Labour NOtoAV is launched! But the Yes camp shouldn’t celebrate too much!

The Labour NOtoAV campaign was launched on Wednesday, commanding the support of 200 Labour MPs and Peers. What a discredited bunch of has-beens and Westminster elitists! If ever the ‘No’ campaign wanted to boost support for the ‘Yes’ campaign, this was the way to do it! But the ‘Yes’s shouldn’t start celebrating too loudly. Public apathy is probably their best shot.
In the press release accompanying the launch, a few choice quotes were included. I’m reproducing them here together with some counter-arguments:

Caroline Flint – she of the New Labour plan to build ten huge eco-towns despoiling the English countryside – said: “One vote is all I need to vote for the party I believe in – Labour. Why should those who vote for fringe parties have the chance to vote again and again until their vote finally decides the outcome?”

Well, bully for you, Caroline! It’s called democracy, majority rule, that sort of thing. You should know: you were elected on the support of only 37.9% of the voters in the Don Valley constituency. Under AV, you may well not be re-elected. But this won’t necessarily be because of the second and subsequent votes of supporters of ‘fringe’ parties, because, in your seat, only the three main parties bothered to field a candidate – probably because they knew you would be re-elected on such a pitiful plurality.

Maybe more fringe parties will field candidates in Don Valley if AV is introduced. That’s because they’ll at least know that their supporters can register their support for them before having to transfer their vote to one of the mainstream parties. Under FPTP, many voters do so anyway: it’s called tactical voting, or not voting at all – hence the deplorable 59.3% turn-out in your seat. Your pitiful 37.9% share of the vote (i.e. the support of 22.5% of all registered voters) was doubtless actually inflated by Lib Dem supporters backing you to prevent the Tory from winning. Under AV, Lib Dem voters and supporters of other parties standing could express their real preferences first before switching their vote to you – or at least, you hope it would be you. That would reveal the miserable level of support you really enjoy.

So the end result would probably not be any different under AV, as Lib Dem voters would probably support you in the final round of voting. That’s why AV is only the tiniest bit better than FPTP: it still leads to the election of MPs like you commanding so little real support among their constituents.

John Healey MP said: “AV is not a new dawn for democracy. It’s a dreadful system for electing MPs and choosing a Government. AV would hand power to Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems – the kingmakers in any hung Parliament.”

Doh! Weren’t Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems the kingmakers in the last hung parliament, elected under FPTP? There’s no guarantee that FPTP won’t deliver still more hung parliaments; and AV could just as easily deliver the kind of massively disproportional parliamentary majorities the New Labour governments obtained on minority shares of the vote. Let’s wait until there’s an AV election and Labour win a big majority. I doubt they’ll be complaining then. They’re just worried they’ll lose the unfair advantage FPTP has given them.

But John Healey is right to say that AV is a “dreadful system for electing MPs”, because it’s hardly any better than the absolutely awful FPTP system for which we have 13 years of Labour mis-rule to thank. Let’s vote against both of them on 5 May by spoiling our ballots!

Tony Lloyd MP, Chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, said: “Nick Clegg demanded this AV referendum as a fix to keep his party in Government. The only party to benefit from AV would be the Lib Dems. I believe that voters should keep the right to evict one Government and choose another. We shouldn’t be handing that power to Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats.”

Well, the Lib Dems have never actually favoured AV: they’ve always supported the Single Transferable Vote system (STV). Labour was actually the only party to put AV in their 2010 election manifesto, and they did that to try and lure Lib Dem supporters into voting for them tactically (which FPTP obliges them to do) and to lay down a marker for any coalition negotiations with the Lib Dems. Well, that back-fired on them, didn’t it? And the real reason we’re being offered AV, not STV, is that this was the only deal on the table in the coalition bartering with the Tories.

But all considerations of historical accuracy aside (admittedly, not a Labour strong point), it’s complete rubbish that AV would benefit only the Lib Dems. For a start, that rather depends on how people vote, doesn’t it? If people reject the Lib Dems – as the present opinion polls suggest they might – then AV certainly won’t artificially engineer loads of extra seats for them. On the other hand, you could argue they would deserve more, even on a lower share of the vote. In fact, if the Lib Dems won only 10% of the vote, this would correspond to 60 seats on a strictly proportional basis, compared with the 57 seats (9% of the total) they won with a 23% share of the vote in 2010. So I think some redressing of that imbalance is actually what you call fair, really, isnt’ it?

What Tony Lloyd is really attacking when he talks of the ‘right’ to evict one government and choose another is the whole principle of coalition government. He’s defending the idea of one-party rule: the tendency in the past for FPTP to generate whopping majorities for one party (either Labour or Conservative) based on a minority share of the votes across the UK. But in what sense does this constitute ‘choosing’ a government: only 36% of voters supported Labour in 2005, and yet they won a parliamentary majority of around 60. Is that fair? Is that ‘choosing’ a Labour government?

It is also true that no one ‘chose’ the coalition government. But that’s a separate issue from the question of the voting system. Any fair voting system will fail to deliver a majority for just one party given the level of support each party presently enjoys. If Labour can command the support of over 50% of voters, then this argument might start to have some credibility. AV in itself won’t make a hung parliament any more or less likely – that power will continue to depend on how people vote, not on Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats.

David Blunkett – arguably, one of the most unpopular and autocratic Home Secretaries in recent times – said: “People’s trust in politicians has been at an all-time low, so what they don’t want is the kind of back-room deals that you’re more likely to get with AV. Above all, we expect to have one vote – one voter, and each vote counts equally.”

Yes, people don’t want back-room deals. But we’ve dealt with this in the context of John Healey’s point above: AV doesn’t make hung parliaments any more or less likely than FPTP. One recent report came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t have changed the overall result, but only the size of the majorities or pluralities, in any of the last few general elections. And New Labour’s whopping 1997 landslide would have been even bigger, according to one reputable analysis.

As for the idea that AV means that some voters have more votes than others, this is quite ridiculous. AV does give some voters a second (or even third, fourth, etc.) chance to pick a winner. But that’s only so the eventual winner can command the support – to some degree – of a majority or bigger plurality of voters than under FPTP. Again, Mr Blunkett, it’s called majority rule. I know that’s not a popular concept in Labour circles.

It is, however, the case that AV won’t ensure rule by the majority, at either national or local level. It’ll still produce grossly disproportional shares of parliamentary seats; and even at constituency level, it doesn’t guarantee that the eventual winner commands the support of a majority. Or if the winner does obtain a ‘majority’ under AV, this is not necessarily the biggest majority, as not all preference votes are counted. (That’s a long and involved argument I’ve discussed elsewhere and won’t rehearse here.)

So both systems are deeply flawed – FPTP more so than AV – and both should be roundly rejected on 5 May. Spoil your ballot!

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