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Debate: Should the UK adopt the Alternative Vote system in the May 2011 referendum?

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Background

Wikipedia's description of this event is as follows: Based on the coalition agreement, the referendum is to be a simple majority yes/no question as to whether to replace the current First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system used in general elections with the Alternative Vote (AV) system. When the Bill providing for the referendum was first introduced, the question proposed was:

"Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the “alternative vote” system instead of the current “first past the post” system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?"

This original wording was criticised by the Electoral Commission, saying that "particularly those with lower levels of education or literacy, found the question hard work and did not understand it". The Electoral Commission recommended a changed wording to make the issue easier to understand, and the government subsequently amended the Bill to bring it into line with the Electoral Commission's recommendations. The question was changed to:

"At present, the UK uses the “first past the post” system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the “alternative vote” system be used instead?"

In Wales, the question on the ballot paper will also appear in Welsh:

"Ar hyn o bryd, mae’r DU yn defnyddio’r system “y cyntaf i’r felin” i ethol ASau i Doe’r Cyffredin. A ddylid defnyddio’r system “pleidlais amgen” yn lle hynny?"

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Proportionality

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Pro

The AV system will result a range of MPs that more closely reflect the proportions of the public vote. The government will, therefore be more representative of The General Will of the voters.





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Con

It is not certain that the result will be significantly more proportional than the current First Past the Post method. Neither is it clear that proportionality of representation necessarily ensures that governments make decisions that reflect the preferences of the voters. It is also unclear whether the public actually want government to behave like themselves. Governments often consistently resist known public majorities (e.g. capital punishment) without the public minding too much.





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Legitimacy

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Pro

The AV system of voting will result in more people having MPs that they voted for and this will improve the legitimacy of the government and it's ability to make decisions that will be accepted by the public.





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Con

This system of voting will result in more candidates adopting 'compromise' stances during elections - it will reduce the diversity of choice at elections and leave the public with a poorer view of the legitimacy of Parliament because no candidates will take principled contentious positions at elections.





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Quality of government

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Pro

Coalition government breeds strong and sound governance: All social interaction is characterised by cooperation and compromise, and politics should be no exception. Governments which are forced to acknowledge a wide range of public opinion are less likely to introduce policies which victimise minorities or ride roughshod over public opinion for ideological reasons (e.g. the poll tax in Britain 1988-92). Countries with PR systems, such as Germany, show that great prosperity can result from the policies of such governments.

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Con

Proportional representation and coalition governments are weaker. Typically no one party gains a majority of the popular vote, so coalition governments have to be formed often between four or more parties. This tends to produce unstable governments, changing as parties leave or join the governing coalition, and frequent elections. Governments are unable to put a clear, positive legislative agenda in place over several years or act decisively in time of crisis. Compare this to the strong governing majorities produced by first past the post, e.g. Labour 1945-50 or Thatcher in the UK in the 1980s.

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Coalition governments

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Pro

AV systems of voting are more likely to result in coalition governments. All political parties are coalitions in reality. AV will result in a more flexible form of coalition government and the debates and trade-offs that government are likely to make are more likely to be discussed before elections rather than after them.





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Con

Coalition governments aren't as good as governments where the victorious party is elected on a clear programme with a mandate to carry out policies. Parties are more likely to campaign on fictional populist positions prior to an election in the sure knowledge that they will have a get-out clause if they go into a coalition government.





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Better elections?

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Pro

Switching to AV incentivises parties to focus more campaigning efforts on non-supporters who always go and vote, to try to get their second or third preferences. Whereas First Past The Post incentivises parties to focus on identifying supporters who may or may not go and vote, and ensuring that they do so. This means that all election campaigning under FPTP is focused on the smaller portion of the electorate. This may result in a lower turnout.

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Con

Rather that standing on their convictions, all of the parties will go for watered-down compromise positions and elections will be dull well-mannered contests for the centre ground. There will be less at stake and the quality of debate will be lower.

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The cost of voting

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Pro

A referendum itself will cost money and that the AV voting system will be more expensive to implement than the simpler-to-count First Past the Post (FPTP) question. Because the economy is in a tight spot at the moment, this cost is not justifiable.

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Con

Political decisions are important ones and it's important that we get them right. The relatively minor cost of running elections that lead to good governance is nothing compared to the expensive cost of poor illegitimate governments that bring forward bad policies.

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Framing & referendums

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Pro

It is right that a decision on the voting system should not be taken solely by elected MPs. A change in the voting system must be decided by a vote in which the whole public are focused on one issue alone.

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Con

Referendums are a very poor way of making decisions for a variety of well-established reasons. In this case, there is also the case of 'framing'. If we are to change our electoral system, why are we being offered a yes-no option on only one type of electoral reform? Why aren't we being allowed to chose from a variety of them? It could be argued that the fact that a referendum is the means by which we decide is sufficient reason to vote 'no' in itself.

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Political context

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Pro

The current electoral system has an in-built bias that benefits some political parties more than others. This needs to be corrected.

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Con

There are many electoral systems that could be adopted. This one has been chosen by a coalition of two parties (Conservatives and Liberal Democrats) to target only the biases that benefit Labour and not the biases that effect other parties.

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