Chris Rennard writes… Why David Owen is wrong on the AV referendum

David Owen chose the weekend of the Lib Dem Conference to offer his advice for the AV referendum. Having attacked the ‘First Past the Post’ voting system so vociferously for many years, it may seem odd to some people that he now urges support for this system on May 5th. He says that he hopes for a referendum with an option of a Proportional Representation system instead.

Almost all those people who have consistently supported the cause of electoral reform for much longer than he has take a different view. It is very clear that voting against change on May 5th will mean sticking with the present voting system for the foreseeable future. It is incredibly hard to overcome the self-interested nature of most sitting MPs in order to get a change in voting system. The referendum on May 5th will be the first chance that voters will have had to change the system since it was effectively introduced in 1872 in wholly different political circumstances to those of today.

A change to the Alternative Vote system was recommended by a Royal Commission as far back as 1910. It was recognised 101 years ago that First Past the Post doesn’t work when you have more than two political parties. A “no” vote in the referendum will leave us with the voting system that was appropriate for the nineteenth century not the twenty-first.

David Owen was simply being disingenuous when he followed the line of opponents of electoral reform and suggested that votes for a party that comes second or third will have “more weight” than votes for a party that comes first. The whole point of the reform is that every vote will be of equal value and people will not have to fear “wasting” their votes on candidates who may not win. He even repeated lines saying that that more power may go to extremists with AV when the reverse is true. He fails to explain why the BNP urge their supporters to vote ‘no’.

Lord Owen further argued that AV was rejected by enquiries. AV was in fact a part (but only a part) of the recommended system proposed by the Jenkins Commission in 1998. It is of course widely used by political parties including all those supported by David Owen over the last 30 years when they are choosing a single person. There are a number of completely bogus arguments against AV now being made by those who are determined to hang on to “First Past the Post” for choosing MPs. At the same time, there appear to be no coherent arguments emanating from the same sources to defend First Past the Post.

We hear claims from others in the ‘no’ camp that AV is “un-British”. One problem with this claim is that the system is used to vote for leaders and candidates in the British Conservative Party (as well as almost all other British political parties) and other organisations representing 14 million people in Britain. I am waiting to hear David Cameron declare his own party to be “un-British” because it used AV to choose him as Leader.

The most absurd claims from the ‘no’ campaign are that “it would cost too much to count the votes if we used AV”. This claim is probably worthy of many dictators. They could say that their country can only afford to count the votes for the governing party and there wasn’t enough money to count the votes for opposing parties. The argument is a disgrace.

Lord Owen does not have an alternative strategy to deliver proportional representation. He led his closest followers in to a political cul de sac when as SDP Leader he failed to respect the referendum of SDP members on their future. I wrote about his “spoiling” tactics when he didn’t get his way in that referendum on the future of his party, I doubt if he will have many followers on this issue.

Lord Rennard is a Liberal Democrat peer, speaks for the party on constitutional reform issues and was a speaker at the “Yes to Fairer Votes” meeting at this weekend’s Lib Dem Conference.

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  • Well AV would have been very useful during the existence of the SDP – fewer problems over seat negotiations – more SDP MPs, Rosie Barnes and John Cartwright would have been re-elected in 1992.

    In fact it is hard to conclude anything other than David Owen being perverse on this issue. How many others in the NO campaign support proportional representation ? Very few. How many have moaned that under AV the election result might be “less proportional” – almost all of them.

    Only in one sense would a NO vote be good – it will kill AV for ever, but it won’t shut the door on arguments for proportional representation.

    First past the post doesn’t “work” with two parties – it’s just as useless. In most seats the same party wins election after election based not on how people vote but where they live. So absurdly, the Lib Dems have an MP for the Orkneys and Shetlands on the basis of a couple of thousand votes – but none in vast swathes of the country despite getting millions of votes – it’s absurd and obscene.

    FPTP is of course the system favoured by Robert Mugabe.

  • @ Jedibeeftrix

    “where the system itself encourages radical policy rather than radical ideology”

    Not sure that that makes any sense whatsoever.

    Dr Death should stick to his vampire movies, or whatever he’s doing nowadays.

  • paul barker 14th Mar '11 - 3:08pm

    Surely “Dr Death” should now be “Lord Death” ?

  • Christine Headley 14th Mar '11 - 4:04pm


    ‘@ RC – “Not sure that that makes any sense whatsoever.”
    It makes perfect sense.
    “AV in Britain would on average be likely to lead to more Lib-Dem MP’s at the expense of Con and Lib-Dem MP’s.’

    You claim this makes sense?

  • Peoples Popular Social Democratic Front Party? Splitters …

  • Stuart Mitchell 14th Mar '11 - 6:29pm

    “Lord Owen further argued that AV was rejected by enquiries. AV was in fact a part (but only a part) of the recommended system proposed by the Jenkins Commission in 1998.”

