Opinion: Why Lib Dems should have no reservations about campaigning for AV

Lib Dems are necessarily an introspective bunch, given to minute analysis of the implications of our own policies in order to ensure they’re entirely fair & liberal. As a consequence, the compromises involved in the coalition agreement (and the practices thereof) have come as something of a brutal shock to many party members – most significantly over the VAT increase. I still find that unbelievable – why on earth would you raise a transaction tax when demand is weak? However, that’s not the issue at hand, which is the Alternative Vote.

The Alternative Vote works by enabling the voter to rank candidates in order of preference. At the election, all the first preferences are added up, and if no candidate has over 50%, the candidate with the fewest first preferences is removed from the counting and the second preferences on those ballot slips are used instead. This continues until one candidate reaches 50%+1 of the vote. It therefore guarantees that to any candidate must have the support (at some level) of at least 50% of the electorate of that constituency. This stands in contrast to First Past The Post, under which a candidate could win the election while being despised by, say, 70% of the electorate – who voted for three different candidates instead.

This doesn’t necessarily produce proportional results – although it’s more likely to do so than FPTP. This is why some Lib Dems are having worries about campaigning for it – it’s not as proportional as our preferred option, STV, and might in some cases be less so than the present system.

Why, then, should we campaign for it? The answer is to ask why we want proportional representation in the first place. It’s not, as our opponents will typically claim, because it produces better results for us. Rather, it’s because it hands more power to more people – it’s more likely that the preference for a set of policies you express when voting for a party will have an influence on what’s actually undertaken by the government. More people will have influence over the outcome, enhancing the power of the whole demos.

While AV isn’t necessarily as proportional as we would prefer, it necessarily gives more people influence over the outcome of the election than FPTP, and is therefore preferable if distributing power more widely is your aim. I know that the latter is why I joined the Liberal Democrats.

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  • The answer to the `we can’t afford to have the election now` and `it’s all to do with gaining more power for the Lib Dems` arguments are as follows:

    1. In many places we would lose out
    2. Why is it right that someone could live their whole adult life voting for a mainstream party and never have the opportunity to seriously elect a representative of that persons favoured party to an English body
    3. Are Labour just resisting just so that it helps themselves
    4. Tie it in with other arguments as a whole package – ie devolution and spreading power

    And the clincher for me:

    `So this isn’t the right time to make changes – can you tell me of a time when it will be?`

  • David Morton 3rd Jul '10 - 1:29pm

    The Timing is ( almost certainly deliberately ) poor. A full year in the honeymoon will be over, a month into the new financial year the public sector job losses will have started,the VAT rise will have been in for months and lets speculate if the recovery is dipping there will be no private sector stimulus to pick up the pieces.

    In those circumstances it’s going to be very, very easy to draw up socially conservative and anti politics narratives for a NO vote. Andy Burnham is away with the first of them. As austerity bites the Lib Dems ( and this will in due course be a Referendum about the Lib Dems ) want to discuss organic houmous and artisan pitta bread from political Waitrose while everyone elese is shifting to political Morrisons for a cheap loaf and butter.

  • paul barker 3rd Jul '10 - 2:38pm

    It comes down to a question of whether you are serious or not. AV is the best we might get through this Parliament, its the only game in town. We may not win but we must not lose because we didnt give it 100%.

  • Andrea Gill 3rd Jul '10 - 3:47pm

    The fairness aspect needs highlighting more than anything IMHO

  • John Emerson 3rd Jul '10 - 4:41pm

    Sorry to be somewhat pendantic, but AV doesn’t necessarily require a canditate to win 50+% of the vote, as they will be a significant numbers of voters who will only put down a first preference. Also there probably still will be tactical voting especially in 3-way marignals. That said AV is a (marginal) improvement on FPTP. My problem it that whether the referendum passes or fails, it will most likely, be at least another generation before the can be a further referendum on voting reform.

  • David Morton 3rd Jul '10 - 6:09pm

    There will also be a strong anti austerity narrative to the NO campaign. If the AV vote is the “only” thing the Lib Dems got out of the coalition and the coalition only happened because of the Lib Dems then you can oit against each other AV versus the worst bit of the coalition. I’d go for

    ( a) Nick Clegg’s Price (b) Your Price/ The Real Price

    or a simplier ” A price worth paying? ”

    The posters will write themselves, a pensioner opening a bill, a front line uniformed public sector worker opening a redundancy notice or a garduation picture split screened with a picture of the same person in McUniform asking for your order.

    personal austerity blamed on a gaovernment, the government blamed on the lib dems, the lib dems did it all for x/

    The biggest danger in all of this is it becomes a national by election with AV as the incumbant held just as the economy is deflating helped on its way by the budget.

