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AV is …[blank]… The Yes campaign are still missing the answer to “What is AV?”

Matt Wootton studies “cognitive policy” with colleague Rupert Read at the Green Words Workshop. In 2004 he rebranded the Green Party as the party of “Real Progress”. This post is reproduced with his kind permission from the Green Words Workshop.

“What is AV?” is the essential question that the official Yes to Fairer Votes campaign is not yet answering for me, and, it seems, the British public at large.

I don’t mean an explanation of how AV works. I mean the very simplest association in people’s minds of “What is AV?”.
And I don’t even mean just for the 16% of people who have never heard of it [YouGov, 9-10 Mar] or even the 37% of people who have heard of it but aren’t sure how it works.

The problem is that when people – even who know about AV – are asked the question “What is AV?” they can’t give a clear answer. It’s not simple. It’s not easy. At the moment, for almost everybody in the British public, AV is …[blank]…  And for that reason, the Yes campaign will lose.

If – despite their advertising, their TV slots, their phonebanking volunteers, their street stalls, their canvassers and their red batphone to the national media – the official Yes campaign can’t find the simple, honest straightforward truth about what AV is, it will still all be for nought.

Let me illustrate just what a basic level I’m talking about here. The human brain is a marvellous yet routinely predictable organ. It forms associations, and those neural associations form the sum of our skills, our memories, our experience, our language, and, many scientists argue, our personality too. They certainly form the basis of our political and moral beliefs, values and opinions.

Associations are very simple. In language they work like metaphors saying “X is Y” or “this is that”, or “that is this”. This is how we learn language when we are children and it is how we continue to learn things, including political ideas.

The things that people think are most important in life are well established, and they are comfortable with them, from a neural point of view, and they find them simple. For example: love, home, family. You have a reaction to those things because you know what they mean. You don’t have the same reaction as me exactly, because they mean different things to you. You have different neural connections, many different associations in your brain that have been made over the years to those words. A whole network of them. But I imagine a lot of our associations overlap broadly, and that’s why we can have a conversation about those contestable concepts and still understand each other.

However when it comes to AV, or – as we should all be saying – Alternative Vote… Still, nothing. Nothing comes up because we haven’t learned what it means yet. And as I’m about to show, if we have learned what it means, many of those associations might not be so positive.

Yes campaigners have, rationally, tried to compensate for this “AV is  ..[blank].. ” gap with explanations like “AV is “very much like First-Past-the-Post (FPTP). Like FPTP, it is used to elect representatives for single-member constituencies, except that rather than simply marking one solitary ‘X’ on the ballot paper, the voter has the chance to rank the candidates on offer””.

But is that what my original formula looked like? No it is not.

The brain can learn many associations for ‘table’, but only one a time. “X is Y”. Giving someone a long paragraph to introduce them to a two-letter concept seems fine if you believe the human brain works as people from the Enlightenment onwards believed it to, as a rational machine. But brain scientists like Drew Westen in The Political Brain and cognitive scientists such as George Lakoff in Moral Politics have shown the human brain to be far more responsive, emotional and context-bound than that. Westen showed that we think in emotion, even subconsciously. And Lakoff showed that our political opinions come not from our rationality but from our values (there is a tiny sliver of rationality and a huge majority of emotionality).

You think in emotion and you feel in values. Explanations of AV like the one above do not go anywhere near this territory. And as such they miss what human beings are largely about, how we think 98% of the time, and the things that really matter to us and our decision making.

It might surprise some seasoned campaigners that humans are deeply moral creatures too – but just that not everyone has the same morality. We all want to do and be good, although sometimes different people’s ideas of good are opposing.

But in order to win a moral and political argument one must convince someone that your ideas are good; that you are right and that you are good. “AV” was always going to be an uphill struggle from the start because it falls so naturally into a frame of being technical and administrative. Not exactly the issue that gets people up and going to the ballot box. And not exactly one where they have a lot of motivation to even form an opinion about it.

But Yes to Fairer Votes have not yet made sufficient running in my opinion (and the opinion of a growing number of Yes activists) on making the neural connections “AV is simple”, “AV is good”, “AV is right for Britain”, “AV is right for you” and simply “AV is the right thing to do”.

