has struggled to return just one? Under the current system, people fear that voting Green is a wasted vote, stunting diversification in Parliament.

To summarise, it is clear that diversification in the electorate has grown since the earlier days of British democracy, but actual representation has not. In fact, to make matters worse, these two parties that seemingly provide us two options for government which are not, and have not, always been so different. So much so that for around 20 years during the 1950s and 60s, Britain was governed by a ‘consensus politics’ consisting of mainly Keynesian economics and loose social policy despite two seemingly ideologically juxtaposed parties. If this is not evidence of extreme ideological centralisation, then I don’t quite know what is [3]. Indeed, in order to gain election in 1997, Blair set about an intense programme of change within the Labour party to move towards the ‘centre ground’, epitomised by the successful removal of ‘Clause 4′ of the party’s constitution [4]. Surely the Liberal Democrats’ ability to negotiate with both the Conservative and Labour parties in 2010 shows just how much similarity there is in modern British political ideology?

Centralisation of ideology occurs significantly less under AV. Consider Australian where AV has been used in general elections since 1918. Since that time period Australia has seen a fall in the number of successful parties, just like the UK, and ideology has centralised to a point. However, four parties still achieve solid voting percentages, and  crucially seats, in both chambers of the democracy. In fact many Australian constituencies three candidates have realistic chances of winning, every election. Further to that, the four successful parties are quite clear and precise on whom they represent and what they stand for; the two most successful parties are about as ideologically juxtaposed as the Conservative and Labour parties of the Thatcher premiership.

Also, there are two further ‘single issue’ parties who consistently gain representation in both houses and good vote shares in each election to make up the main four; The National Party specifically appeals to the interests of the more rural areas all across Australia, and the Green Party specifically promotes environmentally considered policies [5]. Over the same number of years starting with the same level of multiple parties, Australia has retained a more diverse political party system compared to the UK.

Whilst it is true that under AV parties would have to move away from their ideological bases to attract increased voter support, it is certainly not true that this will result in parties nationwide centralising their policies. Why not? Consider the current causes of the vast voter dissatisfaction: the majority of apathetic citizens will highlight the MPs Expenses Scandal and seemingly ever distant relationships between,  politicians and their electors. Whilst it would be a bout of populist electioneering to claim that FPTP somehow was responsible for either of these two directly, it is perfectly reasonable to assert that in a democracy where MPs may be elected by one in three votes, attitudes of self assurance will brood. Showing cleanliness in expenses, campaigning on local issues that matter to constituents, or representing their constituents better in parliament are just some ideas MPs or potential MPs could look to utilise to gather broader support. A fear of an ‘accelerated ideological centralisation’ from the use of an AV electoral system is  unfounded academic pondering that ignores the disadvantages of FPTP and demonstrates a lack of substantive research into current practices under AV. Where are the statistics and real world specimens to promote this pondering which Dr Moon promotes, I ask? Retreat to your Ivory Tower, I say!

Dr David S. Moon has since written a further reply to this article: Dr David Moon, ‘AV Debate – A Reply to Patrick English: Sorry, No’, Canvas 2:7 (2011).

Article by Patrick English. Edited by Marc Geddes.

More Information

[1] History of British political evolution reading –
[2] Distorting election results under FPTP –
[3] Consensus Politics –
[4] Blair, Labour, and Clause 4 -
[5]Australian Political Parties –