OWEN POLLEY: Alternative Vote doesn’t have the X Factor

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UNLIKE a majority of the population I don’t watch X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent. Though I’m led to believe the finals of these shows follow a time-honoured principle. In my opinion it’s rather a good one.

As I understand it, the viewers vote for their favourite act, all the votes are totalled and the performer who tops the poll is declared the winner. As simple as that. It’s a highly effective voting system: it gets the job done and, most importantly, it’s fair.

In this case, what works for light entertainment also works for politics. In the UK we use the First Past The Post (FPTP) system to decide Westminster elections. At the House of Commons each constituency is represented by just one member of parliament. So, when it comes to polling time, each elector casts a single vote for their preferred candidate and the person who claims most votes wins.

It mightn’t be very complicated, it mightn’t offer much for political anoraks to get their teeth into, but it works tremendously well. And it takes a particularly perverse brand of logic to conclude that the current system is anything other than scrupulously fair.

Still, that’s what the proponents of Alternative Vote (AV) must attempt to prove in the run up to May’s referendum on Westminster election reform.

We’ve got some experience of AV in Northern Ireland, where it operates in council and assembly by-elections. Effectively it’s the unloved cousin of Proportional Representation, allowing the voter to vote on down the ballot paper, rather than simply mark an X against his or her favourite candidate.

In multi-seat constituencies, where more than one winner is declared, that makes a certain amount of sense. In a single seat constituency it means that all the votes are counted and, unless someone has garnered at least 50 per cent of the total, the bottom candidate is eliminated. The second preference in all the ballots that were cast for the loser are then distributed among the remaining contenders. The process continues until the 50 per cent ceiling is breached and a winner can be declared.

The pro-AV lobby maintains that their system ensures everyone’s voice is heard at the ballot box. Actually it ensures that some people’s voices are heard more often than others and it’s likely to be the people with marginal or extreme views whose voices are heard most of all.

For much of the 20th century pro-democracy campaigners demanded ‘one person, one vote’. Under AV, if you plump for the most popular candidate you still get one vote. In contrast, in Great Britain, an extremist who casts their first choice for the BNP is likely to have their vote counted and recounted a number of times. In Northern Ireland it could be a dissident republican who gets a second, third or fourth opportunity to have their say.

Why on earth should one person’s fifth choice carry as much weight as another person’s first choice? It’s patently absurd and it will result in candidates who have come second or third in the poll overtaking more popular rivals and taking seats in parliament.

There are plenty of proportional voting systems in the world, the Northern Ireland Assembly being just one example, but only three countries use AV: Fiji, Australia and Papua New Guinea. That statistic cuts to the heart of the matter - AV imposes a proportional voting mechanism on an un-proportional parliamentary system.

Even its current proponents aren’t genuine enthusiasts. They see it as a transitional arrangement on the way to full PR. Unfortunately, if they get their way, we’ll have to live with a system which no-one wants. There is a debate to be had about the merits of PR as against FPTP, but AV is nobody’s baby.

The Liberal Democrat, Roy Jenkins, assessed AV in a report for Tony Blair’s government back in 1998. He was forced to acknowledge that it is “even less proportional” than the current Westminster system. He also conceded that it could make the outcome of elections “dangerously unpredictable”. Now his party mates advocate AV as a great advance for the UK’s constitution.

It’s not a great advance. AV tinkers needlessly with a system which works perfectly well already. It’s a brainchild of politicians, for which there is no real demand. The big danger is that people won’t be sufficiently motivated to get out and vote against it, simply because they see only an obscure debate taking place around an obscure new election method.

But the referendum does matter, because the clarity and fairness of our electoral system is at risk. No amount of warped logic can win the day for AV but apathy just might.

l Owen Polley is a political blogger