AV – slightly less unfair votes for all!

Why the referendum on the Alternative Vote may well be remembered as little more than an exercise in political cowardice.

In a month’s time Britain goes to the polls in a referendum on our voting system. Do we or do we not want the Alternative Vote system in the next general election? Despite this being a rare opportunity for direct democracy, the response has been a national shrug. I’ve explained it to several friends who didn’t realise it was happening at all.

Obviously voting mechanisms are a somewhat dry and technical topic of conversation, but how we elect our government is a crucial reform that absolutely has to happen sooner or later. Here’s why:

There are only two parties that can ever win an election in the UK. When either Labour or the Conservatives take power, they supposedly do so with a mandate from the British public. But neither of them can muster even one percent of the electorate to join the actual party. As a nation, our political views are broader and more varied than the party system can allow, but the system does not allow us to express that diversity of opinion.

Unfortunately, the first past the post system benefits those two parties, so it’s not in their interests to change it. Labour promised reform in 1997, and never got around to implementing it, despite setting up the Scottish and Welsh parliaments with the superior Additional Member System. (Each voter gets to vote for a candidate and a party, as used in New Zealand and Germany, among others)

The Conservatives offer, a make-or-break part of the coalition deal with the Lib Dems, is to offer a referendum on AV. It’s a miserable offer. No reformer has ever called for AV. It’s fairer than FPTP, but not by much. It’s hard to get excited about.

And that’s no doubt the reasoning behind it. By offering an inadequate solution, the government either gets a system that still benefits the status quo, albeit slightly less. Or, the country rejects the offer and the powers that be can wash their hands of all talk of reform for another generation. The whole thing is an exercise in political cowardice.

If you crunch the numbers from the last election, you  can put a figure to the difference AV would have made. The number of safe seats falls, and the number of marginal seats rises, but not dramatically:

Nef’s innovative Voter Power Index takes the ideal of ‘one person one vote’ and applies it to our current system, and finds that thanks to FPTP, one person actually equals more like a third of a vote. Where a score of 1 represents complete fairness, AV would “increase the average power of UK voters from 0.285 of a vote to 0.352 of a vote.”

Hmm… less than revolutionary. But you know what, I’ll take this limp handshake of a deal over no deal at all. I will take the compromise on the table as a first step. I will call it what it is, and I won’t stop asking for more – for a fair deal, for bold leadership, and for real democracy.

So I support AV, and I will vote for it next month. I would even campaign for it if I wasn’t preparing for the arrival of a Williams junior the week before. But AV is only ever going to be slightly less unfair. It is a step in the direction of fair votes, and whether we vote yes or no in May, the reform movement still has a lot to do.


  1. Agreed. If we keep the current system, there will definitely be no improvement. With AV, it’s still unlikely that things will be much better, but at least it’s a possibility.

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