Opinion: Getting the AV and Lib Dem message right

The ‘No to AV’ campaign is beginning to take shape, and alongside the familiar figures of John Prescott to name but one, some arguments of theirs are also emerging and we have to be firm in rebutting them — especially those which take aim at the Lib Dems. So here we go:

AV will lead to more hung parliaments and coalition governments

Not so. Let’s remember that AV is NOT a proportional system and there is therefore nothing intrinsic to it that spells out more likelihood of minority parliaments. Pundits and experts have assessed likely General Election results under AV and there are varying conclusions, but the campaigning point is that AV will not deliver proportionally representative results. And whether or not we favour more cooperative politics (I certainly do) is not the point either. There are plenty of people out there who will attack on the ‘more-coalitions’ front and we must avoid being hoisted onto a non-existent petard.

What IS making minority parliaments more likely is the way people vote! In the 50’s 95% plus electors voted either Labour or Conservative — this has declined remorselessly and is now down to about 64-65%. It just means that the first past the post system is even less appropriate just now than before. Time for a system which lets the plural, diverse nature of the modern UK electorate speak its true collective voice.

AV is a Lib Dem policy and its adoption will suit the Lib Dems

Again not so, though a tad more caution must be applied here. Yes, an AV referendum was the deal-maker in forming a coalition with the Conservatives (David Laws’ ‘22 Days in May’ fully confirms this), but it is not Lib Dem policy. It is actually a ‘compromise’ policy as Nick Clegg has said — though I’ve omitted his not so complimentary descriptive adjectives! — and only one party (Labour) had an AV referendum in its manifesto. As to benefitting the Lib Dems as a party, that is not so or arguably marginally so at most. Electoral Reform Society estimates that last May, the Lib Dems would have won some 70+ seats under AV. This is of course a speculative assessment; it would have been better than the 57 we actually got, but miles short of the 140 + seats our share of the national vote merited.

AV, while to be supported, is well short of the Single Transferable Vote (STV). Now, that IS Lib Dem policy.

AV is part of the ‘Reduce and Equalise’ constituencies plan

Yes, it currently is and we have to acknowledge the fears of Labour over the move to cut MP numbers to 600 and to make constituencies equally-sized. But AV is AV whether you have 600 or 659 MPs so there is no rationale at all in opposing AV because of the proposed constituency changes. Those — mainly Labour — who support AV but oppose ‘reduce and equalise’ will need to distinguish between the two related but distinct policies. This should become easier once the bill is law and the two policies go different ways — ‘reduce and equalise’ to the Boundaries Commission and AV to the first nationwide referendum of the people for 36 years.

In summary

Supporting AV means not letting the perfect (which to me is STV/PR) be the enemy of the good. AV will all but put an end to the need to vote tactically (a polite word for ‘negatively’); it will mean MPs have to work harder across their whole constituency because they need 50% voter support; it reduces the likelihood of safe seats for life; and it puts more choice and power in the hands of the voter. AV does not greatly advantage the Liberal Democrat party, but it does advantage voter power in the UK.

Keith Sharp is former Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate and Councillor. He is Vice Chair of the Electoral Reform Society

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59 Comments

  • Anthony Aloysius St 29th Nov '10 - 2:06pm

    That really is pretty absurd.

    Clearly the introduction of AV will tend to increase the number of Lib Dem MPs, and thereby make hung parliaments more likely. People aren’t completely stupid. They know perfectly well that the Lib Dems stuck out for AV in May because it would be to their advantage.

    I think it’s a really bad sign that party loyalists are spending so much of their time denying the blindingly obvious these days.

  • “Let’s remember that AV is NOT a proportional system”

    Absolutely! That’s the main reason why Liberal Democrats should vote “no”.

    “AV will all but put an end to the need to vote tactically”

    Terrible news for the Liberal Democrats, because AV creates a lottery that divides the anti-Tory opposition. Under FPTP, Lionel Jospin might have been elected President of France. Under AV (without the need to vote tactically), the left vote fractured, allowing Jean-Marie Le Pen through to the second round.

    “it reduces the likelihood of safe seats for life”

    Exactly the opposite is true, as Jacques Chirac will tell you! Yes, a lot of Tory MPs will be sleeping easier at the thought of AV.

