Opinion: Lib Dems should abstain or campaign for “No” on AV referendum

I’m passionate about PR. But when it comes to PR AV is, at best, a red herring.

Be very clear, AV is not one jot more proportionate than what we have now. It is a system of first Past the Post pure and simple. It does have other positive characteristics (although personally I think both our current FPTP and AV are systems I’d score at 0 out of 10) but it is not one iota more proportionate than the system we have now.

Some people have said that it is likely that AV will produce more proportionate outcomes. I think there are four things to bear in mind here:

  1. If this is the case it is only by statistical happenstance, there is nothing inherent to the AV system to make it fairer.
  2. Most reasoned studies – like the ERS one – only talk about a minute improvement of 1 or 2% at the margins, not the sea change that true PR would bring.
  3. These studies are based on hypothetical questions about previous elections, as we learnt to our cost in the run up to the last election people are far more willing to vote for the Lib Dems or other minor parties that FPTP under-represents in hypothetical questions than they are in real elections. We basically have no idea how people would behave in an actual AV election and there’s no guarantee that a real election would produce a better result for under-represented parties at all.
  4. Indeed I actually think AV could lead to an even less proportionate result than the current system. The elections we do have under AV – the Mayor of London election – have actually been even worse for the under-represented parties than standard FPTP. This makes sense, it’s the “oh well I’ll just give them a (useless) second preference” phenomenon. In other words AV takes away smaller parties’ ability to gain tactical votes from supporters of the big two – but unlike PR it does not replace it with a system in which they can fairly compete. AV is fundamentally a system for choosing between the two largest groups, it totally squeezes out smaller parties – leaving them unable to compete either tactically or on the level.

But I fear AV is worse than an irrelevance and a red herring. If you look at the history of major electoral reform in this country – 1832, 1884, 1918-28 – you can see that we only get to massively change the way people vote every 60 or 70 years. That makes sense, you don’t go completely changing a system every day. Voting systems change even more rarely – New Zealand is the only country I can think of that has changed from one form of voting system to another. If we change our electoral system we won’t be changing it again any time soon – it’s not just that some misguided reformers will take AV as a sop, it’s that there is not the political will to massively change a system twice. People won’t stand for two back to back referendums and people won’t stand for completely changing a system and then completely changing it again.

There is a huge hunger for electoral reform; FPTP has had its chips. Opposition to FPTP can take one of two forms: it can channel itself into principled abstention or meaningful opposition to the iniquitous irrelevance that is AV whist keeping the demand for PR live and refusing to be sated. I think that road leads inevitably to a referendum on PR, maybe in two parliaments, maybe in three, but soon. Or the movement can be channelled into changing our voting system to a system which isn’t a jot better and which no one wanted or asked for. That road leads to a further 60 or 70 year delay to the process of electoral reform as public appetite for major constitutional change dissipates and we limp on with FPTP under the cloak of its new irrelevant AV tweaking.

Fianlly, support for a system of voting should be principled rather than pragmatic. Much of the support for AV seems to be merely pragmatic. But my view is even on the pragmatics AV lets us down. And in this instance by failing on the pragmatics it proves the principle – because it is the already under-represented parties who would suffer from AV.

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72 Comments

  • The thing is, AV isn’t a huge change from FPTP. The only difference people will notice is that they write 1, 2, 3 rather than just an X. Saying that there is only major electoral reform every 70 years may be true, but AV isn’t major reform, so it doesn’t suggest it will be another 70-odd years before we are able to push for a more proportional system.

  • London’s AV system is different than the one proposed for the parliamentary elections in such a way your point is moot.

    I don’t believe for a second we’d have the remotest chance to win an argument on full PR so campaigning against AV is just shooting ourselves in the foot. If we lose that one, that’s it, game over.

  • John Richardson 27th Jul '10 - 12:44pm

    The moment there is a majority Labour or Tory government electoral reform will be off the table. Andy Burnham was right when he said this was a peripheral issue. True – most people would like to reform the voting system but in their list of priorities it’s somewhere near the bottom. There will be no political pressure whatsoever except from the Lib Dems and a few small pressure groups shouting from the sidelines – as they have been doing for the last 100 years.

  • The arguments regarding whether AV is a stepping stone to full PR – or a distraction away from it is equally valid.

    I can’t see that the arguments saying “if we say no to this we will never get PR” holding any water.

  • “If the electorate vote against AV, then by default they would have voted in favour of FPTP.”

    If the electorate vote to accept AV, then by default they would have voted against PR

  • John Richardson 27th Jul '10 - 1:03pm

    If the electorate vote to accept AV, then by default they would have voted against PR

    Only if a PR system is actually on the ballot! The choice will be FPTP or AV. Neither choice is particularly appealing but I don’t see any reason I should choose FPTP just because AV is not STV or just because STV is not on the ballot. AV is better than FPTP therefore the principled and pragmatic decision is to choose that option.

  • Keith Underhill 27th Jul '10 - 1:11pm

    In other words AV takes away smaller parties’ ability to gain tactical votes from supporters of the big two

    On the contrary it will allow people to vote for smaller parties without the fear that their vote will be wasted. It should decrease tactical voting significantly.

  • Agree with SandraF about London – it’s very hard to have proportionality when you’re only electing one person!

  • Peter Venables 27th Jul '10 - 1:22pm

    For me, what matters is the end result and not the mechanics of voting.
    I want the full range of views from left to right represented in parliament, not just three centre right parties as happens now.I want one vote, which i can use to vote for what i actually believe in and for that vote to actually mean something.
    AV is just a more complicated way to have more of the same,and i will be voting no.

