Simon Hughes writes… Why Vote Yes: Believe in better democracy

On May 5th our country will have an historic opportunity.

For the first time the people of Britain will have the choice as to how they will elect their Members of Parliament.

Liberal Democrats must take an active role in this campaign, as we should with every opportunity to make our democracy more representative.

Our society and our politics have moved on from the two-party system that existed 60 years ago, when over 9 out of 10 of the electorate voted for one of the two largest parties. Today there is more real political choice and many more people choose to avail themselves of it.

The continuation of our two-party electoral system in our multi-party society has meant that many people’s choices are simply disregarded, and this leads to plainly undemocratic outcomes.

There are MPs in the House of Commons today who are elected with the votes of less than one third of the voters in their constituencies. Research (from the IPPR) shows that only around 460,000 people — less than 2 in a 100 of the electorate – in the end decided the result of the last election. This is simply not good enough and we must do better.

The ‘No to AV’ campaign is a bizarre coalition of communists, fascists, free market fundamentalists and some of the country’s trade unions.

We should also not forget that the ‘No to AV’ campaign is bankrolled by the TaxPayers’ Alliance, and managed by a campaign director who authored a report calling for £50bn of immediate cuts – then said that figure should be tripled.

What unites this coalition of political conservatives is the crude defence of current power – either because they do not believe in democracy or because they benefit from a system which produces undemocratic outcomes. Extremists such as the BNP will never have a chance of winning a seat in Parliament if forced to gain a majority. Trade Unions nominate candidates to safe seats around the country, the democratic equivalent of a closed shop, and sadly some have little interest in appealing to a wider electorate.

We are campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote because we believe in better democracy, and that although not perfect AV allows for better representation of the views of the public. Fairer votes will also force Labour and Conservative candidates to do what I and every one of my Liberal Democrat colleagues have had to do to be elected and to be re-elected. In future, every general election candidate should have to fight for every single vote in every constituency.

We must now go out and win the argument – and the vote.

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28 Comments

  • Richard Heathcote 24th Mar '11 - 4:34pm

    “The ‘No to AV’ campaign is a bizarre coalition of communists, fascists, free market fundamentalists and some of the country’s trade unions. ”

    Nice way to label the Tory party and David Owen.

  • Richard Heathcote 24th Mar '11 - 4:40pm

    “Fairer votes will also force Labour and Conservative candidates to do what I and every one of my Liberal Democrat colleagues have had to do to be elected and to be re-elected. In future, every general election candidate should have to fight for every single vote in every constituency. ”

    With reference to ths point also i think you will find it a bit harder to campaign the same way as previous elections its hard to appear left wing in some areas and right wing in others after being in this coalition government and i really dont think that approach will be beleived any more.

  • “Extremists such as the BNP will never have a chance of winning a seat in Parliament if forced to gain a majority.”

    At the moment I’m minded to abstain, because what Lib Dems have always meant by “fairness” in the past is proportionality, and AV is no more proportional than FPTP.

    The consideration that pushes me towards the “No” camp is the sense in which this is a change that’s being advocated because it favours particular parties, or conversely because it tends to reduce the representation of other political parties. Changing the electoral system for party advantage (or disadvantage) is a very dangerous thing to try to do, and Simon Hughes’s statement about the BNP – loathsome though the BNP is – does nothing to reassure me.

  • We should not forget the yes to AV campaign is funded by the Electoral Reform Society who stand to benefit as their company, Electoral Reform Services Ltd, stands to gain from changes to the voting system and are even running this referendum.

    As for our post-two-party-society, just wait until the next general election, thanks to the Coalition and the slump in support for the Lib Dems, the two main parties will gain 80% of the vote.

    The 2010 election saw the worst share of the vote for the two main parties in a long time, yet 48% of the people who voted got the person they voted for as their MP. So even in a really bad year for FPTP we’ve nearly got a majority of satisfied voters, and we know next time under FPTP a majority of satisfied voters is very likely.

    Now lets consider the result next time under the Alternative Vote, because it relies on compromise the effect will always be fewer people getting their first preference as MP. Voter satisfaction can only ever be less under AV, and the only way to improve it is for one politician to become more popular at the expense of another.

    Don’t blame the voting system for the failure of politicians to make compelling arguments or even avoid defrauding the taxpayer.