  • Colin Green 29th Nov '10 - 2:24pm

    • Sesenco

    “Let’s remember that AV is NOT a proportional system” “Absolutely! That’s the main reason why Liberal Democrats should vote ‘no’.”

    Come on, that’s silly. It has been discussed endlessly. Because AV is not as big an improvement as we would like, it’s no reason to vote with the Tories in the referendum. AV is fairer than FPTP. Vote yes based on that.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 29th Nov '10 - 2:37pm

    “AV is fairer than FPTP. Vote yes based on that.”

    But actually, it’s not intrinsically fairer than FPTP (in the sense of being more proportional).

    For obvious reasons, it tends to benefit centre parties (or parties perceived as such), but even so, projections show that it would actually be less proportional than FPTP in some circumstances, even in the UK. And if the third party were on the right or the left instead of in the centre, it would actually tend to eliminate the third party and foster a duopoly.

  • AV will all but put an end to the need to vote tacticallyb>

    No it won’t… it will it will change the present voting tactically ‘rules’ so that parties will encourage their supporters to vote for their pre-calculated lists.

  • I can’t, and won’t, vote for AV. Indeed I will be actively campaigning for the No vote.

    Why?

    Any possibility that parties can encourage tactical voting (put us, the Tories first and our partners the Lib Dems as 2nd preference 4eg) makes it undemocratic in my view.

    Matt has it right above.

    If AV is not the right choice for the Country and is some lame compromise – it cannot be supported and should be defeated.

  • Daniel Henry 29th Nov '10 - 3:12pm

    Hey Keith
    Great post.
    You’re quite right that AV won’t increase hung parliaments.
    After all, since Australia introduced AV, they’ve had 2 hung parliaments while we’ve had 4 during the same period.
    When it comes to who benefit, I think we do have to be honest with ourselves that we will benefit more than any other party, but we can remind voters that other smaller parties like the Greens and the UKIP will also be supporting it as they feel the current system artificially reduces their vote and keeps them out of power.

    @ Sesenco
    AV actually PREVENTS the split vote you fear.
    By using their later preferences, AV allows
    Using your French example, under AV the socialist party supporters would have been able to put each other under their higher preferences, ensuring that atleast one of the socialist candidates ended up with the entire socialist vote.

    @ Merlene
    You’re thinking of List PR (like AMS). 🙂
    STV is like AV except there are multiple seats in larger constituencies.
    (This causes a PR results and it actually gives even more choice and power to voters than AV)
    But you’re right – no use pining for a system that’s not on the ballot – “the best” must not become the enemy of “the good.”

    (Although I still hope Lord Alton’s amendment is successful! 😉 )

  • @Sesenco: “Terrible news for the Liberal Democrats, because AV creates a lottery that divides the anti-Tory opposition. Under FPTP, Lionel Jospin might have been elected President of France. Under AV (without the need to vote tactically), the left vote fractured, allowing Jean-Marie Le Pen through to the second round.”

    That’s a flawed argument as nobody’s proposing we adopt that system (ironically, I think it’s my preferred one). The French Presidential election is run under a run-off system, where people vote FPTP, the top two scorers of whom – hmm, SPTP – (assuming nobody got 50%) go through to a second FPTP election.

    Had the French Presidential election been run under AV as proposed here, Lutte Ouvriere, the radical socialist left alternative, the communists, and yes, the NF, would have been in turn eliminated as the lowest individual scorer, their votes redistributed to their second preference (disproportionately Socialist) as the left likely built itself back up, round by round, so the final two candidates would likely have been Socialist vs Conservative.

  • Under AV, losers vote twice and secondary preference votes have the same value as first preference votes, which is unfair. Demanding AV is another crafty ruse by the Liberal Democrats to rig the electoral system, grab the balance of power and exercise influence in government way in excess of of their measley share of the vote. Why, when you only got 23% of the vote at the last election should we have your anti-welfare state, pro banker policies imposed on us? Why should the country give up FPTP just because the Liberal Democrats and all those other fringe parties can’t attract enough support to get elected? In a democracy it’s the majority view that prevails. You appear to have forgotten that. It’s not the voting system that’s the problem — it’s you! If you can’t get elected under FPTP maybe it’s not the system that’s against you — it’s your policies. And we all know what they look like.

