I haven’t really been following the Alternative Vote (AV) versus First Past The Post (FPTP) debate in much detail. Yesterday, however, I read Tim Gower’s post Is AV better than FPTP and found it very interesting and informative (on another note, I found David Broomhead’s article A formula for fair voting very poor).
I don’t want to re-explain all the details about AV but, it seems to me at least, that FPTP is only really fair if there are only two candidates. If there are more than two, then there is a reasonable chance that the vote will be split and that the winner will be someone that more than 50% of the voters would rather had not won. With AV, it seems that if all the voters were to vote their preference honestly (including voting for only one candidate if that is their choice) the result would at least reasonably reflect the views of the electorate. I should add that my definition of fair here is not that it is fair to the candidates but that it fairly reflects the views of the voters.
What’s been most disappointing about what I’ve seen of the debate is how it hasn’t included much discussion of which system would better allow the views of the country to be represented. Certainly the No to AV group seems to be arguing that we need a system that will produce clear winners and that the AV system will result in more coalitions. Even if the latter is true, it seems fine to me if this actually reflects the distribution of current political views in the country. Our voting system shouldn’t be based on the make-up of the political parties, the political parties should adapt if the voting systems tells them that their policies are not sufficiently popular. In short, we should come up with a voting system that will allow for the views of the electorate to be determined and let the political parties adapt accordingly, not the other way around.
I have, however, found this “it’s the result that matters” attitude quite common. My understanding of what my university does when it decides who should be offered a place is that it uses all sorts of information, not simply the A-level grades that the students get or are likely to get. I think this is quite correct and if done properly (and there is a lot of work going into determining how to do this properly) the students who are most likely to succeed will be offered places. To me, this is what’s important. I have, however, heard others say that it’s not fair if someone’s parents spend a lot of money sending them to a good school and then someone with lower grades is offered a place ahead of them. If grades were a perfect indicator of how someone would perform at university, this view would be quite correct, but they’re not (or at least I have seen studies showing that they’re not). If someone has had extensive help in how to cope with exams and how to achieve good grades, their results may suggest that they will perform better at university than they actually will. The reverse is also probably true.
Similarly, it seems at university that students and staff alike have forgotten that exams are simply forms of assessment. We spend four years teaching students various things about a subject and we need to assess how much they have learned and how capable they are likely to be once they graduate. It’s not a competition to see who can get the highest marks. If it any stage we feel that students are achieving grades that do not reasonably reflect their abilities we should change the system. This is not to disadvantage students but simply because it should – in my opinion – be designed to fairly assess students’ abilities. The voting system should be the same. By and large, the voting system should be designed to produce a result that largely represents the views of those who voted. Proportional representation would be ideal – in my opinion – but given that we value constituency politics, AV seems like a reasonable option. Despite David Broomhead’s article in the Guardian, tactical voting is difficult in the AV system, and if most voters were to indicate their preferences, the winner should be someone preferred by more than 50% of the voters which seems much better than the current system where the winner might get less than 50% of the votes, and more than 50% of the voters would have preferred someone else to have won .