  • While I’m at it, FPTP is no more a “two-party electoral system” than AV. The difference is simply that the Lib Dems will do better under AV because they tend to attract more second preferences than other parties.

    As Simon Hughes acknowledges, AV works against parties of the right and left. If the third party happened to be a party of the right or left, then AV – not FPTP – would be the “two-party electoral system.”

  • “So even in a really bad year for FPTP we’ve nearly got a majority of satisfied voters.”

    I say this ironically obviously, but as I voted LibDem and got a LibDem MP (he’s now a minister) I’m feeling pretty unsatisfied at the moment.

  • @Charles
    “…48% of the people who voted got the person they voted for as their MP.”
    This is certainly not true of the last election and I don’t know from where this figure was extrapolated. You claim to know that FPTP will satisfy most voters at the next election, but tell those voters that there could still be a result resembling the last one where there was only a 6% difference between Labour and the Liberal Democrats’ share of the vote, yet Labour won 5 times as many seats (think about it!) ; alternatively, tell those voters that the Conservatives increased their share of the vote by less than 4%, yet increased their seat total by 40%.
    Alright don’t tell them, just let them into the dirty little secret that most of the papers they read refuse even to mention and see if they don’t want to change the voting system.

  • Sean

    What you’re saying is that a system should be proportional to be fair, which has always been the party’s line in the past.

    The problem is that AV is no more proportional than FPTP. Certainly it would benefit the Lib Dems to a moderate extent, and thereby bring their representation a bit closer to proportionality, but that’s only a coincidental consequence of the fact that the Lib Dems tend to receive more second preferences than others.

  • @Red Orange
    “The problem is that AV is no more proportional than FPTP.”

    Point taken. Although I didn’t mention AV by name I did give that impression.

    However, if MPs are elected by a greater share of their voters it will go a long way to engaging them with the process and one day, just one day, it may lead us to adopt the proportional system where fairer votes really would be fair.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Mar '11 - 11:12am

    AV is not proportional. The only significant difference from FPTP is that it ends the way in which people are forced to vote for the candidate who is not their real preference because of the fear of “splitting the vote”.

    The distortional effect of giving representation only to those who are locally the most popular party (i.e. minorities get NO representation) is one reason why FPTP generally delivers an absolute majority to one party in Parliament. The other reason is that FPTP forces voters to second-guess what their fellow voters will be going for in order to avoid “splitting the vote”, and that second-guessing generally involves going for a major party labelled candidate. AV takes away the second cause of single-party governments, but keeps the first.

    The supporters of FPTP say they want to keep the system because it generally leads to single-party governments, but they do not have the honesty to explain the mechanics of why it does. Labour supporters of FPTP also do not have the honesty to admit their line means the only honest criticism they should be giving of Nick Clegg is that he has tried to make some modification to Tory policy. If your line is – as it is for Labour opponents of AV – that representation should be distorted in favour of the largest party in order to give that largest party complete control of government, because you think single-party is better than one which is based on proportional representation, then surely if it should happen that the system does not quite distort enough one year you should take the position that government should be run as if it was properly distorted i.e. it should be run just by the biggest party with the third party always voting for whatever the biggest party wants without question in order to give that desirable single-party government effect.

    The HONEST argument against AV is “We support a system which forces people to vote for the big parties and then distorts representation even more in their favour, because we think that is a good thing”. The corollary of this is “We think David Cameron and the Tories should be in COMPLETE control of government now, we think Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats should just vote the Tory line to enable that”.

  • Matthew Huntbach

    The fact that you spend so much of your time producing caricatures of the “No” arguments, and so little arguing positively for AV, is just another indication of how weak the positive arguments are.

    For example, is it really such a big improvement that people should be given the ability to register a first-preference vote for the party of their choice in seats where that party is in third place, if that first-preference vote has no influence on the outcome of the election? No doubt this has some value in allowing the voter to make a gesture, but of course the real, practical benefit will be felt not by the voters, but by the party that tends to receive most second preference votes.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Mar '11 - 12:19pm

    RedOrange

    What you’re saying is that a system should be proportional to be fair, which has always been the party’s line in the past.

    It is still the party’s line.

