First past the post or alternative vote?

Tomorrow, the British electorate will be asked to turn out in a referendum to decide whether or not to change the current voting system. A very few people seem to be bothered, let alone excited, about voting about voting.

Currently, the members of the UK Parliament are elected on a voting method known as the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, where a candidate who gains the most number of votes in that constituency wins, regardless what proportion of the valid votes he or she received. The other system on offer is called the alternative vote (AV) or instant run-off, where voters rank candidates in the order they wish to see elected, starting with 1 for the most preferred candidate, 2 for the second most preferred candidate, etc. For a candidate to win in that constituency, he or she needs to gain at least 50% plus one vote. The candidate with the fewest first preference votes is eliminated in the first round, and the second preference votes of the eliminated candidate are counted, and the process goes on until a candidate receives a majority. So it’s possible that under AV, a candidate who gained the most number of first preference votes may not be the eventual winner. But at the same time, the candidate elected has a wider appeal to the constituents.

To be totally frank, I don’t see much difference between FPTP and AV. This referendum seems nothing more than a trifle tinkering of the system. No wonder a lot of people seem disinterested. It depends on the definition of proportional representation (PR), but AV isn’t what one would normally associate with it. Even if the referendum results in favour of introducing AV, the UK Parliament will still be composed solely of MPs elected in single-member constituencies. There will be no lists.

There are valid arguments about AV producing a parliament composed of second-(third-fourth-)choice, or the least disliked, candidates, however, that situation already occurs to a certain extent with tactical voting, but it never surfaces in the statistics. Some people vote for a candidate, because they think that candidate has the best policies on offer. However, many people vote for a candidate who has a higher chance of beating a less desirable but a strong candidate, even though there was another candidate whom they would have supported had his or her chances been higher. A candidate wins, because the voters disliked the other strong candidate more, not because they liked the elected candidate more, if that makes sense.

The first preference votes will really illustrate which parties have a lot of support hidden in the current system, since voters can cast their first preference votes to the candidate whom they really support, and then go tactical after the second preference vote onwards. Parties such as the Greens and UKIP may benefit, even if unlikely to win a lot of seats with AV. If the adherents of FPTP are wary of anything, it’s not AV as such, but the results of the first preference votes in an election would indicate very clearly that a proper PR would reflect the will of the people better. Equally, for the supporters of AV, this is a first step towards a system that would be more recognizably PR.

So, despite the lack of enthusiasm, does this referendum matter? Yes. If the result is yes, then it can be a start of a monumental shift in British politics. And if the result is no, then normal politics resumes, in which a future government with a share of the vote of 30-odd per cent may have a stable majority in the House of Commons.