It’s the last week of the AV referendum campaign and time for the politicians to butt out and let the voters take over. In fact in this particular campaign they should always have been taking a back seat. We know their views, and they are not a surprise. Among MPs, if we assume there are no closet AV supporters among the Tories, we have 335 out of 650 supporting the status quo and only 144 clearly supporting AV. Politicians don’t reach power by cutting their feet from under themselves.
We know that Nick Clegg and his colleagues think that AV will gain them a few more seats relative to votes. We know that the Tories are terrified that AV will prevent their party gaining sole power on a minority vote ever again. Many Labour politicians either share the fears of the Tories or are happy to oppose something they believe to be of so little interest to most. Especially when it might make their careers a bit less secure and predictable.
Politicians have cried that AV is unfair to them (because the winner doesn’t win) and that AV campaigners have insulted them (because MPs could work harder to gain additional preference votes). But what about us, the voters? What about fairness to us? Are we being insulted?
In one clear way FPTP and AV are equally fair to voters. Under FPTP everyone has the same right to mark a single cross against any candidate on the ballot. Under AV everyone has the same right to number the candidates from 1 upwards.
But in another more subtle way, AV is fairer to voters than FPTP. FPTP changes the value of your vote according to how many others vote for your chosen candidate. If you don’t know how others will vote you often don’t know how best to cast your own vote. As a result, voters that prefer both of candidates A and B to a candidate C can form the majority, yet C is elected. The single most important merit of AV is that it makes this a much less likely occurrence. It allows voters to say ‘If I can’t have A, I’d prefer B to C’ or ‘If I can’t have B, I’d prefer A to C’.
Does this amount to giving the A and B preferrers additional votes, as No campaigners claim? Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian reports a rather neat analogy. I ask you to get me a Mars bar from the shop, but sometimes the shop runs out of Mars bars. So I tell you to get me a Twix if they don’t have any Mars bars. How many chocolate bars do I get? Only one – the same as someone who knows there was a Mars bar delivery this morning and so doesn’t bother naming an alternative!
And don’t allow yourself to be insulted by those who claim to know how AV will change the long-term electoral future. It might increase the chances of hung parliaments and coalitions, it might not. It might bring forward the chances of further electoral reform, it might not. Not even the experts know.
So don’t fall for the politicians’ special pleading. See the question from your point of view as a voter. Which of the two systems we may be using for the next election is fairest in using our views to select our MPs?