The Alternative Vote: Vote Yes on 05 May

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The Alternative Vote system has two clear advantages over the first-past-the-post system of electing MPs. The first is that it allows voters to express their preferences to influence the outcome, which will broaden the range of electors who can choose their MPs. The second is that the Alternative Vote system reflects the majority choice of a constituency, and the legitimacy of a majority is the cornerstone of any democratic system.

That voting can be more than a ‘one-cross’ option should be liberating. It enables the electorate to indicate the parties they think have potential, as well as those who are likely to win. It broadens the spectrum of political options that can be supported, without compromising a voter’s likelihood of influencing the result. Indicating a preference – a simple marking of first, second, and third choice – enhances democratic engagement.

The appeal of the majority should have powerful democratic resonance. The Alternative Vote system entrenches the idea that an MP should be endorsed by a majority of the voters. It is likely to weaken the power of the Westminster whips, as an MP has to appeal beyond the confines of their party supporters, and will be held accountable by voters beyond the partisan limits of a single party.

First-past-the-post is a tired and antiquated voting system. It works for a two-horse race, but modern UK politics is multi-party and voters should be able to reflect on the range of different options that are available.  MPs should not be elected by a minority of voters, and the House of Commons needs a stronger democratic basis for a popular mandate of government.

The UK is not a two-party system, and the electoral system should be able to reflect the diversity of choice and allow voters to express their preferences across a range of options.  Too many constituencies under the current system are safe seats, which leads to poor representation and low levels of political engagement.  This has suited the two main parties, who wish to keep a system which has worked to their advantage in the past.  It is no surprise that the ‘No campaign’ is led by the establishment of the Conservative and Labour parties (and supported by the BNP, who like a system where a committed group of extremists can sneak into contention where mobilization is low).

Neither the Alternative Vote nor the first-past-the-post system are proportional systems, and both may lead to exaggerated majorities and disproportionate outcomes.  Second-guessing the effects of either system is difficult in terms of the election of MPs from minor parties or the balance of representation in the House of Commons.  But at least under the Alternative Vote the transfer of support between minor and major parties is done on a sensible basis.  Under first-past-the-post many seats are determined on the basis of tactical voting, as the electorate try to guess who are contenders and who are no-hopers.  The Alternative Vote removes the guessing game, and allows each voter to state how they would like their preferences transferred between parties.

The Alternative Vote is not a perfect system of representation – no electoral system is.  But it is a much better system for electing MPs than first-past-the-post.  It gives greater incentives for electors across the political spectrum to come out to vote, knowing that the preference system gives them a much greater chance of influencing the result.  This is likely to encourage people to get involved with politics, to learn about different party programmes, and engage with politics and cast a vote.  It will force MPs to respond to the concerns of a much broader range of opinion across their constituency, and weaken the power of the whips in the House of Commons.

The Alternative Vote is a real option for a radical reform of electoral politics.  It gives voters a real choice over who gets elected, and will make politicians listen to the voice of the majority in every constituency.

Article by Dr. Alistair McMillan.