Opinion: The Flawed Logic of No to AV, Yes to PR

As a supporter and campaigner for a Yes vote in the referendum on the 5th of May, I have often faced the argument that, “I support a proportional system, but AV is not proportional, so I will be voting No”. A prima facie logical argument – if you do not like AV, then why on earth would you vote for it? Big names in the world of electoral reform have signed up to this “No to AV, Yes to PR” ethos, including Lord David Owen, one of the Gang of Four. According to the No to AV, Yes to PR website the complaints are essentially two-fold.

  1. AV is not proportional, and thus could provide disproportionate landslides and the smallest parties will remain underrepresented.
  2. AV would be a roadblock to PR.

The first point is one to which I have some sympathy. I, too, support a proportional system and deplore and undemocratic way in which smaller parties are silenced. I acknowledge that AV will not fix these problems. But neither will keeping FPTP! FPTP provides parties with larger majorities than the electorate gives them and also silences parties with a consistent, but small, mandate.

The second point, however, is uncertain and unlikely. The main campaign groups supporting a Yes vote, such as the Electoral Reform Society or Take Back Parliament, are both supporters of this referendum and supporters of PR. Success on the 5th of May will certainly be celebrated by these and other campaign groups, but I would be stunned if they stopped there. In the lead up to the next general election, I do not doubt for a second that they will be campaigning again, pushing for a proportional system.

And such progression in constitutional change has a history. Look for example at Wales. In 1997, there was a referendum on the devolution of powers to a Welsh government. It passed with moderate support. Ever since, with growing public support, more powers have been passed on to the Welsh Assembly until this year, when a referendum on Welsh law-making powers passed with almost 63.5%. In less than 14 years since the first ‘Yes’ vote, the Welsh have seen three constitutional changes through two successful referenda.

There is a danger in the No to AV, Yes to PR argument, and that is the price of failure. If AV loses, support for the Liberal Democrats could waiver. If this is the case, then the only major party in Westminster calling for PR will have its voice considerably weakened by both a drop in support and the unfair effects of the voting system we as a nation just protected.

For the true destructive force of a No vote, one need only look to Scotland or Australia to see how the idea that electoral reform “will never go away” is a myth. As Charles Kennedy pointed out on this blog when the Scottish referendum failed in 1979 despite public support, the issue was never meant to go away. Yet it stalled for 20 years, and it only lingered as an issue due to strong political support in Scotland. Should the Lib Dems falter after a failed AV vote, the same cannot be said for PR.

In Australia, a referendum on making the country a republic failed, despite broad public support, because of in-fighting in the Yes camp over how the president should be selected. That was almost 12 years ago. It was never meant to go away. It has yet to resurface, despite broad political consensus (something PR certainly does not have in Westminster). As Mike Steketee said for The Australian in 2009, “only another 10 or 20 years to wait, then”. If that’s with near political consensus, what chance does PR have in this country?

I do not need to rehash the arguments in support of the referendum: readers of this page will be well versed in them. The fact remains, as Sunny Hundal says on Liberal Conspiracy, that failure will not breed success. No to Av, Yes to PR is politically illogical. If we vote Yes, then the fight for PR will continue, but it will be a political possibility within the next few years. If we vote No, and hope that this will help the chances of PR, then we might have to wait for half a lifetime to see a proportional system come through.

That is the political reality, even if it is hard to swallow.

Andrew Jones is a Liberal Democrat member and Vice-President of University of Nottingham Liberal Democrats

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26 Comments

  • I don’t think the result of the AV vote will make the slightest difference to the PR cause either way – because I can’t see us getting another referendum on the voting system for decades, whatever the outcome. It takes years to get any sniff of reform anywhere near Westmonster and Nick blew this generation’s shot when he accepted his miserable little compromise as the price of selling his party to the Tories.

    So, to my mind, the AV referendum is about exactly what it says it’s about and nothing else – FPTP vs AV: which is best.

    On that score I really find it hard to care either way, and since I don’t give a toss about our local elections either this time around I probably won’t even bother turning up at the polling station.

  • Old Codger Chris 5th Apr '11 - 1:13pm

    Although Sunny Hundal is right to say that failure won’t breed success, neither will success (in getting AV) breed true success (PR).

    In fact true success might be even harder to achieve, because AV’s supposed benefits are being over-sold by all kinds of people, including the Lib Dems and Electoral Reform Society, who were never exactly keen before. Why should the electorate – having been sold a pup – believe the salesman who comes back for more, claiming that actually AV isn’t that great but you’ll LOVE PR. Even a used car dealer might be too ashamed to try that.

    Broadly speaking I agree with Iain, but I disagree with his last paragraph – one should ALWAYS vote. (For the record, I’m voting No. As Iain says, it’s strictly FPTP v AV – and on balance I think AV is even worse).

