(This post is about the Alternative Vote aka Instant-runoff Voting referendum happening on Thursday in the UK – My super-short explanation of how AV works is here)

There’s a lot been said about the upcoming referendum and I’m not gonna try and summarise it here, other than to say that most arguments against AV also apply to FPTP (First-past-the-post, the current system), and usually do so in a greater fashion.  For an in-depth examination, this post is informative, although extremely long and technical.  It’s worth taking the time to understand though, this decides how we’re governed after all…

The main benefit of AV to my mind is that it encourages honest voting.  Under FPTP, there is a very obvious pressure to vote for your second or third choice, in order to prevent someone you would like even less winning.  This is referred to as Tactical Voting, but let’s call it what it really is – dishonest.  We have a system that encourages people to lie on their ballot and then expect politicians to tell the truth.  Under AV, there is a much reduced risk of an honest vote turning out to be detrimental to what you wanted to happen.  That risk still exists (and as far as I know, no voting system can eliminate it entirely), but it’s harder to exploit and riskier.  Under AV it’s possible to vote ‘over-tactically’, whereby trying to be clever actually makes you worse off.

The other benefit of AV is that of increased information.  Putting one ‘x’ against one candidate throws away an awful lot of information about why you voted the way you did.  By using rankings, you are better able to express just what it is that is important to you, because let’s face it, no single party’s platform exactly describes anyone’s views, not even of members of that party.

To me, increased honesty and information in voting is vital before reasonably expecting increased honesty and information from government.

Now, AV is not my first choice of voting reform.  It is by no means perfect.  A lot of what the ‘Yes’ campaign claims it will do (like making MP’s work harder – whatever that means) is simply wishful thinking.  When I was looking at this a few years ago, I settled on the Single Transferrable Vote, although I’ve heard of others since then, so don’t know if that’s still my preference.  As it turns out, the Lib Dems like STV as well, which makes it less likely to ever happen 😉

That said, the choice at the referendum is not between FPTP and STV.  The question is whether I prefer AV above the current system.  Some people have suggested that somehow rejecting AV will make whatever reform they really want more likely.  This ignores history.  Whenever anyone has ever wanted to change anything, it always happens in degrees, but it’s always the first step that is the hardest.  Social movements require inertia.  If AV happens, it’s effects will be examined and scrutinised in the light of day.  It’s deficiencies will be demonstratable, but also it’s successes.  There will be very public debate about “where we go from here?”.

If, on the other hand, AV is rejected, any discussion of electoral reform will be cast back into the wilderness for a long time.  How many of you would be surprised to learn that the Commons actually passed a bill bringing in AV in 1931?  I certainly was.  Back then, it was the Lords that prevented it from going ahead, but how much time and scandal has gone by before another opportunity to change something has arrived?  A ‘No’ vote really is a vote to keep things exactly as they are.  If that’s what you really want, then by all means go ahead, but the real reform discussion will never start when we refuse to take a first step and say “We really can’t stay here!”