  • I am personally of the opinion that the worth of my vote for a national government shouldn’t be down to a referendum. Can you imagine if they had held a referendum on some of the great voting reforms of the past? Democracy is not decided best by democracy.

  • SandraF wrote:

    “If we lose that one, that’s it, game over.”

    Just as it was game over for the campaign for a Scottish Parliament when the 1979 referendum was lost, I guess? (A fortiori the Welsh Assembly, which attracted the support of a mere 15% first time round.)

    What is the electorate going to make of this referendum? Is it going to be seen as anything more than a feeble offering by Cameron to Clegg to maintain Lib Dem support for the Tory government?

    We will soon find out. Most of the UK has routine elections in May 2011, and they will determine the turnout (the usual 30%-40%, I guess). In London, which has no routine elections, how many people are going to bother? 15%? 12%? 10%? I predict a lot of bored polling clerks and some very quick counts.

    If we want to win, then we have to campaign on issues that actually fire up the voters, and tweaking the electoral system surely isn’t one of them.

    Now, if we could trade the AV referendum for one on the privatisation of the NHS…. ??!!

  • John Emerson 27th Jul '10 - 1:33pm

    Whatever the outcome of the referendum, STV or any other type of voting change is off the table for a long time. We cannot go back to the electorate in a parliament or two, after spending millions of pound on the referendum, putting the changes in place, and making sure the electorate know how to use AV, and say “you know what, actually AV isn’t what we really want, we really want STV”.

    Quite why this come to be deal clincher for the coalition is beyond me.

  • Fred, I couldn’t agree with this opinion piece more.

    Well said.

    There are too many Lib Dems who support it because:
    a Clegg wants it; and
    b it will give the LDs a few more seats.

    I will be voting no because of the appalling Tory gerrymandering Clegg has had to concede to get his boss to agree to the referendum. AV is no more proportional than FPTP. Why bother? Because Clegg needs to win something – fast.

  • If the goal was just to have a proportional system I’d agree, but it isn’t, political reform is about a move towards a more fair and balanced political system.

    A system where 50% of people have given at least some form of support to a candidate is inherently more fair than one where a candidate only needs a minimum of 34% of support.

    Not to mention that by having to actually rank the candidates people will be more inclined to feel they should know something about each one and what their policies are (otherwise how do you rank anything other than your first and last position? Do you think the Green party is better than the Labour?), which is a far cry from the current situation. One of the biggest issues with elections is that people genuinely don’t understand what the policies of the various groups are, and in a lot of cases they don’t even know those of the party they voted for.

    This also helps alleviate the issues of tactical voting, because you can still vote for your actual real preferred candidate/party, without worrying that your vote won’t count as a vote against the person you least want to see win, so long as that person is low or bottom of the ranking, your vote will count against them. So whilst it isn’t a mroe proportional system tehnically, in reality there should (hopefully) be a more accurate portrayal of peoples political interests at the ballot box, there will be no need to vote Labour instead of Green to keep the Conservatives out; and whilst this may not translate to actual MP seats, the fact that peopel will be able to publish stats on first choice votes means each party, and the public, has a better idea of what support those party’s actually have… which in turn may encourage (or discourage) peopel to vote for them next time around.

    Also getting people used to the idea of ranking candidates is a step towards the STV system.

    To be honest I agree that it might not be any more proportional, but the chance it has to make peoples actual voting more accurately portray their preferences, and to be more informed about what and who they are voting for, I think is actually a very important positive step.

    Let’s not get hung up on the idea that proportionality is the only thing wrong with our voting system, because it isn’t.

  • “It seems possible that the Lib Dems will, for the first time for a few decades, receive fewer votes in the next general election than we did in the previous one. With AV in place, we could nevertheless increase (or at least consolidate) our parliamentary representation.”

    This is a very bad arguement. No political reform should be supported because it increases the power of one or another party. It should be made because it makes a fairer system. If being more fair means that one party wins or loses out, then so be it, but everyone should support something that’s more fair regardless.

    In my mind it’s clear that aV is more fair, not as much as STV by a way, but it IS more fair (see above post), and I would support it regardless of whether it helped, hindered or made no difference to any party.

  • “If the ambition of our party is to bring about a proportional voting system”

    I thought the ambition was to bring about a more fair voting system, and that PR just happens to be the best way to do this.

    I think there is a lot of people who assume PR is the end goal. It isn’t. Fairness is. AV is slightly more fair, therefore slightly closer to the end goal.

  • “So supporting AV is the only way to eventually realise PR – more importantly, it may be the only way to keep the Liberal Democrats alive as a party.”

    Please never use this arguement with the general public. It is completely wrong to support political reform for the benefit of your own party. Let’s not forget over 30% of people voted conservative at the last general election, and AV has been shown to negatively impact Conservative seats if it is put in place. Suggesting that you should vote based on the impact on your own party immediately puts over 30% of people against it.

    Political reform should be fought for on the basis of fairness and equality, and that alone.

  • ” We cannot go back to the electorate in a parliament or two, after spending millions of pound on the referendum, putting the changes in place, and making sure the electorate know how to use AV, and say “you know what, actually AV isn’t what we really want, we really want STV”. ”

    I think they already know this, and there is nothing wrong with saying that you have improved something as much as you could at the time but that you’d like to further improve it if you are given enough support. It’s how everything else works in society and people will understand it, if it’s explained at the time you are doing it.