  • First and foremost, I do not support PR. I disagree with anyone who believes that AV is a stepping stone to PR. It is not going to be. Even if the Yes vote wins, and we get another hung Parliament in 2015, do you see Mr Clegg demanding another referendum on electoral reform? Even if he demands one – no one will comply – neither Labour nor the Tories will want one, and I would think both parties would rather go back to the polls than risk a referendum on PR which could lead to permanent coalition and a significant reduction of seats for both parties.

    I am looking at the arguments of FPTP vs AV and despite the awful campaign of NO2AV, I feel that the FPTP system has more merits to AV. Firstly, it delivers strong goverment and only twice in the post war period has it led to coalition government. Secondly AV seems to favour candidates who are least unpopular rather than candidates that are popular. People will vote to keep one candidate out rather than put a candidate into Parliament – and it could lead to having a MP who no one really wanted. Take the Labour leadership election – Ed Miliband got elected because the supporters of Abbott and Balls voted to keep David out not because they particularly wanted Ed.

    Finally, one think that really annoys me is how the Yes campaign keep bleating on about the fact that “MPs will need 50% of the vote” and that “FPTP leads to people being elected without the majority support of their constituents”. AV WILL NOT NECESSARILY REMEDY THIS PROBLEM. Firstly, there are over one third of seats where candidates do have 50% support under AV and therefore they have the support of a majority of their constituents. AV only guarantees that the winner has a majority of support amongst the last two candidates. Consider the following scenario: Labour win 40%, Tories win 40% and L Dem win 20%. The LD candidate is eliminated – 6% transfer to the Tories, 5% to Labour, but an overwhelming 9% decide not to transfer at all. It will be shown that the Tories have 50.5% vs Labour 49.5% when the LD is eliminated, but the Tories only have 46% support of the voters (40% 1st pref plus 6% LD transfers). Thus, the Tory does not command a majority of support of its constituents.

    On the whole, I was pretty undecided, but over the last few weeks – I have moved into the NO campaign. I urge all supporters of PR to vote NO2AV – because AV will be worse than what we currently have and who knows how long you will have to wait before you get a referendum on PR.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 5th Apr '11 - 1:55pm

    Please understand that the LIbDem argument for AV is one based on opportunism rather based on principles. LibDems will support whatever electoral system that increases their chances of being elected – and would have been quite happy, if the electoral arithmentic had been in their favour to force though an electoral system which the other parties did not support without such a system having been endorsed by the elctrorate in a referendum. I can remember the vehemence that some LibDems showed for voting systems such as AV when they were obsessed with STV in multimember seats.

    On the other some of support AV on its own merits because we believe it offers the best balance between maintaining the link between an MP and his/her constituents and local communities and proportionality/fairness of the overall national result, rather than some narrow party political interest. Quite frankly if the AV referendum is to be won – the more concentration there is on the overall principles and the less focus there is mind numbing LibDem analysis of elctoral systems then the better it will be.

    On the other hand Chigsee would be able to get back to the old LibDem game of designing perfect electoral systems which no one supports or undertstands and actually have zero chance of implementation.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 5th Apr '11 - 1:57pm

    My other advice to LibDems on AV would be more Charles Kennedy and less Nick Clegg. But come to think of it that is my advice to LibDems on most things.

  • LondonLiberal 5th Apr '11 - 2:29pm

    @ Chigsee

    Your arguments against AV are flawed.

    1. FPTP delivers strong government. John Major’s government was not strong, and nor was government in Tony Blair’s last few years, despite his healthy majority. Why? becuase internal factions on both occasions undermined the leadership and the successful design and implementation of policy. Both were single-party governments but were not ‘strong’. The ‘strongest’ Government in your terms is probably in China or North Korea – ‘strength’ isn’t always the best single objective to strive for. But since you want it, most of Europe has PR and ‘strong’ governments (Belgium and Italy excepted). Australia has AV and ‘strong’ governments. Your argument simply does not hold any basis in experience.

    2. FPTP has only twice led to coalition since 1945. FPTP is great for a two party system. But these days a third of voters regularly back neither Labour nor Tory parties. In this world, which is greatly changed since 1945, FPTP does not represent people’s views effectively, and that is bad for democracy. In fact it is not democracy.

    3. AV favours the least unpopular, not the most popular. A nice soundbite but wrong. AV favours the candidate who can garner the most support – FPTP helps the candidate who can motivate his narrow base the best, leading to extermist candidates winning. AV also allows voters to express the full range of preferences. London Mayoral elections have AV and i, as a left-leaning liberal can vote for the libdem candidate, who i want to win, knowing that when he/she doesn’t win, my preference for Ken over Boris will still give me a voice in the essentially two-horse race. AV allows any voter to be represented in the ballot box no matter how safe the seat, something you shouldn’t dismiss lightly.

    4. people will vote to keep ne candidate out, not to get one elected. That is what happens in a great number of seats now! FPTP leads directly and inexorably to such things, it’s called ‘tactical voting’, and most voters have at some point been forced to make that decision. FPTP is the cause of such behaviour to a much greater degree than AV ever would be.

