The two party system – with discussion

April 30, 2011 at 11:11 pm (cartoon, politics) (, , , , , , )

5th may: referendum in the UK about reforming our “two party” first-past-the-post voting system.

There is much discussion about whether to vote yes, or no.  Most of it focusses on the short term impact – how seats won would change in the new system if people kept their voting habits.  This misses the point.  More astute observers note that whether people support “yes” or “no” depends on how their preferred party will benefit.  This is true, but somewhat beside the point – we should choose a system that gives the best outcome, not the one that favours us.

An important, and somewhat overlooked implication is that the Alternative Vote (AV) system would allow people to vote honestly.  This means that candidates can be ranked by the order an individual wants.  This is not true in the current “First Past the Post” (FPTP) system, where many people are forced to vote tactically.  If you want your vote to count, you have to pick your favoured option from the two candidates you predict to do best.  This prediction leads to a very nasty feedback – the two leading options in public opinion (usually the top two from the last vote) get a disproportionate share of the vote.  This is bad for the system in general because votes do not correspond to public opinion.  The more we can tell the politicians about what we want, the better they can represent us. So we should prefer a voting system that allows us to be honest.

Even worse, it leads to political lock in – the parties who did best in the past will do best in the future, irrespective of their policy. This permits leading parties to interpret a vote for them as a support for their policies, when in fact most voters may disagree with the majority of such policies.  (Though more than the competing party…)  This lets policies with little public support be pushed through… the Iraq war being seen as “supported” due to Labour’s re-election is one example of this, as is the Tory University reform.

(As a side point, AV may result in increased participation in voting.  If you know that your vote will be counted, even if it not for one of the major parties, then you are more likely to bother.)

That is why I’ll be voting “yes”.

PS No doubt the AV system will have its own problems, but the current system seems unjustifiably broken to me.  I’d particularly welcome comments explaining how FPTP is not broken in the sense above.


1 Comment

  1. thinkingdan said,

    It is easy to sound certain about things, but of course I’m not, and have presented a deliberately one-sided argument. Two interesting comments so far:

    David R:
    Interesting though… the only major country with AV is Australia, where they have an even more dominant two-party system than we do. I understand the objective but not sure this sytem would make any real difference

    Mark A:
    I disagree with the point that AV removes tactical voting. I think it just changes it – moving the tactical vote from the first to the second preference for example. You could argue that’s better than the present situation, but I think it’s it’s disingenuous of the article to suggest that everyone will vote for who they want to, as they would / could in a pure PR system.

    My reply:
    I think that all arguments basically look like “x system is flawed because of y. Therefore vote not x”. This is flawed reasoning unless we compile all flaws which is very hard to do. AV does seem to distort voting too… as you imply, you are free to vote tactically with all options that won’t get 50% of the vote. I’m intrigued by the observation that Australia has a worse two party system than us, which is hard to explain.

    I’m also worried that a “no” vote will be seen to support no change when I think everyone would really like full PR. We might be more likely to get that if we try a change now. But maybe I’m too optimistic.

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