When the campaigns started a few weeks ago for the AV referendum, I didn’t have a strong view. I vaguely felt that FPTP worked ok, that AV probably wouldn’t make much difference, and that I was glad PR wasn’t an option.
Over the course of the campaign my opinion has hardened, not so much from what the “No to AV” campaign has been saying, or from any love for FPTP, but rather from how I’ve disagreed with much of what the “Yes to AV” campaign has had to say.
My thinking is that parliamentary elections serve two distinct purposes: firstly, for a constituency to select an honest member, true to their beliefs, who will best represent the views of their constituents in parliament, and secondly, for a government to be formed that best represents the will of the country, with a clear mandate to implement a manifesto. This definite statement of policy matters in Westminster elections, where the government has tax-raising and borrowing powers that other elected bodies in the UK don’t have. (When a parliament, assembly, or council merely has spending powers, then I see less need for the clarity of single-party rule.)
I don’t think AV would help achieve these goals. It is claimed that AV would encourage politicians to “work harder” to appeal to all their constituents; I think this means that politics will become even more of a game of presentation, as candidates hide their true nature behind a centrist veneer, and modify their policies to suit their audience. AV will present a more slightly more complex voting process, and significantly more complex counting process; both of which will serve to disengage the electoral from politics. AV will encourage tactical voting, based on party choices rather than individual candidates. I think that there is something deeply unsound about the distribution of second preference votes starting with the least-popular candidates. And AV is viewed by many of its proponents as merely a stepping-stone towards PR, which I believe would do terrible things to the public’s engagement with politics.
(My solution to fixing our electoral system would be to keep FPTP, but to take the party names and slogans off the ballot papers. Let the electorate choose their MP from a list of names and photos. Let voters choose who they want to represent them, rather than which party they prefer. Can’t help thinking that politics would be cleaner and more positive if we diminished the role of parties at the local level.)