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10 reasons you should vote "Yes" in the AV referendum

Posted on 4 May 2011 | 1:17 pm by

There has been a lot of mud-slinging over the referendum on the Alternative Vote. The “No” campaign have been particularly bad at avoiding sensible debate and resorting to fear-mongering and smears.

The polling shows they will likely win by a significant margin. They shouldn’t. And with apparently 20%+ of people still undecided, I’d like to share some thoughts that might tip the balance in some people’s heads: please share this with anybody who is still undecided.

Here are 10 very good reasons you should vote “Yes” in the AV referendum tomorrow:

1. First Past The Post (FPTP) doesn’t work in a system with more than two parties

You might only like one of the two leading parties, but you can’t deny that we live in a society where more than two parties matter. If you live in Scotland or Wales, multi-party politics is a reality even more so.

FPTP was designed when there were only two political groups in Parliament: the Tories and the Whigs. Since the birth of Labour, the reformation of the Liberals and the rise of nationalist parties and groups like the Green Party, we live in a nation where there are multiple political voices.

You might not agree with them, but you agree under a democracy that they have a right to be heard, right? So why would you persist with a system that denies them that voice?

Right now, an MP can have support of less than 20% of the people in their constituency, and be sent to Parliament on behalf of all 100%. AV eliminates that from being possible, and forces more engaged politics.

2. AV actually weakens extremist parties

There are three parties wholly against the Alternative Vote: the Conservatives, the BNP and the Communist party.

The Tories don’t like it for a variety of reasons along with some Labour MPs (see below), but the BNP and the Communist parties don’t like it because it reduces their chances of getting a seat. How? It comes down to second preference votes.

People who are inclined to vote for extremist views typically will place them first. People who put other parties first are unlikely to offer a second preference to an extremist party. That means on the whole, parties like the BNP are likely to be eliminated quite early on.

To win, a candidate must convince at least 50% of the people who vote to give them at least a second or third preference vote. The BNP and the Communists are unlikely to achieve that whilst their views and the electorate’s are so out of kilter.

Under FPTP it’s possible to win a seat with just 20% of eligible voters agreeing with you, or around 30% of voters who actually vote - a much more achievable target for extremist parties to get.

3. AV forces consensus and a new mode of political debate

You might have noticed politicians from opposite sides don’t seem to like each other very much. Most people can’t stand watching Prime Minister’s Questions for all its Punch & Judy mechanics. FPTP requires confrontation and feeds off fear-mongering.

AV forces politicians into a very different mode. They have to talk about what they’re for, rather than what they’re against (as tactical voting disappears, see below), and they need to seek out ways to find compromise and agreement rather than just shout the other side down.

You might have strong feelings against the coalition government, but you can’t deny that the disagreements seem to have been dealt with more philosophical debate than previous disputes between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. It’s not that either side has sold out completely, but rather it’s because that’s what coalitions need to work. AV turns that progressive debate into the daily routine of politics.

4. AV doesn’t cost a penny more. The only penalty is a slightly longer election night special on the BBC

There have been some preposterous claims made about the cost of AV. One leaflet suggested it would cost us £250m, and another campaign suggested that maybe the money would be better spent on hospitals.

We could argue that democracy shouldn’t have a price put on it - particularly one so low given the size of our GDP - however that’s not the point.

AV won’t cost us anything more. The referendum will cost virtually nothing as it coincides with many local elections anyway. There are no “counting machines” that need to be bought, and the cost of explaining AV to the electorate has basically already been met by the (privately-funded) “Yes” campaign and various other groups. If you don’t currently understand how AV works, you can learn it yourself in under two minutes by reading the article on Wikipedia about it.

5. FPTP supports incompetent and lazy MPs - it provides a “job for life”, undeservedly

There are a lot of very bad MPs in Parliament. You’ve probably never heard their names, but they’ve been there for a long time, and know that they have a job for life. They are in “safe seats” where it would take a political Tsunami of epic proportions to remove them.

If you analyse which Labour members support the FPTP system over AV, you will realise they are generally unpopular figures who have held safe seats whilst resorting to “we hate the other side” politics, which would likely flounder under AV: John Prescott, Margaret Beckett, et al.

The Tory back-benches are filled with a similar breed of politician. They resent the voter, on the whole.

