Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Changing the voting system

TV's Andrew Rawnsley has written quite a good piece about the forthcoming referendum on the Alternative Vote. In his view, the current polls are more or less meaningless; either side could easily win; and support on both sides is so far soft.

I must say I am a bit depressed to find that even some of my LibDem friends, who (like me) have been agitating for electoral reform for decades, are lukewarm about this particular proposal and, while they will vote yes if they can be bothered to vote at all, they won't be positively campaigning for it. This is because they want STV, and think AV is so inferior to STV that it is scarcely any better than what we have at the moment.

I also want STV, but the hard fact of life is that we are not going to get it anytime soon. I am of the "anything is better than nothing" view. We all know that AV is not a proportional system. It can sometimes produce distorted results, just like first-past-the-post (FPTP). But breaking the stranglehold of FPTP is surely a good thing in itself, and introducing the principle of preferential voting likewise. Numbering candidates in order of preference is better than the all-or-nothing choice of the present system, and could be a step towards STV: all that would be required to move from AV to STV is to join existing constituences together into groups of, preferably, five. The voters by then would have got used to the idea of numbering the candidates 1, 2, 3 and so on.

Even if STV proves to be beyond our reach, AV is still better than what we have because it very largely removes any incentive to attempt to vote tactically, i.e. the voter can safely write down his or her true preferences without having try to guess what everybody else is doing.

As Roger Mortimore of IPSOS-Mori points out in an excellent new paper, A Guide to the Alternative Vote (PDF), it's not true that it it impossible to vote tactically under AV, but the effects are unpredictable and it is difficult to see how in practice a candidate or party could organise it. They might try, but the important thing is that for the ordinary elector there is no point in it.

Andrew Rawnsley meanwhile thinks that the more people hear about preferential voting the more they will like it, so he is optimistic that the campaign could produce a majority for change. Certainly David Cameron's speech on the subject last week was a disgraceful tissue of lies which the pro-AV camp ought to be able to demolish quite easily.

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