  • Adam Bell,

    “You appear to want to turn the referendum into a judgement upon political parties,”

    No, I don’t. I oppose AV because it is not a proportional system. However, it is necessary to point out to fellow Liberal Democrats, who have been conned into believing that AV would benefit the party, that it might be very harmful to our electoral fortunes.

    Tactical voting has the virtue of concentrating minds – voters need to get it right first time. AV, by contrast, encourages voters to vote for the parties they most support, thus fracturing the anti-Tory vote.

    AV will damage the party, but perhaps not disastrously so. Far worse for us will be the reduction in the number of MPs and the redrawing of the boundaries on the basis of arbitrary population criteria. These manouevres could bring us down to 6 or 7 seats (though Cameron may be planning on giving Clegg and Alexander a free run).

  • Greg,

    You haven’t told us where Le Pen’s votes would have gone.

  • Greg,

    I many of the constituencies we hold, we have already got Labour down to less than 10% (in some cases less than 5%). Would any of those hardcore Labour voters really give us second preferences under AV? I don’t think so. In some constituencies, Labour might come second, and the Lib Dem second preferences would be split evenly, giving the Tories an easy win. Why else would Cameron ever allow us to have AV? Think again of Lionel Jospin. Under a non-proportional system there is no room for voting for the party of your choice if another party stands the best chance of beating the Tories. AV encourages voters to think that there might be. Therein lies the deadly danger.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 29th Nov '10 - 3:29pm

    “Politics is not set in stone, and saying ‘clearly’ doesn’t make it so. As Keith rightly points out, what’s making hung parliaments more likely is the collapse in support for the two main parties over the last few decades. This has benefited all smaller parties, including the Lib Dems. But that benefit is conditional on those smaller parties attracting public support …”

    Obviously we’re talking about whether AV would increase the number of Lib Dem seats compared with FPTP other things being equal. In that context the stuff about long-term trends in popularity is a complete red herring.

  • @Colin Green

    Sorry Colin – whereas I see that AV could be seen as potentially reducing the desire of the electorate to tactically vote – you cannot claim that it can prevent tactical voting. I can still use AV to tactically vote.

    You seem to have ignored my example. As the Tories and Lib Dems are already informally and publically discussing the potential of tactical voting using 1st + 2nd preferences to support each other in the next General election – how can you claim that: You no longer have to choose between the candidate you really like and the one you think most likely to defeat someone else.

    You now just need to vote for whichever party in 1st, 2nd or 3rd preference (supported by your 1st choice candidate) to prevent your least favourite party getting in.

    It is undemocratic to allow a system that encourages Parties to discuss who they don’t want you to support.

  • Colin Green,

    “AV collects all the anti-tory votes in the form of 2nd and 3rd preferences and concentrates them into a vote for the most popular of the anti-tory candidates.”

    No, it doesn’t. If the Liberal Democrats come second, then we can expect the majority of third placed Labour votes to transfer to the Liberal Democrat. However, if Labour comes second, it is unlikely that the majority of Liberal Democrat second preferences would transfer to Labour – a 50/50 or 33/33/33 split is more likely. AV puts the opposition party with the larger core vote in second place. Tactical voting puts the party with the greatest chance of beating the Tories in second – and sometimes also in first – place. Can you not see why the Tories are happy to let this happen?

  • Anthony Aloysius St 29th Nov '10 - 4:23pm

    “Tactical voting puts the party with the greatest chance of beating the Tories in second – and sometimes also in first – place. Can you not see why the Tories are happy to let this happen?”

    People can vote tactically against other parties than the Tories, though. In a seat where the Lib Dems are third, I expect people who would otherwise support them will vote tactically on both sides – some to keep the Tories out, and some to keep Labour out.

  • Daniel Henry 29th Nov '10 - 4:24pm

    @ Sesenco
    If you are correct that Liberal voters would be 50/50 between Labour and Conservative, (the last poll I saw showed 80/20 in Labour’s favour – although that was pre-coalition days) then it would simply show that you were wrong about there being an anti-Tory majority.

