Ben Dunant understands the Alternative Vote, but precious few can hope for the same

Brain surgery

A month or so ago I was at a society AGM, one of those grave gatherings where people stand up to make awkward speeches before leaving the room so people can vote for their friends. It was implemented under that excruciatingly complex game-changer, Alternative Vote. We were asked to rank the competing candidates, so people put their friends first, their vague acquaintances second, and the people who made good speeches third. It all turned out marvellously. The society ended up with a new committee, made up of members of the society, and democracy was nourished from the wellspring of a progressive voting rigmarole. Like Shakespeare’s Miranda, we were stood on the brink of a brave new world, full of people milling about voting for other people. The view was exquisite.

I have offered up this rare anecdote because it says something important about me. Having taken part in that heady instance of collective empowerment, I was conscripted into an Olympian clique, at a lofty remove from the lumpen citizenry: I was someone who understood the Alternative Vote. I hate to brag about this, and I am loathe to incite jealousy, but I must establish my authority before I proceed further.

I presume that you, the reader, do not understand AV. Why on earth would you? We can’t all attend AGMs for university societies. One would need to sit through hours upon hours of crudely narrated YouTube videos with spinning diagrams and all manner of complex numbered things. There’s even one involving cats (it really has come to this). Failing YouTube, you may have to read a condescending article by a ‘social democrat’ journalist in The Independent, but hopefully you will have stopped trying by that point. There are more important things to vex over, like Kate Middleton’s wedding dress. Was it too tame? I’m still can’t make up my mind; it troubles me still, mostly at night-time. A referendum may settle this.

I first came across AV in my entrance test for Mensa. It came after the rubix cube and the James Joyce close textual analysis. I was presented with indecent photographs of the wives of three successive British prime ministers, and had to rank them according to the criterion of ‘physical attractiveness and general pertness of form’. I wasted little time in ranking Samantha Cameron first – she was almost a crumpet in her turquoise dress on Kate and Wills’ big day – and if this were a First Past the Post affair, that would have been the end of it. But nay, I was stuck with the disheartening task of having to choose between Cherie Blair and Sarah Brown for second place. After scrutinising their nude forms for an agonising twenty minutes, my eyes alert for any latent trace of ‘pertness’, I tore up my test paper and stormed out of Mensa’s underground headquarters, loudly declaring to the surrounding geniuses that I didn’t want to be part their smug organisation anyway.

But all that was before I attended that society AGM. Since then, Mensa have been beating at my door daily, praying for me to become their Archbishop. Yet, not all can hope to be as fortunate as I. The Alternative Vote remains fundamentally inaccessible to the men and women on the street, who may never have elected a Treasurer or Social Rep in their lives. Therefore, the country truly made the right decision on Thursday in saying no to AV. In choosing to stick with the familiar, cosy institution of First Past the Post, they have chosen to keep elections within the limited orb of their understanding, from which politics escapes at its peril.

The political class must never put forward such an absurd idea again.


Ben Dunant