Daniel Finkelstein writing in the Times asks why are supporters of PR campaigning in favour of a YES vote in the forthcoming May referendum on the Alternative Vote. He claims this is strange because AV is not any more proportional than the current first-past-the-post system and that smaller parties are still just as disadvantaged (if not more so).
The answer is that in practise AV has proven more proportional when used in Australia and (apart from 1997) all the projections of recent UK general elections show a more proportional result using AV (see the British Election Survey by Essex University). At the 2010 election the Tories got 47% of the seats with just 36% of the vote, Labour 40% with 29%, Lib Dems 9% seats with 23% vote and others 4% with 12% of the vote. With AV and the same vote share both Tory and Labour would lose seats and the Lib Dems gain, with smaller parties unchanged. (Now the Lib Dem vote has dropped, smaller parties might be with even more of a shout of winning seats. Remember that the 'expenses' election didn't elect a single independent in mainland Britain. The Greens in Australia got the equivalent here of 6 seats under AV with their victory in Melbourne).
Also although AV does not provide the immediate representation in terms of seats that PR does for smaller parties, it does (like PR) provide a platform for smaller parties to grow by showing their real level of support. AV will allow for the first time people to express their first preference in a general election without fear of giving advantage to the party they like the least.
As Daniel does mention, AV will change the political game, which is probably why a majority of MPs have already come out to campaign for a No vote (420 MPs out of 650 - 65% of the total so far and still counting). Not only would it alter how many seats are allocated to each party on the current vote share, it will alter how people vote and this scares the hell out of MPs even those who currently get more than 50% of the vote. Also tactical voting will become a thing of the past so we will know for sure how many rural Labour and urban Tories vote Lib Dem etc.
The closest guide we have to how people might vote under AV, is the Euro elections that are conducted under closed list PR. This also gives us a clue as to the 'softness' of different parties support. The Tories got 29% compared to their 36% share in the GE (so quite a large core), Labour only 16% (29%), the Lib Dems 14% (23%).
This gives us an idea of 'core' support. The 14% Lib Dem figure seems aptly demonstrated by the recent collapse of their poll support to similar figures now they are no longer the 'party of the protest voter'.
People will splinter off to their smaller party first preference but also those who currently give their only preference to a smaller party and 'lose' their vote as 'wasted', can now give a further preference to one of the big guns and not lose their vote.
This could be crucial in a number of seats which is why MPs of all parties are scared by the prospect. The British Election Survey asked 14,000 voters at the 2010 election what their 2nd preferences were and this made interesting reading. Sadly it didn't give the full breakdown for the Tories and Lib Dems, but 66% of Labour voters backed the Lib Dems and 40% of Lib Dems backed Labour. (Incidently only 3% of Labour voters would give their 2nd preference to the BNP, I suspect the figure for the Tories would be much higher - which sort of backs my theory that BNP voters are working class Tories rather than Labour supporters).
If some of these smaller parties can survive into the last 2 by picking up other preferences, then they have a springboard to win seats but ONLY if they can get the support of more than 50%. This is why extremist parties like the BNP will still thankfully be shut out (because hopefully they will never get 50% of the vote) but not more reasonable radical parties who can attract wide support.
Remember votes for women and gay rights were radical ideas once that eventually garnered mainstream support - it took a very long time and the electoral system was probably one hurdle that had to be jumped for these ideas to be established. AV will allow parties with radical ideas to exert more influence as well as garner more support more quickly. Daniel thinks this will mean more 'muddle of the road' politics with politicians even less likely to offend and more likely to chase the centrist vote. In fact the opposite is the truth - politicians will have to be more clear where they stand on more issues and be more held to account for those views as the number of safe seats is reduced. This is essential now that party membership has dropped to little more than councillors, their family and close friends - we are pulling MP talent from a smaller and smaller clique.
The IPPR also informs us this week that coalition is now likely to be the norm even under first-past-the-post, like it is in Canada who have had 5 'non-conclusive' elections out the last 8 using our current system. So if you are not a fan of coalition government, it matters not if you vote against AV, as coalition government is what you will get whatever the system. This is because people are now much more likely to vote against the mainstream parties and demographics suggests this will increase - younger people support 'other' parties more than older voters who are dying off at a rate of 600,000 a year - thats around 3m older voters lost between every general election and millions of younger voters that are used to getting a wide choice in every other sphere. Why not politics? Lets tell these politicians they are wrong and that their time is up. Vote YES to AV on May 5th.
PS, As an aside for those who think voting NO will punish the Lib Dems, remember that more proportional systems tend to diminish their vote as their ragtag collection of left of Labour socialists, Greens, Libertarians etc can register their vote for who they really believe in. Ironically the one policy the Lib Dems are famous for campaigning for, will lead to their demise. I for one have never voted Lib Dem but I understand why a YES vote in this referendum is so important. It is the one chance we will get to improve things. If we lose this referendum nobody will believe the argument it was because we wanted a more proportional system, that will be it for a generation. If we win however, it will kickstart a PR elected second chamber campaign and the anomaly of first-past-the-post for local government will stick out like a sore thumb - the logical way to elect 2 to 3 councillors in a ward as currently would be the single-transferable-vote - basically a multi-member version of AV. So AV for Westminster logically leads to PR for local government - one to think about for those who think AV is a waste fo time.