A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

Why a Yes vote tomorrow matters

In Constitutional Spotlight, Home Affairs on May 4, 2011 at 5:05 pm

By James Bartholomeusz

Tomorrow, 5th May 2011, Britain faces the first ever referendum on our electoral system, only the second referendum in our country’s history. The last few months have seen the Yes and No campaigns to the Alternative Vote (AV) come to agonisingly slow fruition. Both sides fear apathy as the main losing factor in potentially ditching First-Past-the-Post (FPTP), particularly in areas such as London where there are no local or devolved elections. But this referendum is crucially important, and a Yes to AV vote would help us begin to tackle the lime-scale of political and economic oligarchy which has become the norm of our democracy.

Right away (and perhaps oddly for an article promoting a Yes vote) it’s important to point out that AV isn’t actually a huge change from FPTP. It keeps what is seen as popular about the current system: electing and dispatching a representative from your local area to national government to represent you there. Each constituency will still only have one MP, and general and by-elections will still run to the same timetable. The only difference is the way in which that MP is voted in. Under FPTP you mark an X in the box next to your chosen candidate and the one with the most votes wins. Under AV, you rank the candidates available, and, in the event that one candidate doesn’t receive over 50% of the votes, the least popular candidates are eliminated with the second preferences of those voters redistributed until one candidate has over half the support. That’s all there is to it.

However, to quote the Yes! to Fairer Votes campaign, this is a small change which makes a big difference. AV helps voters challenge political oligarchy by ending the ‘safe seat’ culture which has built up over the last few decades. At present, less than a third of MPs are elected with the consent of the majority of their constituents: i.e. they can rely on a core of immovable voters who only have to contribute a single vote more than the next most popular candidate in order to get re-elected time and time again. It doesn’t matter that, in a hypothetical constituency, Labour wins where they get 40%, the Tories get 35% and the Lib Dems get 25% of the vote, even though the majority of Lib Dems would prefer a Tory MP to a Labour one. With AV in place, politicians would have to fight every single seat like it matters in order to win 50% or more of their constituents’ support – this can only be good in restoring faith amongst ordinary voters that their vote counts. Across vast swathes of the country, AV would favour popular challengers against unpopular incumbents.

Secondly, AV can help us begin challenging economic oligarchy. The Independent’s motto at last year’s general election was “Rupert Murdoch won’t decide the outcome of this election. You will.” – we can decipher a lot about the current state of our democracy from this. It’s no secret that the media plays a critical role in shaping public opinion, no more so than in election time. It’s also no secret that the majority of our media is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and that, since Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 victory, Murdoch has used its colossal influence through The Sun, The News of the World, The Times and others to promote the party which will offer him and his cronies the best settlement in the next parliament. Labour spent 18 years in opposition before it prostrated itself before his throne and gained his blessing. The Lib Dems have suffered consistently from being caricatured as weak and irrelevant. FPTP exacerbates the influence of Murdoch and other Right-wing media outlets such as The Daily Mail – because a handful of ‘swing seats’ are the only ones that really decide the outcome of election, and these seats are disproportionately upper-middle class, power is lent to News Corporation to bestow its favour on the party it wants to win. Under AV, with every constituency battle mattering, Middle England and its media guardians will lose their disproportionate position in choosing the government. AV disperses power away from the media elite to ordinary voters, where, in a democracy, power rightfully belongs.

Unsurprisingly, AV has come under fire from those who are set to lose from scrapping FPTP. A multitude of myths have been floated around in the hope of blocking the British public engaging with the issues, and so I’d like to puncture some of them. One: AV needs expensive voting machines and therefore necessitates more spending cuts. This is behind the disgraceful dying babies advert and is a complete lie – Australia uses AV with pencil and paper, just like our FPTP, and Chief Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander has said that he can’t see AV costing any more. Two: AV leads to weak coalitions, FPTP leads to strong governments. It is true that AV will lead to more coalitions, but this is because the electorate’s wishes are more accurately represented in Commons seats. During the coalition negotiations last May, the markets didn’t plunge into the abyss because of a momentary lack of government, as was predicted. And the average single-party government is just as much, if not more, a coalition than a genuine coalition one: Clegg and Cameron are far more united that Blair and Brown ever were. In fact, a coalition partner may help temper the excesses of the main party, as we’re currently seeing with Tory NHS privatisation. If we want a minority support ‘strong’ government rather than one which is representative of the electorate’s preferences, then we may as well abolish democracy and be ruled by bureaucrats. Three: AV empowers extremist fringe parties. Conservative Party chairperson Sayeeda Warsi has claimed that “a vote for AV is a vote for the BNP”, apparently ignoring the fact that the BNP has been working with the Tories on the No campaign. In fact, AV cripples extremist parties because they would have to gain 50% of the support of constituents to get MPs elected – harder for them than in most seats under FPTP. Five: FPTP gives the electorate the right of recall on an unpopular government. David Cameron has claimed that the best thing about our present electoral system is the power to kick out governments; yet, in the last three decades, the government has only changed hands three times (1979, 1997, 2010). Clearly the last 30 years of politics have been near-perfect, or else the right of recall is defunct.

Last Sunday, a letter was sent to The Observer signed by Labour’s John Denham, Lib Dem Chris Huhne and the Greens’ Caroline Lucas. It called for a Yes to AV vote tomorrow in order to bring the dream of progressive alignment closer. The Left has a lot to gain from this referendum: for the majority of the 20th Century, the Tories have won minority rule from the divisions between the progressive parties. AV levels the playing field, allowing Labour, Lib Dem, Green, SNP and Plaid Cymru voters (55.3% in total last year against the Conservative’s 36.1%) to express their support for each other’s parties over the Right-wing opposition. In addition, it gives those discontented with Cameron’s perceived Leftward shift to express themselves by voting for UKIP. AV isn’t perfect – no electoral system is – but it is certainly more representative that FPTP. And if the representation of the people’s will is the goal of a parliamentary democracy, then we should surely adopt the Alternative Vote.

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