writer, broadcaster, portfolio woman

Vote Yes for evolution, not revolution

The Independent, April 25th 2011

The anger and scaremongering is so disproportionate to the reform you wonder if they’re all looking at the same voting system

For much of my life, I’ve been doomed to live in places where my vote doesn’t count. Voting for my preferred party has been as useful as tearing up my ballot paper and scattering it like confetti over the canvassers. So, at many elections, I’ve been forced to put a cross against a candidate from a party I detest, merely because I detest it marginally less than the party that might otherwise win. Is this really a good way to elect a government?

I only ask because all the argument over the AV referendum has been about the drawbacks of AV. Isn’t it time we talked about the drawbacks of first-past-the-post (FPTP) too? A week on Thursday, we’re going to make a choicebetween two systems. It’s not just “yes” or “no” to AV; it’s also “yes” or “no” to FPTP. So let’s have a hard look at just how flawed the current system is.

Most annoyingly for the voter, it often forces us to vote dishonestly. We can’t cast a ballot for the party we want, but instead have to vote tactically for the party that has the best chance of beating the party we like least. This in itself relies on making assumptions about which party is currently in second place and how other voters in the constituency are likely to act on those assumptions.

Under AV, no vote is a wasted vote. If you want to vote Green or Lib Dem or Monster Raving Loony Party, that’s fine. You can happily put a ‘1’ by the party you like best, in the knowledge that your ‘2’ and ‘3’ will also help to influence the result. The tellers count your votes and – at last – your vote counts.

Your vote can count in another way too. Under the current system, Labour and Conservative voters are nearly four times as powerful as Lib Dem voters. It takes, on average, 33,000 people to elect a Labour MP, 35,000 for a Conservative, but 120,000 for a Liberal Democrat. How fair is that?

AV isn’t strictly proportional, but it is a bit more so than FPTP. The Liberal Democrats would tend to have more seats for any given share of the vote. Whether you think this is a good or a bad thing shouldn’t depend on your partisan sympathies. Whatever your view of the Lib Dems, it can’t be right that our electoral system is so heavily stacked against them.

Finally, FPTP contains no incentive for parties to reach out beyond their narrow base. They can have a majority of the voters against them, and still win. AV makes them look for second and third preferences as well as firsts. Right-wing Conservatives and left-wing Labourites object to this for exactly the same reason that I approve of it. I like the moderating influence of AV – the way it allows leaders toignore the nuttier wings of their parties in the interest of gathering up more centrist second preferences.

Of course AV has its faults. Which system doesn’t? If there were a perfect electoral system, every country in the world would be using it by now. But AV is some way better than the hugely imperfect system we have now. Put the two next to each other, and AV wins by a head.

This is not a radical change, though. We’re not going to move from a system that produces decisive majorities to one that gives us permanent coalitions. Political scientists reckon that almost all the elections since the war would have ended up with the same party in charge had we conducted them under AV. So why all the sound and fury from its opponents?

The anger and scaremongering is so disproportionate to the scale of the reform that it makes me wonder whether both sides have been looking at the same voting system. Perhaps the opponents of AV have confused it with the single transferable vote? Or is it just that, in their narrow tribalism, they can’t bear for their party to lose even one seat under a different system?

The rumblings on the right of the Tory party are particularly disturbing. First there is the claim that, if the Yes side wins on a low turnout, the result will lack legitimacy. Why? Nobody suggests that local or general elections won on a low turnout are not legitimate. If people feel strongly enough about reform, in either direction, they will go out and vote. If they don’t, they can’t complain about the result. Votes are there to be used.

Then the Conservatives on the right point to the “danger” of the referendum being carried by Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish votes. Because the devolved assemblies and parliament are up for election next week, voters there are more likely to turn out. They are also more likely to vote “yes” to AV because they have seen different voting systems in action and have experienced their perfectly sensible results.

What if the English vote “no” on a small turnout, but the Yes side wins overall? Well, may I remind the right-wing Tories that they are members of the Conservative and Unionist Party? This is a united kingdom, and the votes of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish citizens are just as valid as those of the English. The Westminster Parliament represents the whole of the UK – how England votes is no more relevant than how Billericay or Banff vote.

Yet the Tory renegades are threatening nuclear consequences if this goes through. The MP Julian Lewis said last week: “I would be prepared to consider any legitimate means available to find a way of either reversing or circumventing the outcome.” He and his allies might vote against the Bill that creates new constituency boundaries and reduces the number of MPs. Since, under the Coalition agreement, the 2015 election can only be held under AV if the redrawn boundaries are used, the renegades’ action could overturn the voice of the people.

That would be an outrage. The first time for generations that we actually have a say on how our democracy works, and the ruling class reverses our decision. Talk about illegitimacy! It is almost worth voting “yes” to call their bluff. If they really believe that they have a right to ignore the will of the people, we should challenge them to discredit themselves and live with the consequences.

Many a column yard has been written about whether defeat would be worse for Nick Clegg or for David Cameron, about whether the Coalition can survive a Yes vote or a No vote. But let’s go back to basics. This is, probably, a once-in-a-lifetime chance for us to pass judgment on our current voting system and consider whether it might not be improved by allowing us to cast our votes more honestly.

It’s not a vote for a revolution; only for a small, evolutionary change. We hardly ever get consulted about these things, and it’s only thanks to a psephological accident producing a hung Parliament that we have the opportunity next week. If we don’t bother to vote now, we should never complain againabout the political system. And if we allow ourselves to be swayed by the scare stories coming out of the No camp, we don’t deserve to think of ourselves as intelligent citizens.

So, please, turn out and vote. Make your vote count. Decide on the facts, not the frenzy. And just for once, let the politicians know who’s boss.

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