    If there is an anti-Tory vote, like you originally suggested, then AV won’t split it and FPTP will.

    Also, if we go back to your example with the French socialist parties:
    The first round of the election was under FPTP and saw the socialist parties split the vote between them. Under AV the socialist voters could have put all their top preferences for the socialist parties ensuring that the socialist votes eventually all ended up with one socialist candidate – no more split.

    Under FPTP, the established parties hold a monopoly over the left wing and the right wing. Newer parties have a hard time breaking in due to problems of splitting the vote – it leads to their newer party being ignored in favour of the established party in the form of tactical votes. AV would solve the split vote problem and therefore break this monopoly. This is why both the Greens and UKIP party are in favour of AV.

  • The problem is that AV is so difficult to get passionate about. Also, there are still a number of flaws that make it only marginally better than FPTP – clearly not a game changer.

    On the whole though I am supportive and hope the referendum goes ‘yes’

    Unfortunately, it is clear to me the referendum will go ‘no’. In part this is due to the LD rolling over to the Tories and being so critical of the Labour Government – clearly mistakes (and in my view unforgivable) were made but Clegg seems to have gone out of his way to be particularly critical – forgetting his own support of a large number of their policies (and those he disagreed with them on he has already jettisoned). As well as being very condescending to those on the centre-left.

    These strategic mistakes have played into the hands of the anti-AV wing of the Labour Party and so I imagine there will only be lukewarm support at best. To most voters AV is not that important that it would stop them voting Labour in the future, even if they actively opposed it which they will not.

    The referendum will be lost and 90% of the blame goes to one person. If the polls are showing a ‘no’ now I cannot see a way that they will recover in time seeing that the only party actually actively campaigning for a ‘yes’ will be one that is very unpopular at the moment with a number of its ex-voters even voting against their wishes in order to give them a bloody nose.

  • The problem with voting “no” is that there is no distinction between “No, I want STV” or “No, I want to keep FPTP”. It’ll just be counted as a “no”, and if the no side prevails, then electoral reform is dead forever. If the yes side prevails, electoral reform is delayed at the worst case, hastened at the best.

    Also, @MacK: why, at 35% of the vote, should Labour or the Tories get to impose their policies on us? At that percentage, nearly twice as many people voted for the Government than against it. This is the first government in nearly sixty years to have more people who voted for the government parties than against it. And really, only FPTP can parties have votes swing their way and still lose ten percent of their seats.

  • Daniel Henry,

    “(the last poll I saw showed 80/20 in Labour’s favour – although that was pre-coalition days)”

    Which poll was this? If real, it is certainly very much out of kilter with the long-term run of such polls (going back to the days of the SDP/Liberal Alliance). Indeed, the poll LDV ran last year showed only a small majority favouring Labour over the Tories.

    “then it would simply show that you were wrong about there being an anti-Tory majority.”

    Incorrect. It would show that there was a significant group of voters who were anti-Tory, but more anti-Labour than anti-Tory.

    “Also, if we go back to your example with the French socialist parties:”

    You forget that the French far-left parties are likely to give their second preferences to the Socialists, whereas Liberal Democrat voters are just as likely to give their second preferences to the Tories as they are to Labour.

    Anthony Aloysius St,

    “In a seat where the Lib Dems are third, I expect people who would otherwise support them will vote tactically on both sides – some to keep the Tories out, and some to keep Labour out.”

    That is correct.

  • Leviticus18_23 29th Nov '10 - 5:50pm

    It’s never going to happen.

    Most people think the LibDems have sold them out. Student fees, greener party, control orders, a new kind of politics… All rolled over on for what (Don’t Call Me Dave Anymore) Cameron wants.

    And if Clegg wants electoral reform, most people will vote against it.

    And whenever the next election is called you’ll only need one hand to count the number of Lib Dem MPs.

  • Another objection to AV is that in the context of electoral pacts it has the potential to be subverted and dominated by election rings from allianced parties similar to those operating at rigged auctions. A very worrying prospect.

  • Sesenco wrote:
    ““Let’s remember that AV is NOT a proportional system”

    Absolutely! That’s the main reason why Liberal Democrats should vote “no”.”