It’s partly in response to this that my colleague Rupert Read and I at the Green Words Workshop launched Yes! Postcards, an ever-developing source of political postcards for a Yes vote, that you can share with and send to your friends. But we’d much prefer simpler more impassioned messages such as these to be coming from the central national campaign.

Rationalist political reservations such as AV not being a perfect step, and having to nod to various different political interests have perhaps got in the way of impassioned convictions. It seems the national campaign is ultra-sensitive to political considerations. But political considerations be damned. If we don’t get some impassioned convictions, right now, then the campaign will be lost. And people will be a lot more politically sensitive about that.

And if the people leading the campaign lose, on our behalf, they don’t deserve to be forgiven easily, mainly because they will have postponed for another generation all hope of electoral reform in our country.

To give evidence for my belief that the campaign is heading for disaster, consider this fascinating post from YouGov pollster Peter Kellner on Open Democracy.

“Just over half the public has still either never heard of AV or is not sure what it means”.

But that’s not even what worries me. Most shockingly for the Yes camp, Kellner detected a pattern in all the polls: when people had been given the quick choice “Shall we change to AV?” a majority voted yes. When primed with a warm-up explanation of how AV actually worked, most voted no.
Compare these two polls in the first week of this month:

Without a warm-up explanation

•    Yes 37%
•    No 32%
•    Don’t know 24%
•    Would not vote 7%

With a warm-up explanation
•    Yes 30%
•    No 47%
•    Don’t know 15%
•    Would not vote 8%

Explaining how AV works completely kiboshed the Yes vote! As Kellner says “When people are told what AV means, and/or are asked to ponder the consequences of AV, the anti-AV lobby gains ground, mainly at the expense of the don’t knows”.

To meet my brain-learning criteria, any explanation of AV needs to be simple, easy, fair and obvious.

Yet the explanation provided to the public before they voted in the second poll was anything but: “The Conservative-Liberal Democrat government are committed to holding a referendum on changing the electoral system from first-past-the-post (FPTP) to the Alternative Vote (AV). At the moment, under first-past-the-post (FPTP), voters select ONE candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins. It has been suggested that this system should be replaced by the Alternative Vote (AV). Voters would RANK a number of candidates from a list. If a candidates wins more than half of the ‘1st’ votes, a winner is declared. If not, the least popular candidates are eliminated from the contest, and their supporters’ subsequent preferences counted and shared accordingly between the remaining candidates. This process continues until an outright winner is declared”.

Rationally, fine, but for the other 98% of the human brain such an explanation is horribly un-easy, boring, obtuse, not obvious and very far from simple.. And it reads as possibly not at all fair.

This is what I mean when I say many of those associations might not be so positive. In fact, it’s a disaster because it takes something that should be filled with political passion for justice and rightness and makes it extremely boring. It takes something that we should be connecting with things people know everything about: justice, rightness, society and their place in it, but instead maps it onto something that people know nothing about (psephology). Peter Kellner doesn’t proffer an explanation, but for my money this “death by political boredom” is what’s happening when 37% Yes versus 32% No turns into 47% No and 30% Yes after they’ve been given the explanation.

Perhaps the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign know this and that is why they have a policy of not themselves offering an explanation of how AV works. As somebody in the Yes office told me, “that’s the BBC’s job”.

But don’t concede defeat… reframe! Without inspiration from some camp or another, even the BBC won’t know how to “frame” the explanation. The question of “What is AV, technically?”, is not a value-less question. Everything needs a frame. And an issue floating about looking to have frames imposed on it is ripe for seizure by the No side, who will waste no time in defining AV as they see it, and even if they use seemingly impartial language their explanation – seen through their frame – will gain currency and popularity. This is what happens to left and liberal groups time and time again. It’s what Lakoff calls falling into “the No-Framing-Necessary Trap”.

It’s not even a question of making it painstakingly accurate, or containing the Yes campaign’s values. The fairly impartial intellectually accurate explanation above is just boring! And boring is worse than you think. Making the neural connection “AV is good” involves associating AV with everything people think is good. That includes their morality, and their morality fundamentally shapes the way they live their life. It’s no exaggeration therefore to say that for the public to accept AV they have to accept it into their hearts, and place it alongside love, home and family, or at least pretty important political convictions like fairness, justice, progress and goodness.

