Sunday, 3 April 2011

Why The Tories Fear AV

In recent weeks, the No to AV campaign has launched a series of extrordianry attacks on AV that smack somewhat of desperation. One is forced to wonder why they are going to such extremes (eg, if we adopt AV specialist baby units will have to close - something the Government seems perfectly capable of doing without AV) to defend an outmoded electoral system.

I do not want here to rehearse all the arguments in favour of ditching first past the post - the current system that allows a small minority of voters in a small minority of seats to decide the result of election after election. The corollary between the existence of so many safe seats and so much corruption (duck house, moats and chandeliers), and the disengagement of the electorate - why so many voters just choose to stay at home - is not a difficult one to draw.

No, what I want to focus on here is the argument put forward by the No campaign that AV will allow minority extremist parties to gain representation, that they will be given a disproportionate amount of power, that a vote for AV is tantamount to welcoming the BNP to the House of Commons. On so many levels, this is completely absurd.

Many countries that use PR (let's leave aside for now whether AV is PR) employ a quota system to ensure that such an eventuality does not occur - unless a party receives, say, 5% of the national vote, then it is not entitled to national representation. As many minority parties stand in only a small proportion of the seats that they could stand in, then they are likely to be unable to clear this hurdle. This is a crude mechanism for keeping out the extremists - but an effective one.

I would not employ such a quota, because, as with first past the post, it is fundamentally dishonest. To take the BNP as an example. If they are able to persuade 15% of the people of Bury, Blackburn, Burnley, Bradford etc to support them - then there is a reason for that. Most members of the electorate will rightly find the views of such parties repugnant and distasteful - but if they have managed to persuade a significant minority to support them, then this is something that we all have to deal with. It is puerile to do so by rigging the electoral system - first past the post or quotas - to ensure that these parties are not represented. We need to grow up and confront them head on and make the absurdities of their policies plain for all to see. More than that, we need to deal with the root causes - whatever it is that has lead to a proportion of the electorate - albeit a small one - voting the way they have. First past the post allows us to bury our heads in the sand. AV will force us to address the issues. It is grown-up politics.

This is an indication of a wider problem with first past the post - it is a fundamentally dishonest voting system. The Tory No campaigners are wrapping themselves a cloak of respectability by justifying their opposition to change by a need to silence the extremists. Yet the electoral system that we have hides the extent to which they may draw support from those same extremists. They are either hiding their heads in the sand, or else they are glad to accept that support - so long as it is not obvious where that support is coming from. At present, the electoral system is rigged so that no-one who supports a minority/extremist party can hope to gain representation in parliament; they know that a vote for their candidate in a general election will be ‘wasted’ - their man or woman will lose come what may. They can chose to vote for that candidate anyway, or else they can choose to stay at home, or else they can choose to vote for a candidate that has a chance of winning that most nearly reflects their views. And it is the degree of support that winning candidates receive from extremist voters that is perhaps key to why the Tory No campaigners are so vociferous. Let me give you an example from the last election, from my own seat, West Worcestershire.

West Worcs is a traditionally Tory seat, but one where the Lib Dems have recently run the Tories close. Labour usually pick up a few thousand votes - but are never in contention - and UKIP are a little way behind them.  In the 2010 election, there was every possibility that the result would be a close one - that it would go right down to the wire - but in the end the Tories won by nearly 6000 votes. Both Labour and UKIP performed rather more poorly than might have been expected. So what happened?

On the morning of the general election, a trailer sponsored by UKIP toured the constituency with a poster suggesting that if the LibDems were elected, the floodgates to immigration would be flung open. This was a scurrilous attack, but in the week leading up to the election, immigration had become a ‘hot’ topic. So, what effect would this message – vote LibDem and let in the immigrants – have had on those who had been intending to vote for UKIP? Given that the result was expected to be a close on, anyone voting UKIP in West Worcs would have had to accept that voting for their woman may have allowed the Lib Dem candidate to inch past his Tory opponent and win the seat. How could they stop something that they so obviously did not want? By switching their support to the Tory candidate, to ensure that she beat the LibDem.

So, how many of them voted tactically in this way - voting not for their woman but for the Tory, to deny the Lib Dems victory? Well, of course we have no way of telling, because to stop the LibDems they had no choice but to cast their vote for the Tory candidate. And the Tory candidate and now MP is able to claim a disproportionate level of support - even though she must know that some of those who voted for her would rather have voted for their own party – an extremist one at that. In other words the vote was fundamentally dishonest - and tells us nothing about the sort of support that secured the winning MP her seat.

Under AV, it is quite possible that the final result would have been the same - the Tory would have won. But it would have been a more transparent result. In the first round of voting, the natural UKIP supporters could still have ‘done the honest thing’ and voted for their candidate, knowing that in common with just about every seat in the country no candidate would achieve an outright victory in the first round. They would then, perhaps, have expressed a second preference for the Tory candidate - and it is those votes that would see the Tory candidate home and dry.

The upshot of using AV is that the electorate are able - in the first instance - to vote for the candidate who best represents their interests, and should that candidate not be elected, then express their preference for the candidate who best represents their interests from those who remain in the race. And we as an electorate are able to see the exact make-up of the vote secured by the winning candidate - from where they have drawn their support in the first and subsequent rounds.

It is this sort of transparency that I suspect the Tory party fears. I suspect too that the old Labour opponents of AV are also averse to such openness with the electorate. If they wish to remain the passive beneficiaries of extremism, they will have to accept that that will be a matter of public record. If they do not wish to be such a recipient, then they will have to make it clear to the extremists that they do not welcome their support. This will lead to honest campaigning and honest voting. Who could possibly object?

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