The case for ‘first past the post’

Emily Thornberry

Vote BallotBy Emily Thornberry

The Alternative Vote – I am against it. I might be more enthusiastic about a referendum if there were a third option on the ballot paper, maybe “I want the government to get on with something which actually matters to people’s lives”. I’m certain the result would give the coalition some perspective. Currently the proposals do little to improve our electoral system while doing away with the benefits of “first past the post” and using up any political capital for real electoral reform.

“First past the post” builds a direct relationship between a community and their MP. Residents come together to decide who most people want as their national representative. No one has more than one vote and it has to be cast responsibly. This simplicity minimises the number of people unable to fully participate because English is their second language or because they find the process confusing. We are all equal with first past the post.

Some people scoff at this complexity argument, but real people voting in real elections show this is a problem – it’s why the Electoral Commission places such importance on testing and trialling voting systems. In the 2008 London Mayoral Election, which used the simplest form of AV, there were 5 times as many spoilt ballot papers as there had been in the 2005 General Election across London. Under first past the post, you may have to compromise on who you vote for – but you have the responsibility for how you vote, and candidates will ask for your vote as a positive choice.

Of course there are criticisms of the current system, but the problems with “First Past the Post” are not going to be solved by AV. Firstly, AV does not bring you greater proportionality. Roy Jenkins’s commission rejected AV for precisely this reason. Indeed, under AV there is a tendency for parties to gang up on one of the major ones to run an “anyone but” campaign – governing parties are particularly vulnerable to this tactic. And when one party is really unpopular, like the Conservatives in 1997, AV can really skew the result disproportionately against them.

The lesson from the expenses scandal taught us that voters want and deserve honest politicians. But preferential voting cannot create honest politicians by itself, if it did, then I would be handing in a monster Chartist-style petition for first past the post. But AV won’t deliver the real electoral change, so the public remains completely indifferent.

AV will not bring a Labour MP to the Labour voters of Guildford; nor will it bring Scottish Tory voters the MPs of their choice. They will still cast what has been wrongly called a wasted vote. Unless of course they vote tactically, which is something many can and do already do under our current system. If we want all votes to count equally, this isn’t our system.

AV may make a difference in a handful of closely fought seats. But in those seats the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th preferences of the supporters of the most unpopular parties will have as much weight as the 1st and often only preference of other voters. We could end up with the person with the most first preferences being beaten by the least unpopular candidate. I believe this is wrong: a fourth preference should not carry the same weight as a first preference. Under our current system, at least the best campaigns are fought on the basis of positive reasons to vote for a particular person or party.

Earlier this year, Nick Clegg described AV as a “miserable little compromise”, but the plan for AV is worse than he lets on. Under the false promise of “great reform” it offers some voters in some seats a minor difference to how their votes will be computed – whilst undermining the simplicity of our current system and the direct relationship between MPs and their constituents.

There is a lot that the government is planning in housing, welfare, and public services that could end up being a “fundamental resettlement of the relationship between state and citizen” – and not in a good way. But the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Bill is not a resettlement – it is sectarian and self-serving and it will not improve people’s lives. As it stands, I will vote against this Bill. And my 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th preferences will vote against it too.

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