Opinion: Debating AV with the Evening Standard

Last Wednesday saw one of the few debates on the issue of AV that are taking place in the run-up to the referendum. Vince Cable paired up with Ken Livingstone to speak for the Yes side, and for the No position Lord Michael Howard teamed up with Olympic Gold Medallist and prominent Labour supporter Martin Cross (with a very humorous Clive Anderson in the Chair).

After Vince opened the debate with a brief overview of the issue, Lord Howard made a good and impassioned speech. However, there seemed to be a contradiction in what he said which thankfully Clive Anderson picked up on. On the one hand the former Home Secretary had claimed that, under AV, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair would have been given bigger majorities. On the other, he had claimed that AV would lead to more coalition Government, more horse-trading, and less accountability. Howard simply responded by saying ‘AV exaggerates existing trends’.

It was Ken Livingstone who gave the best, most passionate, and most well-reasoned speech of the night. Among other things he talked about the power of the Whips and how, under AV, MPs might (always having to remember where 2nd and 3rd preference votes are going to come from) be more concerned with what voters want than their party leader ‘what hands out the jobs’. He was at pains to stress that by taking power away from the Whips and giving it to the people, AV would make the whole of Westminster more democratically accountable. He also argued that, though research suggests that coalition governments will not necessarily be any more likely under AV than FPTP, coalitions are in many cases better than giving one party all the power anyway.

As for Martin Cross’s contribution, for the life of me I cannot find the argument in what he said. He spoke of the desire on the part of many Yes supporters for PR whilst pointing out the obvious fact that AV is not proportional. Whilst praising the Yes speakers for having such brilliant arguments he implied that AV will not deliver on these promises because it is not PR. But this was totally wrong – both Vince and Ken gave a nod to PR and acknowledged that AV is not proportional, but then gave arguments specific to AV. So either Martin wasn’t listening, just didn’t get it (he actually said, to rapturous laughter, ‘the details aren’t my strong point’ – worrying considering he is a history teacher), or was cynically playing rhetorical games. He also said that some people, mostly ‘older people’ found it hard enough to get to polling stations let alone have to move to a complicated system of ‘numbering candidates’. This was the most ludicrous, and most patronising, argument of the night, and thankfully Clive Anderson called him on it (though not as hard as he could have done thanks to Martin playing on the whole ‘I’m not a politician’ point). In any event, the idea of voting No to AV because you want PR is entirely self-defeating as pointed out recently by Andrew Jones in The Flawed Logic of No to AV, Yes to PR.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • On that last point, Matthew Elliott (campaign director of no2av) is on record saying that a Yes vote will be a step towards PR and a No vote will shut the door on PR for a generation – putting the lie to the flawed logic of the No2AV, Yes2PR camp.

  • Denis Cooper 13th Apr '11 - 6:59pm


    “Electoral Commission statement on Electoral Reform Services Ltd.

    13 Apr 2011

    In response to concerns raised about the role of Electoral Reform Services Ltd in the referendum on the UK Parliamentary voting system the Electoral Commission would like to reassure voters.

    Jenny Watson, Chief Counting Officer at the referendum, said:

    “We have put in place detailed and comprehensive arrangements for monitoring the performance of Counting Officers and their suppliers, and I have no reason to believe that there is any risk to the integrity of the administration of the postal voting process.

    “Suppliers, including Electoral Reform Services Ltd, provide support to many Counting Officers. This is no different from the statutory elections and local referendums which have taken place for many years. As is always the case for elections only staff working for the independent statutory officer – Counting Officers – will handle returned postal votes for the referendum.

    “Any organisation which supplies Counting Officers with ballot papers, postal voting packs or IT support is subject to normal public procurement, contractual and legal confidentiality requirements. There is no suggestion that these have been breached.”

    As the regulator of party and election finance, the Commission does not comment on the financial or other interests of donors.”

  • Old Codger Chris 13th Apr '11 - 9:39pm

    Matthew Elliott is entitled to his opinion. But AV and PR are different animals.