    It has been yet another example of the poor tactic of exaggerating the influence it has as a very junior partner in the coalition that the leadership of the Liberal Democrats and those responsible for the party’s national publicity have given the impression that AV has switched from being “a miserable little compromise” to being just what the party wanted all along and a major gain. It would have been MUCH better on this – and on many other things – if the Liberal Democrats had said “Yes, it’s a compromise, it only goes a small way to what we really want, and we’re supporting it only because it moves things a little towards what we really want from the pure Conservative Party position”.

    The Liberal Democrats gain from AV only in those constituencies where they are in second place, and close enough to the first placed candidate in order to be able to win from second and later preferences. There aren’t that many of those. The Liberal Democrats make almost no gain from AV in those constituencies where they are third placed because that means they will be eliminated before they can benefit from transfer votes. A win from third place under AV can only happen if there are enough votes for fourth and fifth placed candidates to give transfers to push the third placed candidate to second placed. There may be a few such constituencies, particularly in Scotland and Wales where there is a substantial nationalist party vote, but I doubt there are any in England. It would be possible for a third-placed LibDem candidate to run an appeal for tactical first-preference votes on the grounds that if the LibDem comes second, s/he will win from transfers, whereas if the LibDem comes third, the second placed candidate is bound to lose. I rather feel, however, that such an appeal would be too mathematically sophisticated to work.

    So, AV is a little to the Liberal Democrats’ advantage, but less so than a proportional system. If the LibDems are accused of arguing for it for party advantage, well, the same accusation can equally be made for Conservative and Labour people arguing for FPTP. Many people, myself included, joined the Liberal Democrats or their predecessors parties after already having been convinced of the merits of proportional representation, with the party’s support for electoral reform being one of the factors leading to joining it. If we were unprincipled people arguing for electoral reform only for narrow party advantage, that would be a silly tactic. Join a smallish political party that is savagely underrepresented due to the electoral system, spend a lifetime working for it, arguing for electoral reform just because all one wants is power? No, if all I was interested in was power, not principles, I would have joined Labour or the Conservatives in the first place.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Mar '11 - 12:31pm

    RedOrange

    The fact that you spend so much of your time producing caricatures of the “No” arguments,

    In what way is what I write a “caricature”? The main argument of the anti-AV people is that the current system is more likely to lead to single-party government, and that is a good thing. All I have done is explain the mechanics of why FPTP is more likely to lead to single-party government. If you think I am wrong, then argue why I am on wrong on the grounds of those mechanics. I have explained these mechanics in several places now, and not once has an anti-AV person been able to raise a serious argument against them.

    Far from this being a caricature, I believe I am hitting the core argument. It is a sign of the useless nature of those leading the official pro-AV campaign that they are unable to hit the core argument in this way.


    and so little arguing positively for AV, is just another indication of how weak the positive arguments are.

    No, I have explained very carefully the positive argument for AV – that it removes the “must vote for A to avoid splitting the vote and letting in B” fear. I have written this and explained it again and again. If you think my arguments are weak why is it that neither you nor anyone else has been able to raise an argument against what I have been saying on this?

    Yes, I support AV only on the grounds that it has this argument in its favour against FPTP and the choice being offered on May 5 is only between those two systems. If STV were on offer, I would be arguing for STV, but STV is not on offer. But isn’t this just the sort of line the anti-AV people are giving? That is, that it is good to have only two choices, and it’s good to force people to choose one or the other even if their real preference is for a third option?

  • The argument for me is like being asked if I want a broken leg or a broken arm. As I’ve want neither but don’t want to swap limping for being unable to hold things I’ll probably stay where I am……

    I do not want FPTP, but see AV as no better. Sorry I’ve read most of the literature and remain unconvinced. It has not been helped by both camps failing to tell the truth, the No camps frankly ridiculous statements on cost, not to mention Nick Cleggs promise no votes will be wasted. Neither were true. The biggest joke to me was the ERS removing the page showing the failings of AV from their website. Not since Paul on the road to Damascus has such a transformation been achieved, a miserable little compromise has become the promised land.

    And frankly, it doesn’t matter what electoral system is in place if MP’s follow Simon’s lead and pledge to do one thing during a campaign and then betray those who voted on the strength of it. We could start getting better democracy if those we elect bother to keep their word.

