The straw-man referendum: how the AV debate misses the point

Posted on May 3, 2011 by

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As well as local elections, this Thursday 5th is the national referendum on whether to change the voting system for MPs from first past the post (FPTP) to the alternative vote (AV).  However, the campaigns on either side of the debate have been far from honest, and the context of the referendum remains politically murky.   Ian Beckwith investigated the debate for The Blowhole, and isn’t best pleased:

The referendum on AV is now nearly upon us, having been lurking in the corners of news schedules for the best part of a year.  For its supporters AV is what will clean up Westminster by ending jobs for life, safe seats and wasted votes.  For opponents, it is less fair, too expensive and will only complicate politics further than the simple FPTP system.  For most people though, the AV debate has either completely bored them or has led to exasperation at the poor quality of the campaigns.

Half truths, mistruths and downright lies

Questions about the quality of the campaigns started with some fairly loaded adverts from the official teams – the Yes team presenting it as simply a peoples’ movement vs. feckless MPs, the No team with adverts with a soldier and a premature baby threatened with death by budget cuts due to expensive AV.  The claim that AV would cost £250m has been repeatedly shown not to be true (as it contains the cost of the referendum now and assumes new machines will be needed) and it is still doing the rounds, whilst portraying the Yes campaign as purely a popular movement belittles the role of the Lib Dems in the referendum as an attempt to shore up leaking support.  The No team have also been accused of hypocrisy in personally attacking Nick Clegg for implementing cuts in their leaflets, despite being mainly backed by the Tories who drove through those cuts.

The claims kept on coming:  AV will let in extremists, AV won’t let in extremists, it will lead to more coalitions (either for good or bad reasons depending on who you’re talking to), it will make MPs work harder as they’ll have to get over 50% support, MPs won’t actually need 50% so actually they won’t have to work harder, it will lead to  the most broadly supported candidate win, it will let the ‘loser’ win, FPTP lets in MPs with as little as 30% support, only mad Pacific countries use it, people will get more than one vote, it’s simple, it’s too complicated, oh no it isn’t, oh yes it is…

It seems both sides have descended to repeating a series of unsubstantiated claims in an increasingly less civil debate.  What hasn’t been discussed so much though are the actual solid benefits and drawbacks behind AV and FPTP, and why the these are the two systems being offered in this referendum.

AV vs. FPTP

For example, it has been pointed out that AV wouldn’t really effect many safe seats, as many of these already have nearly or above 50% of the vote.  As a result, most of the change would be seen only in more marginal seats, where candidates would have to battle for 2nd preferences and potentially veer towards the centre-ground to appeal to as many voters as possible.  Highly complex but doable tactical voting is also possible (involving making 1st preferences to try and eliminate your party’s biggest opponents to then scoop up 2nd prefs), meaning the yes team’s claim that it will be eliminated isn’t quite right – although it does becomes less likely and difficult under AV.  For many seats though very little will change if AV was used, and your vote could still easily end up wasted or undervalued compared with other seats.

Indeed, the only system that could end safe seats entirely would be a form of proportional representation (PR).  Many supporters of AV are in fact supporters of PR but are campaigning for AV as a stepping stone to PR in the future, like the Electoral Reform society who are campaigning for Yes despite officially being pro-PR.  However, unofficial campaign group NO2AV,YES2PR have suggested that AV is less of a step-forward to PR and more of a sideways or even a backward step, as the flaws of AV will make a return to FPTP more likely than another experiment in a new system.  This suggests that voters should vote more on whether they’d be happy for AV to stay rather than hoping it will be a step to PR.

So is FPTP alright in comparison with the problems of AV then?  Hardly – FPTP has consistently returned results and governments that don’t accurately represent the position of most people in the UK (for example, last year the tories got 57% more of the popular vote than the lib dems but got 439% more seats), it doesn’t actually make it easier to get rid of unpopular governments unlike what the No campaign claims (in the 80s support for Thatcher fell considerably over time but the Tories managed to cling on regardless), tactical voting is rife as  many voters never feel able to vote according to their actual opinions, and some MPs get away with getting through with minority support in their consituiency.  FPTP is clearly unfair to many voters in the UK, and claims that it delivers stronger governments conveniently ignore the fact these governments don’t necessarily have the democratic support to legitimise their strength.

The Jenkins Commission

What hasn’t been mentioned much by either side is these issues have already been considered in depth well before this referendum.  In 1998 an in-depth report into electoral reform was comissioned to objectively look at voting systems and electoral reform, including FPTP and AV.  Contrary to much of the Yes campaign material, the Jenkins Commission found that AV wasn’t particularly more proportional and could actually make elections less proportional in circumstances with big swings involved, and ended up rejected pure AV on this point.

The Jenkins Commission also rejected FPTP as being too unproportional for a decent democracy, whilst STV (Single Transferrable Vote, a form of PR) was rejected for being too complex if maintaining a constituiency link.  Instead it proposed AV+ (also known as top-up AV), which corrected for the flaws of AV by adding extra MPs to the House of Commons through PR.  This meant you still had a link to a local MP, but overall the Commons reflected the national mood much better through the top-up MPs.  This is known as an additional member system, and such a system is already used succesfully in Wales.

Why is just AV on the ballots then?

Despite this authoriative and well-respected commission coming to the conclusion that neither FPTP or AV are up to the job, we now find ourselves with a referendum between only AV and FPTP, with no mention of AV+ or anything else!  So why is this the only choice we have in this referendum?

To understand this, we need to see how bad AV would actually be for the Tories.  A statistical analysis of general elections back to 1979 show many of the benefits of AV claimed by the Yes team to be overstated.  AV only made results slightly more proportional than FPTP, reduced majorities only a bit and so didn’t lead to more coalition situations, didn’t lead to many 2nd place candidates winning or any 3rd place and didn’t help minor or fringe parties much at all.  This ties in well with a study the Political Studies Association as ell as with The Voter Power Index, which reveals that in Southampton Test voter power would increase from 0.153 to 0.202 – an increase of 31%, but considering that an equal vote is meant to be worth 1.00 it’s still not a big improvement.

One could easily suspect that the Tories agreed to a referendum on just AV vs FPTP as they realised if AV did win they wouldn’t lose out too as much as under a truly proportional system, whilst the Lib Dems settled for AV as they had to get something out of the coalition to keep supporters, even if the result wasn’t that much better than FPTP.  AV isn’t much of a threat to the status-quo – and that’s why we’re allowed to vote for it.

What does all this mean then?  It means that we have a choice between a clearly disproportional system that favours two dominant parties, and one that’s only slightly more proportional but with some significant flaws too.  It means that even if there is a yes vote on Thursday, for many voters very little will change, and the same parties will dominate in future.  It means that we haven’t been given a proper choice and democratic voice in this referendum.  And lastly it means that both the campaigns are guilty of serious avoidance of the real issues, and instead have descended to mistruths and insults.

So when it comes to voting day, vote for whichever system you think is better considering the real benefits and drawbacks of each; but remember that the real battle for a more democratic society won’t just be delivered to us on a plate through a referendum or brought about by politicians, but instead will have to be built and fought for from the bottom-up.

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Posted in: Comment, UK