    Sesenco, I agree that AV is not an ideal alternative, but wouldn’t you agree that it is an improvement on FPTP? I am certainly convinced of that and will be putting in a day to help the campaign in my area. I hope you will conclude similarly.

  • Emsworthian 29th Nov '10 - 8:33pm

    Behind all the ifs, buts hypotheses and sheer anarackism this subject seems to excite among LD’s is the simple
    questions of will it result in better government? One sign of that is whether AV will encourage bigger turnouts especially among people who have little or no confidence in what passes for democratic politics in this country.
    I’m still waiting for the Yes lobby to convince. 20 more Lib Dem MPs don’t make a revolution.

  • it will mean MPs have to work harder across their whole constituency because they need 50% voter support

    What is more likely is that they will work harder along with their parties at working out the best strategy to ensure that preference voting falls their way – I look forward with disdain to smaller parties in constituencies having unaccountable leverage over the main parties – that’s not democratic, thats not PR and non-one should think otherwise.

  • The only reason for supporting AV – because it’s no more proportional than FPTP – was because it unified the centre-left vote, but now that’s happened, with the mass exodus of centre-left Liberals to Labour, it’s actually the Tory vote that’s split now.

    The average poll has Labour and the Tories tied at 40%, Liberals at 10% and 3% UKIP, 2% SNP/Plaid Cymru, 2% Green, 2% BNP and 1% Other. The remaining Liberal voters, not surprisingly, are of centre-right persuasion, and they split heavily to the Tories (upwards of 80%), so…

    Tory-leaning preferences
    8% Liberals
    3% UKIP
    2% BNP

    Labour-leaning preferences
    2% Liberal
    2% Greens
    2% SNP/Plaid (only applicable in Scottish & Welsh constituencies)

    so it’s actually the anti-Labour vote that’ll be best rewarded by AV. Sod that.

  • @Will
    “why, at 35% of the vote, should Labour or the Tories get to impose their policies on us? At that percentage, nearly twice as many people voted for the Government than against it. This is the first government in nearly sixty years to have more people who voted for the government parties than against it”
    Actually, 23.5% of that majority of yours voted for different policies – hence why the Tory policies being enacted have alienated nearly 60% of the Lib Dem vote.

  • What a sad state of affairs when we have to say that AV will not result in more coalitions. What does that say about the current one!

    If this coalition had not been marred by the lying, spinning and backtracking over the Pledge fiasco then maybe just maybe the vote on AV might have got through. But now the more we say it won’t result in more coalitions the more the public will think it will. We have simply lost the trust of the public.

  • Andrew Wimble 30th Nov '10 - 11:47am

    At the moment the BBC and other media still insinst of refering to AV as a form of Proportional Representation. It looks like there is still a long way to go in getting the message across about what AV actually is, never mind the task of convincing people that it is better than the current system.

  • Amusing.
    Lib Dems actually think they may win with this referendum. After the stunt Lib Dems are pulling in power and yes including especially the tuition fees. They have shown they are untrustworthy with power.
    Vote for a reform so your party can benefit? No thank you. I’m more interested in the Royal wedding that is coming up (and that says alot)

  • Very well said and I agree Matt.
    I will be voting against AV because I do not want more coalitions. This is the first coalition I have witnessed and frankly, I think I preferred it with just one party in control. Very little wriggle room for not honouring manifestos rather than the cop out Clegg is now employing of ‘they didn’t win the majority’.

  • @Meredith

    I absolutely endorse your sentiments and Matt’s. Clegg cynically made a pledge on the assumption that he wouldn’t have to honour it because he assumed that the Lib Dems wouldn’t get enough seats to take power. Now that the Lib Dems are in power they use the excuse that they didn’t win the election in order to justify not honouring the pledge. And Clegg, remember, is the man who told millions on national television that he believed promises should be kept! What is even more outrageous is that these people can’t honour the so called commitments they made in their coalition agreement. They were going to democratise PCTs remember? Not abolish them! Nauseating. Before I witnessed the duplicity of this coalition I had an impression that along with a reformed voting system coalitions might provide certain benefits. Not any longer! I shall be voting yes to First Past the Post.

