Wednesday 4 May 2011

If Chris Huhne wants to reunite the left, he should resign from the Cabinet

This is a guest post from Paul Boateng arguing that Labour supporters should vote no in the Alternative Vote referendum. The director of Labour Yes Jessica Asato set out yesterday Why Fabians should vote Yes. General Secretary Sunder Katwala wrote about why he is voting yes in the Fabian Review. The Fabian Society does not take a collective line on this, or any other, issue. All pieces reflect the views of their individual authors.


Tomorrow the country goes to the polls in an election that has serious consequences for our country’s democracy. The stakes are high. The choice is whether to keep our tried and tested voting system where we put an x next to the candidate of our choice and the candidate with the most votes wins, or change to the Alternative Vote, a costly and complicated system where voters express numbered preferences.

For the last three weeks Chris Huhne and several leading Liberal Democrat politicians have been telling Labour supporters to vote Yes in order to block the Tories in the future.

The irony, and the hypocrisy, is overwhelming: Liberal Democrat Cabinet Ministers trying to unite the Left while they prop up a Tory government implementing Tory policies! If Chris Huhne finds the Tories so distasteful, you have to ask why he continues to serve in government alongside them. Perhaps his increasingly shrill outbursts against the Tories signal his first move on Nick Clegg’s job by trying to curry favour with Lib Dem activists?

Of course, we all know the Liberals are making a crude bid for Labour support, but I believe that Labour voters won’t be fooled into backing this Lib Dem project. Up and down the country, we stand overwhelmingly against AV. That’s true of the majority of Labour voters, Labour councillors, Labour MPs and Labour Peers.

The most important reason to vote No tomorrow is the importance of keeping the principle of fair, equal votes – ‘one person, one vote’. Our current voting system ensures that the British people elect their government in a way that is fair and equal – it is one person, one vote irrespective of a voters’s political outlook, background or station in life.

Under the Alternative Vote, however, some people would get more votes than others. While supporters of mainstream parties would typically only have their first preferences counted, voters for extremist and fringe parties could have their votes counted two, three or more times. Their lower preferences could even decide a close contest while the main parties powerless to play a further part. In other words, supporters of less popular parties will be more likely to get their second preferences counted.

And if you believe that the Labour Party is the best vehicle for creating a fair, progressive Britain, it’s critical to vote No to AV on Thursday. AV would cost the party seats in most elections and make it nearly impossible for Labour to win a majority.

Let’s look at what would have happened under AV in previous elections. Because it exaggerates decisive elections, Labour would have gained more seats in 1997. However, we would have had even fewer seats throughout the Thatcher years. As YouGov pollster Peter Kellner said, AV “would have driven Labour yet further into the wilderness in 1983 and 1987”. And it also would have hurt the Labour Party in close elections like 1992 and 2010.

By contrast, the Liberal Democrats always benefit from AV – that’s why they are urging a Yes vote. Under AV they would have gained more seats in every election since 1983. In the 2010, for example, the Liberal Democrats would have won an extra 32 seats.

David Laws wasn’t joking when he described the system as a ‘shield against’ their unpopularity. To quote Peter Kellner again, “Without AV, the Lib Dems’ prospects at the next general election could be bleak”.

The self-serving origins of this referendum highlight how AV suits one party’s narrow self-interest, not the general public. Of course, every electoral system has winners and losers. That is the nature of elections. The answer for the losing parties is to work harder to win more votes – not to demand that their voters get more votes than anyone else, nor to introduce a system that tries to change losers into winners.

In their crude bid for Labour voters, the Yes Campaign has repeatedly claimed that AV would make a ‘progressive alliance’ possible. I would love that to be true. Unfortunately, Lib Dem supporters seem to disagree: according to the latest polling, only 16% of Lib Dems want a Labour-led government after the next election, while 51% would prefer to see David Cameron in Downing Street.

Labour supporters aren’t stupid, and we won’t take marching orders from Chris Huhne or any Liberal Democrat. If Chris Huhne wants to undermine Cameron he shouldn’t be tinkering with Britain’s tried and tested electoral system, he should just resign from the coalition, today. Then we could see if the Lib Dems are really serious about forming a progressive coalition.

AV would save Clegg’s skin and would embed the Liberal Democrats in government for generations to come – two good reasons why Labour voters and anyone else who puts conviction and vision in politics before cold calculation and back room deals should vote No to AV.

The Lib Dems fought the last election under a false prospectus and they are doing the same in this referendum. The only sure way to stop them is a resounding “No” to this “miserable little compromise” by voting NO to AV tomorrow.

Guest post from Paul Boateng, who was Labour MP for Brent South from 1987 to 2005, Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and served as Britain’s Ambassador to South Africa from 2005 to 2009.


criticalbill said...

What a miserable tirade.

This nonsense about people who vote for extremist parties getting two votes really insults the intelligence. They don't get two votes, Paul, because their first vote is discarded, it doesn't count any more. They get a list of preferences and their one vote is allocated to a succession of candidates until only two are left. Were you really the shadow chief secretary to the treasury without being able to grasp the simple facts of a voting system? Or are you being disingenuous.

The most important thing is that analysing past elections & predicting future elections is ridiculous, since electoral reform will hopefully change the political parties and the political process anyway, to make them more responsive to the genuine majority view, instead of the tribal attitude we see when Paul suggests that we should keep FPTP as the best way of electing a Labour government.

The vast majority of people are not members of political parties, they want representation from politicians, not to be driven into political ghettos. AV is a first, timid step towards political renewal and away from the unedifying sight of the leaders of the two main parties jostling for the trappings of power, much in the manner of two bald men over a comb.

cim said...

"Of course, every electoral system has winners and losers. That is the nature of elections. The answer for the losing parties is to work harder to win more votes"

From 2005 to 2010 the Lib Dems gained votes nationally ... and lost seats. The Conservatives in 2010 got more votes nationally than Labour in 2005 ... and fewer seats. Etc.

I would quite like an electoral system where "more votes" meant "more seats" and vice versa. FPTP is not that system. (Neither is AV, of course)

Unknown said...

To say that under AV some people get more votes than others is disingenuous. Instant-runoff voting (or AV as it's known in the UK) is precisely that; instead of having further runoff elections it's done instantly on the basis of collecting your preferences.

When one candidate is eliminated, effectively everyone is voting again, it's just that if your candidate hasn't been eliminated you are voting for the same person.

You wouldn't claim people get more votes under other forms of runoff voting (two round system or exhaustive ballot for example).

Just more inaccurate campaigning from the no camp.

BrianB said...

Either Lord Boateng really believes that AV departs from the principle of One Man One Vote and that under AV some votes are counted more often than others -- in which case he hasn't given the matter sufficient attention: or he knows perfectly well that both assertions are nonsense, but he makes them anyway, in which case... well, you can finish the sentence. I shall vote No tomorrow, but not for any of the reasons offered by Lord B.

T.N.T. said...

Paul Boateng's basic argument is highly flawed because everyone's vote does NOT count equally under FPTP. The size of a majority makes no difference to whether an MP is elected under FPTP. So, if the winner in a constituency gets (e.g) 20,000 votes and the runner up gets 19,999 the end result is EXACTLY the same as if the runner up got 10,000 votes - or no votes at all!

Only in a proportional representation system do votes really count. But far too many people in the Labour Party don't care about democracy and instead rely on fake arguments like Paul's here. Until that changes, I'll be backing the Green Party, which is serious about electoral reform.

By the way AV is a fudge of a system but is slightly better than FPTP so I'm backing it until we get the chance to vote for PR.