What Do British Politics and Chocolate Have in Common?


Back in May, Britain voted in an alternative vote (AV) referendum to decide what voting method to use for subsequent national elections. First Past The Post (FPTP) is the present system used in Britain, wherein voters put one cross in a box next to their preferred candidate. The candidate with the majority of votes is elected. The system is currently used in the UK, USA (by the House and Senate in voting), Canada, and India.

The proposed transition to AV, though, would implement a box system where voters rank all the candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives more than 50% of votes, the bottom candidate is excluded and the second preference is redistributed, and the process continues until one candidate passes the 50% mark.

FPTP tends to produce single party governments, meaning legislation can be passed faster. The counting of the votes is also a much quicker activity. In one sense, this means the government could achieve a lot more in a shorter period of time. FPTP also gives voters a direct link to their parliament member, unlike AV, which is far more party-based.

In an AV system you vote for the party, losing the direct link between the voter and the member of parliament — so what happens if you like the party, but not the candidates?

An everyday example of the AV system can be seen in choosing a chocolate bar among four options. Imagine a group of 20 people, each handed a slip with four empty boxes on it. In front of them they are presented with four different chocolate bars: a Mars bar, a Dairy Milk bar, a Flake bar, and a Bounty. Each person will now rank their preferences from 1-4. When carrying out this experiment myself, I noticed a pattern emerging after several attempts. The bar that people really wanted was always coming second or tying with the winner, which was the bar most people put as second choice. The problem was that the group was split: Half of us wanted a flake, and the other half wanted a Mars bar, but because neither was the majority, we kept on landing on Dairy milk, which felt like a compromise people were neither happy nor unhappy with. Conducting the same experiment again using FPTP showed that a more popular choice wins under that system.

The issue is thus simple: Do Britons want to live in a country of compromise? Referendum results say, no. British people want to continue governance by national interest. FPTP is fair; everyone votes once for one candidate, and whoever gets the most wins. The introduction of an alternative vote could lead to increased tactical voting in order to defeat a party that individuals dislike. Many claim this system is undemocratic, making the vote a negative rather than a positive expression of your political will and right to vote.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons