The real reason you should say No to AV

Never mind the pro- and anti-AV lobbies and their less-than-inspiring debates – here is why all democrats should reject the alternative vote.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics UK

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These two words are likely to make most people switch off: alternative vote. And with good reason. The debate about introducing the AV system into Britain, which British people will vote on in a referendum on 5 May, has been so snooze-inducing it could probably be bottled and sold in chemists as a cure for insomnia. All we have is the largely conservative No to AV lobby telling us that electoral reform will be too expensive to enact, and the Yes to AV lobby looking upon anyone who opposes their pet campaign as a stick-in-the-mud hater of political change.

The nauseating nature of the debate is a shame since AV is actually an important issue. Why? Because moving towards an AV system would make British politics even less democratic and open than it is. It would weaken the British public’s say and boost the role of opportunists in the setting up of representative institutions, leading to the further blanding-out and homogenisation of political life and debate. Which is why, starting now, spiked hopes to convince its British readers to get at least a little bit interested in AV, and to go to the polling booths on 5 May to vote against it.

AV is a form of super-technical majoritarianism. The way it works is through insisting that a candidate secure more than 50 per cent of votes before he is declared winner. So it asks voters to list their candidate choices in order of preference, marking them as 1, 2, 3 and so on. If after the first count no single candidate has 50 per cent of votes, then the candidate with the least number of votes is kicked out and those who voted for that candidate have their second-preference votes counted instead. This continues until one of the candidates – through a combination of his own first-preference votes and less keen voters’ second-preference votes for him – finally reaches the 50 per cent mark. So someone eventually wins, even if many of ‘his’ votes were cast very half-heartedly for him.

It is assumed that anyone who says ‘no to AV’ must be aligned with the official, rather drab NO2AV movement. According to John Kampfner, those who support the Yes campaign tend to be ‘young and optimistic’, while the No campaign is ‘comprised mainly of Conservative right-wingers who hate any form of change’. Really? spiked is young and optimistic, and in favour of change, yet we’re against AV. For us, the issue at stake is what kind of electoral system provides the greatest opportunity for the democratic expression of people’s aspirations? What system best encourages the creation of popular, properly representative assemblies? It categorically is not AV.

It is often interesting and important to reform electoral systems. Probably the best electoral system for Britain, in place of the First Past The Post system we currently have, would be some variant of proportional representation. That would most likely allow for the greatest variety of political outlooks and differences to be expressed and create an opportunity for minority opinions to gain a hearing. It would more accurately reflect the will of the electorate overall, certainly more than FPTP does.

Even problematic electoral reforms can have a surprising impact. In Australia, for example, they have had compulsory voting since 1924, and one consequence of having everyone vote is that the PC, metropolitan elite in that country is forced to pay attention to the opinions of those sections of society it despises. One reason why Australia has more than its fair share of anti-PC, climate change-doubting, metropolitan-baiting politicians is because those sections of society who have little truck with that cultural elitist outlook – sections of the working classes, the poor, and so on – must vote. spiked is, on principle, opposed to compulsory voting, because it turns what ought to be the exercising of a right into a mandatory duty; yet the anti-PC sentiment in Australia, the relative healthiness of the Culture Wars there in comparison with other countries, shows that electoral reforms can have important repercussions. Only a fool would have a never-shifting objection to altering electoral systems.

However, introducing AV in Britain would unquestionably be a change for the worse. It would make things less democratic, in two important ways: firstly through its impact on the act of voting, which would turn from being an impassioned statement into a watered-down listing of candidates you like, kind of like and dislike; and secondly through its impact on the act of deciding, which would more and more become a post-election, closed-off process of sifting through people’s preferences to try to decipher which candidate sort of represents the electorate’s desires.

AV would weaken the vote by implicitly inviting people, not to stamp their ballot paper with a heartfelt X for their party, but to scribble numbers next to various candidates, regardless of whether they feel very much for them. Voting would become less a declaration of belief and more a hedging of political bets.

The pro-AV lobby often points out that you will still be able to vote for only one candidate (or just two, or three, or four… it’s up to you). However, the knowledge that your first-preference vote might swiftly be discounted, and that second- or third-preference votes could become key in deciding the outcome of the election, will put moral pressure on voters to play the AV game, effectively to list their feelings about all the candidates rather than attach their flag to one of them. In keeping with our era of ideology-lite, where strong political convictions are seen as weird, voters will be tempted away from their so-called ‘tribal allegiances’ towards the expression of a more relativistic sentiment.

This could impact on what kinds of candidates are put forward for elections in the first place. Which political party will risk standing a hardcore individual – a deep-blue Tory or a workerist Labourite – when it knows that if its candidate fails to secure 50 per cent of the vote in the first count then the views of other parties’ voters may become key? Today’s anaemic parties rarely stand risky candidates these days anyway; but with the introduction of AV we would likely see the party leaders exerting even more influence over which individuals are permitted to stand, with the elbowing aside of those with possibly controversial beliefs in favour of more acceptable, politer and blander candidates who might not only pick up lots of No.1s from said party’s traditional voters, but also some No.2s and No.3s from the other parties’ voters, too. AV would implicitly encourage the homogenisation of political life.

The new way of voting would also create enormous scope for a stitch-up. The knowledge that second- and third-preference votes could become key will invite opportunistic lobbying between the various candidates and their minions. Under AV, the emphasis will inevitably shift from politicians appealing directly to the public for their outright political support and towards candidates cosying up to each other, striking deals, saying ‘get your people to give me their second-preference votes, and I’ll get mine to give them yours…’ AV has a built-in tendency towards oligarchical relationship-building over direct, passionate, people-oriented electioneering.

Finally, AV would transform the traditional act of counting votes into a political form of tea-leaf-reading. Elections will be decided through the laborious process of sorting out preferences, expelling failing candidates one-by-one and subsequently spreading their supporters’ votes to other candidates. The people’s will would become something that is not so much clearly expressed in the election itself, in the act of voting, but rather something that is worked out after the election by officials and experts. Politics would become less open, less forged in the public realm, and more an act of elite deciphering of what ‘the people’ seemingly prefer rather than want. We could easily end up with representatives that no one truly, passionately, wants.

In short, AV will both weaken The Vote and strengthen electoral bureaucracy. It will encourage even more candidates not to stand on a platform of ideas or policies that they are prepared to live and die by, but rather to take fewer political risks and always to keep one eye on the lowest common denominator of appealing to as many people as possible. And AV will strengthen the hand of that expert caste of middle-class negotiators and well-connected, well-educated political players who already dominate much of the modern political sphere. It will be a travesty for democracy. Go out on 5 May and put a very large X – that profound symbol of political will – next to ‘NO’.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


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