    Sure the case for AV shouldn’t say that it is the solution to everything and what we all want, but it can say it’s an improvement, and who would vote against an improvement even if it wasn’t the ‘best’ solution. We need to make sure that people understand that we are fightinf for AV because it is ‘the ebst’ we could get given the limited power they gave by voting Lib Dem. If they are serious about making the voting system even more fair than AV then they know who champions this, who to vote for and that the Lib Dems will keep pushing for it with whatever influence they are given… and that they just weren’t given enough influence by the voters to do it this time round.

    I think to suggest that we need to concentrate only o nthe benefits of AV and not champion PR at the same time is a mistake that belittles the intelligence of the public. They should be told we prefer PR, and if told the right way why we are supporting AV, will see the push on AV as a dedication to longer term political reform, something they can get behind and support for not just this referendum, but the next election as well.

  • I think Fred’s analysis is very thought provoking, and I enjoyed reading it. I would argue though that he is mistaken in his assertion that long term cycles of electoral change happen only every 60-70 years, and must not be missed. These are not solar eclipses, nor Haley’s Comet. In his argument I think Fred ignores the potential value of another hung parliament, and actual factors which contributed to electoral change in the past. But rather than get into historical analysis let me concentrate on my first point: the value of a hung parliament.

    In this regard, we have two battles to fight. Firstly, to win the battle for AV. And, secondly, to continue to ensure that enough of the electorate support us at the ballot box, and ensure another hung parliament. We can only make the breakthrough of achieving PR proper, if we maintain our significance. At present, despite the immediate policy successes we have achieved, we are insignificant. Our place in the polls reflects our inability to translate our significance in Government to our significance to voters. If we repeat or improve our performance at the electoral box office next time round, and the Tories fail to solidify their success (or Labour fail to revisit their previous electoral success), then we have another opportunity to push through electoral reform.

    I admit this argument is conditional and speculative. But I believe that, regardless of this, the main point holds true: unless we maintain our electoral significance, electoral reform is an irrelevance.

  • @Jen: I meant that the London AV is a 2 choice only system, you don’t rank the candidates like you will in this AV and it makes tactical voting still massive (though more complicated to work out)

    @Alex: 100% agree with everything you said!)

  • Andrea Gill 27th Jul '10 - 3:50pm

    Having just voted for the regional board of our local co-operative stores via STV, the main advantage of AV has just been brought home to me again.

    Namely of forcing people to look at the individual candidates, what they stand for, making the campaign much more about what the candidate wants to do for their community, and remove negative campaigning as much as possible – because attacking your opponents is not likely to gain you any second or third preference votes.

  • I have come to disagree with the poster.

    The Lib Dems need AV. They need a big win, yes I know about the £10K tax threshold, it isn’t exciting the public as much as I thought it would, at least it won’t give them a strong enough reason to vote for us. Plus, the coalition is dead if we lose. Stone dead. And political oblivion becomes a very real possibility for us.

    We need to get some wins under our belt, we need to last the full parliament, we need to keep the Tories at bay or they will swallow us up (and the first thing you’ll see is an electoral pact between the Tories and us if that is the case). If you care about the agenda of the party, you have to care about its’ survival, and I am convinced that this is a survival issue.

  • I think Clegg selling out for a referendum on AV was an absolutely dreadful decision, but to campaign against it now would be absurd and entirely self-defeating.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 27th Jul '10 - 4:55pm

    “Namely of forcing people to look at the individual candidates, what they stand for, making the campaign much more about what the candidate wants to do for their community, and remove negative campaigning as much as possible – because attacking your opponents is not likely to gain you any second or third preference votes.”

    Surely negative campaigning currently is usually aimed at the main rival, not candidates likely to be placed third or worse? I can’t see that AV will do anything to discourage that kind of negative campaigning.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 27th Jul '10 - 4:58pm

    “Let’s not forget over 30% of people voted conservative at the last general election, and AV has been shown to negatively impact Conservative seats if it is put in place.”

    Though that depends primarily how Lib Dem second preferences are allocated. In the past, polling has indicated more would go to Labour than to the Tories.

    The coalition may change all that. (Not because past Lib Dem supporters will warm to the Tories, but because left-inclined Lib Dems may defect to Labour.)

  • Andrea Gill 27th Jul '10 - 6:29pm

    Hear Hear George! 🙂

  • Fred Carver 27th Jul '10 - 6:37pm

    Apologies if I miss your argument out, there’s a lot to read here. Herewith my rebuttal on some of the main points.

    “This would be a big win for the Lib Dems/this would be a big loss for the Lib Dems if we lose”. Why? At what point have the Lib Dems ever championed AV? I’m sure it wasn’t in the manifesto, I can’t recall it ever being endorsed at conference and my recollection is it was inserted into the coalition document at the request of the Tories.

    “Would you support d’Hondt?” Yes. I think D’Hondt is the worst form of PR there is but it’s still PR and so still a dramatic improvement on what we have now.

    “If people vote for AV they’ll have voted against FPTP”. I disagree.The referendum is misleadingly worded as it says “would you like FPTP or AV?”, what it should say is “you are having FPTP, would you like it with second preferences or without?”.

    “Half the battle/better enemy of the good “. My point here is I don’t think it is better. FPTP is unfair on smaller parties but it does at least give them the opportunity to try and win seats tactically. AV doesn’t remove the unfairness which prevents smaller parties for fighting on an equal footing but it does take away one of the smaller parties biggest weapon. It’s as if we’d decided that in order to make the fight between David and Goliath fairer we were going to keep David the same size but ban the use of slings.

