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Freedom is one of mankind's fundamental treasures. Without it, health and prosperity cannot bring happiness. That is why Britain was prepared to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of lives in the Second World War. The basic expression of freedom in our country is the ability of ordinary citizens to dismiss an unpopular government by voting in a general election.


Old ways are the best: Alternative Voting throws up more questions than answers and would keep the Lib Dems in power, no matter who won the most seats (Getty Images) 

The removal van that comes to the back door of Number 10 Downing Street to collect the possessions of the prime minister on the morrow of the ruling party's electoral defeat is the prime symbol of our liberty. Elections have a number of functions but "throwing the rascals out" is the most important. However popular a new premier and a freshly elected government may be, there frequently comes a time for a change. That change may come about in a whole variety of ways. Margaret Thatcher was forced out of office in 1990 by a rebellion of Conservative backbenchers. In Europe, coalition governments fall typically as a consequence of quarrels and backroom dealings in the ruling circle of politicians. Elections and electors have only an indirect role in determining who governs. In a true democracy, the ousting of the executive should be the prerogative of the electors.

Yet this precious prerogative is under threat. The danger to the system of "removal van democracy" is insidious because the threat does not come from the ranting of a foreign dictator, from natural disaster or from economic crisis. It is hardly noticed, highly technical and — let's face it — boring. Few people know what the "Alternative Vote" is. Even fewer care. Electoral reform and its many variations are the passion of small groups of political scientists and sundry campaigners — mostly with Liberal Democrat interests. They have gained a disproportionately great influence because they have caught the great British public napping.

It is curious that Britain's first national referendum for 35 years will be on such an obscure topic as the Alternative Vote. Even professional commentators know almost nothing about AV, as some of them readily admit. I doubt whether our top politicians know much about it either. 

Apart from biased explanations from specialist groups linked with the Lib Dems, which have been lobbying for decades for voting reform, virtually no information is available on the meaning of the term "Alternative Vote" let alone on its pros and cons. The Parliament and Constitution Centre of the House of Commons Library, which is the country's most authoritative source of information about constitutional questions, failed in its recent Standard Note on the Alternative Vote to cite any neutral source in its list of pros and cons. It merely quoted a publication of the Electoral Reform Society. Since the society is devoted to campaigning in favour of electoral reform, it is hardly a reliable fount of information about the objections to it.

The case for voting against AV rests on three clusters of arguments: the flawed process which led the referendum to be called in the first place and the senseless hurry to push the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill through Parliament; the big-picture arguments against voting reform; and the technical ambiguities and defects of AV itself.

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J Lam
April 23rd, 2011
2:04 PM
New Zealand IS including the alternative vote as an option in its referendum later this year, the only difference is that they call it preferential voting. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Zealand_voting_method_referendum,_2011#...

Tom Round
March 24th, 2011
4:03 AM
As an Australian I can only laugh when a foreigner informs me that Alternative Vote prevents voters from "throwing out" governments. Mr Pinto-Duschinsky should google the names of "John Howard", "Paul Keating", "Malcolm Fraser" and "Gough Whitlam". By contrast, FPTP failed pretty miserably at removing Margaret Thatcher from office in 1983 and 1987 when a solid majority of British voters didn't want her.

Derek Young
September 9th, 2010
1:09 AM
If the test of FPTP is whether it allows electors to "throw the rascals out", then it must be judged an abject, miserable failure. Only once in 130 years has a majority government of a single party been replaced by a majority government of a different single party, in 1970. On three occasions (1929, 1951 and 1974) the party which won fewer votes of the top two won more seats, making a mockery of the idea that FPTP gives the public direct control of the type of government we have. The most damning condemnation of FPTP, which this article ignores, is that the outcome of a FPTP election is determined by only a handful of voters - the swing voters in marginal constituencies, estimated at between 600,000 and 1m people out of an electorate of 42m. Everyone else might literally as well stay at home on polling day (which, of course, they are increasingly doing). Similarly, the assertion that AV will result in a permanent state of government for the Lib Dems is one made out of philosophical opposition, not neutral analysis. As best as we can tell, most AV elections would still result in a majority government (as in Australia, where the last hung parliament before the current one occurred 70 years ago). FPTP may have worked reasonably well (though far from perfectly) when two major parties won, between them, 98% of the votes cast. Now they win fewer than two-thirds of the votes cast. In such circumstances, maintaining FPTP is increasingly not only a defiance of common sense but more damagingly an almost institutionally corrupt way of excluding the vast majority of citizens from influencing their government.

Dave Thawley
September 8th, 2010
9:09 PM
I just wanted to concur with Ian, the article is not at all informed and is not factual. Please go to the Electoral Reform Society website for an unbiased view of AV (or what the article here for some reason calls PV (perhaps to give the very false illusion the author knows what he is talking about). To be honest, if you have started to read the comments before reading the article I would advise with utmost sincerity you don't waste your time

Ian MacDougall
September 7th, 2010
11:09 PM
The title of Pinto-Duschinsky's piece here 'Let's Keep Throwing the Rascals Out' suggests that only by retaining first-past-the-post (the existing UK system) will this still be possible. That is merely the reddest of the article's many red herrings. Another is the suggestion that preferential voting (PV) will install the loathed and detested Lib-Dems permanently into power, albeit in coalition with whichever of the other two parties is unprincipled enough to get into bed with them. So the author dismisses all other states hich have adopted PV, while acknowledging (ie he does not actually dispute) that it operates satisfactorily in Australia. The satisfaction by the way comes from not having a party installed into office that most people voted against. Not having a government that most people don't want is related somehow to democracy, but I am not sure how. PV can involve some primary school mathematics, it is true: like being able to count from 1 to n, where n is the number of candidates in the constituency. PV is also routinely opposed by those who see their favoured party's privileges evaporating as a result of it. Such people are usually on the conservative side of politics, and so it is worth asking why mainly conservatively-governed Australia introduced it in the 1920s. The answer lies in the fact that at the time of its introduction, the conservative vote was split between two parties, one urban and the other rural, and their mutual opponent, the Labour Party had already shown that it was able of winning more votes than either of them and forming governments. So the CONSERVATIVES introduced PV in order to continue their rule, and to share office between their rival parties, and to ensure that no team of rascals could gain office without the support of 50% + one of the electors. Not a red herring in sight. Simple as that. Nothing fishy about it at all.

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