Friday, 22 April 2011
Democracy Day: Voting for the Alternative
This is my editorial commentary in the new Fabian Review - setting out why I will be voting Yes in the Alternative Vote referendum - published alongside our cartoonist Teal's take on the referendum campaign. (Image used by permission of Adrian Teal: please respect copyright; for permissions, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org).
What if they threw a referendum and nobody came? Our first national plebiscite for 35 years has hardly set the country alight.
Labour voters will probably decide the referendum, though many may not vote on the issues. It is impossible to vote against the coalition Government: a No vote cast to spite Nick Clegg will also bolster David Cameron and George Osborne.
The Yes campaign makes too simple a contrast between ‘democracy or duck houses‘, stretching a very tenuous link from safe seats to MP expenses. But the No campaign has focused primarily on false claims, making a blatant lie – that changing the voting system will cost £250 million – its central public argument, after its polling showed this could shift inattentive voters.
There is a particular chutzpah in a No campaign led by Matthew Elliott, the head of The Taxpayers’ Alliance , which hates public spending and campaigns with passion for deeper cuts, running emotive but irrelevant posters calling for more spending on premature baby units. Even they surely can't believe it.
There will be no expensive voting machines. None are planned, nobody wants them, and Australia counts Alternative Vote (AV) votes by hand. But Yes campaigners should do more than factual rebuttal – and invite those campaigning against this (fictional) waste of money to join them in a bipartisan promise to legislate that General Election votes shall be counted by hand, whether we keep the system or change it. There would be an overwhelming Commons majority to defuse the threat. Refusing such an olive branch would be to openly admit that the bogus campaign is a dirty trick.
An honest account of the choice would acknowledge several similarities between first-past-the-post and the Alternative Vote. AV would retain a parliament in which every MP represents a single constituency, but must now seek 50 per cent. Both are majoritarian systems, which will tend to deliver a majority to a single party which receives 40 per cent of the vote, while both will deliver hung Parliaments in conditions like those of May 2010.
I will vote Yes as the differences seem clearly in AV's favour. X voting was fine in 1955 when there were, on average, 2.3 candidates per constituency. This rose to 6 by 2010. Every voter can cast a real first choice vote under AV. Fifteen per cent of voters say they don't vote for the candidate or party they want at present. This is particularly important to reversing a Labour retreat in the southern regions, and would help to mitigate the sharp regional polarisation of British politics.
There is no cast iron evidence about partisan effects. Voters and parties would act differently under a new system. AV is good for broadly popular parties, and bad for pariah parties.
Labour would have done better under AV in recent elections, but badly in 1983. The Conservatives are increasingly panicked about a Yes vote, telling Tory donors to fund the No campaign or risk having to fund a much more difficult re-election campaign if the system changes.
AV would make securing a majority for 'no compromise' Conservatism harder, requiring a broader appeal beyond the Tory tribe than David Cameron has yet achieved. But no electoral system would or should ever permanently exclude a major political tradition from power. Tories feared universal suffrage would kill them too, but conservatives manage to live with changes they opposed.
Fabians will make up their own minds on both sides of the argument. Do vote – and for the system you believe would be better for our democracy.
* The Fabian Review is published on the Wednesday after Easter: Ed Wallis previews the gender equality special issue.