    “Electoral reform doesn’t necessarily have to happen only every 60 years.” This is a good point, so maybe the lesson here is let’s not be distracted by AV but just ignore it and press on for PR. However I really don’t see the momentum we have now doing anything but dissipating if there is a yes vote for AV. Again New Zealand is the only country I can think of that has ever changed its voting system and I don’t see it doing it twice.Various examples have been cited including Canada which I find to be fallacious, the examples I would cite is the Australian republican referendum where a yes vote would have led to a presidential system that no-one wanted but because Australians voted no the issue stayed alive and Australia now has a republican PM who is determined to change the system in a way people actually want.

    “The ability to state a preference is positive”. Well yes but in my seat I will probably end up with either my 4th or my 5th choice. That isn’t the sort of choice I relish and FPTP means there are many in my position.

    “We can’t define STV constituencies yet, AV is the best we can hope for now”. Not so: http://www.ma.hw.ac.uk/~denis/stv4uk/outline.pdf

    “The London example doesn’t work/more Lib Dems under AV therefore more opportunity to get PR”. OK the London example isn’t perfect because it uses a hybrid system of supreme illogic the sole purpose of which was to stop Ken winning (colossal fail there, especially as a system of true AV would probably have seen Susan Kramer win in 2000). That said the ERS only predicts AV giving the Lib Dems 3% more MPs and I dispute even that for the reasons I gave above.

  • Derek Young 27th Jul '10 - 6:39pm

    This article exhibits the sort of twisted logic I was sometimes guilty of in my youth. There was a fleeting prospect of a hung parliament in 1992, and it disappeared in a flash. Since then we’ve had the last five years of John Major’s Government, which couldn’t risk any electoral form because it wasn’t popular or competent enough to win under any system, and 13 years of New Labour which, for the most part, was too popular to be bothered with electoral reform. At any time, the country is still likely to be run exclusively by one of two parties which have an inherent interest in maintaining the status quo. Forcing any kind of change is tactically supremely difficult in these circumstances, even if 90% of the public supported a fully proportional system, because the public don’t care enough about it to have that issue alone determine their vote in general elections. Passing up the first realistic chance for changes to electing MPs in eighty years in the hope that something better will come along soon is dangerously naive.

    Supporting a change to AV is admittedly risky because it negates the tactical element, which we promote everywhere (why wouldn’t we?) and has benefited us in at least half of the seats we currently hold. But any change in voting systems also opens up possible changes in voting behaviour. All the studies about the effect of AV invariably make assumptions about how FPTP crosses would translate into AV first preferences: the most straight-laced social researcher would admit that these assumptions are probably bunk. After one or two elections, the penny will have dropped and people will start to vote firstly for whom they want, not whom they think might win. This psychological change will be profound, and it is this factor which would place a debate about further reform 10 or 15 years later on in an entirely different context. The same thing happened with Scottish devolution – we waited 290 years for a Parliament to come along, and within 10 years there was a cross-party consensus on devolving substantially more powers, because of the new dynamic which was created. Establishing preferential voting could well be a tipping point towards a growing question, “why can’t we elect two or three MPs at a time, rather than just one”?

  • Derek Young 27th Jul '10 - 6:48pm

    And a hat-tip to Millennium Dome, which has expressed its opposition to these ideas more powerfully than I have: http://millenniumelephant.blogspot.com/2010/07/day-3495-nine-good-things-about-saying.html

  • Fred Carver 27th Jul '10 - 6:57pm

    “Supporting a change to AV is admittedly risky because it negates the tactical element, which we promote everywhere (why wouldn’t we?) and has benefited us in at least half of the seats we currently hold.”

    That’s exactly the point I was trying to make, thank you for doing it more eloquently than me.

    “But any change in voting systems also opens up possible changes in voting behaviour. All the studies about the effect of AV invariably make assumptions about how FPTP crosses would translate into AV first preferences: the most straight-laced social researcher would admit that these assumptions are probably bunk.”

    That’s exactly the point I did make, but the corollary is surely that it is therefore nonsense the say the Lib Dems will do better under AV.

  • Fred, I completely agree (full disclosure – Fred is a friend of mine).

    As a sometime (mostly around 2002-5, less since then) Lib Dem, it has been a terrible disappointment seeing what I thought was a principled party sell itself out for so little. What we have now is a referendum on a voting system that no one likes. None of the three main parties support it. To the coalition supporters – in the face of privatised schools, NHS trust being abolished, massive cuts to everything and volunteer police armies, was it worth it?

    Britain is not a referendum type of place, and history suggests they happen infrequently, however problematic this might be. As soon as this one happens, the issue will be closed and the public will move on. The moment is starting to pass. When the expenses scandal broke the public concerned itself with this kind of issue, but now we are entering a period of severe hardship the public is unlikely to worry too much about the voting system, however much we’d like them to.

    I currently live in BC, Canada, where there was a referendum on voting reform (their system is almost identical to ours) a few years back. The No campaign continually painted the STV option as over complicated, and I suspect here they would do the same thing with AV, esoecially as so few people can find much good to say about it (and the public will not vote for an upheaval on the grounds it is one step towards what is really needed). Canadians are an open, political and intelligent population, but they were successfully scared off and the motion fell. it will not be discussed again for a generation.

