Broad Left Blogging


Taking a broader perspective…

Why the left should take the AV Referendum seriously….

Keith White is the leader of the Labour Group on Dacorum Borough Council and blogs here.

One thing is certain there is going to be a referendum on whether we should replace the current First Past the Post voting system (FPTP) for the House of Commons with the Alternative Vote (AV) so for activists in the Labour Party and on the left to claim it is unimportant (campaigning against Tory cuts is much more crucial) and to try to ignore it is not only pointless but also a political failure – the left has as much of an interest in the future of democracy as anyone if not more.

A familiar argument against changing from FPTP is that alternative systems, such as AV, benefit the smaller parties disproportionately and that the so called centre ground third party will be the major gainer. This argument is based on the somewhat flawed assumption that all votes cast under FPTP would translate to first choice votes under AV, whereas in reality the weaknesses and distortions of the current FPTP system in many areas influences voter choice.

Since the mid to late 1980s, in particular since the 1987 and 1992 General Elections there has been a significant build up of willingness to vote tactically in many constituencies, and a growing advocacy from political parties for tactical voting where it is perceived to benefit them. Hence, the “It’s a two horse race”, “Labour/LibDem/Tory (delete where applicable) can’t win here” leaflets; all seeking to convince the electorate that if they don’t want one political party to win they must vote in only one alternative way. This style of campaigning has fuelled the negative view of politics that it is all about saying how bad the opposition is rather than what the party in question is actually going to do. In this climate it is much easier to justify the “their all as bad as each other” reason for ignoring elections and voter apathy increases alongside the perception of a lack of choice. The ultimate result of tactical voting, FPTP and negative campaign fuelled voter apathy is the 2010 General Election result.

The electoral dynamic created by both the FPTP voting system and ‘anti-party’ campaigning, which if anything is more prevalent in marginal seats than any other, is to increase the influence of the compromise party. Why vote for your first choice party if they have no real prospect of winning, why not ensure your vote has influence by voting against the party you don’t want to win by voting for the perceived ‘middle ground’, the other ‘anti’ party?  The Liberal Democrats built most of their appeal by presenting themselves as an ‘anti’ Conservative party that could win in seats where Labour could not and in some areas by being an ‘anti’ Labour party that could win where the Conservatives could not. They built support as a ‘safe’ protest party precisely because of the distorting effective of the FPTP voting system. The nature of the FPTP voting has meant that as this ‘alternative anti’ and/or ‘safe’ protest they have gained votes they would not otherwise have received, often on a perception and without any real scrutiny of their policies or what they stand for.

On this basis it is arguable that the Liberal Democrats will lose first choice votes through a switch to AV rather than gain as, over time, people return to casting their first choice vote for the party and candidate they identify with most rather than against the party and candidate they don’t want to win.

Equally as candidates campaign for first, second, and in some constituencies, third or even fourth choice preference votes they will be forced to campaign positively. On what they will do and what their policies mean. Minor parties will start to gain influence, not through protest voting but through policy challenge as major parties frame an appeal to attract transfer votes from their supporters. Here for the left the way Labour addresses the concerns of the Greens will be crucial. Just as interesting will be the influence UKIP transfer votes might have on the Tories, will it strengthen the hand of the Euro-sceptic right?

And what about the Lib Dem surge that will come from being everyone’s second choice?

There is no longer any reason to think that they are. The prospect of them being the automatic second choice of Labour voters has been largely burnt following 2010’s General election and the actions of the Coalition Government. In any event the benefit of them being ‘second choice’ only works in constituencies where they can gather enough support to be in first or second place when all other parties have dropped out and their votes transferred. Without the pressure to tactically vote enforced by the FPTP system there is no reason to believe that the Liberal Democrats will achieve this in any more constituencies than present. Given the current state of party support in the polls it is much more likely that in seats that Labour won in 1997 but fell to third in 2010 that Labour would find it easier to bring back lost votes and move back in to the top two. It is here that Ed Milliband’s appeal to Liberal Democrat votes is important. In an AV election the size of a Liberal Democrat vote transfer, second or third choice votes, could make the differences in many seats. Electing Labour MPs through a progressive left policy alliance building a positive policy platform that is attractive to Labour, Green and left of centre Liberal Democrat voters.

Supporting AV may well be the best way to prevent another 2010 General Election. It may also be the best way to renew progressive politics and build a new debate across the broader centre left. Tribalism may well be forced in to history, but not because coalition government is the inevitable consequence of shifting from FPTP but because open positive debate between parties might be the only way to convince the electorate and to secure the first, second, and third choice votes necessary to win the seats and therefore the election.

This might just be our best chance to make politics real again.


Filed under: Electoral Reform, Green Party, Labour, Liberal Democrats, The Left

3 Responses

  1. Doctordrink says:

    Agreed! we have to get involved – for both tactical and strategic reasons, not least of which would be that it will be the only way to ameliorate the gerrymandering that takes place at the same time – a rising population, yet 50 LESS representatives???

  2. alexlondon says:

    Hear hear! One step towards an honest voting system. PR would be better (both more fair, and beneficial, overall to the “progressive” cause), but AV is much better that FPTP.

    Labour is unlikely to be electable again until it embraces electoral reform.

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