This post is part of a series on The Atlernative Vote Referendum on May 5th.
Vote splitting is a real problem under “First Past the Post”, the system we have here in the UK, and which we share with the USA. Vote splitting occurs when two parties representing very similar viewpoints share votes between them, allowing another candidate to come out ahead. This can lead to the election of a candidate that represents a minority viewpoint.
Imagine being at a house party where a poll is taken to find out what soft drink everyone would like. Asked “Pepsi or lemonade?” the vote would go 60:40 and Pepsi is served. If the question becomes “Pepsi, Coca-Cola or lemonade” the vote may return 30:30:40, due to the ‘split cola brand vote’, and everyone gets lemonade.
This effect had profound implications in the 2000 Presidential elections in the USA. Al Gore’s vote was split in some cases with that of Ralph Nader. Bush won by a whisker: remember the court proceedings at the end of the election? Who in their right mind can continue to trot out the idea that First Past the Post confers strong legitimacy?
Remember Neil Hamilton? His involvement in scandal after scandal did not stop him from being selected to stand for election in the fourth-safest seat in the country. Angered by his selection the BBC journalist, Martin Bell, resigned his position and announced an independent run in the constituency.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats, seeing Bell as having the best chance to kick the Tories where it hurt, in a safe seat, withdrew, and Bell won with 60.2% of the vote. Under AV they wouldn’t have had to withdraw because votes could have transferred between candidates. They only withdrew because they were afraid of splitting the large anti-Hamilton vote, which is much less risky under AV.
Vote splitting allows candidates with a pathetic share of the vote to win. In the last election, a Liberal Democrat won his seat with 29.9% of the vote. In 1992, a Liberal Democrat won with just 26% of the vote.
Vote splitting is a serious problem in the UK. Consider Johann Hari’s take on it in today’s Independent:
In Britain today, we have a centre-left majority who want this to be a country with European-level taxes, European-standard public services and European-level equality. We have had this for a very long time. Even at the height of Thatcherism, 56 per cent of people voted for parties committed to higher taxes and higher spending. But the centre-left vote is split between several parties – while the right-wing vote clusters around the Conservatives. So under FPTP they get to rule and dominate out of all proportion to their actual support, and drag most of us in a direction we don’t want to go. That’s why the Tories are united in supporting the current system, and throwing a fortune at preventing any change.
AV, because it corrects for vote-splitting, is more democratic than FPTP. That alone is reason enough to vote “Yes” on May 5th.