NEW POLL: should the Lib Dems support AV?

For a brief moment last night, it sounded as if the Prime Minister was at last going to seize the reform agenda, and perhaps even promise a referendum on voting reform. The reality is, as so often with Labour, more disappointing than that:

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said he has “no plans” for a referendum on changes to the electoral system before the next general election. … he told prime minister’s questions he had “never supported proportional representation for Westminster elections” and ruled out a referendum.

Labour’s brief flirtation with electoral reform appears to have centred around adopting the Alternative Vote, a non-proportional system of preferential voting which retains MPs’ constituency links while ensuring all elected MPs have the support of more than 50% of their voters. The Lib Dems, of course, favour the single transferable vote (STV) in multi-member constituencies, the purest form of proportional voting which ensures elected representation in accordance with the preference of voters.

Now to start debating the system of PR before the principle of PR is actually on the table is all a little bit arse-about-face. Before we know it the People’s Front of AV+ will be at the throats of the People’s Front of STV (“Splitters!”), while the united forces of First-Past-the-Post gaze on with amusement from the sidelines.

This is one reason why (as James Graham has pointed out) the Electoral Reform Society’s Referendum 2010 campaign and Unlock Democracy’s Citizens’ Convention campaign have both called for voters – rather than the politicians – to be given the power to decide what should happen next with our electoral system.

But, still, this morning’s mini-debate about the pros and cons of the Alternative Vote showed there is no settled opinion within the Lib Dems to the invidious – but perhaps one day inevitable – question, “Should Lib Dems back AV if it’s the only option for voting reform?” As Jonathan Calder noted on his Liberal England blog, the party declined even to debate the issue on BBC2’s The Daily Politics.

Two noted Lib Dem bloggers have this morning put forward their own arguments for the party accepting and rejecting the Alternative Vote. First, here’s James Oates on his Cicero’s Songs blog arguing against supporting AV or any of its variants:

Despite the temptation of our own sectional party interest probably being boosted by adopting AV+, the Liberal Democrats must resist that temptation. A half baked reform is worse than no reform at all. We must take our case to the wider country- which is only now beginning to see how “safe seats” and embedded party interest has corrupted MPs and destroyed the power of the House of Commons to the benefit of the office of Prime Minister.

If we are to be true to our principles and our country we must tell Gordon Brown that he has no mandate for reform, and that the only way that he can get one is to go to the country. During that election the Liberal Democrats can put forward their more thought-out and integrated programme for reform against the gimmickry of the Conservatives and the self interest of Labour.

And here’s Joe Otten on his Extra Bold blog arguing that AV would be brilliant:

Not so brilliant for the Lib Dems, but good for democracy. Not as good as STV of course, but let’s face it, what is? First Past the Post is the cornerstone of the brokenness of our politics. It has the power to subvert all your campaigning efforts for a good cause, making that cause weaker instead of stronger. …

AV fixes all this. It lets you stand and campaign for what you believe in without damaging the causes you support. It lets you vote for what you believe in without having to second guess what the result will be and support the lesser evil. Sure, it’s not proportional. That stinks. But proportionality is not the only important feature of an electoral system. If it were we would support list systems rather than STV. And this is the worst time of all to hold a referendum on a proportional system, when the BNP have just won seats.

And now to turn the question over to you, LDV’s readers – “Should Lib Dems back the Alternative Vote in a referendum if it’s the only option for voting reform?” Here are your options:

  • Yes, it’s better than first-past-the-post
  • No, we should hold out for a truly proportional system
  • No, we should stick with first-past-the-post
  • Other [please state in comments]
  • Over to you…

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    36 Comments

    • Chris Keating 10th Jun '09 - 2:27pm

      Are you asking about AV on its own or AV+?

      There is a world of difference between the two.

    • Andrew Suffield 10th Jun '09 - 3:20pm

      “the purest form of proportional voting”? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. STV’s decent but it’s far from perfect – it doesn’t give full proportionality and it’s not a Condorcet method. STV is popular because it’s very easy to understand, not because it gives ideal results.

      IRV (also called AV) is junk. It benefits the biggest party at the expense of the smaller ones, since the minority votes get redistributed to the big parties. It’s likely to give the Tories a majority at the expense of the BNP. This is *not* a good thing for Lib Dem, since our ideal would be to distribute the seats more among the smaller parties. AV+ would be marginally beneficial because we’d scoop up more seats on the proportional bit – AV is only good for Labour and the Tories.

    • Martin Land 10th Jun '09 - 3:21pm

      Look, it’s not going to happen, so don’t waste time discussing it. Go for the french system; much more fun!

    • Roy Soulsby 10th Jun '09 - 3:40pm

      I’m a bit naive about AV, AV+ etc, but wouldn’t it be better to go for AV if that’s the only option? Surely that way we’d get a foot in the door of fairer representation and we could then go on to seek a better (fairer?) system after that. Don’t we need a ‘proportional’ number of MPs in order to be able to effect real change?

    • Mark: You are thinking this through wrong. Brown isn’t looking to introduce it before an election, so hes not looking to introducing a new system to save him- he is looking at trying to appear as a “reformer” to win votes. While having a system that would still allow labour majority governments to easily be formed in the future.

      AV is a bad system. Our party is often proportional- all the evidence shows AV is often worse that FPTP for that. We should stand against it. Win or lose, if there is a referendum on AV with Lib Dem support, no major party will discuss electoral reform again for a generation.