But what does the above explanation do? It associates AV – not rationally but for the 98% of the brain that is doing the real thinking – with technical things that you learnt in school and that you have to remember, or some tedious explanation of something not really important. It puts it in a big mental category – instead of values or goodness or rightness or importance – of “blaaaa, random techie political stuff (with acronyms)”. It’s no coincidence that relatively highly educated liberals detest this category less than say the average Sun reader. But the Sun has a circulation of 3 million. The Guardian sells 360k. From those figures alone you can see which way the British public’s headed.

And when people don’t fully understand something (and it’s much harder to understand a technical paragraph of text than a value which you can feel and believe in) then you don’t have as much confidence in it. Most people will continue to have a not very good understanding of AV, and in the absence of having any positive feelings about the good values of AV they will be very reluctant to vote for it and be responsible for bringing something that complicated and technical upon their fellow countrymen. After all, unless people are really morally convinced of an issue, it’s really better in their minds for them not to divide the country over it.

And on that point there are a couple more bits of bad news from Peter Kellner of YouGov:

“The first is that the status quo tends to gain ground in referendums on issues where countries are divided. This happened in Scotland in 1979, when a large pro-devolution majority melted away in the final fortnight of the campaign; in Spain in 1986, where the public narrowly voted to stay in NATO after all; and in Australia in 1999, when the apparently dominant republicans ended up heavily defeated in a referendum to replace the Queen as head of state. I would not be greatly surprised if something similar happened here with voting reform.

Second, the shift towards the status quo seems to have started already. Recent surveys by YouGov, ComRes and ICM have all detected a shift towards FPTP. In the case of both ICM and ComRes, clear ‘yes’ leads (when the question is asked ‘cold’) have evaporated.”
The fact that people with postal votes will start voting around the 17th of April (and they’ll tell their friends how they voted) makes it all the more likely that public opinions will cement – early – into the maintaining the status quo as the safe option. The longer we go without clear, compelling, emotional intelligent messages based on passionate and universal values, the more the polls are going to show the Yes side as the clear projected losers. We will have turned our lead into a defeat. And the clock is counting in terms of days now.

So, Yes to Fairer Votes do – after all – need their own explanation of how AV works, with the emphasis of making it as simple and bright and optimistic and colloquial as possible and on the Yes campaign’s terms. And resonating with people’s values.

But, they need more than that as well. Just a literal explanation (even an emotionally & cognitively intelligent literal explanation) won’t do. We still don’t have the short-enough answer to the question “What is AV?”. We’re still not at “AV is … “. We need to make more positive associations in people’s minds. And we still need to connect more with people’s values.

However, the No side are there already. They can show us the way to success, since they have already been leading the British people down their merry path for several weeks now.

Rationalist campaigners might think that the No campaign’s messages are things like “AV is complex and unfair” or even “Keep One Person One Vote”, but it’s much worse than that. Those are just the words! The messages that are received – emotionally and subconsciously – are a lot more powerful, insidious and damaging. To my reading the messages the No campaign is sending out are:

AV is ridiculous
AV will take money from you
AV is the liberal elite
AV campaigners are sad misguided people
AV is for posh snobs who think they’re better than you.
AV is a stitch-up, and you’re the one being taken for granted
AV is the Political Class helping themselves
AV is Nick Clegg’s wet dream
AV is a waste of everybody’s time
AV is a joke
AV is robbing you of your rights
AV in undemocratic
AV is Un-British
AV is just bad
AV is immoral because it’s a compromising politician’s fix
AV is wrong

And I think what “Keep One Person One Vote” is really saying is “Other people are going to have more votes than you”, with all the implications of the theft and unfairness of that, and associations of those people as being BNP voters. “Keep One Person One Vote” could even be received as “BNP voters are going to steal your vote”.

