Is AV the “nudge” we need?

David Holly presents an engaging, sensible and informed call for an engaging, sensible and informed political culture, and how AV can make it happen.

Water cooler

Dave Holly is a research student in political theory at University College London (UCL)

With the argument over the Alternative Vote referendum intensifying over the past few days, David Cameron is becoming increasingly prominent – beginning with an article in the Standard last Thursday. It was all pretty standard stuff, but beyond the reheated talking points from the anti-AV campaign that we’ve become used to, was a genuinely interesting idea.

Indeed, in these coalition times it was gratifying to find a point on which I could say, “I agree with Dave”. It was this bit:

“But, in many ways, your vote alone is not enough. In the days and weeks ahead, you also need to challenge your friends and colleagues who are thinking of voting “Yes”.

“Ask them why they are voting for it. I bet you none of their arguments will stack up – and you need to take them on.”

This plea for an engaged electorate who not only reflect about how to vote but also argue, discuss and deliberate with each other is an attractive ideal about what we should want from our democracy. Unfortunately for the prime minister, it also means we should prefer AV to First Past The Post.

Theorising about democracy has, in the last two decades or so, engaged in a “deliberative turn”. Many, if not most, of those who think about how best we can fulfil the general democratic ideal of making social decisions responsive to the values and preferences of the electorate, now believe that it can’t simply be about the counting of votes every now and again.

Instead, they argue that a democracy should provide genuine opportunity to deliberate about how we are to be governed.

This ideal has also begun to have influence on actual politics (think of of Ed Miliband’s policy listening exercises); secondly, a corollary of this ideal is the demands it makes on the electorate. We are all called upon not only to come to a view about what we believe, but to think hard about the reasons why we believe it, and outline and provide these reasons in discussion with others. “I’m entitled to my opinion” is no longer a legitimate response.

If one is amenable to this deliberative and reflective ideal of democracy, then it may be put into practise in many possible ways. Some have even argued for a new national holiday, dubbed “deliberation day“. Quite apart from such suggestions for new democratic processes, this ideal of democracy favours AV over FPTP as a voting method.

Firstly, in asking people to rank candidates rather than pick just one, it opens up a space for people to think harder about the issues at hand. To draw on a modish idea doing the rounds in policy circles, it can act as a “nudge” to voters. Essentially, FPTP makes us lazy whilst AV may help to make us more reflective.

Similarly, AV may help to induce better discussions between voters. Instead of the water cooler discussion being simply, “who are you voting for?”Requiring people to provide their ranking makes the discussion more informative and more likely to draw out their reasons for so choosing.

Finally, post-election analysis of the actual results will have more information to draw on. This isn’t just a boon for political geeks, but allows us to be better informed about the reasons why the collective decision of the electorate is as it is. This may open up new fronts in holding MP’s to account in between elections.

You may notice that none of this argues that AV is a silver bullet. Indeed, it strikes me that a problem for the pro-AV campaign is that they’re guilty of over-selling. AV won’t miraculously cure the ills of our democracy, but it may help to improve it. And us.

Addendum: As it turns out, my interpretation of Cameron’s remarks were overly charitable. Apparently he thinks that politics is simply about, “… what you feel in your gut, about the values you hold dear and the beliefs you instinctively have”. I don’t agree with Dave. What a relief.

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