The debate that has taken place in the run-up to the AV referendum this Thursday has been awful. The central claims of the two sides range from the inaccurate, to the irrelevant, to the idiotic. It is simply inaccurate to say – as the NO to AV camp has – that under AV the votes of some people will count more than the votes of others. Being given the opportunity to order your preferences is not the same as being allowed to vote more than once. Likewise, it is also inaccurate to say – as the YES camp has – that AV will end tactical voting, when in reality it will only make it more complicated.
Moreover, the effect AV may have on extremist parties, such as the BNP, is, I think, irrelevant. Electoral systems are there to reflect the will of the people, not to produce preordained results. And, in any case, if the powers that be really wanted to address high BNP support, they would tackle the social ills that give rise to it instead of trying to mask the symptoms. And finally, it is idiotic to make this referendum about David Cameron or Nick Clegg, however useful they may be as foils. And it is particularly idiotic to wear either of their images as masks.
This Intelligence Squared debate did include some of the unimpressive arguments that have characterised the AV debate more generally, but it also touched on some far more interesting and under-explored issues that lie at the heart of the debate about electoral reform.
Considered vs. Frivolous voting
When you look behind the smokescreen of the ‘some votes will count more than others’ argument, the contribution of Rodney Leach, the chairman of the No to AV campaign and first speaker against the motion, reveals a different concern. He said:
‘The whole idea, to me, that the fifth vote of somebody who votes for the Monster Raving Loony Party should equate in weight to the first considered vote of all of you here – thoughtful people, you read the manifestos, you decide who you are going to vote for. The ill-considered fifth vote of some minor party has the same weight as your vote. It’s so plainly unfair that it really needs not further argument.’
Putting the troublesome issue of preference ordering aside, the more significant point being made here is that it is better to make informed, considered judgements when voting than lazy or ill-considered judgements. This is something with which surely everyone can agree. What Rodney Leach is suggesting, however, is that AV will actually encourage encourage irresponsible voting, and for this claim he provides no evidence. In fact, it is just as likely that asking people to rank candidates in order of preference will force people to think more about their choices, not less. Instead of providing evidence, Leach made reference to the, intentionally ridiculous, Monster Raving Loony Party as a way of undermining the credibility of any vote that is not for the main two parties. He even went on to liken voters to children picking their favourite colour or pudding to make his point. Essentially, Rodney Leach is saying that there are only two kinds of considered, thoughtful votes: Tory or Labour. But isn’t that the point of AV: to give the voter more genuine options?
Tribal vs. ‘hedge your bets’ politics
Another key issue at the core of any debate about AV is tribalism. The Yes camp say that AV will force politicians to seek to appeal beyond their tribal base in order to get the required support. The No camp argue the system of competitive political parties is the basis for our democracy, and that politicians should stand for strong principles and not try to be all things to all people. David Davis, the Conservative MP for Haltemprice and Howden and final speaker against the motion, declared that AV will encourage politicians to minimise opposition instead of maximising support. This will result in what Davis called ‘hedge your bets politics’.
The No camp are certainly right to be concerned by the prospect of all principle being drained from politics. Indeed, fundamental disagreement about principle is politics. If we all agreed, we wouldn’t have to argue about what to do. And if we all knew who the best person to make all the important political decisions was, we would probably just let them get on with it. The point is that we don’t all agree. And in response to this profound disagreement we have devised a system in which we disagree, argue, deliberate, vote and then deal with the result. The problem with the stance of the No camp is that they emphasise disagreement and voting only. If democratic politics is about disagreement, then it is also about argument, deliberation and compromise. We argue to persuade, because not all disagreement in intractable. We deliberate to be sure, because we recognise that we are fallible. And we compromise, because we are bound to in a context where we don’t all agree. Politics is tribal, but it is not all tribal. If it were, we would revolt every time our party didn’t win.
Changing voting behaviour
What this debate is really about is the relationship between the voting system and the people. David Aaronovitch, the author, journalist and final speaker for the motion, hinted at this by describing how the combined vote for the Labour and Conservative parties has decreased from 96.1% in 1955 to 65% on 2010. This means that the third or fourth party vote has gone up from 3.9% to 35% in 50 years. According to Aaronovitch,
‘The problem with our system is that the first past the post system in one seat cannot cope with what that means in practice. It cannot cope with the fact that increasing numbers of Britons simply do not want to vote for one of the great duopoly, despite the fact that they are constantly told that to do anything else is effectively a wasted vote and despite the fact that actually under that system increasingly it has been a wasted vote.’
Aaronovitch went on to argue that this state of affairs has had two main results: an increased occurrence of minority mandates, where MPs are elected with less than 50% of the vote; and the rise of tactical voting, where the only way to influence the result is to vote for something other than what you do want.
Now, it is clearly a real problem for a democracy when the least popular person can end up being elected as the MP for a constituency. And the rise of tactical voting certainly indicates a profound disconnect between the voter and her vote. AV does seem to go some way to alleviating these problems. It ensures that the successful parliamentary candidate cannot be actively disliked by the majority of the constituents. And, though not ending tactical voting, it reconnects the voter with her vote because it means you can vote for who you want without prejudicing your ability to affect the result.
There is a more fundamental question at play here, however: it is the question of the constitution. Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, the Director of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems and second speaker against the motion, stated that ‘We ought to value our constitution very much, just as, say, the Americans value their constitution. And that means that you should not change without a good reason, without a large majority, without a fairly arduous process’. Although his reference to the American constitution is slightly disingenuous because our constitution is not visible, codified or revered in anywhere near the same way as the Americans’, Michael Pinto-Duschinsky does have a point. Constitutions, of which voting systems are part, are very important things indeed. The most successful, such as the Americans’, are stable yet adaptable. The question is, then, when and how to adapt?
So, should we alter our constitution just because the electorate has undergone a significant change in voting behaviour, bearing in mind that behaviour is always changing in one way or another? When the change is so modest, I’d say yes.