Saturday, 30 April 2011
When I was nine there was a general election, and we were talking about politics in Sunday school. "What would be the first thing you'd do if you were Prime Minister?" asked our leader. Most of the kids had to think about it, but I piped up immediately: "Proportional representation!"
Of course, I was asked to explain to the other children what on earth I was on about: "I want to see a voting system where the number of MPs from a given party is roughly in proportion to the amount of support they have across the country." (Yeah, I was a very strange nine-year-old.)
That was nineteen years ago. This Thursday, the UK is having a referendum about our voting system. The choice is between our current system, called 'First Past The Post' (FPTP), and a ranking system called 'Alternative Vote' (AV).
At the moment, when we go to vote, we get a list of names and we get to pick one. The calculation in FPTP is trivially simple: sort the ballot papers into piles, and the biggest pile wins the seat.
Under AV, we would be able to write down a number against each candidate, ranking them in order of preference (1 for first preference, 2 for second preference, etc). Just like the present system, the first step in counting the votes is to sort the papers into piles according to each voter's first choice candidate. The count would take slightly longer than under FPTP, because if the highest-scoring candidate hasn't got 50% of the vote, then the lowest-scoring candidate is eliminated, and their papers are distributed to their second-preference candidates. This continues until one candidate has over half of the vote. It's approximately equivalent to having multiple run-off elections, except that you write all your preferences down at once (so you can't change your mind based on the results of the first round).
FPTP allows you to express your first preference, and nothing beyond that. And not everyone even votes for their true first preference - you see a lot of election literature claiming that a particular party "can't win" in a particular seat, encouraging their supporters to instead vote for the politically-closest alternative who might stand a chance. In the town of Cheltenham, not far from where I live, it's generally believed that the Labour party "can't win" and so a lot of Labour supporters voted for the Liberal Democrat candidate at the last election in the hope of keeping the Conservative candidate out of office. (I know of several people who were consequently very upset when the Lib Dems formed a coalition with the Conservatives.)
Under AV, it would be a lot harder to orchestrate this kind of tactical voting - and it would arguably be less necessary, since Labour supporters could simply rank the Labour candidate first, and the Lib Dem candidate second, if that was how they felt.
Any debate about the mechanics of voting necessarily raises the question of what we mean by a "fair" system. Unfortunately, an economist called Kenneth Arrow took a set of things he thought would make a system "fair" and proved that they can't all coexist in a single system. This is kind of a pain, but even if an absolutely fair system is impossible, that doesn't mean we couldn't improve on what we've got.
For me personally, a fairer system would be one with a proportional outcome. Under the present system, it's possible (and actually quite common) for a party to win a significant majority of seats with less than 50% of the vote. AV isn't a proportional system, but would be likely to generate results somewhat closer to a proportional outcome.
My personal concern with this referendum is that AV is no-one's "ideal" solution. Most people who have been campaigning for voting reform really want to see a proportional system. But if people who want proportional representation don't go out on Thursday and vote in favour of AV, then supporters of FPTP are likely to interpret the result as a mandate for not changing anything, and in that case I don't think we'd see a similar referendum on proportional representation in my lifetime.
PS. In the interests of fairness, I should note that a lot of people don't agree with me about proportional representation. The main reason seems to be a belief that having a 'strong' government (with a big enough majority to pass legislation easily) is more important than how closely that government represents the views of the population. And proportional systems will always result in more coalitions and minority governments, because people's preferences are diverse.