If I was advising the No side I would tell them to work all of those underlying messages into the framing of their overt wording. But I’m not telling them anything they don’t already know. Even if they’re not aware explicitly of “cognitive policy”, which is what this is, they’re doing a very good job of getting it right accidentally. But it’s inconceivable that a campaign allied with a professionalised Tory party does not know about cognitive policy: the Right has had a 30-year head start in the area of how the workings of the human brain can be applied to politics. George Lakoff tells us that in the 1990s alone, US Conservatives spent over a billion dollars on think-tank research into cognitive communications. A billion dollars.

So, what would a cognitively-aware answer to the question look like?

Well, our answers card by card on the Yes! Postcards website have been (in order, you can look at the postcards themselves and see how we’ve manifested them):

AV is making sure politicians know who they answer to: us.
AV is giving Britain a government that’s really supported by the people.
AV would have saved us from Thatcher. AV would have kept us safe from values that weren’t really ours.
AV is part of British tradition. AV is healthy popular revolt.
AV is the proud legacy of the Suffragettes. A British legacy.
AV is new. Its opponents are old.
AV is a second choice if your favourite drink isn’t available.
AV is giving you more choices.
AV is voting for who you really want to vote for.

etc etc

Only one of those is technically a metaphor: “AV is a second choice if your favourite drink isn’t available”. But we think metaphors could be hugely important in explaining to people what AV is. Why? Because people think in metaphors! Metaphors are the kind of thing that are likely to make people go “aahhh, I get it!”, rather than the head-scratching alienation they feel from a paragraph of explanatory text. Why? Because the metaphor and experience of wanting a second choice of drink at the bar is one that is part of people’s everyday experience. They recognise it! They’re comfortable with it. It simplifies and illuminates things. In the way they’re not comfortable with AV, technical explanations, or arguments about what will “benefit” them, proffered by politicians.

Here are some other positive associations we should – implicitly – be making:

AV is easy and natural
AV is simple, a child can do it
AV is a vote against the Political Class
AV is the right thing to do.
AV is good for Britain
AV is right for you
AV gives you more.

or maybe:

AV is the choice you’ve been waiting for
AV is your chance to express your anger…
AV is your revenge on the bankers and the politicians
AV is one up for the common man

When the campaign find the right moral message, boiled down, they need to turn it into their slogan. They don’t even have a slogan at the moment. What’s going on with that!?!

A Yes campaigner tells me they’re concentrating on “benefits” to the voter, of what AV can give them. But voters aren’t interested in benefits! Time and time again people vote not with material benefits but with their values. And that’s on matters of real material benefit, like a General Election, not on less important more distant issues like voting arrangements. There’s a whole book about this. It’s called “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”. It’s also one of the absolute bedrock conclusions of Westen and Lakoff: people are not interested in benefits. They’re so disinterested they can happily vote completely against them, all of the time. Instead, moral values are what move and motivate people, and its those with which we must connect.

The conclusion is simple: rationalist language used to explain “information” to people – the mainstay of lobbying organisations, public bodies and NGOs, is no good for political and moral campaigning. It never really has been. But a culture (especially among progressives) that places an (over)emphasis on rationality and a misperception of the workings of the human brain allowed us to think it was.

Let’s take again the quote that began “AV is very much like First-Past-the-Post (FPTP)” (it was in fact from the Electoral Reform Society). Now realise that we’re not in a boardroom Powerpoint presentation but in a moral battle here and draw the parallel: “Good is very much like evil [acronym]…. only a bit better”. The language was fine in its context, but in a moral argument you have already conceded any claim you might have had to the moral high ground.

There are bigger implications in losing this referendum than merely not having AV. A loss will tar any future drives for political change through the ballot box as “like AV”. That is: technical, defeated, unnecessary, elitist, unpopular, misguided, not British. And coming from losers. This will have knock on effects for the ascendence of conservative ideology and the inability of movements for change to achieve broad popular support, whether it be against cuts, against privatisation of the NHS, or for action on climate change.

So, now more than ever we need a radical push to make the Alternative Vote normal, British, and something that people want to have in their lives. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.


Filed under: Electoral Reform,

‘Make it 50’ will come back to haunt the Yes Campaign….

Matt Wootton studies “cognitive policy” with colleague Rupert Read at the Green Words Workshop. In 2004 he rebranded the Green Party as the party of “Real Progress”. This post is reproduced with his kind permission from the Green Words Workshop.