  • vince thurnell 30th Nov '10 - 4:29pm

    The whole thing is a carve up, with the Lib Dems getting more seats through AV and Labour losing seats because of the reduction of MP’S. I was all for AV and one of the reasons i voted Lib Dem was because of the idea of PR , but both the Tories and the Lib Dems have used this exercise to further their own needs and that to me is morally wrong and hence why i will be voting against AV.

  • @Dane

    But Dane theres a world of difference between 1-2-3 when its PR and AV. Go read AV2011.CO.UK – I don’t agree with every argument they are putting forward (particularly how they see the way forward to true PR) but it’s certainly a good rebuttal of AV over-enthusiasts.

  • @ Dane Clouston

    “What a lot of petty ‘conservative with a small c’ political activist opposition to changing the voting system to 1,2,3,.. instead of X. What are you afraid of? Voters’opinions? Is this a democracy or a political parties benefit system?”

    No, what we don’t are small political parties such as the Liberal Democrats who haven’t a hope in hell of getting sufficient votes to form a government grabbing power through a coalition and disproportionately influencing
    events with only a tiny level of support. Why should parties that command large majorities of the popular vote be held to ransom by the fringe who are political incompetents? Look at the mess your coalition has made so far. You introduce a policy on raising tuition fees to the highest level in the industrialised world (despite pledging you wouldn’t) and haven’t even got the guts to vote for it. You sign a coalition agreement committing to democratising PCTs and then renege on it and abolish them. And Cable had the cheek to describe that colossus, Gordon Brown, as Mr Bean! If you weren’t so dangerously unfit for office you’d simply be laughable.

  • @ Dane Clouston

    I apologise for making the assumption that you are a Lib Dem. Otherwise, I stand by my post.

  • Keith Sharp 1st Dec '10 - 7:09pm

    AV and more hung parliaments and coalitions

    Because it is a non-proportional system, there is nothing intrinsic or innate about AV that leads to more coalitions.

    The key factor driving the likelihood of coalitions is the fall in percentage combined votes for the Conservatives and Labour – from 95% in the 50’s to some 64% in 2010. (It also by the way underscores the fact that there is democratic validity for coalitions, because that is how the national vote collectively pans out.)

    Of course there is a case to be made that AV can lead to more votes for smaller parties, which suggests more coalitions. The Electoral Reform Society’s assessment is that, if AV had been used last May, the Lib Dems would have got 70+ seats – but that’s way, way below what our seats under PR would have been. And I also recall reading after the 1997 election (the Jenkins Commission?), that Blair might have had an even bigger majority under AV than he actually got with the present system. AV has the capability of delivering more, as well as less, disproportionate results than FPTP.

    My point is that the No campaign will likely imply that AV leads to permanent coalitions as surely as a true proportional system. That is not automatically the case and we shouldn’t accept it.

    Should we want AV to be adopted?

    Having spent my adult life campaigning for and supporting PR/STV, I totally sympathise with the view that AV is not a Lib Dem goal/objective. But I also believe that it is a great mistake to therefore campaign and vote against it.

    This is principally (and also principlely!) because the choice is between AV and FPTP. We may regret that, but that is the choice and is more than we have had for zillions of years. And, compared to FPTP, AV gives the voter more choice and power. It is a better system – an evolution rather than a revolution – but a better system.

    — the need to vote tactically/negatively is all but eliminated (yes, I accept it is still possible if you analyse enough, but it is hugely, hugely reduced.) Everyone still has a single vote, but there is a much greater chance of that vote counting.

     MPs have to work across the constituency to achieve overall 50% (just like Ed Miliband in the Labour leadership) support. Some two—thirds of our MPs were elected on less than 50% of votes cast in their constituency in May 2010. That is a travesty and needs to be ended.
     Safe seats for life are made less likely because of the need to keep 50% support rather than a tribalist minority rump.

    And if you put that into the context of the overall package of reforms in the Coalition agreement, then we are incrementally getting to a modern democracy. I am thinking particularly of PR (Open Lists or STV) elections for the House of Lords, fixed term parliaments and even the possibility of local referenda (why not on STV voting systems for local elections, as we already have in Scotland). It will help us towards a less power-centralised small ‘l’ liberal society. I

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