Quick Thoughts on Alternative Vote

To me the least debatable benefits of First past the Post and Alternative Vote (also called Instant-runoff voting) are as follows:

First Past the PostAlternative Vote
Easier to describeEasier voting
Quicker resultsMore satisfactory results

I have to qualify this by defining ‘satisfactory’ to mean more people are happy or satisfied with the outcome of an individual election, because even if they did not get their favourite candidate, they at least did not get their least favourite.

Voting is easier in AV because you can vote sincerely. With FPTP there is no point in voting sincerely if you are sure your fellow constituents will be mostly voting for other people. Instead we are deluged with leaflets telling us to vote X because they are the only ones likely to displace Y. What makes the decision difficult is you don’t know how people will vote this time around, so you might guess wrongly. With AV you express your preferences and the tactical voting is done for you, automatically, and more perfectly than you could manage because it uses everyone else’s real votes!

Less-Quick Thoughts

There are some properties that I think are more debatable.

Naturally and inevitably both sides accuse the other of allowing someone who obviously has lost to win: FPTP advocates because the winner might not have the most first-preference votes, and AV because the winner might be someone hated by 70% of the constituency. This is a stupid argument because it boils down to saying AV is better because it is more like AV (or vice versa), which is not much of an argument.

Is is more proportional? Given that parliament is still the aggregate of independent elections, I see no reason why the proportions of MPs in parliament will neatly match the aggregate of votes cast nationally.

More coalition governments? I am not sure how this will fall out, myself. The major parties have members with conflicting opinions who must pretend to be unified for fear of splitting the vote, which with FPTP is fatal. With AV, a party split in two might well end up with the same number of MPs in parliament, but now divided between two parties in coalition. Is it better or worse that their differences of views are now openly expressed?

Better MPs? While they will need to be more broadly acceptable to their electors, this may be something that is more influenced by the party policies than the actions of individual MPs. MPs might become more independent of the party bosses as splitting seems less unthinkable.

Less affected by nuances of boundary changes? I imagine there are still cases where (for example) the decision to move a student- and immigrant-rich hunk of Oxford between the East and West constituencies influences the outcome.

An end to flip-flop government? As politicians adapt to the different campaigning style it will require, AV probably leads to more stable results, with longer-lived, more-centralist governments instead of switchbacks between 10 years of Labour and 10 years of Conservatives. Some people think an end to flip-flop government is desirable; some people think experiments with radical policies is what Makes Britain Great.

Change = risk? In other words, FPTP is the devil we know, and AV might introduce changes we do not like. Of course AV also brings the risk of nice things happening that we don‘t expect.

Voting for AV will please Clegg, for FPTP will punish him, or distress Cameron, or whatever? Punishing one person is a stupid reason to make or fail to make a permanent change to the voting system.

By the same logic, the obvious contempt the No2AV campaign hold for the British electorate is not a reason in itself to vote yes.

As an Australian, I somewhat resent the claim that Australia’s compulsory voting shows that AV is so hideous that no-one will vote voluntarily. This is stupid. The difference is that Australia treats voting as a civic duty—like jury service or paying taxes. Many countries have a history of the right to vote being a hard-one right, which makes that seem strange, but that’s a separate issue from FPTP versus AV.

Enough Wittering

You will have guessed I am in favour of voting yes on AV. It isn’t the best possible voting system—in fact AV with single-member constituencies is arguably the worst possible system apart from FPTP. Or to put it another way, it is the smallest possible improvement on the current system. But even that is worth voting for.

I say that as someone who had to dig through a lot of junk mail to find his polling card …