These MPs do not represent their constituency in Parliament. They represent their party in the constituency. With perhaps no more than 35% of the vote (and often with low turnouts, just a 10-15% approval from their constituency as a whole), they know they can do pretty much what they want. For example, on average MPs in safe seats claim more in expenses than MPs in marginals, and cost the taxpayer more.

One beauty of AV is that it pretty much eliminates the concept of a safe seat. There will be some left where there is overwhelming support for a candidate, but MPs will be more inclined to fight for the continued support of their entire constituency, and therefore act more in accordance with their wishes.

6. Under AV you can - if you wish - select just one candidate (and it’s actually easier)

At the moment under FPTP you type an X in a box. Under AV, if you only want to support one candidate and have no second preference, simply write ‘I’ instead. It’s one less line. It could be argued that under AV you’ll halve your time spent actually physically voting.

OK, I’m clearly making a small joke here, but there is nothing complicated about AV if you don’t want to think about multiple candidates, just vote for the one individual you want to see elected.

But don’t you want the option of being able to specify a second candidate if your first preference doesn’t win, just in case? Isn’t the elimination of tactical voting worth it? That brings us onto…

7. Tactical voting pretty much disappears under AV

This morning I got a “the Tories can’t win here” leaflet from the Lib Dems through my door. We’ve all seen them. Basically, if you don’t want Labour to win in this ward, there is no point in voting Conservative because of how the vote is counted.

Under AV at general elections, this would make no sense. Tory voters, instead of being told their votes are futile, would be reached out to by both parties seeking to build bridges with that community who live locally.

You would no longer need to go to the polls and vote for a party you disagree with, just to keep another party out. Campaigners would instead want to listen to views across the political spectrum in the hope of getting a second preference vote from people within those groups.

It completely changes the way we think about politics and political campaigning. For the better, and permanently.

There is a more complicated explanation of how tactical voting pretty much becomes impossible under AV in a section of the Wikipedia article.

8. We all start to count again

You might have heard the phrase “Mondeo Man”, “Windsor Woman” or the like at previous elections. These are demographic groups targeted by campaigners whose vote determines the election.

You see, at the last election, it’s thought that only 1.6% of votes actually changed the outcome. Because of the way FPTP favours jobs for life, safe seats and promotes tactical voting and negative politics, experts realised that the “swing” that would win the election would come from less than 1 voter in 50.

They identified who these people were based on where they lived. They analysed their lifestyles based on demographic information and labelled them. Experts then ran focus groups composed of this tiny demographic, and party policy and manifesto promises were crafted around what was responded to by that group.

All of those billboards, manifestos, news reports and editorials. They weren’t meant for 98.4% of the electorate - they were crafted to shape the opinion of just 1.6% of the electorate.

Does that seem a reasonable way to run a democracy to you? Under AV, we all start to count again.

9. It’s not a rubbish version of PR, and we don’t want PR anyway!

Some people have argued we should hold out for Proportional Representation because that means the number of MPs representing each party is in exact proportion to the number of votes cast for that party nationally.

We don’t want that.

Note, I said the MPs would be representing each party. They would no longer represent a constituency, and would be positioned on a list based on their loyalty to the party elders and the small Westminster clique that runs politics today.

We want and need a system that means an MP is tied to a constituency. We want and need a system that makes the MP want to represent the constituency within Parliament, rather than the other way around.

PR doesn’t do that. FPTP doesn’t do that. AV does.

10. If we vote “No”, we keep the status quo for at least a generation. 

The reality is, if we collectively vote “No” to the Alternative Vote, that’s it, we don’t get any more reform for a while - probably at least a generation. The concession prize might be a reform of the House of Lords, in order to try and keep the coalition together (it’s a very weak second prize for the Lib Dems), but I suspect if we voted “Yes”, then Lords reform would be here within no more than one more Parliament anyway - it’d be popular with voters.

We all agree that the current system is broken, but if we vote “no” we’re saying “that’s OK”. We are committing our children and possibly several generations more to the broken politics we’re so disenchanted with ourselves.

So, there we have it. 10 reasons. If you need any more, feel free to email me and I’ll try and answer your questions and answer any lingering doubts before polls open tomorrow.

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