Actually, that title should probably read, “Why I’m voting “No” to AV because I support electoral reform”…
Electoral reform is something I’ve been interested in for many years. I’ve been a bit of a nerd about electoral systems (amongst many other things) since university when I spent two years as the student union’s returning officer getting more familiar than anyone really needs to be with the intricacies of the voting system/form of torture that is sometimes called Single Transferable Vote (STV). I want a better electoral system, I support proportional representation and a major overhaul of our political structures.
Theoretically, therefore, I should be an ardent supporter of the “Yes” campaign in the forthcoming referendum. And, to be honest, if you’d told me before this campaign that I would be voting against an opportunity to introduce a different electoral system, I wouldn’t have believed you. But as it became clear what was actually on offer in the referendum I began to develop serious concerns and these have only been deepened as the debate goes on.
What follows is my attempt to explain to myself – I don’t expect anyone else to read this, it’s very long – the reasons behind my decision to vote “No” in the May 5th referendum, though I’ll do so with considerable regrets.
AV and politics
One of the things that I have sought to avoid in making my decision is to be influenced by short-term or partisan political considerations.
It hasn’t been easy.
Let’s be clear – the reason we’re having this referendum on AV (an electoral system no one really wants) has nothing to do with anyone’s convictions about how we get to a better democracy and everything to do with the Liberal Democrat leadership’s need to offer their grassroots something tangible to secure their support for a coalition the majority of their voters (and many of their activists) never wanted. At the same time the Conservative leadership needed to find a system that if it was, somehow, approved would limit the actual impact of any changes so as to keep their own support more-or-less onside.
Nick Clegg knows perfectly well that AV is, as he called it before the election, a “miserable little compromise” and David Cameron knows that even if the “Yes” campaign wins the referendum the impact of any changes will be limited.
I have no problem with politicians making policy based on practical bargaining – I’m a great believer in Nye Bevan’s view of politics as the art of the possible and I would normally feel no compunction in taking a stance on such a policy on the basis of how to maximise embarrassment for this vile coalition. The urge to vote “no” simply to add my (not inconsiderable) weight to a collective kick in the balls for Nick Clegg is hard to resist. But, although I’ve come to a different conclusion on how I will vote, I think Peter Hain was right when he urged Labour voters not to be swayed in how they vote in this referendum by their opinion of the Liberal Democrat leader.
My basic position is that the British political system isn’t accountable enough, it isn’t representative enough and it isn’t accessible enough. Britain desperately needs thoroughgoing reform of its democratic structures and the only real question that matters is whether the referendum before us on May 5th actually does anything to make radical change more likely.
AV and representation
There’s been a lot of guff spouted in this referendum campaign, but one of the most irritating untruths is the repeated suggestion that the Additional Vote system will deliver more proportional outcomes and will, therefore, make the people we elect more representative of the body of citizens who vote for them.
This is not true in two crucial ways.
First it has long been established that it is possible for the AV system to deliver electoral outcomes that are less proportional than our current system, first past the post (FPTP). Here’s what the Jenkins Report said about AV in 1998:
It offers little prospect of a move towards greater proportionality, and in some circumstances, and those are the ones which certainly prevailed at the last election and may well do so for at least the next one, it is even less proportional that FPTP.
In many elections AV will make relatively little difference to the outcome as compared to FPTP, but there are circumstances – and we’ve seen them reasonably frequently in recent UK elections – in which the effect of AV would be to distort the result of elections to make them less proportional. The Jenkins report takes the example of 1997 when the party of government (the Conservatives) was very unpopular and the two major opposition parties were close together in terms of policies. Labour won 43% of the votes in 1997 gaining 419 parliamentary seats – 63% of all seats. Under AV Jenkins estimates that Labour’s Parliamentary representation would have risen to 452 seats – 69% of parliament. It is true that the Liberal Democrats would have come closer to winning the number of parliamentary seats that their share of the votes suggested they deserved, but it would have been at the expense of seriously under-representing Conservative voters.
The experience of nations where AV has been used in elections is that it amplifies “landslide” victories (and that doesn’t mean an overwhelming victory – Labour only got 43% of the vote in 1997) and the dangers aren’t simply theoretical . In 2001 in Australia’s Queensland province the Labor Party won 66 of 89 seats (74%) with 49% of the vote and repeated the trick in 2004 with 71% of seats from 47% of the vote. A study by the Political Studies Institute suggests that AV would have given the largest party a bigger (and less proportional) number of parliamentary seats in the 1987, 1997, 2001 and 2005 UK elections. This study also points out that, under AV as with FPTP, it is possible for a party with a lower share of the national vote than its rivals to win a majority of parliamentary seats – it has happened in three Australian federal elections (1954, 1961 and 1969).