    Good grief. Similarity of names aside, AV is no more a part of AV+ than FPTP is a part of AV. They are two distinct systems. Poor Roy must be spinning in his grave at the suggestion that his commission somehow endorsed AV!!

    “[AV] is used to vote for leaders… [of] organisations representing 14 million people in Britain. I am waiting to hear David Cameron declare his own party to be ‘un-British’ because it used AV to choose him as Leader.”

    That is a terrible point. All elections are different in nature and just because a particular system is appropriate for one that doesn’t mean it’s right for another. Just ask Katie Ghose the next time you see her – the ERS has argued persuasively for years that AV is fine for leadership elections of the sort you refer to, but “unsuitable” for Parliamentary elections.

    Owen maks some killer points in his article, such as: If you have a situation where, say, the BNP comes fourth (and last), then the BNP voters’ second preferences come in to play and could very possibly decide the election – regardless of the second preferences of other voters, which may be ignored simply because their favoured candidate did not come last. Support the bottom party and you basically have a “super-vote” which has properties that other voters’ votes do not.

  • I was wavering on this issue, but Lord Owen has swayed it for me and I will now be voting “No”. He was right on the Euro in the late 1990s, and his thankfully successful campaign to keep us out is something that we are now all grateful for.

    My feeling is that his intervention on the “No” side will be as decisive in this campaign. Rennard says he doubts if Owen will have many followers on this issue. Rennard is wrong. Since Owen’s intervention the polls and betting markets have moved from a dead heat or “Yes” slightly ahead to a clear lead for “No”.

    There will be no AV. Have fun blaming Owen after the event, having before the event claimed he would have no effect.

  • Stuart Mitchell – “Killer points”? Owen is merely reciting some of the lamest arguments of the No2AV campaign.

    The idea that under some votes are “super votes” and have more value than other votes has been debunked in a recent Ipsos-Mori report and by the US Courts as long ago as 1975. Just because under AV some voters may choose to use more of their preferences than other voters does not make the voting system unfair. If someone wants to vote for the Natural Law Party and express no other preferences (thereby wasting their vote), then that is their choice. Or indeed if someone chose to spoil their ballot paper. AV gives you the choice to influence the result even if your no-hoper candidate gets eliminated. It’s up to the voter how they exercise that choice.

    AV (or Instant-Runoff-Voting, as it is known in the US) is essentially a number of rounds rolled into one voting process. The voters of the leading candidates get their vote counted again in every round, in exactly the same way as the transferred votes of voters whose preferred candidates have been eliminated.

    As for the argument that BNP supporters can influence the result under AV – they can already do this under FPTP by voting tactically! In any case, BNP supporters generally hate the establishment so it seems unlikely that many of them would express second or third preferences for mainstream parties. At the end of the day, racists are allowed to vote – you can argue to prevent them from doing so if you like, but that is a different argument.

    Surely the real issue is not whether BNP voters can influence the result but whether the BNP is more or less likely to be elected under AV. The answer is that the BNP has a much better chance under FPTP, where it can squeak in with as little as 20% of the vote (indeed it has managed to gain 100 councillors under FPTP). AV, under which the winner generally requires the voters’ broad support, is anathema to the BNP. Which is precisely why the BNP is urging its supporters to vote against AV.

    It is perhaps unsurprising that the only parties whose leaderships are against AV are the Conservative company, the BNP and the Communist Party. The Tories (and some tribal Labour dinosaurs) hate AV because they fear they would never be able to govern again on one third of the vote. The BNP and the Communists hate it because of their inability to appeal to more than a small band of supporters.

    The most baffling aspect of Owen’s article is that he attacks the preferential nature of AV even though he supports STV (which is AV in multi-member constituencies). The bogus argument about some votes having greater value than others could be levelled at AV (or indeed AV+) in much the same way.

  • Owen is an utter eras and it is amazing that Chris gives him any publicity at all.

    Surely there should be a generic article on. …” Why David Owen is wrong about (insert any subject you can think of)?”

  • Old Codger Chris 15th Mar '11 - 6:48pm

    Although I’m not usually a fan of David Owen it’s foolish to ignore his reasoned arguments on this. It’s worth looking at his website (not sure if this link will work but here’s what to type!)

    Owen’s arguments are free of the No2AV campaign’s nonsense about huge cost, and how wonderful FPTP is.

    Other posts have mentioned that the Jenkins Commission rejected AV without proportional top-up. Here’s an excerpt from Jenkins’s findings – The second or subsequent preferences of a losing candidate…….are seen by some as carrying less value than first preference votes, or indeed the second preferences of the most powerful candidates.

    And here’s another – In some circumstances……. it (AV) is even less proportional than FPTP.

