Before I court controversy, provoke angry retorts and incite letters in green ink, let me start with a proposition that should (but probably won’t) attract widespread agreement. There is no such thing as a perfect voting system. To seek the best way to elect MPs is to be forced to make compromises.
The reason for this is simple. As long as we keep a parliamentary system, general elections will have a number of purposes: to choose an executive, to appoint a legislature and to secure local representation.
Depending on personal preferences, other considerations may also matter: to ensure stable government, for example, or to keep out extremists. But even if we stick to the three primary purposes of elections, the inescapable truth is that there is no voting system that secures each objective with complete precision. Trade-offs are inevitable. Our choice of system depends crucially on our priorities. The debate we should be having is what those priorities should be.
Here are mine, in order. General elections should:
- Give voters a clear way to “throw the rascals out” by replacing governments they do not like with the main alternative
- Lead to stable government
- Provide local communities with MPs that command the support of a majority of local voters
- Ensure the representation in Parliament of significant minorities, but not give them disproportionate influence
- Keep small, extremist parties out of Parliament
These priorities lead me to support the Alternative Vote (AV). Other people will have different priorities, and choose different systems. If you want the number of a party’s MPs to relate closely to its total vote, and don’t mind blurring the choice of government or diluting MPs’ constituency link, then you will prefer one of the more proportional systems. That’s fair enough – as long as you accept, as I do, that trade-offs must be made and that perfection is beyond reach.
I believe that AV keeps the virtues of first-past-the-post (FPTP) while tackling two of its defects. Like FPTP, it is loaded in favour of large parties, and therefore retains a clear choice of government in normal circumstances; and it retains the current constituency link, whereby each MP represents a defined locality. On the other hand, it improves the prospects of moderate, medium-sized parties that FPTP can punish cruelly; and it makes sure that no candidate can be elected who is actively opposed by a majority of local voters.
(Given the recent successes of the British Nazi Party in local and European elections, it is worth noting that AV is the best system for keeping the BNP at bay. The party would seldom, if ever, win any contest under AV, whereas we now know that, if local conditions are right, it can win under both FPTP and proportional representation. Some years ago a BNP-style politician, Pauline Hanson, stood for election in Queensland to Australia’s Parliament. She came top when first preferences were counted, and would have won under FPTP; but Australia elects its MPs by AV; and when second preferences were taken into account, she lost.)
The advantages of AV are clear. What about its alleged defects?
“Like FPTP, AV produces governments that have only minority support”. There’s a narrow sense in which this is plainly true. These days it is normal for Labour and the Conservatives to share around 70-75% of the total vote; no wonder neither ever passes the 50% mark. But the polling evidence from recent decades is clear: each general election under FPTP has – and under AV would have – produced the outcome than most people preferred, out of the two main contenders. In 1983 most people wanted a government led by Margaret Thatcher, not by Michael Foot; in 1992 they wanted John Major rather than Neil Kinnock; and in each of the past three elections they have wanted Labour rather than Conservative governments.
“That was not true in 1951 or February 1974: the party with the most votes lost those elections.” If anything AV would have exaggerated those effects. And quite right too. The 1951 result, when the Tories returned to power even though Labour won slightly more votes, was distorted by two things: Tory candidates were elected unopposed in four Northern Irish seats; and the Tories stood aside in some English seats in favour of the Liberals. Indeed Churchill publicly supported Violet Bonham Carter, the Liberal candidate in Colne Valley. We Labour folk may be reluctant to admit it, but more people wanted a Churchill-led Tory government than an Attlee-led Labour government.
In February 1974, on the other hand, when Labour won more seats while the Tories won more votes, the majority public mood was anti-Tory: a sharp rise in the Liberal vote can be explained largely by a widespread desire to turf out Edward Heath in places where Labour stood no chance. AV would have given Labour and the Liberals more seats than FPTP, and the Tories fewer – and possibly led to a more enduring Labour-led government rather than a second election later that year.
“AV can produce even more distorted results than FPTP” Yes and no. Yes, the Tories would have won even fewer seats than they did in 1997 and 2001; but the Lib Dems would have won more. There is a reason for this. The Conservatives were extremely unpopular. AV rewards parties that the public likes, and punishes those it dislikes. Such distortions may worry proportional purists, but should not trouble those of us who think general elections should lead to a clear choice of outcome.
I’m not saying that AV is right for all elections: there is a perfectly reasonable case for some kind of proportional voting for local and European elections, and elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies. Or, indeed, to a reformed House of Lords with limited powers. But the House of Commons decides who should form Britain’s Government; a majoritarian system is better for choosing MPs. Australia has got it right: AV for the lower house, single transferable vote for the upper house, and compulsory voting. Whether or not we succeed in reclaiming the Ashes from them this summer, we should adopt much of their constitutional system.
That said, I can see one way in which we can square the circle, with a clear choice of government and proportional voting for MPs. We could have a directly-elected President, like France or the United States, and a separately elected legislature. But countries with Presidents don’t have monarchs. If you feel that today’s top priority is not the economy, or poverty, or civil liberties, or climate change, and want to campaign for a republican Britain with a written constitution and separation of powers, good luck.
Peter Kellner is President of YouGov