  • Matthew Huntbach

    Self-evidently it’s no longer the party line that a system needs to be proportional to be fair – because we’re being told every five minutes that AV is “fairer” than FPTP, and the party is running an official “Yes! to Fairer Votes” campaign.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Mar '11 - 2:37pm

    RedOrange

    Self-evidently it’s no longer the party line that a system needs to be proportional to be fair – because we’re being told every five minutes that AV is “fairer” than FPTP, and the party is running an official “Yes! to Fairer Votes” campaign.

    Sorry, but do you know the difference between the words “fairer” and ‘fair”? You might as well say that I’m a tall man because I’m taller than my wife. I am actually a rather short man, but then my wife is shorter than me. Just because I am taller than someone who is shorter than me does not mean I am “tall”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Mar '11 - 2:41pm

    Steve Way

    I do not want FPTP, but see AV as no better.

    Why? I have explained that AV removes the “must vote for A even though I like C better because I don’t want to split the vote and let in B” argument, though it does not provide proportional representation. So, what is your argument for saying the removal of the “split vote” penalty against voting for candidates who one thinks may not be in the top two is such an unimportant or irrelevant thing that it counts for nothing whatsoever when considering FPTP against AV?

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Mar '11 - 2:46pm

    Steve Way

    And frankly, it doesn’t matter what electoral system is in place if MP’s follow Simon’s lead and pledge to do one thing during a campaign and then betray those who voted on the strength of it. We could start getting better democracy if those we elect bother to keep their word.

    As ever, what one can do when elected depends on how many other MPs there are who got elected and agree with it. That’s democracy for you. When I was elected as a councillor and found myself in a minority, quite obviously I could not do what I would have been able to do if my party had a majority on the council. As a consequence I very often spent my time trying to get through minor modifications to council policies with which I disagreed. If one is in a position where that’s all one can do, it’s better than doing nothing.

  • @Matthew Huntbach
    Re: Integrity
    Sorry but whilst I would agree with you about most things, when a personal pledge is made to electors and then dropped within months of the election it is simply dishonest.

    Re: Split Votes
    I think it will encourage more tactical voting then it will discourage. For example, between coalition partners after all at the next round of debates Nick doesn’t think there will be anything left to argue about. I also think it is a falicy that people state MPs will need the support of at least 50% of the voters. Even if mathematically that were true (it’s not if people do not use their 2nd, 3rd votes etc) the real truth is that often we are talking about least worst options not candidates we support.

    Finally, I now live in the South West Devon constituency. A vote for anyone other than Tory has been wasted here for years and would continue to be even were AV in place. STV allows people to vote for their true preference and stops votes being wasted AV does not. STV would give us a proportional parliament, AV doesn’t. For tens of thousands of voters AV achieves nothing at all.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Mar '11 - 3:09pm

    Steve Way

    The biggest joke to me was the ERS removing the page showing the failings of AV from their website. Not since Paul on the road to Damascus has such a transformation been achieved, a miserable little compromise has become the promised land.

    Er, no, no-one who previously believed STV or some other form of proportional representation was the best ever system has come out and said “Now I believe AV is the best possible system”. But STV is not on offer.

    If the “No to AV” campaign were criticising AV on the basis that it isn’t as good as STV, then you’d have a point. But they aren’t, are they? They are doing the exact opposite – they are criticising even the small reform over FPTP that is AV as too much. Therefore, it is quite evident that any vote against AV will be see as a vote against ANY sort of electoral reform, no-one will see it as a vote against AV on the grounds that it isn’t a big enough reform.

    Again, this is practical democratic politics. If, because you did not get the voting support you needed to do all you want, you are in a situation where there are two options, one marginally preferable to the other, then you do what you can to support the marginally preferable one – unless you are really sure that in a short time you will be in a position to put in place what you really want. And I think we can very much agree that the Liberal Democrats will NOT be in that position in the near future …

    Personally I believe the way the Liberal Democrats leadership and national PR people are campaigning for AV is seriously mistaken. I believe we should be open about this being just a minor reform, but the best we could get in our position as a junior partner in a coalition with over five times as many MPs from the bigger party. But then what do you expect when it is led by the man who threw away the voting potential in our 2010 general election campaign? In past campaigns we have gone up from where we started, in this Sharkey-led campaign we went down. The man is an utter failure, and it is a mark of the uselessness of who appointed him to run the LibDem yes-to-AV campaign that this was not recognised then. At least, that’s putting aside all conspiracy theories, I always think cock-up is the likeliest explanation.

