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Taking a broader perspective…

Don’t be a dinosaur: Get on board in the battle for AV

By Rupert Read

Rupert Read has been a Green Party City Councillor in Norwich since 2004, to find out more about Rupert visit his blog and twitter.

As the person who broke the news nationally that the AV referendum will be on the first Thursday in May, next year, it is obvious that this is something that I have been taking a close personal interest in. But ALL of us on the Left in British politics should take a great interest in AV – for it will be the defining political issue of the next year. And for good reason.

The battle-lines are already being drawn – it is clear that there will be lots of unpleasant money behind the campaign to stop change, and to retain the status quo. Beside the predictable nonsense from these wreckers, some of ‘the forces of conservatism’ are also (rightly) pointing out some problems with the government’s plans – such as the reduction in seat-numbers, which is liable to be anti-democratic, especially in a country whose population is continuing to rise. But it is important to be clear that, when it actually comes to the referendum, those problems will no longer be relevant. Parliament will decide them one way or another; and the issue that goes to the people to decide on May 5 2011 will be simply whether to stick with FPTP or to change to AV. That therefore is the main issue that ought to pre-occupy those concerned with the state of democracy in Britain – and, for us on the Left, that means of course that we would actually like to have some democracy, rather than just the glorified plutocracy that we presently have. AV brings us a little closer to the people ruling.

So that is the question on which each of us has to decide: Which side are you on. AV, or FPTP?

There are those who take themselves to be radicals / lefties who oppose AV on the grounds of purism: on the grounds that it is not PR. One such is Derek Wall, former Male Principal Speaker of the Green Party (see here).

So, in terms of Parties: on the No side are the Conservative Party and Labour tribalists, and maybe some Greens (if the opposition to AV of Derek et al continues). On the Yes side are the Liberal Democrats, Labour pluralists (including Compass, the Millibands and Diane Abbott) and certainly some Greens (see here).

The Green Party will make its decision on where it stands at our Autumn Conference. We are a small Party, but it could be an important decision. For, while the LibDems and Labour lost seats at this General Election, the Green Party entered Westminster for the first time. There is some momentum behind us, and a lot of respect for our Leader, Caroline Lucas MP.

It seems to me that it would be extremely unfortunate if there were to be a group of ‘PR purists’ opposing AV on the grounds that it isn’t radical enough. The grave danger is that, by dissing AV, such people will give respectable ‘cover’ to those implacably opposed to any reform of our electoral system. Those who will benefit from such ‘purism’ will be Labour tribalists represented by the likes of Prescott, Burnham and Balls, and (above all) the Tories. It is the Right that will benefit, if AV is defeated.

That is why several senior elected Greens will be putting the case (in a motion that I have proposed for consideration at our September Party Conference) for supporting AV in the referendum. AV eliminates the wasted vote argument, it largely eliminates tactical voting, it drastically reduces the number of safe seats. It allows the electorate to express their preferences and thus potentially speeds up the process of Parliamentary change at a time when Parliament desperately needs to be ready to respond rapidly to environmental degradation and financial (and social) crisis. And it is a start. It is a significant step in the right direction.

To stand in the way of it when the referendum comes will only benefit those such as Lord Ashcroft who are going to put their considerable resources behind the campaign to preserve the present system that has served them so well…

Let me explain then in a little more detail the crucial point about how AV will help renew Parliament, and take us that bit closer toward our goal: democracy. Here’s how:

  • AV would drastically reduce the number of safe seats in this country, because all those MPs who get a plurality and not a majority of votes (that’s almost all MPs) would now have to worry about everyone’s 2nd preferences.
  • It would be much easier for voters to ‘gang up’ against the incumbent, if they wanted to.
  • In the expenses scandal, the worst offenders were virtually all MPs with safe seats. Because THEY DON’T HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT WHAT THE VOTERS THINK, so they thought they could afford to break the rules – and, in many cases, they have been proven right.
  • AV would be a genuine political reform. Not as good as PR, but, as I say, a real start. AV would enable we the people to punish politicians who abused their positions.

