In a few hours, polls open in the United Kingdom for local and devolved elections and for a referendum on moving to a new electoral system, Instant Runoff Voting, which Brits and Aussies insist on calling, undescriptively, “alternative vote” (AV). This referendum came about as a demand of the Liberal Democrats, who held the balance of power in the hung parliament elected last year. The Conservatives agreed to hold the referendum but have campaigned against it. The Lib Dems, for their part, prefer proportional representation with multi-member constituencies, but decided AV was better than nothing. (Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg is on record as having called AV a “miserable little compromise.”) The Labour Party is split on the reform.
Indeed, AV has many flaws. Compared to the plurality, single-member-district system used in the US, UK, and Canada currently (sometimes called, somewhat inaccurately, “first past the post”), it should at least get rid of the wasted vote problem, in which voters decide to vote for the lesser of two evils because their favored candidate cannot win. But it does so at the price of removing small third parties’ blackmail power. For instance, in the US a Libertarian would have no chance of winning, arguably even if AV were the electoral system. But at least under the current system, a Libertarian candidate can take away votes from a Republican (usually, but not always, Libertarians siphon more votes from Republicans than Democrats) and cause the Republican to lose a tight race. Therefore, Republicans at least occasionally have to pay lip service to Libertarian causes to keep those votes.
Within the UK context, AV would essentially mean a “permanent progressive majority” for the foreseeable future, since combined votes for the center-left parties (Labour and Lib Dems) exceed the Conservative vote, and it seems likely that with AV Labour and the Lib Dems will be able to win more than half of the seats in at least the next few elections. Therefore, the current coalition notwithstanding, it is not surprising that Conservatives have opposed the new system, as well as any future move to PR.
Is there a libertarian position on AV or on electoral reform more generally? At the Adam Smith Institute blog, PJ Byrne argues that the whole campaign is a diversion from the true issue of the role of the state in the lives of the citizens. Here at Pileus, I have previously defended Approval Voting (a totally different system from the alternative vote) for single-winner elections. And while I am skeptical that any amount of institutional tinkering will have truly fundamental consequences for politics, I do think that there is a distinctively libertarian case to be made for systems like AV and PR that reduce the likelihood that any one party will win a majority of seats in the future.
Consider Britain’s current form of government. As a unitary, unicameral, parliamentary regime, power is highly concentrated and centralized in the prime minister, who is far more powerful than an American president. Until the present coalition government, Britain had several decades of rule by single-party governments (although occasionally they were minority governments). Giving any one individual or organization that much power is inherently dangerous. Coalition or minority government forces the prime minister to compromise with other party leaders in parliament. By reducing the amount of power anyone can win, electoral systems that fragment parliamentary representation reduce the stakes of politics.
For libertarians, dispersing and deconcentrating power is almost always a good thing. When not much power is there for the taking, the politicians that do try to run for office and for party leadership will tend to be those who value compromise and are good at brokering deals. These will tend to be more sociable, moderate, technocratic sorts, not power-mad, extreme, or demagogic. Politicians that currently enjoy little power might also be more willing to give some of it away, through decentralization to regions and localities.
So if I were in Britain, I would hold my nose and vote “yes” on AV – not that it’s going to matter anyway.