In the dim and distant 80s I worked in the IT industry. At the time it was rumoured that the dominant supplier of computers had adopted a marketing strategy aimed at the senior managers of the organisations they supplied or wished to supply. It was simple, salespeople were allegedly directed – sow the seeds of FUD. FUD stood for fear, uncertainty and doubt. What would be the consequences for a manager of going to a different manufacturer? “No one has ever been sacked for buying…” was the message – with the implication that your job might be on the line if you you didn’t sign on the dotted line (or signed someone else’s dotted line).
As I listened to David Cameron in the Today programme this morning I was reminded of this blast from my past. It has seemed to me that much of the No campaign for the Alternative Vote has been based on the worst aspects of our political culture by sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt – those things beloved by “small c” conservatives when faced with the possibility of change. And given the opportunity to distance himself from some of these negative tactics, Cameron refused to do so. Furthermore, he contemptuously accused his interviewer of not understanding the AV system, when it was clear that, unless he was being deliberately misleading, he did not understand the system himself.
So why shall I be voting “yes” on Thursday? Well on one level my intention is driven by almost a lifetime of dissatisfaction with First Past the Post. It has always seemed to me that the results of this unduly favour the two big parties. In the modernist world of the 1950s and 60s this may have made sense. There were two very distinct and competing visions of society, though neither particularly appealed to me, based as they both seemed to be on class conflict. The only time in my life when it seemed that my vote truly mattered was when we moved to Crosby, Merseyside soon after Shirley Williams’ election as MP for the then Social Democratic Party. Sadly, this optimism was misplaced. The Boundaries Commission decreed that the constituency boundaries should be redrawn, leaving our area to go to the solidly Labour seat of Bootle, while the rest of the constituency reverted to being solidly Conservative. The other time my vote seemed to matter was when I voted against my usual party preference to ensure that a highly unpopular government was not re-elected.
In our post-modern times though, when people are increasingly mistrustful of big, all-encompassing stories and visions, these political meta-narratives do not work. Though there are differences of emphasis, neither of the major parties currently offer distinctive, clearly thought-through philosophies of government.
FPTP is NOT simple unless you are a supporter of the dominant party in a safe seat, and it is not fair, despite the claims of the No sloganeers. The overt process may seem simple, but the reality for millions of us means having to weigh up whether our preferred candidate stands any credible chance of election at all; and if not, then we vote in the way we feel will give us the least worst option reasonably on offer. A couple of elections ago there was even talk of voters in different constituencies offering to swap votes in order to make an impact (frowned on, of course, by the major parties at the time). Tactical voting of this kind provides wonderful speculation for the media pundits, but is no way to gauge the will of the electorate. I am tired of the major parties telling me that a vote for my preferred candidate is a “wasted vote (so vote for us)”. If that is true, then our voting system is sick, and it is no wonder that so many people are disillusioned not only with politicians but with the political process as a whole.
AV should actually reduce the amount of negative voting by allowing us to express our first preference without surrendering the right to influence the outcome should that candidate be placed low in the polls. In his interview this morning Cameron repeated the canard that it gives some people – and not others – more than one vote (and he even accused the interviewer of not understanding AV!!). The short answer is that everyone gets exactly the same number of votes in each “round” of counting, unless they vote only for minority candidates. If one’s first preference candidate makes it through the early rounds, then the first preference vote continues to have its effect, otherwise lower preferences are taken unto consideration (see cartoon above) – i.e. everyone gets exactly the same number of potential votes. How else do you explain why the major parties actually use a form of AV (and NOT FPTP) to elect their leaders? All the proposed system does is to extend this principle to parliamentary constituencies, while collapsing the process into a couple of days rather than extending it over several weeks.
And the third plank of the Cameron campaign – that FPTP is decisive – has surely been discredited by the fact that he is only where he is (under FPTP!) because the Liberal Democrats chose to support him rather than either form a coalition with an unpopular minority governing party or subject the country to another immediate general election.
AV is not the perfect voting system. It does not deliver proportional representation, but it does deliver a single, accountable member of parliament for each constituency. And it does it with a fairness and an honesty that cannot be achieved under FPTP.
So I am refusing to be swayed by FUD, and on Thursday I shall be voting “Yes to AV” and if you are a UK voter I urge you to do the same.