    If voting reform is going to happen, it needs to be a proper once in a generation effort to enshrine democratic, representative, secular principles. Ideally in my view, it would be part of a new constitutional settlement that covered the Lords, Church and State, The Monarchy and many of the other historical oddities our democracy has bestowed on us. This might have been a cause worth the coalition (though I’d still always say no to a a Tory).

    Instead, Clegg has given in for a referendum on something no one wants, and successfully killed off PR. Like Blair for the Labour left, Clegg has killed off the progressive wing of the Lib Dems for a shot at personal glory.

  • “If voting reform is going to happen, it needs to be a proper once in a generation effort to enshrine democratic, representative, secular principles.”
    ……and when will the maths allow that to happen again under the present voting system? You may be selling this idea to your grandchildren.

  • Sean,

    Labour had the maths to do it over the last ten years, but failed utterly out of stupid short term self interest. The maths can only properly come together when there is a coalition, because no majority party is going to bring in PR and reduce their chances of winning.

    This is why it’s so disappointing that AV ended up on the table. The Lib Dems had the chance to make a take it or leave it offer of STV or no coalition. Who knows whether it would have worked, but is the craven kow-towing to the Tory ideologues in government worth a probablt defeat on AV followed by the book closing on any reform for a generation?

    What exactly is the point of AV, especially in the light of the gerrymandering that will accompany any electoral reform?

  • “AV doesn’t remove the unfairness which prevents smaller parties for fighting on an equal footing but it does take away one of the smaller parties biggest weapon.”

    I just don’t beleive that to be true. Why would small party’s lose out here. Surely, when you can give you second preference to the person you think stands a better chance of beating the person you don’t want, then you are more likely to vote for a small party if that is actually your first and preferred choice? And even if those small party’s don’t win enough votes to gain an MP, the party and the public’s perception of how well the party can be more accurate when they know people putting them as their first choice is because they truly believe in them and not because it was tactical… I think, given the safety net of being able to choose a second, people will feel more confident about choosing a smaller party, which in turn leads to people seeing this party gain support, which in turn may lead to more people voting for them. Now that’s a bit hypothetical, and may be wrong, but it’s no mroe hypothetical than any of the other arguments here.

    Tactical voting is the enemy of small party’s, not it’s friend… and that’s quite beside the argument that no party should be fighting to keep a system where someone votes first for the person they don’t actually think is their first preference.

    There is much talk of Lib Dem’s losing out because we wouldn’t gain tactical votes… I’m sorry, but tactical voting is undemocratic, ‘forcing’ someone to choose someone other than their first choice because otherwise they’ll get someone they really don’t like is just wrong, and if the Lib Dem’s lose out because of it then they need to work harder to gain real first preference support, they should put aside party tribalism and support what is fair, not what is best for them (haven’t we all heard those words before… some of us believe them). AV does go some way towards helping alleviate this, and that makes the system just a little more democratic and truly representative of the people’s wishes.

  • “Supporting a change to AV is admittedly risky because it negates the tactical element, which we promote everywhere (why wouldn’t we?)”

    Because it’s undemocratic and hypocritical?

  • Alex,

    The small parties don’t lose as badly as under FPTP, but invariably they still lose. The only fair way for votes to count is that if you get 10% of the votes, you get 10% of the say, and so on. Anything other than this is a failure of the party to seize upon the one chance it has had to get what it truly believes in.

  • Fred Carver 27th Jul '10 - 8:28pm

    Alex thank you for putting the other side of the argument in such a way that I can easily engage with it-

    I completely agree that tactical voting is undemocratic which is why I support PR – but just try winning a FPTP election as a minor party without it. Essentially that is what AV asks the Lib Dems, Greens and other under-represented groups to do.

    You say:

    “Surely, when you can give you second preference to the person you think stands a better chance of beating the person you don’t want, then you are more likely to vote for a small party if that is actually your first and preferred choice?”

    That is a logical argument but actual experience of running actual elections shows it to not be the case. What people actually do under AV is vote for one of the big 2 (because in general only under a system of PR is there any chance of anyone else winning) and then assuage their conscience by giving a minor party a (useless) lower preference. It’s only when you bring in PR that you give smaller parties a fighting chance.

    You also say:

    “they should put aside party tribalism and support what is fair, not what is best for them”

    I completely agree. Most of the support for AV seems to come from a belief that it will be good for the Lib Dems. Parking for a moment the fact that I think this isn’t the case I think this an utterly appalling reason for supporting an undemocratic system of FPTP (which is what AV is).

  • Fred, it’s good that this debate can be had at this level, and I hope it’s held from positions of mutual respect.

    Agreeing that Tactical voting is bad, I would still rather see AV than FPTP. I can’t comment on whether at actual elections people don’t do the logical thing (because I have no direct experience of this), but my argument would be that under FPTP people ‘have’ to use tactical voting to keep out someone they really don’t want. With AV, even if people don’t do so, there is no need to use tactical voting on your first choice…. it gives people the choice even if they then throw it away, which is a step up from FPTP.

    It also means that small party’s aren’t campaigning against the argument that if you vote for them you are letting helping let in ‘insert name of unwanted candidate here.’ With AV this simply wouldn’t be true. It may take people a while to adjust and understand this, but that is something which can happen, which at the moment it cannot.

    I’d be interested in the types and locations of elections where AV has been found to produce these results which do seem contrary to logic (of course I realise we are not logical beings as such… and make no inference that you are making it up), it seems that this might sway how people think… also I wonder if this would change as the AV system gets more and more understood through general publicity and use.

