In each Parliamentary seat, you will now rank candidates 1,2,3... etc in order of preference. Unlike the similar Australian system, you don't have to rank everyone. If no one candidate has a 50% majority on the first round, the Number 2 votes are allocated. If no-one still has a majority, the number 3 votes are allocated, and so on.
What will the effect of this be?
The effect of this will be relatively minor compared to other systems like Proportional Representation. However, the result is likely to be somewhat more proportional than FPTP. Under FPTP, the leading party gets a greater percentage of Parliamentary seats than its percentage of the vote. Under AV, some people who currently would like to vote for a small party, but grit their teeth and vote for a large one to keep out a large-party enemy, will be able to vote for the small party first, and their favoured large party second. This effect will slightly hurt the larger parties, and slightly benefit the smaller parties.
YouGov polled how people would vote under FPTP and AV. FPTP had Labour 355 seats, Con 255, Lib Dem 16. AV had Lab 342, Con 255, Lib Dem 29. This doesn't mean AV automatically hurts Labour, it's just that Labour is in the lead in that poll, and AV hurts the leader.
Internationally, AV is in use in three national bodies. In the Fijian House Fijian House the largest party has 36 out of 71 seats. In Papua New Guinea the largest party has 30 out of 109 no majority In the Australian House the largest body has 72 out of 150 seats.
Why is FPTP better?
Coalitions are bad
The current ConDem government illustrates the worst features of coalition government. Backroom deals have allowed each party to abandon its manifesto, secure in the knowledge that they can blame the other party. With coalitions, there is less accountability, as you can never be sure how hard each party actually fought for its commitment. The Liberal Democrats have failed to moderate the more right-wing ideology of the Conservatives. The current coalition is a reliable indicator of how future coalitions will work: principles sold out for cushy jobs, closed doors haggling, extremist factions forcing in non-manifesto commitments at the negotiation stage like the NHS private sector changes.
The test of a ship isn't how it sails on a calm sea, but how well it fares in a storm. In its long history, First Past the Post has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to cope with the most severe crises, from wars to depressions to social unrest. While coalitions are sometimes necessary, FPTP is good at delivering an effective government that can act to deal with problems. Our unwritten constitution means that our democracy has co-evolved with our institutions, our society and our political culture. Making a radical change to it risks unbalancing a system that has evolved to our needs.
Punishes extremists to a degree
The First Past the Post system is reasonably good at excluding destabilizing extremists from power. However, candidates can win a seat on a smaller share of the vote, it does allow other parties to enter Parliament. As this post points out George Galloway's victory in Bethnal Green on 2005 would probably not have been possible under AV. This would have meant Labour could have ignored a threat from its left flank.
FPTP encourages passionate commitment, since all a candidate wants is to be the favourite, while AV favours bland mediocrities who are everyone's least objectionable choice.
Large swings and single-party majorities let you kick out the government
Because First Past the Post delivers a greater share of seats than of votes, it tends to produce wide swings on elections, transferring large numbers of seats from one party to another. This makes it relatively easy to "kick the bastards out" under FPTP. Even parties with a solid majority need to fear the electorate under FPTP. Moreover, someone seeking to bribe a politician has to risk his bought politician losing office: he may find he's just bought himself a bitter enemy. FPTP provides greater accountability, and greater resistance to corruption.
Greater legitimacy of government
Polls show the No vote at least slightly ahead. Public interest in the referendum is low. If Yes wins the referendum, then at the next General Election, the large body that turns out will find their decision controlled by the votes of a small minority. Moreover, under AV by looking at the first preferences, it will be possible to see who would likely have won under FPTP. This could cause a crisis of legitimacy: will the public accept a government installed under these terms?
The Alternative Vote is a half-baked compromise between FPTP and PR, with the weaknesses of both and the strengths of neither. I strongly urge everyone to vote No to AV!
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