Abolish tactical voting, make elections about ideas
AV is no one’s perfect system. But it does, as far as I’m concerned, have a significant advantage over First Past the Post. There is no point in voting tactically with AV. Because your vote will always ultimately transfer to whichever of the two most popular candidates you prefer, you can, without fear, vote for whoever you like the most.
And I’m not sure that we have appreciated how much that will change how elections are fought in this country.
Here’s a game for geeks: go to any marginal seat in the country. Look at the leaflets that went through letter boxes this time last year – in the month or so before the election. How many of these leaflets focussed primarily on policy? How many were about the direction in which our country should be going? How many were about your life, and things the party producing the leaflet would do to improve it? And how many were about who could or could not win in that seat? How many have the words “Two Horse Race”, or “IT’S SO CLOSE” on them?
As British politics has changed from the 2 party system with which our parents grew up, the way election campaigns are fought has changed too. Increasingly, the primary tactic in the closing weeks of an election is to squeeze – don’t convince people that you are better than their preferred party, just convince them that you have a better chance of beating their least preferred party.
There are a number of problems with this. But amongst them is the fact that we forget to debate the future of our country. Democracy is about conversations. It is about argument. It is about building, together, a shared vision of the future of our nation, or fighting over different visions. I have spent lots of time over the last 10 years or so knocking on doors trying to persuade people to vote a particular way in whatever is the election of the day. I have done this with almost every voting system imaginable* – AV for student union/university rector elections (and the very similar supplementary vote for London Mayoral elections), d’Hont calculated lists for European elections, the Single Transferable Vote for Scottish local authority elections, the Additional Member System for Holyrood & Welsh Assembly elections, and first past the post for Westminster, and FPTP with electoral colleges for US presidential elections.
And of these systems, AV had one distinct advantage (including, I must confess, over the proportional systems). I didn’t have to spend any significant time discussing the process of the election. I didn’t have to point to any graphs showing how well my party or my candidate had done in the last local elections – how this was our chance for a breakthrough. I didn’t have to explain the operation of the list system in Scottish Parliament elections – why you have 2 ballots, and why it may make sense to use them differently. All I had to say was “rank candidates in order of preference. If your favourite can’t win, then your vote will go to your next favourite, and so on. So there is no point in voting tactically”. That’s it.
And that was key. Because it means that you can spend the rest of the time talking about policy. It means you have longer to explain to the person on whose door you’ve knocked why your vision for the country will be good for them and their community. It means that there is a chance for ideas to take their place at the heart of our political landscape.
And for people with radical ideas – and surely, post credit crunch, we need radical ideas – for people with such ideas, this is particularly important. If you are a conservative, then your ideas are inherent in the system as it stands. Distracting the electorate from the real matters at hand by focussing primarily on the tribal games of who can win where is a perfectly good way to spend the closing days before an election – the centre already controls the terms of the debate. But if the ideas you are trying to pitch seem new or different – if you don’t have the backing of the corporate media – then you need every second you have to explain them to people, to discuss them with people. And the more precious moments on doorsteps or column inches in leaflets that are wasted explaining that you can win, the less time you have to explain those ideas.
And every time a different idea is deleted from an election leaflet, every time a canvasser doesn’t have the time to pitch it, every time a proposal is removed from our national debate, a little piece of our democracy dies.
And so, in a couple of weeks, I will go into the polling both, and I will vote yes. Not because AV is perfect. It isn’t. Not even because I expect it to significantly change who wins our elections – it probably won’t. But because it will change the way in which our elections are fought. And I, for one, am fed up with horse races.
*OK geeks, I know there are loads more. But those are the main ones.