If you’re conflicted over AV join the club

Geraint Talfan Davies finds himself on the horns of a dilemma

I have voted in four referendums in my lifetime: one to keep Britain in what was then the European Economic Community, and the three devolution referendums in 1979, 1997 and 2011. I was too young to vote in the referendum that finally opened pubs in Cardiff on a Sunday, but not too young to take advantage of the result. A few years later, to eke out a lowly journalist’s salary, I even wrote publicity material for the Licenced Victuallers Association’s campaign to end Sunday closing throughout Wales for good.

In all of these plebiscites I did not have or would not have had any doubt about which way to vote: stay in Europe, create a Welsh Assembly (twice), and certainly give it lawmaking powers, and allow people to spend their Sunday leisure how they will.

The coming referendum on the introduction of the Alternative Vote for UK Parliamentary elections is different. The logical left side of my brain is fighting it out with the more intuitive right side, but neither looks like scoring a knockout blow. With only two weeks to go, things are getting desperate. I suspect that I am not alone.

As someone naturally inclined to favour proportional representation, and thinking that coalitions are no bad thing, I want to see a reform of the voting system. But everywhere you turn informed people will tell you that AV does not produce a proportional effect, and in fact can produce the very opposite. John Cox put forward this very point in the last issue of the IWA’s journal Agenda, republished on clickonwales here. He argued that “AV fails to reduce voter alienation and actually increases the power of party elites and the hegemony of the leading parties… AV will entrench the present two party dominance and will put a stop to further change.”

Cox was unequivocal. However, I would question several of his assumptions, particularly that the Australian experience will necessarily be replicated in the UK. Even so he is supported by no less an authority than the late Roy Jenkins, chair of the 1998 Independent Commission on the Voting System set up by Tony Blair that produced a report the then Prime Minister very quickly mislaid. The commission concluded that there were three principle objections to AV:

“First, so far from doing much to relieve disproportionality, it is capable of substantially adding to it. Second, its effects (on its own without any corrective mechanism) are disturbingly unpredictable. Third, it would in the circumstances of the last election (1997), which even if untypical is necessarily the one most vivid in the recollection of the public, and very likely in the circumstances of the next one too, be unacceptably unfair to the Conservatives.”

It added:

“Fairness in representation is a complex concept, and one to which the upholders of ‘first past the post’ do not appear to attach great importance. But it is one which, apart from anything else, inhibits a Commission appointed by a Labour government and presided over by a Liberal Democrat from recommending a solution which at the last election might have left the Conservatives with less than half of their proportional entitlement.”

It was this line of argument that led the commission to reject AV, but to recommend what it called AVplus – a combination of AV voting for single constituency members, topped up with additional members – on the lines later adopted for the Welsh Assembly elections – to secure a degree of proportionality. Even AVplus is not enough for the PR purists who usually opt for STV, the Single Transferable Vote. But at least it would be a more respectable staging post to a more full-hearted reform.

These arguments are certainly more persuasive than the distasteful and disingenuous political advertising by the NO to AV campaign – the kind of advertising that one might expect from a British Tea Party, where an apparent concern for democracy actually masks a deep contempt for honest and rational political debate. With unintended irony, one of its campaign films features Rik Mayall as the repulsive Alan B’Stard. If there were justice in this world, the NO to AV advertising would be the Yes campaign’s secret weapon.

But why am I still not fully persuaded to vote NO on 5 May, even by the even-handed rationality of the sainted Lord Jenkins?

First, it is possible that the ability of AV to produce a more disproportional result may only apply in certain kinds of elections, where the mood is swinging very heavily in one direction. The Jenkins Commission admitted that this possible effect would have been far less in 1983, 1987 and 1992. But if it were true, it would also pull the rug from under the argument that AV would lead to more coalitions. Opponents of AV cannot have it both ways.

Second, the purported injustice to the Conservative party may now be less, given that the Liberal Democrats have shown a willingness to side with whichever party has the largest number of seats.

Third, AV may have a degree of unpredictability compared with the current system, but that has to be weighed against the unpredictable feature of the current system, that accommodates tactical voting in the most opaque way. AV would bring tactical voting – a perfectly legitimate practice – out into the open. It would give voters a real choice rather than an impossible one. As even the Commission conceded, in Jenkinsite tones, AV:

“…would increase voter choice in the sense that it would enable voters to express their second and sometimes third or fourth preferences, and thus free them from a bifurcating choice between realistic and ideological commitment or, as it sometimes is called, voting tactically.”

As these conflicting arguments are weighed it is the right side of the brain that says that almost any change would be good a thing to ensure that, in the wake of the recent double crisis of legitimacy for our financial and Parliamentary systems, we do not give in to the complacent argument that our current system is the best of all worlds. I voted yes in 1979 and 1997 despite the manifest deficiencies of the devolution Bills available on both dates. A vote against the status quo was necessary, to create a new fluidity. Perhaps it is also necessary on this occasion, even if, in doing so, I may hold my nose.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

4 thoughts on “If you’re conflicted over AV join the club

  1. I have no idea to be honest, if this was PR no problem. I think I’ll sit this one out…..

  2. I have blogged about this issue too, but come to a different conclusion. I, too, would prefer a form of proportional representation.

    But proportionality only counts if you have it. With AV you may not get a more proportional outcome than with FPTP – even a less proportional one. But only with reference to people’s first choice.

    What you get with AV is fewer candidates elected that a majority in their consituency actively don’t want. That the candidates are less strongly objected is really the point of AV – it provides a way of voting against the party/ies you don’t want to get in, so that if the one you’d really like doesn’t get in, your vote goes to one that isn’t your first choice, but isn’t as bad as others.

    So, while AV isn’t what I really want, it’s a small improvement over FPTP.

    And when I hear people like Roy Jenkins and Evan Harris say that AV isn’t what we really want (a system of PR), but that if we don’t vote for it, we’re unlikely to get a chance for electoral reform for at least another generation, I tend to think that it’s vital that we vote for it.

  3. Like Peter says – AV is probably better than nothing, which is what we get if there is a NO vote.

    However, when considering AV I am still haunted by one spectre – Harriet Harman!

    She was 5th out of 7 in the first round yet went on to be elected deputy leader of the Labour party. That is slightly disturbing.

  4. While logic sides with Yes, my real difficulty has been the negative nature of the Yes campaign. The ‘loudspeaker’ advert was nauseating (do all MPs claim expenses on porn?) and pamphlets telling people that their MPs are inherently corrupt. They are damaging the institution and making becoming an MP less attractive to all but the most bone-headed, careerist and cynical.

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