With the UK House of Commons back in session after a brief summer break, debate on the proposed referendum on the Alternative Vote has heated up again, with some rather eyebrow-raising objections to AV being put forward, mostly by Conservatives.
(Note: Labour has also said it will oppose the Bill now before the House, but its objections are centred primarily on the Government’s decision to combine the referendum on AV and the measures to reduce the number MPs into one bill. Labour’s manifesto included a referendum on AV, therefore the party is not against the measure. They do oppose the way the Government is proposing to change constituency boundaries, and to a lesser degree, to the fact that the referendum will be held on the same day as local elections.)
Yesterday, on ConservativeHome, Robert Halfon wrote that instead of changing the electoral system completely, Conservatives should instead reform First-Past-the-Post. Halfon sets out that FPTP is “better than a proportional system or even AV”, but acknowledges that it has one major flaw: too many MPs get elected with less than 50% of the vote. To address that, Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow, proposes adopting “The Second Ballot” (TSB), which is used by France for both parliamentary and presidential elections, as well as in a few other places for presidential elections. Essentially, a week after the general election, in ridings where no candidate won a majority of the vote (50%+1), a second ballot would be held with only the top two candidates featured, thus ensuring that one of them would emerge with a clear majority.
AV does achieve the same thing by having voters rank candidates in order of preference and then distributing the preferences until someone ends up with a majority, but Halfon objects to AV because these rankings are, according to Halfon, “artificial”. I am not certain how Halfon arrives at this; I have to assume he means that people don’t really have second (nevermind third, fourth, or fifth) preferences, so they have to make them up. In other words, everyone voting wants one, and only one candidate to win, and so ranking the other candidates in an order of preference is a false exercise, because they don’t really want to see any of those other candidates win.
To this I can only reply that it must be nice to live with such a degree of political certainly. I do know of such people, people who know that one party, their party, is the only one worth voting for, and who will vote for that party no matter how ridiculous their local candidate might be, and regardless of what that party puts into its manifesto. They certainly aren’t found only in the UK or Canada – I once encountered an American who proudly proclaimed that he was a Republican, like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and even his great-great grandfather. I started to wonder if voting Republican was therefore a genetic thing, like having blue eyes, or if it simply meant no one in his family was capable of independent thought. I favoured the latter explanation.
But to quote Halfon:
the Alternative Vote places an artificial construct on voter’s intentions, forcing them to make second preference choices – before they actually know the result, which inevitably would disproportionately favour the Liberal Democrats as being the ‘centre’ party.
For voters who aren’t slavishly devoted to a particular party, voting isn’t always a simple exercise. Some of us most certainly do have clear preferences at the ballot box; these are by no means artificial constructs. It could be that the only definitive preference one has is which candidate or party we don’t want to see elected, and our preferences regarding the remaining candidates are more fluid, but this is still a preference. It is only for someone who is so devoted to a single party that they won’t even consider the merits of any other candidate that ranking candidates would be an artificial construct.
This attitude also assumes that FPTP doesn’t place an artificial construct on a voter’s intentions. For some, voting under FPTP often leads to voting for a party that is not one’s preferred choice in a bid to block one’s least preferred option from winning, in other words, strategic voting. This was clearly in play during the May 2010 UK general election, with many traditional Labour supporters in ridings they knew their candidate wouldn’t win voting for the Liberal Democrat candidate in hopes of blocking the Conservatives from taking the seat.
I also find curious Halfon pointing out that AV forces voters to mark their artificial voting choices before they know the result of the vote. I don’t quite see what the potential problem is here (but then again, I’m not someone who is fully committed to one particular party). I assume he’s implying that for someone like him, who doesn’t have any preferences beyond his one and only first choice, if he were forced to vote a second time, then he would find it easier to make a choice, even if his beloved party’s candidate wasn’t on that second ballot. However, while this might make things easier for Mr. Halfon and those like him, it doesn’t do much to help people who don’t have such strong party allegiance. What if my two least favourite candidates are the ones that make it to Halfon’s proposed Second Ballot round? How does this improve things for me as a voter? I would much prefer to rank my choices on the first (and only) ballot, and then have my preferences distributed on subsequent counts. I might still end up with my least favourite candidate as MP, but could happen under any voting system.
While Halfon believes FPTP has only one real flaw, it should be noted that Second Ballot presents other issues. It can punish parts of the political spectrum which split their vote. For example, in the 2002 French Presidential election, the left-wing vote splintered in the first round between 10 candidates, while the right-wing vote was concentrated on four candidates (Chirac, Le Pen, Madelin, and Megret). The result was that two right-wing candidates topped the poll: Chirac with 20% and Le Pen with 17%. They went into the run-off second ballot. However, if you grouped the candidates into three broad political camps – Left, Right and Centre – you had the Left on 46%, the Right on 43%, and Centre on 11%. The vagueries of the Second Ballot system disenfranchised the Left wing voters completely.
I can’t end this without commenting on the last part of that quote from Halfon’s piece: “which inevitably would disproportionately favour the Liberal Democrats as being the ‘centre’ party.” Perhaps that is the crux of Halfon’s objection to AV. His beloved Conservatives wouldn’t be the second choice of that many voters (except perhaps BNP and UKIP voters). I wonder if it was demonstrated that AV would actually benefit the Conservatives, would he suddenly be more in favour of adopting it?