    I still also stand by my belief that having to rank people in order would mean some of the electorate becoming more interested in the actual policies and opinions of the candidates, rather than the tabloid rantings about who to cast your one vote for. Naive perhaps… but I hold a bit of hope for humanity yet.

    I can also foresee that having started ranking parties in order, and being able to more accurately determine the real support for each one from election results, it would be easier to argue that if these parties have this much support, shouldn’t they also have more representation in parliament… an argument that is very hard to do with the current system of putting your support to one party only, and maybe not the one you most believe in.

    As a further argument I would add that it’s not just the idea of a single candidate winning a constituency that leads to tactical voting, it’s the fact that we are used to single party governments. You may well find, that unless their is an attitude shift away from this towards coalition governments, then people will still tactically vote to try and get a single party majority in parliament… and with PR being more conducive to ‘spreading the seats’ amongst parties, this problem could be exacerbated… and would certainly be played upon by the two major parties.

    I’m not saying AV would help this, but an attitude shift towards coalitions would enable people to vote more freely for their preferred party, without feeling they are doing something that is somehow irresponsible with regard to forming a government, whichever voting system we have. This may in fact partly account for the, in my mind, strange phenomenon of people voting under AV against their preferred candidate.

    I do wonder if having to consider parties in order of preference, and decide who is closest to who in terms of policy, who you could support if your first choice doesn’t win, would help make people more receptive to the idea of parties working together in government.

  • Thank goodness gay rights campaigners weren’t as naive as the author of this article, or homosexuality would probably still be illegal. “A bill decriminalising homosexuality without preventing homophobic discrimination or allowing gay marriage? Ooh no, that doesn’t go nearly far enough – let’s leave homosexuality illegal until we can get real equality.”

    If we’re dumb enough to throw AV away in a tantrum about the non-existent possibility of STV, then I will have to concede that Labour and the Tories were right after all – we’re not fit to govern.

  • “The small parties don’t lose as badly as under FPTP, but invariably they still lose. The only fair way for votes to count is that if you get 10% of the votes, you get 10% of the say, and so on. Anything other than this is a failure of the party to seize upon the one chance it has had to get what it truly believes in.”

    I honestly don’t disagree that STV is much better than AV… I don’t mean to sound like I think AV is fine and we could stick with it forever more. But STV is not going to happen in this government, that’s a simple fact. I don’t buy the argument that once we have AV then there will be no momentum for changing to STV, I honestly believe the opposite is true, so long as the Lib Dem campaign states that STV is their preferred method, that it is the most fair system, and that they will continue to campaign for it. I think the general public is grown up enough to know that the Lib Dems are trying to get what they have been able to negotiate this time around, and will try just as hard to improve things further the next time around. If we do nothing now, and hope for a better chance I just don’t see that that has any benefit whatsoever – mainly because I believe AV is a better system than FPTP… if I didn’t I would completely agree that it shouldn’t be fought for.

    I simply do not understand saying no to making something slightly better, when slightly better is all you have the ability to achieve at the present time.

  • @ Catherine.

    I think you’ve missed the point. The author doesn’t believe AV is a better system than FPTP, in fact the opposite. Everyone has different opinions, if I believed it was worse too then I would be calling for a vote against. However I do think that blanket calling upon every Lib Dem to vote against something is unfair. People should be allowed to make their own minds up. Fair enough if the poster wants to vote against, and fair enough if they want to put their case for it, it’s a democracy he’s entitled to, but telling others they should do too is going a bit far in my opinion.

  • @Alex – yes, you’re right, I did miss that although I still can’t see what arguments the article puts forward for AV being worse/no better than FPTP. I won’t rehash the arguments in favour as others have stated them many times above.

    My despair was at the author’s implication that if the AV referendum fails, the nation’s “hunger” for reform will be channeled instead into proper PR. IMO that is hugely naive. First, the general public has no “hunger” for voting reform. Yes, they probably think the current system is a bit unproportional and a different one might be better but the average voter really doesn’t care much – certainly nowhere NEAR enough to bring about reform. The only chance for change the system is in a hung parliament where we use our balance of power to bargain for it. This time there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of getting more than AV out of either Labour or the Tories. It was AV or nothing – if you choose nothing you’re choosing FPTP until the next hung parliament, which could well be decades away.

    Now we’re definitely having the referendum, it’s even more critical to win it. If we lose, the case for reform is dead for a generation and more, because anti-reformists will say (convincingly, in the ears of voters and the media) that the people have spoken, and spoken in favour of FPTP. Anyone who votes no will be contributing to the reentrenchment of FPTP.

  • Andrew Purches 28th Jul '10 - 10:31am

    The more I think about this matter,the more concerned I become. In reality,it could all but wipe out our party in the Commons, with those losing their seats being led by Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne. If the referendum was to apply the AV proposal to all Elections, National and Local, along with the requirement for compulsory voting, then it might prove to be fairer and successful. As it stands,it will only benefit the two main parties, to an even greater extent than currently exists. I hope it will be thrown out by the two houses. Andrew Purches.

  • Catherine- everyone needs a catchy, thought provoking, title – as I said the main thrust of my argument is that we should not allow ourselves to be distracted by the AV referendum but ignore it for the irrelevance it is and campaign for full PR. Of course we won’t get it this parliament but I remain optimistic about getting it this decade. I meanwhile will be voting against because I think a no vote will be less damaging to PR than a yes vote and because I don’t like AV.

