On the 5th May the British people vote to decide on whether they keep the First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system, or switch to the Alternative Vote (AV) system. As both a political junkie and an Irishman, I’ve a interest in this debate, primarily because of how absolutely surreal the debate has become. I thought I’d write today about a few casual observations of the debate.
One thing that has struck me has been that one’s attitude to AV is shaped by one’s attitude to politics, and I don’t mean left wing or right wing. Take this piece in The Daily Telegraph by Robert Colville, where he complains that AV would force the Conservative party to be more centrist, presumably because that’s where the voters are. He seems to be outraged that a party would have to actually follow the voters, and not the other way around.
Likewise with Iain Martin in The Daily Mail here, who seems to believe and object to the fact that a majority of voters could have voted to keep Jim Callaghan as prime minister under AV, and that AV would allow the British people to effectively hold the wrong opinions, that is, not electing Mrs. Thatcher in 1979. How dare they! He then surreally goes on to complain that whilst AV would have denied Mrs. Thatcher a strong majority, it would have given Tony Blair a huge majority. In other words, he seems to be objecting to his own belief that a majority of the British people, given a choice, would bend over backwards to keep the Conservatives out. I think he’s wrong, but the argument that FPTP should be retained because it is the only way the Conservatives can thwart the will of the British people is, to me, weak.
Melissa Kite in the Daily Telegraph here has been doing that other thing the No side have been engaged in for weeks now, deliberately shutting down their brain functions and going on about how complicated it all is. Interestingly, Melissa accidentally makes the argument for proportional representation in her piece. Everyone should be allowed choose the desert of their choice, but that’s not what FPTP gives you. I quote her piece below. I suspect most Irish people reading it will be scratching their heads asking what the problem is.
” Time for my pièce de résistance. I handed out Post-it notes and invited the eight diners to say what they wanted for pudding by ranking five options in order of preference: ice cream, cake, cheese, fruit and chocolates. Everyone went quiet and dutifully filled out their ballot card. I confess I then spent the next hour trying to work out the result. It nearly fried my brains but I got there in the end. After eliminating fruit in the first round and redistributing its votes, then the same with ice cream, then cake, then chocolates, the winner emerged as cheese, which had been the first choice of just three people. Interestingly, those who put cheese second were the most aggrieved. “That’s not fair,” said one, “I didn’t really want cheese.” I guess that’s AV for you.”
By her own words, it took Melissa an hour to count eight votes. I’ll say no more on the subject.
There’s a common theme running through the anti-AV campaign, and it’s this: You are only allowed think about politics the way professional politicians thinkabout it. You should love one party unconditionally, and hate every other party vociferously.
Of course, that’s not how most people think. Most people have a tendency towards one party over others, but also don’t mind some other parties, have no opinion on others and really dislike one or two. UKIP voters feel differently about the Conservatives than they do about the Lib Dems. Even Conservative and Labour voters, the two traditional enemies, probably are more well-disposed, generally, towards each other than the BNP. It’s like going into a restuarant. If they don’t have your favourite dish, you make a second choice. You don’t storm out and go hungry. Yet that is how anti-AV people seem to think.
In Ireland we use AV in presidential and by-elections. We don’t need special voting machines, we don’t have mass panic trying to understand the ballot paper or voting or counting. Our parliament is elected under a different system that uses the exact same ballot paper, and people vote in the same way. Is there chaos and confusion? No.
There is, however, one difference between British and Irish politics, or at least it appears that way to me.
In Ireland, our politicians, elected under a preferential voting system, seem to be much more afraid of us, the voters, than British politicians are afraid of British voters. Personally, I think that’s a good thing. But I can understand why the professional politicians opposed to AV would think otherwise.