    • Surely the thing to remember for those who believe that AV will provide more proportional or fairer representation is that AV wont at all, in fact it could in some scenarios make disproportionalities even worse. AV’s only benefit is that being majoritarian in nature it adds legitimacy to governments and candidates who need a majority of votes to get elected either at the first round of counting or once preference transfers have taken place(although it can revert in all reality back to the first past the post system should no candidates get 50% even with transfers at any stage of the count with weaker candidates eliminated leading sometimes to the winner just needing a simple plurality).

      AV+ on the other hand ( which I suspect some are getting confused with AV) via the top up element does offer some proportionality albeit limited to the extent it could be almost negligible depending on the amount of top-up seats elected.

      I see little benefit for the LibDems in accepting AV, AV+ verges on being palatable and perhaps would be a better and more realistic compromise than pushing for STV knowing that should a referendum ever occur (which is unlikely in Brown’s remaining months and would never happen under Cameron)it would be so tightly managed by the labour and tory dinosaurs against PR that AV+ may have more chance in getting onto a ballot paper.

      In sum, we should push for STV and make the case much better than previous half hearted efforts by Lib Dem leaders whilst having the political acumen to accept AV+ as a compromise, not AV.

    • Another Mark 10th Jun '09 - 4:46pm

      Every time I watch the TV I get more and more annoyed.

      First we have Danny Alexander refusing to mention the term “STV”.

      Next have Andrew Marr saying that any discussions of different electoral systems will make the viewers switch off, and the Lib Dems refuse to even go on the programme.

      Then the BBC confuses AV with the systen used to elect the London Mayor.

      Then we have Ian Dale on the BBC implying that only FPTP retains the constituency link, and that “FPTP isn’t perfect, but nobody has come up with a better system”, without being challenged at all on that outrageous statement!

      If the media are going to items on electoral reform, why don’t they at least bother to inform themselves of what the arguments are?

      I’m so fed up with this backward country.

    • STV not an option on the poll so I voted “Other”

    • John Minard 10th Jun '09 - 7:06pm

      STV, STV, STV!

      larger multi-member constituencies. Most people live sub-regional lives and would appreciate the chance to have an MP to of their own persuasion to contact.

      and most importantly, power over the party machine without primaries.

      ONLY STV gives proportionality and power to the people. AV is not acceptable, it will only end up corralling voters into two party politics.

      Talk about turkeys voting for Christmas!

    • Roger Shade 10th Jun '09 - 7:18pm

      I understand all the arguments for the purity of STV, the proportionality of AV+ but for goodness sake let us have change from the discredited FPTP. If voting to have a referendum on changing our system for choosing our MPs recommending AV is all we can have then embrace it.

    • “Not because it’s proportional (is is only approximately so), but because it’s the only system that has been used in real national elections that GIVES THE VOTER REAL CHOICE.”

      That’s not the case – open lists, such as in Finland or Sweden, allow the voter to order the party “list” in whatever order they choose (yes, the word ‘list’ looks evil, but when they’re open it just means ‘approved candidate’, such as we would have with STV)

      I have to admit, I’m not particularly sold on the merits of STV (or, for that matter just about any TLA voting system – my eyes glaze when enthusiasts start) – but am vaguely sold on the simplicity of FPTP runoff elections, such as in France, where the people have a cooloff period between the two rounds, allowing them to decide, for example based on how many constituencies were won outright, what size majority/minority they want to give parties (which AV would deny, being instant runoff).

    • If Lib Dems will support AV or AV+, I wish that they would make absolutely clear that they would prefer STV, and are supporting AV(+) only as a transitional stage to STV and a lesser evil compared to the FPTP.

    • Martin Land 10th Jun '09 - 9:51pm

      If only I could write and article that covered ID Cards, Trident and PR, the whole site would collapse in terminal overload.

    • All the technocrats and political-bubble insiders who have commented here are wrong, by definition.

      The PUBLIC must decide. Fortunately “Unlock Democracy” have realised that.

      There are big technical flaws with AV+.

      There are big technical flaws with STV.

      There are massive democratic flaws with FPTP, and with AV.

      At the moment, it is only the voting-system nerds (like me) who have really tried to get to grips with these issues. Most of us have plumped for a nerd-favourite system. Most of us are therefore wrong.

      The world should NOT be ruled by nerds!

      We should convene a citizens’ “grand jury”, and we should educate the (large) jury in much the same way as the criminal courts inform their juries. Then, when the jury has understood the merits and problems of all the systems, they should decide what it is that actually matters to them, and hence, what system they recommend that we should use.

      (And if they pick FPTP, because it is decisive and gives the smack of firm government, then we should all roll over and accept that. But I bet they won’t!)

    • Unfortunately there’s no “I’d rather have AV than STV” option.

      I feel that preferential voting is more important than proportional representation, and having single-member constituencies is important for our system of Government.

      I’d probably rather have STV than FPTP, but theoretical musings about proportionality don’t sway me as much as knowing that I have one and only one representative in Parliament.

    • Labour have ten months left in office. That is nowhere near enough time to pass a bill of this significance in circumstances where:
      i) It isn’t even drafted
      ii) For which no Parliamentary time has been allocated.
      iii) Which has no Prime Minsterial support

    • We should not be compromising on this issue. Our leadership, as I stated in a letter to Nick Clegg, should stick to its guns on STV and campaign to influence the public of its benefits.

      The time is right for a public debate and we should be leading it. Certainly from knocking on doors during the last set of elections, people were responsive to the idea that their vote could be worth more under a different voting system.

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