    5. Your last point is a bit odd. No one ever says AV would mean that MPs would have the support of 50% of people, how can any system tell the intentions of people that don’t vote? It is of course 50% of voters. And AV delivers that.

  • Old Codger Chris 5th Apr '11 - 5:09pm

    @LondonLiberal
    Regarding your point 3, AV may work well for electing a mayor but it’s not so great for turning votes into seats in Parliament.

    Actually the London Mayoral elections are conducted by Supplementary Vote which I reckon is better than AV because –
    (a) If no candidate gets 50% of first preferences, the second preferences of electors who favoured ANY candidate other than the “top two” are ALWAYS counted
    (b) There can be no nonsense about third, let alone fourth, preferences.

  • LondonLiberal 5th Apr '11 - 5:10pm

    @ AV2011

    Best define ‘plumping’ before devoting a whole post to it.

    But to take your point that AV will not guarantee that winning MPs will have received 50%+1 of all votes, it will guarantee that this is the case in the final count, just as FPTP does in the first (and only) count. If people don’t want to express any preferences, and thus have no final count, that is their choice. If they do, this system allows for that. I really don’t see what is so objectionable to the notion of giving people a greater ability to express their desires as to who represents them. Why should you deny that opportunity to those that want it?

    And i must disagree with Dr Thomas Lundberg. Andrew’s article eloquently makes the case against Dr T so i won’t repeat it.

    ps. it’s helpful if you use your name when posting on sites like this.

  • LondonLiberal 5th Apr '11 - 5:12pm

    @ Old Codger Chris

    “AV may work well for electing a mayor but it’s not so great for turning votes into seats in Parliament.”

    Why?

  • Old Codger Chris 5th Apr '11 - 5:22pm

    @LondonLiberal
    No system other than a sensible form of PR is suitable for electing an assembly dominated by political parties.

    Obviously that also applies to FPTP so it’s just a case of which system is worse. There are arguments on both sides but the No2AV-Yes2PR website sums it up for me (and the arguments should be judged on their merits, ignoring any anti-David Owen sentiments).

  • >Please understand that the LIbDem argument for AV is one based on opportunism rather based on principles.

    Whereas all those Labour and Conservative MPs in jobs-for-life safe seats are keen for FPTP to remain PURELY in the best interests of voters 😉
    And the thought of ruling the country single-handed for five years with just 35.3% of the vote (2005) isn’t in their minds at all.

    Meanwhile, here in Wales, we’ll choose between AV and FPTP on one ballot paper – while filling in two to elect our AMs via MMP. Deemed good enough for us, but apparently not worth considering for Westminster.

    At least in the Assembly elections, my list vote counts for something. In General Elections, I might as well not bother.

    I don’t know if AV’s great, but it can’t be any worse than being totally disenfranchised.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 5th Apr '11 - 8:35pm

    Cassie

    I’m in favour of AV – all I’m saying is that it should be argued for on the level of straightforward principles – as you have done rather than getting boigged down in technicalities about voting systems, which everyone knows is a favourite topic of the dominant anorak tendency within the LibDems.

    At least the leader of my Party supports AV based on principles and probably has little to gain from its implementation. On the other hand Nick Clegg believes it to be a nasty little compromise which he thereefore presumably supports on the basis of self interest rather than as a principled stand. I’m afraid the days of LibDems trying to claim the moral high ground will only return after a long period of electoral oblivion.

  • I really don’t understand Clegg. Given a golden opportunity to speak up for AV on Newsnight tonight what was his main (and seemingly only) argument – that we had to get rid of FPTP because of the expenses scandal and that everything would change with AV – so on one side of the argument there’s that nonsense and on the other there’s Cameron moaning about the cost (more nonsense). At the moment the debate as portrayed by the leadership yes or no has all the intellectual ability of a gnat…..

  • David Owen has lost his marbles. I could not believe that article he wrote on No2AV Yes2PR. If the country votes No then no-one reading this blog will be alive when and if PR is ever considered in the far distant future.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 6th Apr '11 - 9:29am

    peebee

    The best thing that Clegg can do to support AV is to come out for FPTP, the next best thing he can do is say nothing on the matter and just concentrate on his internship with the Tories.

  • Tory Boy: for the umptimillionth time … Nick Clegg does not believe AV to be a “nasty” (or slightly more accurately “miserable”) little compromise.

    He described Labour’s coalition negotiating offer as a miserable little compromise. AV was one part of that offer, but the offer as a whole wasn’t sufficient to seriously consider going into coalition.

    Clegg was elected as party leader by AV after all …

  • toryboysnevergrowup 6th Apr '11 - 1:12pm

    Ed

    I think you will find that he described AV as a “miserable little compromise” and a “baby step in the right direction” before the election – look at the Independent dated 22 April 2010.

    He is clearly not able to argue for AV on the grounds of conviction and he should leave it to others who are – he also isn’t a vote winner at present so if possible the Yes campaign should hide him away and concentrate on a straightforward campaign expounding the virtues of AV.

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