AV vs FPTP – what a horrible campaign!

Tomorrow we have a referendum in the UK to decide whether to change our current voting system of First Past the Post (FPTP) to Alternative Vote (AV). I’m a consciensious voter, so I’ve been trying to pay attention to the issues about this in order to make an informed choice and vote wisely. It’s been pretty hard to get to any solid information, though.

So I put a '1' against my first choice and a '2' against my second choice, right?

So I put a ‘1’ against my first choice and a ‘2’ against my second choice, right? From hugovk on Flickr

To begin, I assumed I could rely on the mainstream media. Perhaps a televised debate? Nope! OK, in that case, Today on Radio 4 will cover it and I listen to that everyday. Sadly, while they did cover it, none of the subtle issues around the debate were covered at any time I was listening (peak listening hours 7.30am – 8.30am) and the interviews with the politicians were about the political climate about the debate, and other issues, rather than the meat of the issue. I really want to know why our Prime Minister favours FPTP but the interview with him was largely focussed on criticizing his campaign. When it did get to substance, John Humphrys totally failed to properly make the counter arguments to Cameron’s claims – fluffing issues about the claim that votes are counted more than once under AV, and about which systems are used around the world. Equally, the interview with Nick Clegg started with a political row about internships – surely not more important than how we elect our government for years to come.

So, in frustration, I turned to online research. I started with the campaign websites and came away disappointed. The campaigns are both terrible. Once you understand the basics of the systems, I think the real questions are around who potentially benefits from each system and what the strengths and weaknesses of each system are. Instead of properly addressing these issues, both campaigns have resorted to simplified and highly politicised soundbites. The leaflets that came through my door were awful on both sides. The Yes campaign (for the change to AV) essentially has an ‘anti MP corruption’ message, obviously playing on the anger around expenses. The No campaign is worse, though, with claims that the money spent on changing the system should be spent on schools and nurses and soldiers instead, and claiming that Australia, who uses the system already, wants to change it. I’ve seen reputable counter claims to these arguments that say they are both total rubbish. It’s disappointing and, more to the point, it’s very hard to work out if there is any substance to any of the arguments against AV.

Wikipedia was useful and there are other online resources that are useful, including a twee but informative bit on More or Less on Radio4.

I have concluded the following:

  • the claims about cost are rubbish and include the cost of holding this referendum. Also, I think it’s worth paying for a system if it’s good enough
  • the handling of extreme parties is a key issue with this debate. AV allows people to vote at the extremes and express their true preferences safe in the knowledge that they can also vote for a more moderate party more likely to get in. This should mean that votes aren’t wasted (as your preference gets taken into account when your extreme party has been excluded) and could reduce tactical voting. It should also encourage extreme voters to think more about which of the moderate parties appeal to them, and should force the moderate parties to take into account the views of the extremes. There are risks with this, but it seems like a more sensible set of risks than FPTP, which risks the moderate vote being split over several candidates and extreme parties doing well in ‘protest’.
  • the idea that some people have more votes than others under AV is interesting, but essentially I think untrue. You have one vote that gets transfered to the candidate of your choice in the event of your favoured candidate being knocked out. If your candidate isn’t knocked out, your first vote is still valid and counted again. I’m genuinely confused about why people have a problem with this.
  • I think it possible there are good reasons to reject AV but I can’t find any that seem valid to me.

Most worrying of all, it seems the tactics of the No campaign including lies and emotive rubbish have worked and the polls are suggesting the No campaign will win. That’s certainly not how I want our political system to work.