How do you make a slogan? It might surprise you the key rule of slogans is the public need to already like your slogan even before they’ve heard it.

Cognitively-speaking, you need to be activating an area of your audience member’s brain that is already associated with good and positive things in their mind, and then associate yourself with that.

Unfortunately, that cannot be said for “Make it 50”, the cryptic slogan unveiled today by Yes to Fairer Votes.

The boring technical reason that “Make it 50” is problematic is that it’s not necessarily true. And that’s assuming you know what it means, which we should probably explain:

“Make it 50” refers – we think – to the hope that AV will make MPs work harder by needing to win 50% of their constituency’s support.

(If you needed to be told that of course, as most of Britain will, it means it’s not a very good slogan).

But the problem is that, as the impartial Electoral Commission leaflet that you’ll be getting through your door says, “Because voters don’t have to rank all of the candidates, an election can be won under the ‘alternative vote’ system with less than half the total votes cast”. Oh dear.

This is of course, in the grand scheme of things, a relative technicality that shouldn’t detract from the general gist. Unfortunately since most Yes activists so far have veritably built their campaign on scrupulously-researched rationalist benefits to the voter and technical explanations of how AV works, that rather leaves them in a delicate position, which the aggressive and shrill No campaign will surely waste no time in exploiting.   

But mainly, the problem with a slogan like “Make it 50” is it’s just simply dull. Compare the blandness of the slogan to what was said on the stage beneath it this morning. By Eddie Izzard: “Don’t wake up on the 6th of May and go back to business as usual in Westminster. Seize this opportunity”. By Amisha Ghadiali: “AV will let us vote how we really feel… it will lead to a more honest democracy”. From Emily Wilkie: “I’ve been inspired by people through history who have fought for democracy. When did we become so complacent?”. And, from Kriss Akabusi: “let’s get jiggy with it”.

At the moment as I’ve argued in my post AV is…. [blank]…, AV still can’t be summed up by most people, and that’s where it’s the job of the official campaign to frame it for them.

Unfortunately, I can’t see that “Make it 50” will help. It seems to me the zenith of public information campaign thinking. It sounds like something that would come from the PR department of some smaller government ministry.

We can only hope that the politicians themselves – not exactly the most popular of people of course – can inject more life into the campaign, before postal votes start hitting people’s doormats in less than a fortnight.

What would have a better slogan have looked like? Well, my criteria from a “cognitive policy” point of view emphasise emotional resonance and connection with principled moral values, neither of which “Make it 50” really has. Any of the following dozen slogans would be better:

AV – As easy as 1 2 3
AV – Good for Britain
AV – Honest voting, a stronger voice
AV – Hold politicians to account
AV – Good for voters, good for democracy
AV – Government for the people, by the people
AV – Tackle tribal politics
AV – A chance for change
AV – History in the making
AV – Out with the old, in with the new
AV – For the majority
AV – allows you to vote with your conscience
AV – Keep extremists out

In fact if you want to choose between these options you can find them – and “Make it 50” – on this poll on Facebook. You can vote for them using AV!

(we don’t want to give anything away.. but with two dozen people having voted so far.. “Make it 50” is not doing very well… It’s got 0 votes).

And of course we’ve been putting some reframes into practice with our home-spun Yes! Postcards site.

Filed under: Electoral Reform,

Questions for William Hague….

Councillor Rupert Read has been a Green Party City Councillor in Norwich since 2004, to find out more about Rupert visit his blog and twitter.This article was cross-posted with the kind permission of the author from Left Foot Forward and can be found here.

William Hague has come under increasing pressure in the last few weeks, criticised for a series of blunders over Libya, Egypt and the whole Middle East, culminating in the disastrous SAS mission, which further unravelled yesterday, The Sunday Times reporting (£) that rebels had accessed secret MoD computer codes on “scraps of paper” captured from operatives on the bungled operation, described by one expert as “so inept, it is unbelievable”.

The questions facing the under-fire foreign secretary include:

Why was he so slow to grasp and show any support at all for the Middle East / North African democratic revolutions?

Even Cameron got there quicker, showing sympathy for the Egyptian protesters and antipathy toward Mubarak, even while Hague was still virtually parroting the Israeli line of support for Mubarak.

