Any assessment of the case for AV should begin with an account of the key characteristics of the contemporary British voter. But so far it hasn’t. Part of the problem with the referendum campaign is that it is dominated by the political class who tend to think, wrongly, that voters think the way they do.
IPPR’s new report therefore starts with the voter in mind and argues that the simplest yet strongest argument for AV is that, unlike FPTP, it is well suited to the times we live in. Voters today want more choice in their politics (as they do in all other aspects of their lives) and are far less tribal than they once were. An IPPR/YouGov poll designed to examine public attitudes towards party affiliation found that just 18 per cent agreed with the following statement: ‘One political party comes close to reflecting my views and values; I am strongly opposed to all of the others.’ Shifts in voting patterns strongly challenge the basic assumption of FPTP, which is that voters are only interested in expressing a single sacrosanct first preference. In fact UK voters are happy to express a range of preferences – certainly up to and including a third choice. Moreover, for the majority of voters, especially the growing number of non-tribal voters, their sense of allegiance to their top two or three preferences does not vary substantially. Those with loose party affiliation – 40 per cent of the electorate – give their first two preferences almost equal weighting.
As a preferential voting system AV gives voters the flexibility to express themselves in a way they are currently denied under FPTP. It is much more adept at probing and reflecting the electorate’s political pluralism. And importantly it does not discriminate against the traditional ‘tribal’ voter who will still be able to express just one preference if they chose to.
The problem with FPTP is that doesn’t work in the world it now finds itself, as IPPR’s latest report and earlier ‘Worst of Both Worlds’ report show. An obvious example concerns the issue of MPs elected on a minority of the vote. This never used to be a problem when Britain had a strong two-party system but the rise of third party representation now means that only a third of MPs are able to secure majority support in their constituencies. Put another way this means that the majority of voters are represented by a candidate they did not vote for. There is a further sting in the FPTP tail: when the vote on the political left or right is split, the ‘wrong winner’ can emerge victorious. This happens when a candidate who is more popular across the electorate as a whole loses to a less popular one because of the presence of another candidate with a similar political outlook. Think of where Labour beats a Conservative candidate when there is a strong UKIP presence.
AV directly addresses these deficiencies by ensuring that the winning candidate secures 50 per cent of the vote. It does so by redistributing lower order preferences which attracts controversy because it can mean that the candidate who wins most first preferences is subsequently beaten once lower order preferences are taken into account. Such a scenario occurred in the 2010 Australia federal election for Moreton, Queensland. Here, the Liberal National candidate received the most first preference votes – and so would have won the seat under FPTP – but once the second preferences of the Green candidate were reallocated , victory was handed to the Labor candidate. How is this fair? It’s fair because the Labor candidate was the most popular among the majority of the local electorate. Had the contest been a two-horse race between the Liberal National and Labor parties then Labor would have won because of the overall strength of its own votes combined with those of Green supporters who broadly align themselves on the same centre-left part of the political spectrum. Green voters overwhelmingly preferred the Labor candidate to the Liberal National one. AV therefore works to correct the weakness of FPTP where a minority candidate to succeed when the vote for similar parties is split.
As the Australian political commentator and AV expert Antony Green has written, AV performs best in multi-party contests where the leading candidate falls short of a majority – i.e. in the majority of seats in the UK – because it will work to return a member with greater support in the electorate than the candidate with the simple majority of first preferences. In other words, AV suits the electoral conditions prevalent in Britain today.