    I haven’t seen anyone criticise the logic of people who favour AV but would oppose PR. So why is it considered illogical that some advocates of PR believe that AV would be as bad as – or worse than – FPTP?

  • “There’s nothing wrong with that position, although I’d like to hear why that is.”

    The “No to AV / Yes to PR bunch” have a pretty informative website, which is a lot more accurate and lucid than anything I have seen from either the Yes or the No campaign. They point out there that according to projections AV would have been less proportional in three out of the last four general elections. And therefore, of course, a worse system, according to the criterion the Lib Dems have been setting forth from time immemorial.

    Before you rush to say that’s just a coincidence, I am currently looking at an animated banner ad on this site, placed by the Yes campaign, telling me I should vote Yes because “AV will hurt the BNP.” What that means is that AV will make it even harder for minority parties NOT of the centre to gain any representation at all, let alone proportional representation.

    I think maybe that’s the worst of all the arguments in favour of AV. It certainly puts a pretty big hole in the “fairer votes” part of the message.

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Apr '11 - 10:02am

    If AV is lost in the referendum, the headlines and commentary will be “the people spoke and the people want NO change to the electoral system”. Nowhere at all will it be put that some voted “No” because they wanted more changes than offered by AV. In a similar way, consider the Scottish and Welsh referendums on devolution. I don’t know if there were significant numbers of extreme nationalists arguing for a “No” vote on the grounds that to do so was to express one’s wish that only full independence was acceptable. But if the “No” side had won the referendums, you can be absolutely sure they would have painted it as “NO change wanted – the people have spoken against even limited change” and it would have been seen as a crushing defeat for those who wanted independence.

    AV is not PR, but it does mean an end to the argument “got to vote for X in order to avoid splitting the vote and letting Y in”, where in most places X and Y are Labour and Conservative or the other way round. It is for his reason that Labour and Conservative have a huge interest in maintaining the FPTP system, and the reality is that this is their underlying argument – “FPTP is good because is FORCES people to vote either Labour or Conservative”. They don’t put it that way, but it is the only logic that is behind their arguments. The logic behind the argument “FPTP means coalitions are rare” comes from two factors. Factor 1) is that it distorts representation in favour of the largest party, factor 2) is that it erects an almost impossible barrier to new parties coming forward and challenging the duopoly because of the “don’t split the vote” factor. PR deals with factor 1) and factor 2), while AV deals only with factor 2).

    If we had a more mathematically astute population, this would be obvious and the FPTP-AV-PR argument would be couched primarily in these terms. But the FPTP people have a vested interest in keeping the campaign based on vague waffle, because then it’s harder to see just how self-serving their vague waffle is, and it hides the underlying mechanics – which i think if out as bluntly as I have put it would find very few supporters in this country.

  • ‘It was Ken Livingstone who gave the best, most passionate, and most well-reasoned speech of the night. Among other things he talked about the power of the Whips and how, under AV, MPs might (always having to remember where 2nd and 3rd preference votes are going to come from) be more concerned with what voters want than their party leader ‘what hands out the jobs’’

    But isn’t that a problem – having to think about people’s second preferences. What should matter is first preference, surely, not second guessing what people with weak preferences might want? If you want to diminish the whips, the answer is term limits, not changing the voting system. Term limits would give some period of freedom from the whips whilst preventing a free-for-all.

  • Old Codger Chris 15th Apr '11 - 3:57pm

    This is getting confusing as I’m not the same person as “Chris” – who probably isn’t an old codger!

    I don’t know whether a Yes vote – or a No vote – next month, will help or hinder the chances of ever getting PR.

    If it’s Yes, the pro-PR lobby will have to explain why they want to return to the electorate asking for more, “Is AV not so great after all?” If it’s No, the anti brigade will hail that as a victory for no change at all.

    Either way, we don’t get referendums very often and it’s a shame to waste one on AV – just holding this referendum may have kicked PR even further into the long grass.

    The May referendum concerns FPTP v AV, nothing more and nothing less. We should all cast our votes accordingly.

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