The problems with the First Past the Post system are well-known and well-rehearsed. The main issue is that a candidate can win with a tiny overall share of the vote, if the opposition is split. The more competition, in fact, the fewer votes you need to win. One of the features of FPTP is that it magnifies slight advantages, leading to a point that, well, as we saw in this year’s election, the winning party can win more than half the seats on only around a third of the vote. For all the talk of hung parliaments and minority governments, the result in 2010 was a fluke, like a coin landing on its side, and the chance of it happening again was always remote. FPTP wasn’t ‘designed’ to create majority governments out of not very much, but it’s always tended to. John McCain was crushed and humiliated by Barack Obama in the US Presidential election of 2004, but got a higher share of the vote than Tony Blair’s Labour Party when it won its massive 1997 landslide in the UK.
The alternative system on offer, though, was soundly rejected in a referendum nearly five years ago. This was AV, and something like it is used in a number of places around the world. The basic principle is that you vote for someone, but you register a second preference. If all goes to plan, the ‘winner’ is someone acceptable to most people who voted.
Psephologists have spent a great deal of time talking through the pros and cons of AV. The arguments tended to be dry and technical. What I’ve not seen discussed very often is that a big problem with AV is that it’s based on the premise that the problem with current British politics is that there are just so many great parties and candidates that it’s really unfair to expect people to pick just one.
Is that how things feel to you? If you just voted in the UK elections, did you stand with your pen poised thinking it was so hard choosing between so many awesome, talented and inspirational candidates, and somehow deeply unjust that you only got to vote once? Did you think ‘gosh, I wish I had two votes, here, this is like trying to pick between Sgt Pepper and Revolver?’
I humbly suggest that the ballot paper did not resemble the dessert menu at the Ritz, and that instead you went: ‘Seriously? In a country of sixty four million people, this shower is the best we can do?’ That looking at the potential Prime Ministers – there were two – that your reaction wasn’t ‘my god, Ed and Dave are both titans among men’ and you probably didn’t watch the televised Leaders’ Debate, and conclude ‘I firmly believe every one of those people could lead the country to a new golden age’.
You don’t have to outrace the lion in a British general election, do you? To win, David Cameron had to look more Prime Ministerial than Ed Miliband. This is an almost proverbially easy task. In fact, I suggest that from now on we use the ‘miliband’ as a unit of measurement for whether a candidate has reached the absolute minimum level of viability. Think of it as a line on a graph, and if you’re above that line, you can be treated as a serious candidate because you are at least ‘not unelectable’. Use it in a sentence as you might use ‘rubicon’ or ‘jump the shark’. ‘Andy Burnham obviously crosses the miliband, but does he have what he takes to win in Scotland?’; ‘Jeb Bush’s statements on Iraq this week have left people wondering if he’s sinking below the miliband’; ‘the televised debate will include all the candidates above the miliband’.
So what’s the solution? Here’s my proposal, a system I call ‘AV Minus’.
- 1. A voter gets two votes.
- 2. As now, they place an X next to the candidate they want.
- 3. As with AV, they also place a second vote. This, though, they mark ‘FO’, and this stands for ‘FOrgive me, sir or madam, I’m sure you are a lovely person, but I do not wish you to represent me in the House of Commons’.
- 4. Candidates get one vote added for every X, and one vote taken off for every FO. The winner of the election is simply the candidate with the highest net total of votes.
- 5. Here’s the best bit: when the returning officer declares the result, he turns to the candidate with the most FOs, raises two fingers at him and snarls ‘FUCK. OFF’. That person then has to walk out of the hall, like the losing contestant on The Weakest Link.
See? It’s brilliant, isn’t it?
Consider the following scenarios:
- 1. You are a Labour supporter in a constituency where the Conservatives are ahead, but UKIP are nipping at their heels. Labour are a close third, but you really, really don’t want UKIP to win. Under FPTP, you have to vote Tory. Under AV-, you can vote Labour and go FO UKIP. The Tory may still win, but you wouldn’t have voted for them. And there may be scenarios, in fact, where the UKIP and the Tories FO each other to such an extent that Labour win.
- 2. You’re a Tory in Wales. No, you actually live there, you’re not on holiday. It happens. You’re resigned to the fact your lot won’t win, but you don’t want Labour to win. But they’ve got a massive majority in your constituency … well, you can vote tactically: vote for whoever’s second and FO the Labour candidate. That’s basically two votes against Labour.
- 3. You really, really hate Tories or the SNP. You’re indifferent about who wins, as long as it’s not them.
- 4. George Galloway. I mean, seriously. Shouldn’t there be a constitutional mechanism that lets us tell him to fuck off?
It is possible, of course, to get the most FOs with this system but still win the election. This isn’t a problem – the MP knows that they won, but also that a great swathe of his constituents actively loathe him.
The only downside I see is that people might forget to put down the X, or that they might just endlessly find themselves scrawling FO next to all the candidates. Or that joke candidates might seek la lanterne rouge.
We are in an era of British politics where the electorate need a degree of damage control. We need to be able to say ‘no, not him’. Instead of the rather grubby spectacle we saw this time of parties saying ‘vote for us, that way you won’t be voting for them’, you can vote against someone without endorsing their rival.
Tony Benn always used to say that the mark of a good electoral system wasn’t that it allowed you to vote someone in, it was that it allowed you to vote them out. That has always been the problems with AV, AV+, PR and related proposed reforms – they’ve always been set up in a way that would create mushy coalitions, fosters a lukewarm centrism. There’s that old joke ‘don’t vote, it only encourages them’ – well, AV Minus squares that circle, allows you to go ‘for god’s sake, not him’. And, in the end, don’t we want an electoral system that creates stable governments and humiliates wankers?
As amusing as your returning-office scenario is, I think regular AV remains a better system than your AV Minus, because it’s based on a very different premise from the one you assume:
“A big problem with AV is that it’s based on the premise that the problem with current British politics is that there are just so many great parties and candidates that it’s really unfair to expect people to pick just one.”
That’s nothing like the reason I so strongly supported AV. I wanted it so that I wouldn’t have to lie when I vote. At present, if I don’t want the Tory to get in, I have to either vote Labour, or (as the saying goes) waste my vote. But what I really want to do is say “Lib Dem, please; if is he doesn’t get it, then Green; and if he doesn’t get, in the Labour; and if none of those get in, then I suppose the Conservative candidate is a lesser evil than the UKIP bloke.”
Which is exactly what AV lets me do.