Also, while AV does increase the chance of a medium-sized third party picking up more seats than under FPTP (though not their full share) the proposed system does almost nothing for the range of smaller parties (some pleasant, some not) who are currently excluded from national representation even though they may poll significant numbers of votes (Greens, UKIP, BNP). Because AV is being introduced on top of our existing single member constituency system, these parties would still have to poll enough first preferences to get at or near the top of the poll in a constituency to stand a chance of winning. That will happen very, very rarely. The “No” campaign’s attempts to claim that AV will give greater influence to extremist parties like the BNP are one of the most despicable pieces of nonsense to emerge from this referendum debacle. AV is likely to do almost nothing for small political parties who have relatively large but widely dispersed support.
Second, AV does nothing to tackle the major problem with the make-up of the representatives we elect in our democratic system. That problem isn’t which party the MP comes from. British political parties are (infamously, if you’ve ever had to sit through a politics lecture) broad churches – there’s space in their big tents (sorry, cliché overload) for elected representatives who reflect the political views of a large majority of the population (though obviously not all). The major parties in the British political system can encompass Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone (before he became a statesman) and John McDonnell as well as Enoch Powell, Norman Tebbit and Dominic Raab. There are people on the political spectrum whose views fall beyond this range but they are outliers on the distribution curve of public opinion. That’s not to say that the political system shouldn’t be changed to allow these people to be represented – I believe it should – but a narrow ideological spread isn’t the biggest representational failing of the British political system.
The most pressing issue of representation is that the people who get elected to represent us look nothing like the electorate that votes for them. They’re overwhelmingly white, male, middle-aged and have a background in the professions (if they’re not, like much of the cabinet, white, male, upper-class with a background as multi-millionaires). There aren’t enough women. There isn’t enough reflection of the multi-ethnic nature of the UK. Despite there being a number of “out” MPs, there isn’t an environment where many those with non-straight sexual preferences can be honest (and if you think otherwise, remember how Michael Portillo’s “youthful experimentation” was used against him when he stood for leadership of the Conservative Party). There aren’t enough people who have experience of working in blue-collar jobs or who have been educated like the majority of the public (see this Sutton Trust report).
We do need a more proportional voting system. We do need reforms that make Parliament more representative. The proposals before us achieve neither goal.
AV and accountability
Two of the claims prominently displayed on the “Yes” campaign’s website are that AV will make MP’s “work harder to earn – and keep – our support. Doing just enough won’t be enough any more” and “too many MPs have jobs for life. Let’s shake those politicians out of their complacency.” These sentiments reflect a very real issue for the British political system – that many voters feel that there isn’t enough accountability in the system. Too many people feel that they have no way of making their MP listen.
Accountability is, without any doubt, a serious weakness in the existing British political system.
One example of this lack of accountability is the high number of safe seats in UK parliamentary elections. At the start last election the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) estimated that 383 seats were so safe that there was almost nothing short of a revolution that would cause the seat to change hands (ultimately 3 of those did switch but that reflects particular circumstances at the last election more than a flaw in the ERS argument). For voters in most constituencies, the election was, effectively, before it had even begun.
However, AV will do almost nothing to change this situation. As the ERS pointed out after the election, using AV would have resulted in a different outcome in only 26 constituencies in the last election and done almost nothing to make the majority of seats more competitive (which makes it all the more bewildering that the ERS membership voted to support a switch to AV when the society has, for years, supported STV). In around 200 seats the sitting candidate already receives more than 50% of the vote and so, assuming (and I think it is a fair assumption) that the great majority of those FPTP votes translate into first preferences under AV, no transfer of second preferences will take place.
And, in some cases even where transfers of votes takes place, the impact of AV might be to make seats safer for the incumbent.
So AV’s impact on electoral accountability – on making the majority of MPs more concerned about the security of their job and therefore more attentive to their electorate – is likely to be negligible. Only a truly proportional system – such as single transferable vote (STV) and reform of the constituency system is likely to achieve that (desirable) goal.
But accountability does not have to be limited to the electoral cycle. There are reforms that could be introduced that would ensure that MPs had to pay greater attention to their electorate all the time. We could ban MPs from holding second jobs, so that all their time was devoted to representation. We could introduce a right of recall so that MPs who failed to keep promises or who behaved badly could be brought back before their voters. We could give local voters the ability to call referenda to make clear their views on specific subjects. There might even be an argument for a system of primaries for the selection of candidates to encourage more public involvement in the selection of candidates and to give voters greater opportunity to quiz the people they are voting for. We could invest money in supporting political education and giving citizens public spaces to discuss and debate issues and make sure that MPs have a duty to listen.