  • David Allen 3rd Jul '10 - 10:53pm

    “Surely one of our strongest arguments after the budget starts to bite is that the Tories would never have been able to impose such harsher measures if the election had been fairer?”

    This argument will convince the voters, if and only if, we rediscover our voice and show that we are an effective and continuing constraint on Tory neo-Thatcherism. It will fail to convince the voters if we let them conclude that we sold out for five Cabinet seats and a referendum.

  • David Morton 3rd Jul '10 - 11:20pm

    You can’t follow the logic in my argument because its not logical its emotional. ( nor is it my argument but i may not have been clear ) You’ve written enough leaflets in your time to know that framing the question that people think they are answering in the ballot box is half the battle and that punchy, emotional campaigns can work.

    AV is a small, technical reform of something most people don’t think about very much. The capacity to reframe the referendum as being about something else by either YES or NO camps is vast. It seems reasonable to tease out what some of those reframing might be.

  • AV isn’t even watered down P.R. It’s multiple diluted P.R. like some quack homeopathic remedy.

    Not that it’s going to happen anyway.
    The Conservative 1922 Committee is going after the threshholds and will try to amend the wording of the Bill.
    Those in Labour who say they support it will not campaign for it very hard if at all, while the rest of Labour will actively campaign against it.

    Cameron has also stitched Clegg up by agreeing to hold it on the same day as the Scottish Elections since they will easily have the largest turnout and they will also be the place where the Liberals being in Government and Cutting hand in hand with the Conservatives will be the most deadly to them.

    But look on the bright side, the Liberals are totally locked in to the Coalition even if Liberal poll numbers drop into single figures. Dave and Nick made sure of that.
    So even if AV passed Dave is under no obligation to hold the next Election under it unless he thinks the Liberals are behaving ‘appropriately’. Something Nick seems to have neglected to mention to the rank and file.

    There is no escape. The Liberals are the Conservative’s fall guy for the next five years.

    Danny Alexander is currently dashing around asking for 40% cuts. Guess who will be the face of those cuts ?

  • David Morton 3rd Jul '10 - 11:56pm

    The next aspect of this is the bluring of this issue with that of the 10% cut in MP numbers and subsequent boundry review. To date this has been mild with the two issues being in the same bill and Clegg fronting both as part of his DPM porfolio. However today we have press reports that its being confirmed thatA V won’t become operational even if passed in a referendum , until the new boundries are in place.

    As an aside, if true this is a huge development because it puts the next election being held under AV under a double not single lock. Its also a huge rewriting of the coalition agreement in the style of the CGT watering down.

    However to stick to the referendum its self. While the boundry review itsself won’t be on the ballot paper it can easierly, even legitimately be made a campaign issue if its linked to AV in this way.

    Surely cutting the number of MP’s is going to be popular? Perhaps but I fear in passing that a 10% cut fails the Use nor Ornament test. To small to radically slim down the chamber or impress a public seeing 25% cuts in front line services however to large not to make it a turkey’s voting for Christmas issue for sitting MP’s.

    It’s also widely alledged that a 10% cut in MP’s will (a) benefit the conservatives ( b) hit scotland and wales especially hard. Whether either of these allegations is either true or fair is not the purpose of this post. However surely allying a second major electoral change to the referendum campaign lends ammo to those poraying this as amassive stitch up of the system just as serious austerity and thus unpopularity starts to bite. In the case of Scotland and Wales being badly effected who will be voting in higher percentages that day because of the devolved elections? oh, its scotland and wales…

  • Anthony Aloysius St 3rd Jul '10 - 11:56pm

    “the Liberals are totally locked in to the Coalition even if Liberal poll numbers drop into single figures.”

    Surely, _especially_ if poll ratings fall into single figures (as is only to be expected, as they fell as low as 11% even when the party was in opposition in the last parliament).

  • Paul McKeown 4th Jul '10 - 1:13am

    Look it is all very simple.

    We have agreed to a plebiscite on AV. It’s not what we ideally like, but it’s the best we are going to get at this time, and it helps us, if only a little.

    There are some obstacles.

    The first is the number of Tory backwoodsmen who are trying to sabotage the whole thing before it even starts.

    No plebiscite? Pull the plug. F*ck it.

    A plebisicite with conditions attached. Pull the plug. F*ck it.