How can Hague justify having visited the autocracy of Bahrain to assure them of British support at the very time when the widely predicted (and then brutally suppressed) Bahrain democracy protests were getting underway? See here and here.

What is Hague’s explanation for his bizarre and jejune outburst about Gaddafi’s allegedly having fled to Venezuela? Was it any more than an opportunistic attempt to smear Chavez?

(Not that Chavez needs much help: since then, he has smeared himself disastrously, by in effect aligning his regime with Gaddafi’s.)

Why didn’t Hague oversee a more effective operation to evacuate British civilians from Libya? Surely someone must carry the can for this?

Why did Hague send the SAS into free Libya, rather than simply phoning up the revolutionary forces’ HQ in Benghazi to establish good diplomatic relations with them? Craig Murray’s hypothesis is a particularly worrying one.

Why has Hague, unlike Cameron, been so slow to support the free Libyan forces? Why has he not pressed for most of the measures advocated by Carne Ross to be implemented by Britain and the EU, and why has he not enthusiastically backed Cameron’s call for a No-Fly Zone to help save the Libyan revolution?

Labour is of course in a poor position to attack Hague over Libya, for reasons I document here; as a Green, thankfully, I am not.

But, crucially, it is not even just over issues of foreign policy that Hague is now in trouble. As I pointed out recently over at Open Democracy, Hague has been spreading untruths about the BNP and AV, too. It would be extremely unwise (to put it mildly) of the prime minister to repeat these untruths, as I point out here.

He would be better off in fact distancing himself from the completely unsound Tory BNP-AV canard which Hague has promoted, for sooner or later he will surely have to admit the truth: that AV is demonstrably the worst of all possible systems for the BNP, because voters can gang up against them, and don’t have to try to figure out which party is best-placed to beat them and vote tactically for that party.

Ed Miliband, Caroline Lucas and Nick Clegg may even need to be ready to call Mr Cameron and Hague outright liars, if they go on pretending AV will electorally benefit the BNP.

If, as the charges against him mount up, Hague eventually had to go, who should replace him? Surely the time is ripe for the coalition to start to consider moving beyond the usual suspects, and picking a figure of genuine weight not tainted by Hague’s prototypically-Conservative failings.

The huge but also hopeful ongoing crisis that the world now faces, with revolutions in the Middle East and the possibility of an enduring war and humanitarian crisis in Libya – in which we should break with Britain’s sorry past and side with the free Libyan forces – brings to mind two names which would actually carry some international weight.

I am talking about two senior figures who would be believable as more than just narrow interpreters of Britain’s ‘national interest’: Ming Campbell or Paddy Ashdown.

Filed under: Conservatives, Electoral Reform, International Politics, , , ,

AV is a ‘game changer’….

Councillor Rupert Read has been a Green Party City Councillor in Norwich since 2004, to find out more about Rupert visit his blogand twitter. The below letter was published in Prospect.

To the Editor;

Peter Kellner’s piece (Jan. ’11) on how the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill badly underestimates the effect that AV will have on the composition of the Commons.

Because it puts an end to the main form of tactical voting and to the ‘wasted vote’ argument, AV changes the expressed first preferences of voters. For example, the rise of the Greens in Australia has been predicated on growing numbers of Aussies voting Green even if and where the Greens have little chance of winning; voters can affords to do this, because their second preferences etc will still count.

If the AV referendum goes through, expect much more substantial changes to British politics (than Kellner has woken up to) -including an accelerated rise for the Green Party.


C’llr. Rupert Read, one of 21 Norwich Green Councillors


Filed under: Electoral Reform, Green Party,

Join the debate on AV…..

Intelligence Squared are hosting a debate on whether we should vote for AV or not. Featuring YouGov’s Peter Kellner, David Davis MP, OpenDemocracy’s Anthony Barnett, and Michael Pinto Duschinsky, among others the debate takes place on Tuesday, April the 26th, at Cadogan Hall near Sloane Square.

It starts at 18.45 and finishes at 20.30. Standard tickets are £25 and for students they cost £12.50. You can be purchase tickets here.

Filed under: Electoral Reform,

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.

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