Why AV may just win

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Tim Wigmore assesses the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns ahead of the AV referendum, and sees good signs for the ‘Yes’ side

In a little over two months, the British people will have the opportunity to ditch the first-past-the-post voting system. Though the alternative vote was famously labelled a “miserable little compromise” by Nick Clegg, changing to it would nevertheless be a significant moment for British democracy. So we can expect to hear both sides make increasingly ridiculous assertions about the merits of ‘their’ voting system in the next few weeks.

The key for the ‘Yes’ side – and something they seem to have grasped – is the need to frame the referendum on their own terms. That means making it into a ‘people versus politicians’ vote, presenting those opposed to change as old political fogeys. To this end, they have been helped by the identities of the leading figures of the No campaign.

Margaret Beckett has enjoyed a distinguished political career, which peaked when she was Foreign Secretary in the last Labour government. But for all her gifts, she is not young, dynamic or inspirational. In a campaign when the ‘anti-politics’ mood is so high, having a 68-year old president risks being a liability. Moreover, the leading public figures opposed to AV are full of similarly ‘old’ politicians – people like Ken Clarke, Steve Norris, David Blunkett and John Prescott. The very real risk for the No campaign is being seen to represent the so-called ‘political class’.

Conversely, the Yes campaign, while not suffering a lack of political backing, can boast an array of celebrities that must fill their opponents with anger.

Obviously, celebrity votes are equal to those of everyone else. But some votes are more equal than others. It is thus depressing but true that the support of King’s Speech stars Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter is likely to be a genuine asset for the Yes campaign. They would be wise to make as much of this as possible, utilising them in adverts and encouraging them to speak about the merits of AV in interviews. Add in an array of others, including Billy Bragg, Joanna Lumley, Eddie Izzard and Stephen Fry, and it amounts to a small celebrity army.

All this has rather pushed the No side onto the defensive. They have made a number of criticism of AV; while some are completely valid, others amount to gross embellishment. Some criticisms have even contradicted others.

The current favourite is that changing to the alternative vote will cost £250 million. You can see why this appeals – in the current grim economic times, should this money not be better used on schools, hospitals and cutting the deficit?

But on examination, the figure reveals itself to be nothing short of a downright lie.  Firstly, the figure includes the estimated £80 million holding the referendum will cost, but it’s not as if the country will get the money back in the event of a no vote. It also includes £130 million to pay for electronic voting counting. The claim is somewhat outrageous considering there are no plans for this in Great Britain; and, moreover, electronic voting counting is not used in Australia, where AV has long been used. So what are we actually left with? Perhaps a few million in voter education – probably amounting to £1 per taxpayer.

The No camp’s tactics inevitably include having a go at Nick Clegg. To his credit, Clegg has barely campaigned for the Yes side, knowing that if he flaunts his support he will be a liability for the campaign. The No2AV website writes that “Under AV, the only vote that really counts is Nick Clegg’s” – the implication being that AV leads to endless coalitions, with Clegg anointing the winners in smoke-filled politicians’ rooms. There are plenty of mentions of the broken pledge on tuition fees too, implying that we’d get more of such behaviour under AV, when we’d lurch from one Lib Dem coalition to the next with the ‘will of the people’ an irrelevance.

But studies transposing AV onto previous elections in the UK – a hazardous business, admittedly – paint a rather different picture. While it’s true the Liberal Democrat share of the seats more closely represents their share of the vote, though it still significantly under represents it, hung parliaments are no more common. Australia, indeed, has only had two coalitions in the last 80 years, despite using AV – less, infact than Great Britain.
While criticising AV because “three out of the last four elections would have been more disproportional under AV”, the No campaign simultaneously says it “leads to more hung parliaments and political deals.” My maths has never been very good, but you can’t have it both ways. Either AV makes the leading party get even more seats than they do under the existing system, or it prevents a decisive outcome and leads to endless hung parliaments. It’s a pretty basic contradiction, and one the No campaign seriously need to resolve.

The No side also emphasis that, under first-past-the-post, ‘extremist’ parties – namely the BNP – have never got a seat, implying that they would have more power under AV. This is nothing less than a complete untruth, for the essence of AV is the need to cultivate support beyond the normal 40% or so needed to win the seat; a party as innately divisive as the BNP could never hope to do that. Yet, in his speech arguing against AV, David Cameron argued smaller parties could do even worse under AV. So the criticisms are that smaller parties would do better and worse under AV – rather confused logic.

Perhaps, to a degree, the inconsistencies in the opposition to AV can be explained by the simple fact that we don’t really know how it would play out in Britain until it was actually used. All the research is just glorified guesswork, as even those who have written the academic papers admit.

But what’s really interesting is the tone of the campaigns. There has been copious negativity from the No side. They don’t bother making any positive arguments for the current system, and merely criticise AV in any way they can think of. Their whole campaign has the air of a desperate rearguard action about it.

It’s often said that, in referendums, the status quo tends to prevail. In 1975, the only previous referendum involving the whole of the UK saw a dramatic late swing in favour of the existing order. A few weeks before the vote, polls suggested the population would vote in favour of disentangling itself from Europe. In the event they voted two-to-one to remain in it, something they have been complaining about ever since.

Why should things be any different this time? So far, the Yes campaign has had a positivity and dynamism conspicuous for its absence amongst the opposition. They are making coherent arguments for change.

The first-past-the-post system may work under a two-party system, but we no longer have one. In 1951, 97% of voters voted for Labour or the Conservatives, but this figure was reduced to 66% in 2010. The yes campaign strongly argue that we should have a voting system that takes account of the new political pluralism. The days of red or blue are dead. Accordingly, politicians should need to cultivate support from outside their traditional bases if they are to have a mandate to represent them. While those opposed to change say this will not happen that much under AV – one-third of seats in 2010 were won with over 50% of the vote in any case – they still concede it will happen more.

Ultimately the arguments are vital, but the perception of voters is even more so. And the Yes campaign will be confident they will see the abundance of old politicians leading the No vote, and remember how disillusioned they are with politics. The ‘status quo’ won’t prevail because unprecedented numbers don’t think it is working. So the Yes hope their thinking will culminate thus: Why not give ‘them’ a kicking?