The Great AV Referendum-Yawn.

JR Max Wheel

1st April 2011

This is supposed to be a Big Deal, fire up the electorate to vote for a better system, especially as a result of expense abuse characterised the “Manure” parliament. In Britain we rarely had a problem with the First Past the Post system (FPTP) until “President” Blair messed around with devolution and hence meddled in our Constitution without bothering to consult all of the populace- merely by simple majority referenda. Elections generally produced a clear outcome, even if you did not much like the result. The truth is, as well understood by even the Electoral Reform Society that none of the plethora of available systems is perfect, although there is a preference for change based on fairness.

Already the gloves are off in the Coalition with Energy Secretary Chris Huhne accusing Baroness Warsi of Goebbels-like tactics. This is pretty rich coming from Huhne, whose own surname is pretty Germanic sounding- just add an umlaut. To compare the No campaign to adopting the tactics of a club-footed psychopath lawyer from the Rhenish town of Rheydt, infamous as a Nazi leader who committed Germany to “Total War” is completely unacceptable.  Then again Huhne is an odd choice for energy secretary with his anti-nuclear stance and overwhelming preference for certain renewables despite the mounting costs of subsidies for inefficient technologies like wind power.  We digress however.

At the risk of doing the electorate injustice, many don’t vote, nor read the manifestos or have little idea who does what. Asking them to rank candidates in order of preference under AV looks like an invitation to an even more arbitrary set of outcomes. I doubt that there is sufficient interest to really weight the candidates properly – this is likely to produce some pretty errant results. It could and probably would encourage the rise of small factional parties and possibly give power to a vocal, committed but unrepresentative minority. The reason why only a third of candidates elected achieved a majority in the 2010 election surely had a great deal more to do with the disillusioned electorate expressing a  “plague on all your houses” rather than an explicit wish for electoral reform. The desperate last minute gamble in Labour ranks to introduce AV was a pretty obvious cynical ploy, but it has been taken up by this costly referendum.

AV is not proportional representation, which is what the Lib Dems have argued about forever. It is the only means that they could see to break the two party stranglehold that Labour and Conservatives held over pre and postwar elections. AV+ the Roy Jenkins inspired reform was supposed to be a compromise between the FPTP and AV systems but is complex and requires redrawing boundaries.

Single Transferable Vote (STV) is a preferable alternative for those that want proper PR. Although cumbersome it is used in Australia, Tasmania, Malta, New Zealand and was used until the abolition of University seats in the UK.

AMS (The Alternative Member System) is also a hybrid but settles that difficult issue of whether to vote for a good candidate or a party. In effect you get two votes one for each category. It is the method used to elect members in the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Greater London Assembly, Italy, The German Budestag and Mexico. Given the weight of relevance to the UK it is some surprise that this is not even considered. However we were not consulted on the matter of Devolution in England, so perhaps no surprise after all. It is also alleged that it allows the backdoor entrance of members and makes them less accountable to the electorate and more to party leaders.

Given the choice I would argue that there are more important precursors of any change to voting systems. Firstly a fully elected House of Lords would be a start, as would a reduction in the number of MPs. A further benefit would be the establishment of an electoral levy and the banning of political donations entirely.

The AV referendum is being used as a sop to the Liberal Democrats to keep them on side in the Coalition. It is not the answer to Britain’s electoral system, so I would vote keep the existing one and fix the other issues before messing around with this distraction.

I am indebted to the Electoral Reform Society for their very clear and helpful website- they at least have set out the alternatives honestly, which is more than you can say for the Parties.