    Now practical politics means that if one has previously argued against a position, but one is in a situation where there is just a choice between that position and a position one regards as even worse, one does not carry on promoting one’s initial arguments against that position. Come on now, this is everyday stuff. When the Labour or Conservative parties select a prospective Parliamentary candidate, do those who were in favour of some other candidate keep up all the arguments they made against the one who won the selection? Of course they do not, out of discretion they put them away. Is there anyone in the Labour Party who was against Ed Mlliband as leader, or in the Conservatives who was against David Cameron as leader, who has not by now withdrawn from their website any attacks on those who won those leadership elections?

  • Old Codger Chris 25th Mar '11 - 5:26pm

    @Matthew Huntbach
    “If the No to AV campaign were criticising AV on the basis that it isn’t as good as STV, then you’d have a point. But they aren’t, are they?”
    The official No2AV campaign is certainly more guilty of distortion than the Yes2AV campaign – but it is possible for a supporter of PR to believe that AV is – on balance – even worse than FPTP. I know David Owen isn’t every Lib Dem’s favourite politician (and he certainly isn’t mine) but his arguments against AV make a lot of sense – see http://www.no2av-yes2pr.org/

    “Personally I believe the way the Liberal Democrats leadership and national PR people are campaigning for AV is seriously mistaken”.
    Matthew is absolutely right about this – and it’s why a Yes result in May might damage the prospects of PR even more than a No result – although the very fact of this flawed referendum is damaging to reform in itself. If this was the best the Lib Dems could extract in the coalition agreement they should have dropped the referendum demand altogether, provided they could extract a concession of more immediate importance to the country and party (tuition fees perhaps?).

    Even more blame should be heaped on the Electoral Reform Society, Their previous conclusion on AV – that it was unfit, except for the election of a single post-holder – has been replaced with a ringing endorsement. If the ERS were now saying “we think AV is a bit better than FPTP” they would have retained their credibility. As it is, it will be hard to take the once respected ERS seriously again, whatever the result in May.

  • “Sorry, but do you know the difference between the words “fairer” and ‘fair”? You might as well say that I’m a tall man because I’m taller than my wife. I am actually a rather short man, but then my wife is shorter than me. Just because I am taller than someone who is shorter than me does not mean I am “tall”.”

    A silly bit of semantics.

    If the criterion for “fairness” were still proportionality, then obviously AV could be described as fairer than FPTP only if it were more proportional than FPTP. As you know, it’s not.

  • @Matthew Huntbach
    “If the “No to AV” campaign were criticising AV on the basis that it isn’t as good as STV, then you’d have a point. But they aren’t, are they? They are doing the exact opposite – they are criticising even the small reform over FPTP that is AV as too much.”

    Actually some of them are saying exactly that…

    http://www.no2av.org/why-vote-no/what-about-pr/

    “Therefore, it is quite evident that any vote against AV will be see as a vote against ANY sort of electoral reform, no-one will see it as a vote against AV on the grounds that it isn’t a big enough reform.”

    Again wrong. If the Government wanted to ask that question they could have asked it in the referendum. This is a referendum on AV nothing else. And to quote the ERS..

    “AV is thus not a proportional system, and can in fact be more disproportional than FPTP… It does very little to improve the voice of traditionally under-represented groups in parliament, strengthening the dominance of the ‘central’ viewpoint.”

    As for your point about marginally preferable systems, if AV can turn out to be less proportional than FPTP it is not preferable to me. For the ERS to on the one hand claim a system can be less proportional, then claim it offers fairer votes is just hypocrisy.

    I want my vote to count AV will not do that, it could lead to a distortion filled by those unwilling to take definitive positions, or worse those who lie to the electorate in order to gain a few second or third preference votes then fail to follow through on promises when elected.

    Which takes me right back to the integrity of some of those promoting change….

  • This referendum has been hyped up to sound like the greatest thing since the Great Reform Act. Actually it’s a depressing fudge offered as a consolation prize from the coalition negotiations with Cameron. AV a feast for pointy headed anoracks dealing in hypothesis and theroretical outcomes and about as exciting as watching windsreeen wipers. I’ll be voting for neither of the above.

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