6 May voting referendum: the CAFOD lowdown
On 6 May this year, the country will be offered a new voting system – the ‘alternative vote’. Our current system is first-past-the-post. So what are the arguments for and against change, and what are the implications for development?
To vote under FPTP the voter simply puts a cross in a box next to one candidate, and the candidate with the most votes in the constituency wins. It is praised for its simplicity and its tendency to produce clear, stable parliamentary majorities.
What are the criticisms?
Critics suggest FPTP unfairly favours larger parties, and disenfranchises those who vote for smaller parties. They also argue that it encourages tactical voting, which gives a disproportionate level of influence to the media because politically-biased publications can influence the small proportion of votes that would swing a result.
Its effect on political parties is telling, as champions of a particularly political philosophy know they are unlikely to be successful at the ballot box on their own, so they join with those of a similar but not identical viewpoint. This broadens the reach of political parties to a point where they can effectively become coalitions in themselves. For example, the modern Labour Party contains genuine Socialists and free market capitalists. Critics also argue that it commonly elects MPs and governments who do not command the support a majority of their electorate (George Galloway was elected with less than 20 per cent of the popular vote in 2005).
Alternative vote (AV)
To vote under AV, rather than simply marking a solitary 'X' on the ballot paper, the voter has the chance to rank the candidates.
Thus the voter puts a '1' by their first-preference candidate and can continue, if they wish, to put a '2' by their second-preference, and so on, until they don't care anymore or they run out of names. If a candidate receives a majority of first-preference votes (more people put them as number one than all the rest combined), then they are elected. If no candidate gains a majority on first preferences, then the second-preference votes of the candidate who finished last on the first count are redistributed. This process is repeated until someone gets over 50 per cent.
AV is praised for ensuring that all MPs would have the support of a majority of their voters (following the 2010 election, 66 per cent of MPs lacked majority support) and eliminates the need for tactical voting as electors can vote for their first-choice candidate without fear of wasting their vote. AV supporters also suggest that the ability to choose preferences would lessen the need for negative campaigning, as candidates wouldn’t wish to alienate the supporters of another candidate whose second preferences he/she wants.
What are the criticisms?
Critics suggest it would produce uncertain results and coalition governments, favouring compromise over conviction. They also suggest it would disproportionately favour extreme parties who play to voters’ fears. Conversely, some champions of a change in the voting system suggest that AV doesn’t go far enough and is less proportionate than other options.
Implications for international development
Champions of FPTP state that to make good decisions you need strong government, which can only be guaranteed by their preferred system. It is easier to win votes in the House of Commons and make new laws if a majority of MPs are on the same side, and FPTP makes that more likely.
The ‘Yes to AV’ campaign disputes this analysis. AV would reflect a more accurate picture of how people vote, giving volume to seldom-heard voices and breaking the ‘mainstream’ party stronghold for good. It is more likely that ‘peripheral issues’ would take on greater importance in election campaigns.
Find more information about the referendum on the Electoral Commission’s website.