    A poisoned or loaded plebisicite? Pull the plug. F*ck it.

    A plebiscite in which the arguments for and against are not given equal airing? Pull the plug. F*ck it.

    After all, how can a partnership work, if the partner is a liar or a cheat? Get out, no matter what the consequences, you can’t be involved in a partnership in which your partner is making a fool of you.

    In the final analysis, I don’t believe this will happen. The Tories are idiots and they know that the Liberal Democrats aren’t fools, either. But it is well to bear the possibility in mind.

    More likely, is that Labour will go back on its pledge for the last three parliaments and its recent manifesto pledge. Some within Labour’s ranks think that it would work to their advantage to go back on their promise to the nation. I think it is actually unlikely, as, four out of five of their leadership candidates have come out publicly in favour of the referendum and of campaigning in its favour. Sadly, though, we know all too well the fractious nature of left wing politics.

    Again, though, it is simple. If the Tories play fair, if they allow the public a fair choice, but campaign against it, then the Lib Dems can have no complaint. But under those circumstances, if Labour were to go back on their word, then, of course, Lib Dems will draw their own conclusions.

    If we win a fair plebiscite, champagne.

    If we lose a fair plebiscite, the public will have spoken and Lib Dems will have to live with it.

    If another party decides to f*ck us up, though, that is different. We should work out which party it was, and react accordingly.

    All we are asking for is that the people should be given a fair choice. It’s not too much to ask for.

  • Putting new boundries in place within one Parliament is a herculean task.
    Even in a five year Parliament that didn’t also have to deal with historic cuts and a continuing Afghan quagmire

    It is also a very ‘convenient’ excuse for not implementing AV by the next election in locking boundry change completion to AV as Cameron has now done which, as has been noted, didn’t seem to be any part of the coalition agreement.

  • Andrew Purches 4th Jul '10 - 11:12am

    A “fairer” system AV might be,but it will not necessarily do the Lib Dems any favours. We will almost certainly cast into stone our minority status. We should be the leading party in Scotland,but thanks to their electoral system,we are barely in third place, and our representation in Europe is pitiful. The main problem is that in order to really benefit from any perceived gain that AV might provide,we need starry candidates with local and national pull and a simple catchy name for our party,which the two opposing parties are seeming to use somewhat disparagingly, that is The Liberal Party – period, no mimsey democratic pretensions. Everyone is by nature in our country a Democrat whatever party they might belong to: We are Liberals, and that is the core to any success we might have. Freemen of the U.K.,nothing more and nothing less, let us fight for fairness with AV on that premise. Andrew.

  • If you lose the referendum on AV will you withdraw from the coalition?

  • Paul McKeown 4th Jul '10 - 6:22pm


    If you lose the referendum on AV will you withdraw from the coalition?

    No. Only if the referendum were not held to be held, or held with preconditions, or held without a fair question being put, or sabotaged in some other way. Liberal Democrats will respect the popular wish. A few Tory backwoodsmen, appear to be attempting to sabotage the referendum, going by reports on Tory blogs. If those ultramontaine Tories succeeded, I couldn’t see the coalition lasting out the week. But, if the public had expressed the wish to retain FPTP, then that wish would be respected, without harm to the governing coalition.

  • I am a member of the labour party as some of you are aware and supportive of PR. I favour the regional party list system which was used during the European Elections. I do so for two reasons: it is truly proportional and it potentially gives one a potential choice of representatives within a region and therefore addresses the issue of retaining representatives at an enlarged constituency level and yet preserving proportionality. At present my parliamentary constituency is represented by a Tory. I know that she might not be sympathetic to me over certain issues because of the difference in our political viewpoints but I’m stuck with her. However, at the regional level I can choose between a number of EEC representatives one of whom is Labour. That is why I favour some modified form of this system for parliamentary representation. However, my concern about the AV referendum is that, if it is lost and FPTP is retained then there would probably not be another referendum on this issue for several years, perhaps even a generation. In which case, is it not right that the opportunity be seized so that the public can be offered a range of alternative forms of PR and vote accordingly? I know that your coalition agreement only makes provision for a referendum on AV and I would vote against that if it was to be introduced in combination with altered constituency boundaries based on inadequate voter registration which penalised Labour’s chances. In order to win the next election the Tories need to subsume traditional Labour voters within geographically larger Tory areas so that they will be lost to the Labour Party. Under truly proportional representation constituency boundaries would become otiose in terms of deciding who governs, of course, which is another reason for supporting PR. Anyway, that’s my position.

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