    Alex- absolutely mutual respect, what I meant was that because you phrased the opposite argument clearly I think I got a better inkling into how other people were thinking.

    Many of the positive elements of AV you mention I agree with, but I don’t think they outweigh the negatives. My view of how AV will effect actual elections is largely based on conversations I had during the 2008 London Mayoral elections (shameless self promotion – I ran the Lib Dem campaign in the only constituency were our vote didn’t go down) however if you look at the global examples I think it holds true. AV is only used for elections to a national legislature in the Australian House of Representatives and the Fijian House of Representatives. In the Australian House of Representatives the two main parties hold 137 seats and the minor parties 13. In the Fijian House of Representatives the two main parties hold 67 seats and the minor parties 4. AV is also used to elect the president of Ireland – only once when it was contested has the FF candidate not won.

  • And even that was in the very unusual circumstance of the FF candidate being caught red handed in a lie and the FG campaign imploding.

  • Paul McKeown 28th Jul '10 - 11:57am

    @Fred Carver

    You’re delusional, a member of a small religious splinter group, only your path is the true path to salvation.

    If the AV plebiscite is lost, then any further change to the electoral system will be lost for your lifetime. If, on the other, hand the plebiscite is won, STV would be the natural next step and would occur within a couple or three parliaments.

    Ultras like you do no one any favours.

  • Well Fred, I think we have to agree to disagree, but hopefully with a more informed idea of why we do so.

    There is one thing I think we can all agree on though. When this is taken to the public, and the debate held, we need an impartial source of information so that people can clearly make up their minds. Arguments can be made for and against, built up around this and other more circumstantial and subjective evidence, but the core key facts about each system, need to be repesented by an impartial body in a clear and concise way.

    Additionally whether we support or oppose AV, we should not lose the opportunity to present STV (and other forms of PR voting) to the public as part of a comprehensive ‘education’ about our political system, and its alternatives.

    When my sister learnt about voting systems at school, her immediate reaction to PR was “why don’t we have this?” and to FPTP “Why do we have this?” I think that there has been a general apathy about politics, which includes voting, which in turn has led to a steep decline in the understanding of how our political system works – how many people did we hear say they had “not voted for Gordon Brown an he was unelected” completely failing to realise that we elect MP’s and not party’s, governments or individual Prime Ministers, and that it is up to our elected MP’s to form the government (and incidently how many people wrongly say “I didn’t vote for this coalition government” with the same lack of understanding).

    The recent election, it’s unusual result, the furore over, and vociferousness of the BNP and UKIP, and the proposed referendum have done much to raise awareness and interest in politics again and whilst it is there we need to ensure that the opportunity to make people more informed is taken.

    I personally think that taking a statistical view of past electoral reform over the last few hundred years, and deciing that it oly happens once in every 50 or so years is far too oversimplifying the complex social context surrounding such decisions. Society, education, motivation and our entire way of life is incredibly different to any of the previous situations alluded to, and I don’t think any relevent comparisons can be drawn.

    BesidesI think the issue is more whether there is interest in politicsrather than just political reform, when there is interest in politics there is greater opportunity for people to learn about the political systemIn fact. There have been other surges in public political interest and activity other than just those for reform; there was a renewed interest in politics when Maggie was in power, but it manifested as an opposition to the Conservatives, a political activism that was more concerned with changing the current party rather than the whole system. This time people are disillusioned with all politicians and much more interested (and exposed to) different methods of government. I think this inetrest will last past a referendum on AV.

    I don’t necessarily believe that support for further reform would vanish if AV was introduced, and in fact, with renewed interest and education about STV, AV and all the rest, it should be strengthened.

    But back to the point, the AV referendum should be discussed as part of a wider push to educate and interest people in our voting system again. It can happen, people are interested in the notion of fairnesss, and given facts, without people pushing an agenda on them, are capable of making informed decisions of their own.

    To suggest (not you, but others) that the referendum needs to focus on the benefits of AV only, so as not to ‘confuse’ the public, is not only condescending but dangerous to further political reform and a mssive waste of an opportunity to enlighten society at alrge and awaken a more lasting interest in voting, its system and i nactually turning up at the ballot box (something we all know has suffered over the last few decades).

  • “You’re delusional, a member of a small religious splinter group, only your path is the true path to salvation.”

    I often find people throw insults around when they can’t formulate constructive arguments, sadly this never works when trying to pursuade people who think differently to you, or are even indifferent.

  • Paul McKeown 28th Jul '10 - 8:29pm

    @Alex

    I think I have become very cynical recently, it is true. Frankly, the AV referendum appears hopelessly and irretrievably lost, but anyone who believes that the best way to promote a proportional electoral system is to sabotage a referendum for AV, which can act as a sensible step on the way, is, simply, in my view daydreaming. The Liberal Democrats will have have to win a parliamentary majority to change the electoral system. This may well happen some day, but equally it may never happen. In the meantime, whilst some people with more interest in fancy theory and wondrous pipe dreams talk to their navels, the rest of us must look forward to a lifetime’s regret that this golden moment to make progress was squandered. I remember 1983, I’m bitter that 2011 looks likely to leave equally sour memories. The Labour and the Conservative parties are naturally delighted: the rigged political market will be left untouched and in their favour. The British elector will remain shortchanged.

