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Ed Hall: First Past The Post is a simple, comprehensible and - most importantly - fair electoral system

Picture 6 Ed Hall is a businessman and Conservative activist in Kensington and Chelsea who occasionally blogs here.

'It's not fair. I want to watch Bob the Builder again and you won't let me.  I hate you.’

Fairness is one of those qualities in life that we all seek, yet one that changes radically in its meaning as we get older.  'It's not fair,' often seems to be the first whole sentence that you hear from an angry toddler, and to a three year-old much is clearly unfair about life.  The emotion that we feel when we believe we have been treated unfairly is already fully-formed by that age.  It induces anger and rage and 'pit of the stomach' indignation.

Ordinary human beings feel a need (a right perhaps?) for the world to treat them fairly, and by our teenage years the feelings start to hone themselves: usually with school and long-suffering parents as the whetstone on which the sense of fair play sharpens itself.

For a fifteen year-old the words, 'It's not fair!' may mean that another parent, with a similarly aged child, is allowing them to go to the dance, and so quod erat demonstrandum, your actions by saying they can't go are prima facie unfair (I rather like the idea of today's teenagers arguing in Latin).  Fairness, for teenagers, becomes an exercise in moral and ethical comparatives.  If it's fair for Cheryl to get extra help in her grades because she's dyslexic, then why can't I have more points because I'm depressed and my parents hate me? 

It's an important period and it shapes the way we view the world: most well-adjusted grown-ups, with or without the benefit of a religious framework, share a similar sense of what is and is not fair.  And that's why I am vehemently opposed to the proposals to change Britain's voting system to the AV system favoured by the Liberal Democrats.  The system the advocates of AV propose is, in teenage terms, simply not fair.

In democratic politics there has to be a clear and comprehensible answer to the question of who won an election.  The briefest of glances at the history of the Roman Republic show that the complexity of their electoral system enabled its abuse as the powerful arranged for the election of favourites and the corrupt.  Whilst not comparing him to Pompey or Julius Caesar, in London, Ken Livingstone is already reported to be talking about how people should use their votes tactically and not vote for their favoured candidate in Tower Hamlets during the next Mayoral election (which uses the Supplementary Vote system) in order to speed his return to City Hall.  That is not democratic accountable politics; in my view it's old fashioned gerrymandering. 

If the leading candidate doesn't get 50% of the first preference votes, then London's Mayor will be chosen by the second choice votes of the electors that voted for the political wings of fundamentalist Christian, Karmic flying and neo-Nazi parties.  That is not just unfair, it's plainly irrational.  It gives undue weight to the voters who chose to use the election as a platform to promote their fringe views.  The ability for anyone, even a man in a animal suit, to stand for election is a proud and admirable thing about our political system, but once you choose to vote for the Bonkers Party or the passionate local campaigner for your school or hospital you have used your vote.  Why on earth are you entitled to a second bash at voting, simply because you voted for a loser?

If I vote for a potential winning candidate (whether Conservative or Labour) in a London Mayoral Election, then in reality I only ever get one vote.  How is that fair, Mr Clegg, when your voters end up with two?  In a closely-fought election the losing parties get their second votes counted and the largest loser will be the Liberal Democrats.  The Coalition king-makers may get to choose the Mayor of London, despite the fact that one candidate (other than theirs) must have got the most votes.

So how would the proposed AV system work in practice? The losers' second votes get counted from the smallest losing candidates' votes upwards until a candidate has more than 50% of the vote.

If you have a 'normal' constituency election with three or four mainstream parties, two or three genuine local campaigners, a couple of extreme parties from either side, and a Loony candidate, then the ballot paper lists them all and the voters will have to list them in preference.  I have to say I am not sure precisely in which order I should rank the Vote Muesli candidate and the True Love Party candidate, but issues such as that will start to trouble us if the referendum goes in favour of AV.

Election night arrives and the votes are counted.  If the leading candidate has less than 50% of the votes then what happens next?  The votes of the least popular candidate, let's say the True Love Party candidate, are redistributed according to their second choice votes.  Other candidates see their number of votes change, and the Returning Officer looks to see if anyone has reached the magic 50%.  If they haven't, then the votes of the next most unpopular candidate are counted, let's say it is the BNP candidate, and the Returning Officer looks again.  This process continues, giving extra votes and the king-making role to the voters that chose the unelectable parties, and no additional weight to you and me that voted sensibly.  And at the end nobody really knows how many people actually voted for anybody, not unless they have a degree in mathematics.

In modern politics, a winner should be a winner.  Try it round your dinner table or next time you watch the X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing.  Everyone votes for their favourite book, film or act: surely the candidate with the most votes wins?  How would the BBC or ITV possibly explain or justify a programme format with public voting in which the candidate that got the most votes did not win?

'Thank you for calling Britain’s Got Talent.  Your vote for the Trapeze Sisters has been counted.  Now you can choose a second choice contestant instead.  If The Trapeze Sisters don't win, your vote will be transferred to your second choice contestant.  Press 2 to register a second preference vote.'

Of course you do get to vote again in the TV formats as the candidates are knocked out, and the next week's programme starts, but do we really want General Elections every week until we get a winner?  That would be the only way to give equal weight to everybody’s second choice votes.

There are only three countries in the world that currently use the AV system proposed by the Liberal Democrats.  They are Papua New Guinea, Australia and Fiji.  Fiji, it has been reported, is giving up on the system, and a brief look at the weeks Australia spent without an effective government last year have started a serious discussion there about the merits of the AV system.

The strongest argument that the proponents of the various forms of proportional representation have used for years is one of fairness, and I think their argument is utterly flawed.  AV is absolutely not fair.  If you can't explain the electoral system to a teenager and have them agree with the principles and understand the issues, then they won't show interest in it, they won't support it, and most importantly they won't be bothered to vote. 

You can be certain that we will hear the 'fair' word a lot in the weeks to come, and it will be the 'Yes' campaign that try to co-opt it to their cause.  Well I want to get in first.  Ultimately, for all its flaws, the 'First Past the Post' system is fairest because the winner wins, and people of any age can understand that.


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