Forget the pedantry and distortions: the reason the big parties oppose AV is that it will erode their support

Readers of this blog will know by now that I dislike the Alternative Vote (AV) voting system but like First Past the Post (FPTP) even less. But cutting through all the crud and the crap about those systems’ respective merits and demerits, the one big reason why Labour and Tory dinosaurs such as Margaret Beckett and William Hague respectively oppose AV is that it will erode support for their parties.

It will do so in two ways:

1) It will reduce the percentage of first-preference votes each party receives compared with what they win under FPTP, because the FPTP totals are inflated by tactical voting. Under AV, people who’ve tended to vote for Labour or the Tories merely to prevent the other party from winning can now vote for their actual favourite party or candidate first, and only then switch their vote to one of the bigger parties. Suddenly, people will realise that the parties that have dominated post-war British politics are not that popular really, and that they can be defeated if enough people reject them; and as their reputation diminishes, more people will be emboldened not to vote for them as their first preference in subsequent elections.

2) It means that, instead of having only one choice at elections, voters are encouraged by the actual voting system to look at a range of parties and to vote for multiple parties. This loosens the hold that Labour and the Conservatives have over voters, bolstered by the FPTP voting system, which means anything other than a vote for them in most constituencies is a wasted vote. Under AV, voters can in theory express a wider range of political opinion (although, in reality, a lot of those preference votes will be disregarded in the AV counting process), and they can vent their displeasure with Labour and the Conservatives by voting for other parties first before switching their vote back to them in their final preferences.

On the other hand, if AV is introduced and either Labour or the Tories win an outright majority in parliament, they will try to counter my first point by saying their majority is a ‘majority of majorities’: a reflection of majority support in a majority of constituencies. I’ve demonstrated the fallacious nature of this assertion here. But that won’t stop the parties from saying it, and it’s a major reason for rejecting AV: don’t give the mainstream parties a chance to claim a majority mandate when, in fact, they’ll have won an even lower share of first-preference votes than the share of the vote they would have won under FPTP.

All the same, the potential for AV to undermine support for the Conservatives and Labour is a really good reason – perhaps the only good reason – to vote for AV; although I accept that this will provide a good reason to vote against it for many others.

How am I tempted to vote now? I’m still backing the idea of not voting at all in the referendum, preferably by spoiling one’s ballot paper by scrawling ‘English parliament now!’ – or another pet demand – all over it. In any case, the non-vote camp is definitely going to be the winner – at least, in England – as I can’t see the turn-out being more than 50%. I would be surprised if many more people go out to vote in the referendum than would have turned up to vote in the English local elections being held on the same day; and turn-out for local elections is usually around 30% or so. That’s one of the reasons I’ve soft-pedalled my ‘campaign‘ to encourage people to spoil their ballots in the referendum: the more you bring the matter to their attention, the more likely they are to actually vote!

So whatever happens, the result won’t have much credibility, not only because the turn-out in England will be so pitiful, but because the turn-out in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be significantly higher because of the elections to their national parliament / assemblies that are taking place on the same day. It will be clear that people in England have bothered to vote in the referendum only because a ballot paper was pressed into their hands when they came to vote in the local elections, not because there is any groundswell of opinion in favour of either of the options on offer. If the establishment were really serious about proposing AV as a constitutional innovation of major importance to the UK, they should have made it compulsory to vote – and you could still have rejected both options by not marking anything on the paper or by allowing a third option such as ‘neither of the above’.

Having said all that, if it looks from opinion polls as though the No camp are going to swing it, I would now seriously consider voting Yes, if only for the reasons set out here: to give the major parties a well-deserved smack in the teeth and to offer the hope that their support would be undermined by AV.

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