Andrew Roberts

A vote against folly

Follow Churchill’s advice in the 5 May referendum

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Follow Churchill’s advice in the 5 May referendum

On 5 May, in the name of a spurious pursuit of fairness, the nation will be asked to abolish the ancient system of first past the post by which we have for centuries chosen our parliamentarians. ‘It’s unfair!’ is the whine of the aggrieved infant down the ages, to which adults rightly reply that life is often unfair, and success goes to those who can adapt themselves to that fact. I hope the British people will tell Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg precisely that next month.

First past the post selects the candidate constituents want the most, rather than the one they don’t want the least. Candidates who say what they believe, attempting to appeal to more voters than their rivals, will inevitably make far better parliamentarians than those who obfuscate their message to pick up second- and third-preference votes. First past the post is thus the manly, straightforward way of electing people who stand for principles, whereas the Alternative Vote is the smarmy, hole-in-the-corner way of electing people who try to appear all things to all men.

Since the expenses scandal, our politicians are widely despised. Last week the annual audit of political engagement from the Hansard Society showed that general satisfaction among the public with Parliament fell 6 per cent to 27 per cent, making MPs less popular than estate agents, traffic wardens and journalists. How much worse would that be if we changed our voting system to ensure that candidates get elected by trying to seem innocuous? The Commons is infested with quite enough milksop and lobby-fodder MPs already; AV is almost specifically designed to increase their numbers, and decrease the number of those who speak their minds.

Winston Churchill described the Alternative Vote as ‘the child of folly’ which would become the ‘parent of fraud’ and was ‘the worst of all possible plans’. AV was, he continued, ‘the stupidest, the least scientific and the most unreal’ of all voting systems, where the outcome of elections would ‘be determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates’. His customary perspicacity allowed him to concentrate on the central flaw of the system, that ‘neither the voters nor the candidates will be dealing with realities. An element of blind chance and accident will enter far more largely into our electoral decisions than even before, and respect for Parliament and parliamentary processes will decline lower than it is at present.’ And he was speaking when it was far higher.

There is a real danger that those who yearn for a better way of doing British politics might be tempted to vote yes in the May referendum. Yet the result would be a murkier political landscape and ultimately a further loss of faith in our system, not least because AV erodes the ‘removal van politics’ which ensures that governments can be easily cashiered by the electorate. AV makes weak coalition government the norm, rather than the exception. Although the efficacy of the current government might be thought to nullify such a critique, in fact it came about as a result of national crisis, and is thus an exception to the normal pattern of politics. And the courage of the Cameron ministry in facing up to the problems left by 13 years of Labour overspending would doubtless have been even stronger if it had not had to negotiate with Lib-Dem partners. Disraeli was right to say that ‘England does not love coalitions’, for all that they are occasionally unavoidable.

Perpetual Cleggery — he would be guaranteed the position of deputy prime minister for as long as he wanted it — is no reason to reform our voting system. Where coalitions are the norm, political parties tend to avoid clearly articulating their policies before an election, to ensure a freer hand for post-electoral negotiations. Ultimately it is the ordinary elector who loses out. There are some things that are just more important than ‘fairness’, and honest governance is one of them.

AV is nobody’s ideal choice of voting system; those who support it are backing it as a first step towards proportional representation, the voting system that has left Belgium without a government after more than 400 days of haggling. More importantly, PR facilitates the representation of significant fascist and communist parties in parliament, a route that first past the post tends to prevent.

AV has rightly been called a ‘politician’s fix’, whereas the power of first past the post lies in its simplicity: it is universally and instantly comprehensible. The adoption of AV would ensure the alienation of even more Britons from politics. It allows candidates who win only the third largest amount of first choice votes to emerge as winners. Where is the democratic legitimacy in that? Spectator readers should exercise their legendary good sense on 5 May, and vote no.