Alex Massie

First Past the Post Needs Better Defenders

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I'm far from being an enthusiast for electoral reform not least because, as I've said, I don't think electoral systems matter much. But, my word, the defenders of First Past The Post are doing their utmost to convince me that the Alternative Vote can't possibly put more fools in parliament than FPTP. Here, for instance is Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski, co-chairman of the "All Parliamentary Group for the promotion of first-past-the-post":

First-past-the-post is tried and tested, simple, it brings about quick results, is relatively cheap, which given the economic mess left by Labour is an important consideration, and it allows voters to clearly demonstrate which party they feel should form the Government.  It is this last point where a deeply unacceptable side affect of AV becomes apparent.

When we go to the polls as a nation, the majority of us are voting to support the philosophy and policy of one political party.  Even though an individual's vote may change from election to election for varying reasons, at the end of the day when we enter the polling booth, we enter it hoping that our vote will help bring to power the party we support.  AV doesn’t essentially change this.  I can still cast just one vote and make it for the party I most favour, but herein lies the problem.  Whilst I and millions of other individuals have more or less fixed party allegiances and will only vote for one party, others will cast their alternatives, twice or maybe three times.  What AV allows is two classes of voter, those who will cast one vote and those who will have two or three bites of the cherry.

In a tight contest where no overall majority is achieved, the second preference votes are then counted up and have the same weighting as the original votes.  My key question is this, why should someone’s second preference vote, essentially the “I don’t like this candidate much, but will allow them as an alternative” count as much as my original vote?

It is this unfair weighting of votes between those who support and often campaign on behalf of a certain party and those who are happy to vote two or three times which highlights my clear concerns about AV.  This is why I will gladly be throwing my support behind retaining FPTP in the run up to the 5 May 2011.

Ignore the fact that it is hard to see how an election using AV could be any more expensive than one using FPTP and consider the rest of this jackassery: Kawczynski appears to believe that if Jack and Jill are offered a choice of apples and oranges and Jill chooses both while Jack only wants an apple then Jack has been discriminated against because he's, um, declined to take up his right to an orange too.

Jesus might weep. Is this the best the FPTP camp can do? Surely not! In fact the best argument in favour of FPTP is custom. This is how we have always done it. But why is it so threatening to shift to a system that ensures that every Member of Parliament has at least the grudging support of more than 50% of the voters in his or her constituency? Or, to put it another way, what's so great about a system that makes it possible to win on, say, 25% of those voters who can be bothered to vote?

Again, FPTP works very well in a two party system and when those parties share 90% of the vote. But that ain't the case anymore. It does not work so well when there are more than two parties and they command only 65% of the poll.

Admittedly, there are other stupid arguments against the referendum. There is the claim that voters in Scotland and Wales are too stupid to be able to walk and talk at the same time. If this is true - that is, if voters are confused by a Yes/No referendum being held on the same day as the Muppets/Dullards/Knaves/Fools election at Holyrood - then this would seem an obviously compelling argument for restrictinng the franchise.

Then again, considering the many dolts elected to Westminster one can see why many MPs, such as the member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, might think the electorate idiots. No matter what the voting system the sensible thing is still the same: vote for the best man or woman, not the party rosette.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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