An English tabloid in my local newsagent tells me to reject the alternative vote (AV) in the coming referendum. It says the scheme is so unpopular in Australia that police have to drag voters from barbecues to polling stations; that it would make British politics as corrupt as Italian and allow supporters of the British National party to vote twice. But the claim that AV would be fairer is hardly more compelling and perhaps no more true. The campaign represents a new low in the quality of British political argument.
The case for the alternative vote is that the system gives (some) weight to voters’ second preferences and prevents anyone being elected without the support of half the voters, however lukewarm. France, which employs a form of alternative voting, illustrates the effect. In 2002, the National Front candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen won second place among more than a dozen candidates, with 17 per cent of the vote, against 20 per cent for incumbent President Jacques Chirac. In the second ballot, opposition leaders urged supporters to “vote for the crook not the fascist”. Most socialist voters then backed Mr Chirac, who was re-elected with 82 per cent of votes. Mr Le Pen raised his support to only 18 per cent.
Under AV, a National Front candidate is unlikely to attract many second preferences or to gain 50 per cent in any vote, so therefore cannot win. This will again be true in the next French election, even though some opinion polls suggest that Nicolas Sarkozy is so unpopular that Mr Le Pen’s daughter might win the first round. Under the proposed British system – more complex but superior to the French arrangement – the final round of voting in 2002 would have been between Mr Chirac and the socialist Lionel Jospin, the two candidates with wide support.
Of course, a National Front candidate is not likely to be elected president of France under any system, including first past the post, because voters cast strategic ballots. If voters suspected Mr Le Pen were a strong candidate, they would tend to rally round his leading opponent. Even if the alternative vote is not the official system, voters will tend to behave as if it were.
They do in Britain. The Liberal Democrats increased their representation substantially in 1997 because they won potential Labour votes in seats where they were most likely to defeat the Conservatives. For related reasons, the Lib Dems lost seats in 2010 despite a strong election campaign: there are fewer seats where Conservatives can vote tactically to oust Labour.
Britain has an informal system of alternative voting already, whose operation depends on voters making good guesses as to the likely result. This strengthens the case for the formal adoption of AV, but also explains why it would not make very much difference in practice. The only recent election in which the overall result might have been altered is that of 1992. The Conservatives might then have been deprived of the majority which, with hindsight, it is hard to argue they deserved.
The AV system proposed is a weak reform that considers the second preferences only of those who vote for weak candidates. This can give rise to odd results: voters may be faced with a choice of two extremists although a moderate candidate is everyone’s second preference.
That property leads to the most common misunderstanding about AV: the view that it prevents strong government. Strong and unpopular leaders – such as the Le Pens – lose under AV, but strong and popular leaders benefit. Set aside the question of whether we actually want strong government – Colonel Gaddafi, sadly, is a more common figure than Lee Kwan Yew. The normal loser from AV is the unpopular major party – such as Labour in the 1980s or the Conservatives in 1997 – which is reduced to its bedrock support and wins few second preferences. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair would probably have obtained larger majorities in those elections.
Which, again, is probably what should have happened. And a victory for the AV campaign is probably what should happen next week.