The campaign for fairer votes is now solidly under way. Right now, the polling suggests that most people who have made up their minds have made up their minds for fairer votes. But a lot of people still haven’t. So, if this is you, here are some thoughts on the arguments put forward by both the yes and no camps.
What we need to understand from the outset is that no voting system can be both truly ‘fair’ and also workable. This isn’t a flaw in voting, it’s intrinsic to democracy itself: democracy is not about finding a way which is completely fair, but rather finding common decisions we can all live by. This means that the voting process itself is only a part of democracy. The other part is that citizens vote for the common good, rather than simply for their own good. Aristotle explains this well in the Politics, and draws a distinction between what he calls a ‘Polity’, where the citizens rule together for the benefit of all, and what he refers to as a ‘Democracy’, which is the corrupt form of the polity, where the citizens rule for their own individual benefit.
Back to voting systems. The offer which is on the table right now is between what is known as the ‘Alternative Vote’ and the current ‘First past the post’ system. Actually, neither of those descriptions are particularly clear unless you live and breathe electoral reform or its opposition. Both systems are ‘first past the post’: in fact, the Alternative Vote is more ‘first past the post’, because it has an actual post — 50% of the vote — as you would in a race. Equally, both systems are systems of alternatives.
A better way of putting it would be to describe one as ‘your top choices’ versus ‘put one x in one box’. Under the Alternative Vote system, you get to rank your choices as 1,2,3, etc, as far as you want to go. Under the current system, you put one x in one box.
Why should we need any change whatsoever?
If we agree that no system is truly fair, (except for everyone votes on every decision), it’s still true that some systems are less fair than others. What do I mean by ‘fair’. I don’t mean ‘fair to the candidates’. No system will ever be fair to the candidates, because the voters are not deciding on the merits of the individual candidate, but on a strange mix of party loyalty, past experience, personality, looks, and how good the party is at getting its message over. What I mean is ‘fair to the voters’, and by fair, what I’m talking about is each vote cast having more or less the same effect on the final result.
This definitely doesn’t happen under the current system: about 42 million people are registered to vote in UK elections. 30 million people did vote, but it’s estimated that the actual result was decided by around 500,000 votes. That’s less than 2% of the votes cast, and not much more than 1% of the votes eligible — and those who choose not to vote typically give the reason that their vote would not change anything anyway.
When it comes to democracy, fairness is not about achieving some kind of nursery school equity. Democracy works because it makes the most of the knowledge and skills of all the voters to make the best decisions. When only 2% of the votes actually make the decisions, we are only using 2% of the available knowledge. We’re squandering our biggest national resource.
First past the post exists because it was the easiest system to administer at our first secret ballot election in 1874. It wasn’t even fair back then — the 1874 result gave 51% of the votes to the Liberals, but the Conservatives took 53% of the seats, when they should only have had 44%. A secret ballot is itself a compromise: it stops voter intimidation, which was rife, but it reduces voter accountability. We stuck with first past the post because it was there, was easy to organise, and sort of worked when there were just two parties.
The big arguments by the anti-reform movement are as follows:
- The alternative vote system is too complicated
- It’s too expensive
- It might theoretically be less fair
- The current system produces the ‘right’ result
None of these arguments is compelling in itself, but, taken together, they look like quite a strong package. Which is why they need examining one by one.
First off, is the alternative vote system complicated? Actually, the name is complicated, but that’s about it. We are asked to number our preferences, 1 for first choice, 2 for second choice, 3 for third choice. This is hardly complicated. The system for counting the votes can sound complicated: but, actually, it’s just a question of putting things into piles, and doesn’t take much longer than the existing system, which is also done by putting things in piles.
Second, although the ‘no’ campaign claims that the changing the voting system will cost hundreds of millions of pounds, there doesn’t seem to be any actual evidence that it will. The ballot paper will cost the same amount to print, the polling stations will cost no more to run, and the only thing that does cost more might be paying council staff to work later into the night. Except under the new system, there might actually be fewer rounds of counting, because the current system tends to prompt large numbers of recounts, even in elections 1 where the result is not actually in doubt.
Third, although it’s possible to theoretically construct a situation in which preferences 1-2-3 could produce a less fair result, the chances of this actually happening is remote, and the chances of it happening in enough constituencies to make a difference to the final result is even remoter. Contrast this with the current system which always produces a grossly unfair result.
Finally, the main proponents of the current system are MPs in safe seats, and the Conservative Party which is the biggest beneficiary of the unfair system. There have been a number of attempts to badge this differently. Last year David Cameron said that voting reform would be more likely to produce a hung parliament, and a hung parliament would inevitably force Britain into economic collapse. Interestingly, Australia which has had a proportional system for decades actually has fewer hung parliaments than Britain. But, in any case, we now know for certain that no overall winner doesn’t result in a weak government: the Coalition is a stronger government, with more talented ministers, than a government composed of just one of the two parties. One of the things which voters perpetually say on the doorstep is that politicians should learn to work together. If a fairer system makes people work together, then it’s a better outcome.
Taken one by one, each of the ‘no’ arguments is counter-intuitive and counter-rational. They all require special pleading and implausible ‘what ifs’.
The big arguments for a fairer voting system are much simpler.
- It’s more democratic
- It means that no MP gets elected on less than 51% of the vote
- It drastically reduces the number of ‘safe’ seats — and it was in the safe seats that we saw the big abuses during the last parliament
- It means that no party and no politician can take the electorate for granted.
Actually, on its own, the first argument should be enough to carry the day. The fundamental purpose of a voting system is to be democratic. To choose something which is less democratic is like choosing a car which is less roadworthy, food which is un-nutricious, or watching comedy which just isn’t very funny.
The others are simply contributory benefits. Yes, it’s important that MPs represent more people, we need to do something about ‘safe’ seats (though there are other things we could have done), and we do need to do something to make MPs more accountable.
But I have to come back to this: a voting system which is not democratic is simply not worth keeping at all — providing there is at least one practical, affordable alternative.
That’s not to say that the Alternative Vote is the holy grail. It is an improvement on First Past the Post — a big improvement, which would have resulted in a fairer and more stable government this time round, without the nervous week of coalition negotiations. There are actually better systems, which are no more complicated for the voters. Alternative Vote is a compromise deal — better than what we have, not as good as what we might have. It is worth voting for, more than worth voting for, at least, if voting is worth anything at all. There is an irony in the ‘no’ campaign — asking people to vote against their votes counting.
Lots of decisions in politics are difficult. We often have to balance the less of two evils, or the better of two goods. This is one of the very rare situations where what is on offer is unequivocally better.
- Full transcript | Nick Clegg| Speech on Electoral Reform | London | 18 February 2011 (newstatesman.com)
- “Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter and Stephen Fry back fairer votes #yes2av” and related posts (carons-musings.blogspot.com)
- Public hostility to politics will deliver a yes to AV | Martin Kettle (guardian.co.uk)
- Leading article: Britain’s chance for a fairer voting system (independent.co.uk)