MPs in this country are not elected as delegates of their constituency and there are strengths to representative democracy that it would be a mistake to casually dismiss but, at the same time, voters need to feel that they have a greater chance to hold those representatives to account.
The current referendum fails to offer meaningful change. But the AV referendum isn’t taking place in a vacuum. The proposals to reduce the number of MPs through the creation of fewer, larger constituencies and decades-long strangling of local government means that politics is being moved further and further from the ordinary member of the public. The combined effect of this government’s policies is likely to make politicians much less accountable to the people who voted for them – whatever electoral system is used.
AV and fairness
The “Yes” campaign has, as its slogan (and the URL of its website) the phrase “SAY YES TO FAIRER VOTES”, the implication being that AV is “fairer” than the existing voting system. Voting yes to AV is a way of making sure that “your vote always counts” their website says.
It is absolutely true that FPTP elections can create results that look like outrageous injustices. For the majority of people who live in safe constituencies the chances of their votes influencing the outcome of an election is almost zero. These people are effectively disenfranchised under FPTP and this is unfair. However, the very great majority of them will also be disenfranchised under the proposed system of AV. That unfairness will not be addressed by this referendum.
But there is another unfairness that AV is supposed to address.
“Yes” campaigners argue that it AV is fairer because it ensures that all MPs get a majority of the votes cast and, therefore, have a genuine mandate to represent their constituents.
There is no doubt that FPTP is weak in this regard. In a four way marginal it is possible for an MP to get elected with less than 30% of the vote. It is clear that in instances such as this the “mandate” provided by FPTP is weak at best and it is certainly true that the existing electoral system can distort the will of the voters.
AV is supposed to rectify this concern by ensuring that the winning candidate receives, through the redistribution of second (third, fourth and beyond) preferences, over 50% of the vote. In practice AV, contrary to some “Yes” campaign publicity, does not guarantee this outcome. In elections where large numbers of voters express a limited number of preferences the winning share of the vote may be well below 50%.
But even if a candidate does achieve a notional majority through redistributed votes this can also create results that look distinctly unfair from some perspectives.
It is not impossible to imagine circumstances in which, under AV, candidates who placed third in the number of first preference votes could emerge as the winners of an election. It is even possible, though much less likely, that a fourth place candidate could emerge to win.
Does such a representative emerge with a stronger mandate than the one selected under FPTP? I know that if I was voting in an AV election any second choice I made would rank a long, long way below my first preference – indeed if I used a second choice vote at all it is likely only to be to keep out the “worst” candidate. If other voters use their second and subsequent preferences in the same “negative” way then it is possible that a large part of a successful candidate’s putative supporters have ended up with a representative they didn’t actually want just to stop the worst alternative. It is possible to argue that an MP elected in such circumstances has a more meaningful mandate than one elected with a minority of the vote under FPTP, but I’m far from certain that this argument is overwhelmingly convincing.
In any case, members of the public who vote in significant numbers for first or second-placed candidates who are subsequently over-taken by those who initially ranked lower down the voting order are not likely to judge AV “fairer” than the old system – whatever the arguments of psephologists. AV still results in significant numbers of voters ending up with representatives they don’t really want.
No system of voting is intrinsically fair in all circumstances – they all have potential weaknesses and ways in which they can be exploited.
Indeed, even though I support thorough reform of the electoral system, I think it is unhelpful to label mainstream voting systems as “fair” or “unfair”. Voting systems are machines that, in delivering the result of an election, reflect the value we place on certain qualities in our democracy. In choosing how we count votes we shouldn’t be seeking moral certitude but making practical choices about how we want our democracy to work. To imagine that tinkering with the way we vote will deliver a better democracy is to put the cart before the horse. We need to be clear about what we want from our political institutions and then design an electoral system that meets those needs.
AV can distort electoral outcomes just as FPTP does and I’m not convinced that the proposals in the referendum address the key problems with our existing democratic system. AV is only marginally more proportional for the third party, it does nothing for smaller parties, it does nothing to improve the breadth of background of our representatives, it has a tendency to reinforce the position of the leading party, it will make only a few more safe seats competitive and it won’t change the fact that most voters still won’t have a representative that they have voted for.
There are designs of electoral systems that mitigate these problems. Systems that have multiple member constituencies and regional lists and use properly proportional voting systems increase the prospect that individuals will get a representative that they have voted for and a radical new electoral system along those lines would go a long way to really making “every vote count”. AV will not.
