In the UK, we are about to have a referendum on the voting system on May 5. I vote by post, so I have received my ballot paper already. The question on it is
At present, the UK uses ‘first past the post’ system [sic!] to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the ‘alternative vote’ system be used instead?
Let’s just take a deep breath and pass over the question of how on Earth there can be a grammatical mistake on a ballot paper. Here is a video explaining the differences between FPTP and AV, from the Electoral Commission:
I have seen a lot of the arguments for and against a change, a great number of which are rubbish. Below I have listed a sample, along with an explanation of the rubbishness of that argument. Credit to Full Fact for doing a lot of the legwork.
Rubbish arguments for AV (the ‘yes’ campaign)
AV would require the winning candidate in a given constituency to win the support of 50% of the electorate there
As the video above shows, to win under AV a candidate has to win 50% of the votes in a single round of voting. But to claim that this means that the candidate has the ‘support’ of 50% of the electorate is misleading. If I rank candidates Ed and Fred 5th and 6th out of 6 respectively (because I hate them both, but Fred slightly more), and the vote comes down to a runoff between Ed and Fred and Ed wins, he does not do so with my ‘support’, even though I prefer him to Fred and my vote counted towards his getting elected. There were four candidates I would have preferred! (Thanks to DB for this example).
AV would mean an end to safe seats
Paddy Ashdown claimed that changing the electoral system to AV would mean ‘no more safe seats, ever’. This goof must result from some delusionally wishful thinking. Under AV, some seats would get less safe, while other seats would actually get safer. Overall it wouldn’t make much of a difference. My local MP got over 50% of the vote last time despite having dodged £180000 worth of capital gains tax by telling HMRC one thing and the Parliamentary Fees Office another.
AV would mean that politicians have to appeal more to voters for other parties
Mortal enemies Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have both banged this drum. This is a rubbish argument not because what it claims is untrue, but because this consequence is actually undesirable. A lot of people complain (rightly, I think) that politicians all sound the same at the moment. Can you think of a better way to get them to sound even more the same than to force them to canvass not only for first preference but also second- and third-preference (etc.) votes as well? No, neither can I.
Rubbish arguments against AV (the ‘no’ campaign)
AV would mean an end to ‘one person, one vote’
The front page of the ‘NO2AV’ leaflet that came through my door this week urges me to ‘keep one person one vote’. This is a fair enough demand, but it is irrelevant in the AV debate. Under AV, if your first-choice candidate is eliminated, then your vote transfers to your second-choice candidate (unless he/she has already been eliminated, in which case it transfers to the third choice etc.) in the next round of voting. This means that in each round of voting, everyone has one vote, under the reasonable assumption that if your first-preference candidate has not been eliminated then you are still voting for him/her.
AV would help extremist parties, or policies of extremist parties
That’s what Baroness Warsi thinks. The idea is that mainstream parties would, in seeking second(etc.)-preference votes from people voting for an extremist party as their first choice, extremetise some of their own policies. But since extremist parties have relatively few first-choice supporters (being, y’know, extreme and all), this kind of policy extremetisation would surely backfire as it would be more likely to lose the mainstream parties second-preference votes from non-extremist voters backing other parties with their first choice. FYI, the BNP is against AV.
AV would give all the power to those cackling Liberal Democrats and their evil leader
The back page of the ‘NO2AV’ flyer that came through my door this week carried ← this bizarre claim, which is close to being the stupidest statement I have ever seen on a political leaflet. Still, let’s try to reconstruct a coherent argument out of it. The idea is that AV would benefit the Liberal Democrats, leading to more hung parliaments and consequently the chances of the Lib Dems (as the third-largest party) remaining in coalition government for perpetuity. Their leader (Clegg or otherwise) would therefore wield a disproportionate amount of power. This argument is rubbish for several reasons. Firstly, we’re probably set for more coalition governments in future whatever happens in this referendum. Secondly, the assumption that the Lib Dems would gain massively under AV is based on people having listed them as second-preference in the past, but since they hadn’t been in government in the past this was a lot easier to do than it will be in the future – expect a collapse in their support in the local elections next month. Thirdly, who exactly thinks that Clegg is wielding a disproportionate amount of power in government at the moment? The Lib Dems are very much junior partners in the coalition; as Alan Johnson said, ‘This is a Tory government with the Lib Dems strapped on as ballast’.
Whichever way you vote, let it be for reasons other than the above.