    Owen and others argued in the Lords that the referendum should contain a third option – PR. If the Lib Dems were unable to get this concession in the coalition agreement they should have accepted defeat on electoral reform for this Parliament on condition that some of the harshest economic proposals were dropped. A temporary u-turn on electoral reform would have been more defensible that the HE fees u-turn, and much less damaging to the Party’s credibility.

  • Leekliberal 15th Mar '11 - 7:20pm

    David Owen re-heated once again as ‘Dr Death’
    Does anything he says come as a surprise?

  • Stuart Mitchell 15th Mar '11 - 7:56pm

    ” The most baffling aspect of Owen’s article is that he attacks the preferential nature of AV even though he supports STV”

    There’s nothing baffling about it. AV and STV are chalk and cheese. It is perfectly coherent for somebody to like STV but dislike AV – in fact this was the ERS’ position for many years, and probably still would be if we were to inject them with truth drugs.

    Owen has consistently campaigned for PR, and AV is not PR so why shouldn’t he reject it? The only people being inconsistent here are those who have been telling us for years that “fairness” is all about proportionality – but are now trying to fob us off with something that is potentially LESS proportional than FPTP.

    “The bogus argument about some votes having greater value than others”

    It’s a very powerful argument, especially in a two-versus-one system such as the one that we have (and it would be exactly the same if the Lib Dems and Labour ever formed a coalition). Supporters of the two-party block get to vote for both parties, while opponents only get to vote for one. It would be a diminishment of our democracy.

    We KNOW that AV is rubbish because most of the people campaigning for it have told us so in the not-so-distant past. In fact there’s a strangely unreal quality about the whole Yes campaign; they’re like a debating society team advocating a position they don’t actually believe in. The only thing that matters is to win.

    Incidentally I actually e-mailed Yes to Fairer Votes to ask them why they are still trotting out that “50%” factoid they are so fond of. To their credit they have bothered to reply, but they have laughably tried to justify it by saying that it only applies to the final round of counting. (As I have pointed out before, what sort of voting system DOESN’T guarantee at least 50% support for the winner of a two-horse race??) I’ll email them back and try to get some more sense out of them.

  • John Fraser 15th Mar '11 - 7:56pm

    @ Chris It is very clear that voting against change on May 5th will mean sticking with the present voting system for the foreseeable future.
    I dont like first past the post Chris but I dont much like AV either . This arument of lose a vote on one thing and you’ll never get a vote on something else is being used time and again. No one ever seems to jsutify this statement why do you think its so clear ???

  • Stuart Mitchell 15th Mar '11 - 8:00pm

    Anthony: “No candidate could be elected by as few as one-third of the votes, as some are now”

    Yes they *could*. If a third of votes are eliminated before the final round of counting (because the voters express a preference for neither of the top two candidates) then it will be possible to win with a third of the vote.

    Don’t get me wrong – AV will inevitably produce winners with a greater level of “support” (though of what kind is debatable) than FPTP. I just wish you Yes folks would be satisfied with saying *that* rather than asserting these mathematical certainties that are simply not true.

  • Old Codger Chris 15th Mar '11 - 8:18pm

    @Dane Clouston
    “There is a great deal to be said for a system which is broadly but not fully proportional”.

    I agree. So why support AV which is not even broadly proportional and, in some circumstances, is even less proportional than FPTP?

  • floatingvoter 16th Mar '11 - 1:05am

    Having supported PR and AV I am now firmly agaist it if coalition governments are the future. The current situation looks shambolic and the leaders ill prepared for the roles they try to fulfil. Nobody but Nick Clegg and his ministers, will deny that it has sentenced our party to political exile for the foreseeable future.

  • Just take a look at those reactionaries and political dinosaurs lined up up against reform – that should be enough to convince radicals and reformers to vote for AV as the first move towards proportional representation; which of course conservatives with a small ‘c’ in both Labour and Conservative parties really hate because it puts people in the driving seat instead of MPs in safe seats and and the establishment. It’s sickening to see Labour MPs lined up with the Tory Party to block reform that will really return power to ordinary people mainly in order to keep them in their seats.
    Don’t you hate it during elections when the media focus on, for example, Bolton West saying these are the people who really count in elections – let’s vote for a system that will ensure we all count and it’s actually worth most people going out to vote instead of now when for most people its just a waste of time cause they and their vote don’t count!

  • Old Codger Chris 16th Mar '11 - 11:17am

    @David Orr
    Finding myself on the opposite side of an argument to some people I admire – and on the same side as some people I don’t – doesn’t worry me. I like to look at both sides of a debate and make up my own mind. Anything else is like saying that we should never vote for a Catholic because some priests are wrong’uns, or for an atheist because of Stalin.

    Most votes will always be wasted in any non-proportional electoral system unless there’s a return to two huge parties winning everything, which (fortunately) is unlikely.

  • when will he EVER go away?

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