    To be honest, reading this article, and the previous one in a similar vein, I don’t have any faith that the authors are susceptible to rational debate. They have set their store on the unattainable. Nothing less will do. That they are tilting at windmills delights them, it is the process in which they find pleasure, not about achieving the eventual goal. Sadly there are probably rather a number of Lib Dems of a similar mentality.

  • Paul McKeown 28th Jul '10 - 8:36pm

    Mark my words: loss of this plebiscite will damage the Lib Dems every bit as much as the failure to break through in 1983. The damage will last a generation. And the loss appears inevitable. There is no leadership, there is no strategy, the moment is unfortunately timed, and the dinosaurs are determined to crush it. The momentum is with Jack Straw and Bernard Jenkins, no one in favour seems to be trying to wrest the initiative back.

  • Paul McKeown 28th Jul '10 - 9:33pm

    Quoting the ERS report [http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/downloads/AVReportweb.pdf] on AV:

    AV is a more robust and defensible majoritarian system. AV is intrinsically a better system than FPTP, and if we were starting from a position of having AV, few if any electoral reformers would give consideration to moving to FPTP.

    I’ll happily take that in place of a hand full of starshine.

  • @Jedibt. How can you possibly say that labour are left of centre? have you been living on the moon for the past 14 years?

  • ‘Fianlly, support for a system of voting should be principled rather than pragmatic. Much of the support for AV seems to be merely pragmatic. But my view is even on the pragmatics AV lets us down. And in this instance by failing on the pragmatics it proves the principle – because it is the already under-represented parties who would suffer from AV.’

    AV is not PR. In a seat where a party generally always achieves 50% or more of the vote it will make no difference. You will still always be represented by someone who does not represent you polically; therefore there will still be not much point in voting. Of course the galling thing to most of us in safe seats was hearing and seeing media talking about visiting and concentrating on the only seats that count (the key marginals – not even all marginals!) and that these seats will be the only ones that decide the election and the fate of the country (as we have always known!) – making of course voting in most parts of the country an irrelevance and only a remote civic duty (perhaps). AV won’t make much, if any, difference to that fact. PR is very different as it creates multi member constituencies where in all likely hood you will be able to elect someone close to your political views to whom you can comfortably seek advice.

    The way that this referendum is being manipulated so that the Tories will be dragooned to vote for it as long as the seats are gerrymandered in their favour is ‘real politik’ at its most cynical. Even despite this ‘compromise’ many backwoodsmen Tories are still talking of voting against even this modicum of change and of course will vote against it if a referendum were to be held. It also provides Labour with the golden opportunity to renage on their promise for electoral reform to vote against the referendum too as they now argue (opportunisticaly of course – that’s par for their course) that they are doing so because it is tied to a reduction in the number of seats which would be unfair to them (ho ho that’s a good one)(of course I have never heard them say that FPTP is intrinsically unfair to the Liberals, Greens and others despite their continued support for that system – no i hold no truck for labour hypocricy and crying wolf).

    I am not happy though with the Liberals who have very honourably campaigned for years and years for a genuinely fair electoral system to the benefit of other parties and independents too, (as well as, quite rightly, their own voters), to now desert those principles to get a system that will really not change anything but perhaps provide a few more Liberal seats (which are of course deserved – but still will probably be fewer that warranted – the change coupled with new larger boundaries will mainly benefit Tories); leaving ‘safe’ seats untouched and unnaffected (and voters in those seats still unrepresented) and leaving minorities (which Liberals have championed way above the other two cynical parties for years) still out in the grass.

    I am no longer a member of the party but did join in January 1974 and for years regarded the Liberals as a party with great ethics, love for human rights and for minorities. The Liberals or Lib Dems (whatever) I believe still hold those fundamental beliefs and that is why I amparticuarly not happy with the party agreeing to this, what I consider, shabby compromise.

  • ‘None of us are wild about AV. We all recognise its flaws. But it’s that or FPTP.

    ‘…

    There is also a hidden win: if the public reject FPTP, I don’t see how the rejected system can remain in place for local elections in England and Wales. Many councils have multi-member wards (usually 2 councillors per ward), so if AV was adopted for local elections, we would be incredibly close to adopting STV across significant parts of local government.’

    I would have to admit that that is not a bad defence of a change to AV – if indeed adoped in local elections with a genuine preferential choice across the parties it might stimulate the idea of moving to multi-member constituencies and STV for the Parliamentary elections.

    I will probably vote, with my fingers crossed and my head bowed (lol) ‘in favour’ of AV in any possible referendum in the one single hope that change being better than no change might allow people to see the logic of moving then to PR; especially as you argue we have to in effect apply it to local elections.

  • Daniel Henry 2nd Aug '10 - 2:34am

    Here’s a history lesson:
    In the reforms between 1917 – 1928, electoral reform was on the table severals times, but the reformers in the House of Lords insisted on STV while the reformers in the House of Commons preferred AV.
    The result? No reform for over 80 years. I can see rejecting this referendum achieving a similar result!
    http://www.archive.official-documents.co.uk/document/cm40/4090/volume-2/grps05.PDF

    AV amends problems of the vote split and tactical voting.
    You can’t apply this to previous elections because you can’t tell how people would have voted otherwise, but I definitely remember that we saw the Lib Dem polls take a huge drop during the week of “Vote Clegg get Brown/Cameron” campaigning.
    AV encourages people to vote for the party they actually want to win, rather than pick their least hated out of the leading two in their constituency.
    That in itself is something worth fighting a “Yes Vote” for.

  • yes that is just one worrying fact about the Alternative Vote as well as it being still very unfair to independents and small minorities.

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