On 5th May 2011, the British electorate will be asked to cast their vote in a referendum on electoral reform. To AV or not to AV – that is the question. One important argument for AV listed is that under the system, all MPs would have the support of a majority of their constituents, as opposed to merely a plurality. Indeed, Labour leadership candidate David Miliband recently said, “I think that it’s important that we move to a system where every Member of Parliament has at least 50 per cent of the vote of their constituents.“ Whilst Miliband won 52 per cent of the vote in his South Shields constituency in the May election and therefore is just about safe in making such a statement, 434 MPs received less than 50 per cent of the vote in their constituencies. This immense number includes Ed Balls, Jon Cruddas, Danny Alexander and David Davies, and incredibly, over 70 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party. A move to AV could be more democratic and, arguably, also strengthen the constituency-MP link, but it’s easy to see why so many MPs are shaken by the prospect.
Another pro-AV point is that it goes further in excluding extremist parties from representation, as the latter are unlikely to gain many second-preference votes. The possibility of second- and third-preferences has additional benefits: it eliminates the need for tactical voting (no more agonising over whether to pick your no-hope first-choice candidate or your safer second-choice), and it can entail a reduction in negative campaigning (you’re not going to slate a candidate whose second preferences you want).
Despite the potential advantages of AV over FPTP, there is one major argument against the electoral system: it doesn’t necessarily offer better proportionality, in terms of votes to seats. The majority of the Lib Dems have backed AV because they believe it will improve their representation in Parliament – and who can blame them? Having received 23 per cent of the national vote in May but less than ten per cent of the seats in the House of Commons, they have been most adversely affected by the current voting system. Had the most recent election been conducted under AV, the Lib Dems would have a higher seat share of 79. However, the system can produce results even less proportional than FPTP; the Jenkins Report of 1998 estimated that Labour’s disproportionate majority of 179 in 1997 could have risen to 245 under AV, with the Tories’ number of seats falling to a lowly 96.
Greater proportionality is so important because it transforms voter power. The number of “wasted” votes falls with increased proportionality, and the resulting Parliament better represents voter preferences. In fact, the voter empowerment generated by proportional representation could dramatically reduce apathy. Yes, the coalition governments likely to result from PR are not hugely popular in this country, but neither is the feeling that our votes often count for nothing – a feeling that is probably a major factor contributing to falling turnout. Without improving proportionality, I don’t believe that the arguments in favour of AV are strong enough to justify its implementation. If only the Lib Dems had managed to secure a referendum including an option for the single transferable vote, the proportional system favoured by them. Yet as things stand, the Lib Dems are in for a real battle against the Tories’ negative campaigning, as they try to win public support for an electoral system that is by no means their first-choice candidate.