Moroever, the laughable nonsense in the media recently from YouGov, the BBC and others about how the election just gone by would have been different under AV ignores the most important feature of AV, visible clearly in the Australian system: that AV changes how people vote ON FIRST PREFERENCES too. In Australia, Green 1st preferences have increased markedly under AV. This has over time facilitated Greens getting enough votes to win, in the Senate. AV will enable small Parties, such as the Greens, Respect, etc., to advance. It could facilitate a positive realignment on the Left (See my relevant piece here.)

To conclude. The fundamental fact now is: there is going to be an AV referendum. You need to decide which side you are on, in it. It is crystal clear that defeat for AV will be perceived as defeat for electoral reform and thus as a vote for the status quo; whereas success for AV will eliminate the wasted vote argument and eliminate most tactical voting. This will be great for smaller Parties, and thus for democracy. The Green Party would probably have won Norwich South (where I live) this time, with AV as the system. AV allows people to express their 1st preference for us, or for other left-Parties: the strait-jacket of Labourism can be broken (and forward-looking Labour people such as Neal Lawson, Ed Miliband, Diane Abbot, understand that this can be a good thing for the Left, and even for Labour).

If you are on the Left, then get on board, in the campaign to change Westminster voting forever, by what (if we achieve it, against the odds) will be a historic achievement indeed: winning in the AV referendum.


Filed under: Electoral Reform, , , , , , , , , , ,

4 Responses

  1. I agree. If we can move the creaking, dysfunctional and sclerotic FPTP system out of the way, the stage will be set for a further reform to AV+, which is proportional.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by RupertRead and Jane Watkinson, Broad Left Blogging. Broad Left Blogging said: Don’t be a dinosaur: Get on board in the battle for AV : […]

  3. Michael Godfrey says:

    “AV would drastically reduce the number of safe seats in this country, because all those MPs who get a plurality and not a majority of votes (that’s almost all MPs) would now have to worry about everyone’s 2nd preferences”

    This is inaccurate. At recent elections, about a third of MPs have been elected with a majority of the vote. Those seats will be just as safe under AV. There will also be some currently marginal seats(mainly Lib Dem ones) that will become much safer under AV. AV probably would expand the number of genuinely contested seats, but not by nearly as much as you seem to think. Besides the parties would still concentrate on the most marginal seats.

    “In Australia, Green 1st preferences have increased markedly under AV. This has over time facilitated Greens getting enough votes to win, in the Senate. AV will enable small Parties, such as the Greens, Respect, etc., to advance. It could facilitate a positive realignment on the Left.”

    I’m not sure what you’re arguing here. The Australian Senate is elected under PR, that’s why the Greens have been able to win seats there – just as the Greens have been able to win seats in those UK bodies that are elected under PR, such as the Scottish Parliament, and at the Euro elections. AV will likely make no difference to the chances of small parties being able to win seats in the Commons – they still won’t have a hope except in a tiny handful of constituencies. Labour hegemony will remain, I’m afraid.

    It would be a shame to see the Left waste its energy on a reform that in practice will make so little difference.

  4. Rupert Read says:

    Thanks for the correction on the number of seats where MPs get a majority of the votes, Michael.
    I think you over-estimate drastically LibDem seats becoming safer under AV. LibDems are no longer a popular tactical choice for many, because of the coalition. And AV will in many places reduce the number of LibDem 1st preferences, because many LibDem 1st prefs at present are merely tactical votes.
    You haven’t understood the point about Australia. Talk to Australian Greens, and they will explain how AV enabled them to grow their 1st-pref-vote-base and their profile, to the point that they then won Senate seats under PR.
    Finally, Michael: what’s your point? Are you going to oppose AV because it isn’t PR? That is the kind of self-defeating ‘logic’ that my piece is aimed at taking apart.
    The question is: Which side will you be on, in the referendum? On the side of keeping our current terrible system, or on the side of improving it somewhat?

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