Why I will reluctantly vote no to AV on May 5th

Apr 3, 2011 | Uncategorized

In just under three weeks the country will be offered the chance to vote for a different voting system. There will be many competing views about the respective merits of the current first-past the post (FPTP) system and the proposed Alternative Vote (AV). Yet for cynical political reasons we are being denied the opportunity to vote to a genuinely fair system, – the single transferrable vote (STV). In the absence of an opportunity to fundamentally change our democratic system I will be voting no to AV and will wait for a change that is worth having.

On May 5th I will vote no because the referendum question, dreamt up by Mr.Nick.Clegg, simply limits the issue to a narrow yes or no vote between FPTP or AV – a system which Mr.Clegg has himself described as “a miserable little compromise.”

This treats the electorate as illiterate morons incapable of recognising a political stitch up when they see one. In this referendum STV is the question which dares not speak its name.

Traditionally, the Liberal Party – of which I was Chief Whip – and the Liberal Democrats, wholeheartedly supported STV.  During last May’s General Election, Mr Clegg gave a pledge that in any reform of the voting system his party would support STV.  Sadly, pledges seem to have become a devalued currency in politics. Our politicians should beware of losing authority and respect if they too easily jettison their beliefs and commitments.

A  recent You Gov poll showed that, unlike some of our politicians, the electorate can recognise the difference between a silk purse and a sow’s ear.

Without any public campaign in favour of STV, in a three-way question 19% of those questioned  opted for a change to STV (compared with 16% for AV and 39% who wanted to stick with FPTP). A majority of Conservatives preferred STV to AV and overwhelmingly (43% to 27%) Liberal Democrats preferred STV to AV. The poll also revealed that 6% of people who are at present undecided about AV would support STV and half of those supporting AV prefer STV.

By entirely excluding a question on whether we might move towards a proportional system-which AV, is not-this political deal has missed a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a truly fair, just and representative system. Even worse, from the point of view of those who entered the Coalition Government in the belief that it might usher in a fundamental reform of politics, it has created an alliance among those who oppose the political fix of AV and those who want the status quo.

Caught in that pincer movement, Mr.Clegg is now hoping that on a very low turn out there will be a slim majority for AV. But if the legitimacy of the result is contested we risk an endless, destabilising,  merry-go-round of changes to the voting system.  Is this any way to treat our constitution?

Be clear about AV – something which the 351 words used in the Government’s £6 million advertising campaign to promote AV most certainly isn’t.  It is not a proportional system.

Under AV voters will rank a number of candidates from a list. If a candidate wins more than half of the ‘1st’ votes, a winner is declared. If not, the least popular candidates are eliminated from the contest, and their supporters’ subsequent preferences counted and shared accordingly between the remaining candidates. This process continues until an outright winner is declared. So, someone who came third can end up coming first.

In 1998 the Roy Jenkins headed a Commission which reported to the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair. He stated that AV can be even less proportional than first past the post and that:

“So far from doing much to relieve disproportionality, it is capable of substantially adding to it”.

He said that “there would still be large tracts of the country which would be electoral deserts” and that most seats in the country would remain safe:

“AV on its own is unacceptable because of the danger that in anything like present circumstances it might increase rather than reduce disproportionality”.

By contrast with AV, single transferable votes would give voters a wider choice of different candidates whom they can support within each party. This is a kind of built-in primary allowing elimination of the least popular, not their election.

There is also far more scope under STV to promote candidates from such underrepresented groups as women, ethnic minorities and so on, without quotas. In comparison with STV, AV would still allow parties with minority support to have large majorities in the Commons – not exactly much of a change then.

Unlike proportional list systems (like those used in Israel), which I oppose, STV still keeps a geographical constituency link (albeit larger ones) and has been successfully used in the UK. STV has the advantage that it requires political parties to coexist, as it has done to such historic effect in Northern Ireland.  One of the outcomes of the 2007 Scottish local elections, which used STV, was that nearly three-quarters of voters found themselves represented by their first-choice candidate and they have a choice of representatives to turn to when the need arises. Under STV, there are no safe seats and no no-go areas for any party.

Mr Clegg has reportedly said that he sees AV as a step towards a proportional system. What is the timetable? What would be the system? In political life, you  get some credit for arguing for what you believe in rather than something less.  You never  get to your destination by walking in the opposite direction.

AV is a very complicated and uncommon voting system, used only in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and in Australia, where,  60% of people are reported to want the system scrapped. That does not seem like a compelling case for taking a small step in the wrong direction.

AV would leave many voters without a local representative whom they had supported at the ballot box. Nor would AV do anything to end the relentless focus on a handful of key marginal seats-100 or so-which so distorts British politics.

The political reality is that we are saddled with a proposal which neither coalition partner likes. The Conservatives are largely campaigning against it, and the Liberal Democrats are forced to support it because their leader surrendered STV for ministerial positions.

In this generation, there will be only one opportunity-one chance-to achieve electoral reform, and we have a duty to get it right which is why, with a heavy heart, I will vote no.

Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

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