In a Quandary

Posted: 01.05.11 in Blogging

In the United Kingdom a referendum will soon decide whether we change our voting system. Currently we use the common and established “first past the post” system; what is being proposed is the “alternative vote” system, where candidates are ranked according to preference. These ranks come into play if no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote from first choices alone.

There is a case for change – I believe that almost purely because we are having this referendum in the first place. I remain unsure how I will vote, however. Much of what is being argued is being lost in the frivolous and the usual infantile inter- and intra-party mud-slinging.

The biggest problem with this referendum, in my view, is that whenever politicians offer us a list of choices on a sheet of paper, we are trained to pick our favoured choice, but this isn’t really what it should be about. This referendum is asking us, “which system is the fairest way of deciding how our MPs are selected?”.

What irks people about first past the post is that an unpopular candidate can win amongst a large number of candidates. For example, in a vote with ten candidates, it is possible to win with just 10% of the popular vote.

The alternative vote selling point is that unpopular candidates don’t get in (in theory). As a selling point, is this relevant? One might suggest that, in the previous UK election, voters may have opted to vote for Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates in order to bury the Conservative candidate’s chances. My accusation is, therefore, that one might choose the alternative vote in a hope that they will be able to eliminate their least favourite candidates – and less because they think alternative vote is fairer.

Everything is, however, muddied by party politics anyway. Things have been said and written about tactical voting to decide which party sits on which side of the House of Commons. It would be naive to suggest that voters allay any thoughts of national issues and party connections when voting for their local MP. The biggest impact occurs at national level and I expect this is how many people vote. Out of interest, the Conservative Party “won” the vote with 36.1%; Labour received 29.0% and the Liberal Democrats got 23.0%.

I wonder how this would have changed if the alternative vote was in place. I also wonder whether this will influence the result in the upcoming referendum.

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