As the referendum campaign draws to a close, Matthew Elliot, Campaign Director of NO to AV, makes the case for voting No on Thursday, stating that it is not fairer or more proportional than the present system, won’t necessarily make MPs work harder, and won’t make a move to PR more likely in the future.
After a nearly year of campaigning for the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum, we are now down the final days. The No campaign has held countless debates up and down the country, and throughout I have been struck by the fact the more people learn about AV, the less they like it. AV simply doesn’t live up to its advocates’ promises and introduces serious new problems to the UK’s democracy.
Despite the Yes campaign’s claims: AV isn’t fairer. It’s not more proportional — if that is a barometer of fairness — and creates systematic inequality. Under AV, some people get to express a wider range of preferences than others. The semantic debate as to whether some people get more votes counted than others (or, as the Yes campaign claim, it’s just that some people get one vote counted over and over again) obscures the underlying issue: Why should some people get their second preference (or third, fourth, etc.) counted while others only get their first preference counted? And why should those latter preferences be given equal weight to the — presumably more strongly held — first preferences of other voters?
The Yes campaign’s 50 per cent myth has already been comprehensively demolished by elections experts Rallings and Thrasher, directors of the University of Plymouth’s Elections Centre (see here). In their words, under AV ‘more than four out of ten’ MPs would still not get to the totemic 50 per cent threshold. That’s why the Electoral Commission’s impartial referendum booklet states: ‘Because voters don’t have to rank all of the candidates, an election can be won under the ‘alternative vote’ system with less than half the total votes cast.’ Even more fundamentally, the Yes campaign’s claims depend on the fallacy that you can artificially manufacture majority support by cobbling together a mish-mash of 3rd, 5th and 7th preferences.
Nor would AV magically ‘make MPs work harder’. The Yes campaign’s tortured logic — a crude bid for the anti-politics vote — seems to be that MPs will be forced to ‘work harder’ because AV will make more seats competitive. But that’s simply not true: AV can only affect the result in already competitive seats, and won’t have any effect in the over 200 seats where the MP gets over 50 per cent of the vote. Even the Yes campaign-supporting New Economics Foundation could only muster an extraordinarily minor 3 per cent estimated increase in turnover of seats.
Of course, many AV supporters only see the system as means of moving toward Proportional Representation. But this just seems like wishful thinking: Changing to AV now won’t make PR more likely in the future, because the main objections to PR would be unchanged: loss of a constituency link (under STV); risk of BNP representation; etc. Supporters of PR would be gravely mistaken to back AV, because we would be stuck with a worse system — capable of yielding grossly distorted landslides — and no reasonable expectation of moving to PR.
In fact, AV manages to combine the harms of PR — making hung parliaments more likely — without the benefit of broader representation. In every election since 1983, the Liberal Democrats would have won anywhere from a dozen to 38 more seats, making hung parliaments more common. It’s notable that in Australia, AV has led to a permanent coalition amongst centre-right parties, and if it weren’t for this coalition roughly half the post-war elections would have yielded a hung parliament.
The Yes campaign likes to present a teleological argument for AV, casting it as the natural next step of electoral reform after the fragmentation of support for Labour and the Conservatives. But that’s an argument for PR, not AV. Although they might get more votes, AV would make it harder for small parties to win seats — not a single Plaid Cymru, Scottish Nationalist or Green MP won with over 50 per cent. And in Australia, there have only been two MPs elected from smaller parties at a general election since the second world war. Given that votes are merely a means to an end — electing representatives — this isn’t improvement.
Nick Clegg’s description of AV as a ‘miserable little compromise’ was prescient, although another reasonable description would be ‘obscure’ and ‘expensive’ would also be appropriate. No voting system is perfect, but AV is a dramatic step backward from our current system, and that’s why I’m encouraging people to vote No on 5 May.
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