Tuesday 19 April 2011

First Past the Post is my last preference

Growing up in Northern Ireland has the advantage of having three easily accessable political arenas: Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the UK. So mentally hopping across borders and discussing what's going on in each area becomes almost second nature - perhaps this is why I warm so easily to the EU. The UK is preparing for a referendum on changing the voting system from First Past the Post (FPTP) to the Alternative Vote (AV).

Living in Northern Ireland,* I could vote in local, NI and Wesminster elections** which were held using the Single Transferable Vote (the same system is used for the elections in the Republic), but FPTP for Westminster elections. It's a very strange feeling going from STV elections to FPTP ones, and the abiding feeling was one of a loss of choice and power as a voter. In the Republic, attempts by the Fianna Fáil party to change the electoral system from STV to FPTP failed - the electorate saw it as an attempt to rig the system in their favour and to reduce the power of the voter. As STV is AV with more MPs per constituency, when there can only be one winner - in by-elections or for the Presidency in the Republic - AV is used.

So it's very hard to understand the political reactions of the British media (and people?) to the political changes over the last year. Coalitions? Preferential voting? "The sky is falling in!" the media seemed to cry. Today in the Guardian there's a poll saying that support for AV has fallen to 33%, with those against at 44%. It's difficult to explain how strange this seems for someone who has voted according to preference in the vast majority of the elections he's been involved in - particularly the claim that AV is complicated and voters won't understand it. Perhaps this is an Irish/STV thing?

While a system of proportional system would be better, I support AV for the following main reasons:

1. It empowers voters and shakes up safe seats. By being able to vote according to preference, suddenly the first preference doesn't have to be tactical anymore. Preferences can be expressed according to the candidate according to his/her personal ability and/or party affliation, and this means that candidates will have to represent the views of the constituency more faithfully as party membership will be less able to grant near-automatic victories in safe seats. This will encourage voter turnout. Though tactical voting will remain with the lower preferences (there's no electoral system that can eliminate tactical voting), it will free up first preferences, and many safe seats may turn out not to be as safe as once thought once voters can express their first preference free of tactical voting.

2. It enables (though doesn't guarantee - that depends on the electorate) a greater degree of control over the political parties. Parties in the UK are very broad churches - almost coalitions - and their success seems to be based on striking a balance between different wings in such a way as to appeal to the floating voters in marginal seats. By encouraging candidates to appeal to the political sentiments of their constituency more directly, gradual change can be introduced into the parties. A right-wing conservative may be sitting in a seat that would prefer a more liberal conservative, but there is little way of influencing the outcome if they absolutely do not want a Labour MP, and so vote tactically. It should be stressed that this depends on the electorate making use of the possibility, and that it would be a very gradual and indirect way of influencing the balance within parties, but it should mean that parties are a bit closer to their constituencies.

Those are the main reasons for supporting the system itself (I'm not going to be exhaustive in explaining them, or this long post will become far too long), but there are wider cultural perceptions that are attached to AV and proportional representation systems which mean that British voters are (or seem to be) against changing from FPTP.

Chief among these reasons is the fear of coalitions. Coalitions won't automatically come from AV: it cannot change the party political system so radically that there will be great fragmentation. However, coalitions aren't a bad thing that necessarily mean that voters' choices are reduced. Parties are coalitions that are hard in themselves to influence, and where there are only 2 (or 2 1/2) choices for government, it's hard to determine whether, when these parties win an election, their programmes get a near-total endorsement. What's more, the decreasing vote for the main parties means that a majority can be won on about between 36-38% (the upper reaches of which are harder to achieve nowadays) - should a single party be given such power when they don't have the support of 50% of the people? Through coalitions there is a greater chance for the voters to strengthen one party or the other and shape their relative strengths.

Again, perhaps this is a cultural perception, as in Ireland single party government is a threat - at the last election (in February), it looked like there may be enough Fine Gael support for single party government, and the electorate switched votes away from FG to ensure that there would be a coalition (in Labour speak, a "balanced government"). Ironically the most unstable government we've ever had in the Republic was a FF single party government with a large majority. Still, the ability to give preferences for candidates across parties in STV enables voters to shape the representation of the constituency and the political balance in the Dáil for coalition building. The "dream team" approach to building a government!

AV is a very moderate change to the electoral system. It won't change things radically, it's still possible (and fairly likely) to produce single party governments, and it doesn't create a proportional repersentive system. Such a moderate change won't have the hyped-up affects on British politics that the Yes campaign suggest, but it will give constituencies greater control over their MP. And that's why it's worth voting for.

* Annoyingly, if not surprisingly, the parties in NI have split along Nationalist-Unionist lines on the AV issue, though none are advocating a return to FPTP for NI...

**I'm currently living in the Netherlands, and was annoyingly too late for a postal vote.


  1. There is an interesting discussin about this going on right now on the blog written by Sir Brian Barder. I think you offer some new perspective that would be useful to that discussion: may I post a link to your post here?

