The referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) and why FOI Man supports Yes in May.

In my last post I explained how the public interest test has prevented the stagnation of FOI in this country. It would have been simpler for all involved if the exemptions had all been absolute. But the right of access would have fossilised in the position dictated by Parliament over ten years ago. Less information would have been disclosed over the last few years. The Information Commissioner would rarely have been able to order a public authority to disclose information. Its very complexity made it better.

I’ve come to realise through writing this blog, if I didn’t already, that I have a passion for the FOI Act and the role that it allows me to play as a public employee. There can’t be that many relatively junior jobs that give their holders a mandate to change the culture in such a significant way within their organisation. My motivation has always been to show that FOI means something. That despite the existence of exemptions, and the cynicism of some observers, the status quo would not prevail after 1 January 2005. To show that real constitutional change can work.

And in just over a week, on 5 May 2011, we have the chance to move things forward again. For the first time ever, we have the opportunity to say which system we should use to elect our MPs to Westminster. That’s incredible isn’t it? That we’ve never had that choice before?

But now we do. Now some are saying that the Alternative Vote (AV) is too complicated (as I knew they would). But firstly, as I’ve argued above, complex is good. Most things that make life fairer and better – be it our legal system, a balanced diet, or the technology that we’ve all come to rely on – are a little complex. They have to balance the things we like to do with the things that are good for society or ourselves. Complexity allows for flexibility and fairness in many situations that we encounter in our lives, and that’s the case with both FOI and AV in my opinion.

Secondly, yes, prioritising candidates in numerical order is more complicated than putting a cross in a box. But in theory you could just put one mark in the box – a “1”. The simplest mark you can make on a piece of paper. So one mark rather than the two it takes to form a cross. You don’t have to put anything else if you don’t want to. And in any case, are you really saying that you struggle with the concept of counting to three (or however many preferences you want to indicate)?

Thirdly, every new electoral system that has been introduced to the UK in the last 20 years uses a system other than First Past the Post. Scottish MSPs, Welsh Assembly Members, the London Mayor and the Assembly Members that scrutinise him, the party leaderships of at least the two largest political parties – none of them are elected by First Past the Post. Have any of these institutions collapsed as a result? Some might argue that instead they appear to be more representative of the views of their respective electorates. Scottish students are immune from the tuition fees that cause such upset south of the border. The families of hospital patients in Wales park their cars for free. And Londoners get to suffocate in deadly smog in the summer… Well, OK, there’s an exception to every rule.

And if you want a change in the voting system, but you don’t like AV, now is not the time to be picky. If you vote for First Past the Post, don’t expect another opportunity to vote for any new system in your lifetime. This is it. If No to AV wins on 5 May, no political party with a chance of forming a government will campaign on voting reform again for a long, long time.

I believe that AV will be fairer than First Past the Post. It will slightly favour some smaller parties (which is a good thing in our more pluralistic society). It will mean that candidates for Westminster seats have to work harder to win support from constituents who wouldn’t give them their first preference. By and large it won’t change the balance of power in the country – the Conservatives and Labour will still be the biggest political parties – but it will give others more of a voice.

If you believe in progress and live in the UK, make sure you get out and vote Yes to AV on 5 May. We will never have a better chance to change the culture of Westminster. Don’t waste it.

On that note, I shall bid you all adieu. I’m off on my hols for the next two weeks, but I’ll be back with more on FOI from the inside in late May.



  1. Paradoxically, “first past the post” is a complete misnomer. There is no post! The winner may have only a third of the votes: two thirds didn’t vote for that person.

    With AV, there is a post: 50% of the vote. The winner is the first person to get past that post. You know that winner is favoured (to a greater or lesser extent) by the majority of voters!

    Since I lived in Australia for over 20 years, I have voted many times in AV elections. It is not complicated, and the system to be used here will be slightly simpler (as indicating preferences for all candidates will be optional). For single-member constituencies, AV works very well indeed. I was never quite so convinced by its use in multi-member constituencies (as in voting for the Australian Senate).

    Australian elections don’t use machines to count votes. They are expensive and do take a long time, but that is strongly affected by other factors. For example, I voted once in Port Lincoln, some 400 miles away from my constituency in Adelaide, on election day (that was the infamous post-dismissal election; there’s never been anything like that here that I can remember). My votes had to get to Adelaide to be counted. Also, votes without preferences for all candidates were invalid (not the system here), so all had to be carefully scrutinised, further adding to time.

    I’m very strongly in favour of the move to AV!

    Chris Rusbridge