  2. Sure! I wasn't aware of his post; thanks for informing me.

  3. I'm grateful to Pete for pointing me at this very interesting post -- and for generously recommending my own blog post on the subject at http://www.barder.com/3157.

    I have to admit, though, that I don't find Eurocentric's case for AV convincing, for reasons most of which are set out in my blog post (link immediately above), although I can well understand that someone whose politics have been shaped in part by the obviously desirable concept (in Northern Ireland specifically) of power-sharing among intrinsically hostile parties will look with favour on a system that's likelier to produce hung parliaments and multi-party governments than FPTP. But what is plainly needed in NI isn't necessarily good for the UK as a whole.

    In the end I think there has to be a trade-off for UK elections to the house of commons (although not necessarily in other elections) between (a) a house of commons more accurately reflecting the spread of political opinion in the country but more likely to produce multi-party governments and programmes for which no-one has voted, and (b) a less arithmetically representative house of commons that's more likely to produce single-party governments which can be held to account for their pre-election promises (not only in their manifestos) and which can pursue clear-cut policies without the need for compromises to buy off junior coalition partners or other small parties. Personally I think (b) is more important and more conducive to the good government of the country than (a), but it's perfectly legitimate to prefer (a).

    I do wish though that advocates of AV would stop claiming that under AV all MPs would have had the support of more than 50% of their electorates. In most constituencies this can be made to seem true only by pretending that second and third preferences are of equal value to first preferences as indicators of 'support', which is obviously not the case. An MP whose majority depends on second or lower preferences transferred from other candidates is as much in the situation that the majority of the voters didn't vote for him (with their first preferences) as an MP under First Past the Post elected on a minority vote. Neither can claim that the majority of voters supported him. Since no UK political party has ever won the support of more than 50% of the electorate since the 1930s, it stands to reason that no one party's candidates in most UK constituencies will be able to win more than 50% of his or her constituency's votes. AV can't change this reality and it's sophistry to pretend otherwise.

    Equally flawed arguments are being advanced by the No camp, though. In general the level of the debate so far seems to me pitifully low, with both sides missing the most powerful arguments available to them and relying instead on arguments that are easily rebutted. One needs to read the blogs to get a better idea of the real cases for and against!

  4. @ BrianB

    Thank you very much for the reply. My views may have been shaped partly by the history of gerrymandered FPTP districts in NI before the 1970s (NI dropped STV and switched to FPTP, ensuring UUP government for 50 years), but I primarily base my preference for coalition government from the Republic, Germany and other European countries.

    Regarding you preference for less representative, but more accountable government, I would question the true accountability of the current Westminster system. As it consists of 2 1/2 options for government, there is a very narrow form of competition between the parties for votes, and the high levels of tactical voting mean that it's hard to tell if voters really endorse the parties as they are. A swing between 2 manifestos/platforms based on perhaps one or two key issues is a very narrow form of accountability, and considering the diminishing level of support the single-party governments have, the legitimacy of implementing the programmes wholesale becomes increasingly questionable.

    FPTP tends to produce sharp swings (except for the last election, and it is too early to see if hung parliaments might become a trend over the next few elections if the LibDem recover), but these are between very broad churches. By contrast, in PR elections, such as in Ireland, parties have clearer policy platforms and the strength of the support for these shapes the parliament and the resulting government. Realistically, there will always be a tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum aspect to politics, but I think that PR and coalition benefits the operation of government. To me it is more accountable as I, and other voters, can more clearly support and strengthen policy positions within the parliament and ultimately in government if the party I elect (and prospective coalition partners I might also give preferences to) gets into government. Nobody is matched perfectly by a party, and I feel this system gives me much more choice and control over politics than the FPTP system. How much old or new Labour would the electorate have wanted in the last Labour government?

    In Ireland I hear a lot more about issues and policy implementation (and I'm starting to hear more of it in the UK now), and the quality of legislation is simply better as there is more scrutiny within the government. I'm a supporter of the parliamentary system because I too prefer the executive and the legislature to be linnked sufficiently so that policy can be implemented and be accountable. Having a coalition government prevents (or reduces) the downsides rushed and ill-thought-through legislation.

    In NI the situation is very different, but it is a special case as it's a consociational system. When I support coalition government, It is not about forcing parties that hate each other into coalition. A multi-party democracy would generate a different structure, and there are generally prefered coalition partners and political dividing lines, but it is up to the electorate to lend its support to the prospective coalitions in the weight it chooses.

    Getting back to AV, I agree that it's not a simple 50% support that each MP gets, but under AV, MPs would enjoy a wider range of support than under FPTP. Going back to my argument above, my main reason for supporting it is that it would open up more party competition in safe seats, etc. It will probably have much the same result as FPTP, just with minnor improvements. I don't claim that these are anything other than gradual and dependent on the voter, but the choice is between AV and FPTP, and AV seems better to me as a voter.