AV and access
The biggest single problem with the UK political system is the disproportionate access enjoyed by lobby groups and commercial interests to the process of policy-making when compared to that available to local communities or even to a backbench MP. Everyone who has worked in and around Westminster knows this.
The high levels of patronage within our political system, the archaic organisational structures of our parliamentary system, the poor way in which political issues are communicated and the high concentrations of cash and resources enjoyed by some groups mean that it is too easy for the political system to be hijacked by interests that do not reflect the needs or desires of the majority of the British public. One need only look at the way the current government’s NHS policy has been reshaped by a tiny minority of money-minded GPs and private health providers to see how the public interest can be over-ridden by organised, highly-funded campaigns targeted at a weak (or sympathetic) minister.
AV does not address any of these issues and, sadly, the conduct of the campaign by both “Yes” and “No” camps only reinforces how hopelessly poor the political class has become at communicating with the public.
This referendum’s proposed changes do nothing to address issues of access while the reduction in the number of MPs and the destruction of local government will make it more difficult for ordinary voters to influence policy decisions.
AV as a first step
So far I’ve found nothing in AV that leads me to believe that a “Yes” vote in the referendum will deliver significant improvement in the way British democracy works or that the real issues that matter are being remotely addressed by the proposed reform.
But there are two arguments used by the “Yes” camp that I have found harder to dismiss and that have lead me to think hard about my position.
The first is the notion that it is worth making the change simply for the sake of it. Our political class have become complacent and a “No” vote would reinforce that complacency but a “Yes” vote would act as a sharp reminder that they need to up their game.
This is an argument that has merit.
I certainly believe that a “No” vote will be viewed by Conservatives (and some Labour MPs, sadly) as a vote for the status quo.
But AV won’t significantly change the position of the vast majority of MPs and it does nothing to open up the relationship between representative and electorate. AV will entrench the existing political elite – we might get a few more Liberal Democrats, but their performance in government hardly convinces me that this is going to revolutionise parliament. In any case, the Political Studies Association analysis suggests AV will give the winning party a larger majority more often than it will create the circumstances for coalition government – so it isn’t even going to make the kind of backroom dealing between parties that’s gotten us into the mess we’re in with this coalition more common. Even with a few extra MPs, the Liberal Democrats aren’t likely to be in the position to use their votes very often.
Yes, our democratic system and our MPs need a kick. But AV isn’t a kick. At best it’s a gentle tap on the shoulder that they’re bound to ignore. At worst, the long term outcome will actually be to retrench some of the behaviour that’s damaging our democracy.
The second argument that almost persuaded me was the idea that voting for change now makes further change in the future more likely.
This is appealing to the part of me that has sympathy with the Fabians – when being a Fabian means having a clear vision of a radical endgame not just excusing any piecemeal change for the sake of it. I’m not a utopian on electoral reform – I’m not saying that if we can’t get a perfect system then we shouldn’t do anything. If I believed that the proposed changes in the referendum took us a step in the right direction – even if they didn’t get us all the way there – I’d happily vote for them.
But, as I’ve noted above, there have been a lot of promises made for AV that I don’t believe can be delivered by the modest changes the referendum proposes. And, as the (lack of) engagement with this campaign has demonstrated, the appetite for debating the intricacies of electoral reform is not great amongst the general public.
So, I believe, if AV is passed and it fails (as it must) to deliver dramatic change or a radically better democratic system, how is anyone going to persuade the public to return to the issue again. Will they take seriously the campaigners who tell them that, of course, the kind of electoral reform that they persuaded them to accept the last time actually was a bit rubbish BUT, if you just give them another chance, they’ll get it right? We lied to you before, but you can trust us this time…
I just don’t buy it, and I don’t think the electorate will buy it either.
Worse, I believe, many of those who bought the promises of the “Yes” campaign, on seeing nothing much change, will become embittered. They’ll feel that politicos have lied to them again. Some of them will feel that change isn’t possible. Some of them will stop caring.
Making a decision
As an electoral system, AV is very marginally better than FPTP.
But as a choice to put before the British public as an alternative – even, as some in the “Yes” campaign have argued, a radical alternative – to what we’ve got at present, AV is a disaster. It is an electoral system no one really wants that has all the failures of FPTP plus a few extra of its own, with only marginal advantages.
As a supporter of electoral reform I find myself in a particular bind. I feel that whatever the result, those who want real change to the British political system are going to lose in this referendum.
If AV wins, electoral reform is damaged in the eyes of the British public because it will fail to make a difference to the issues they care about and because the “Yes” campaign has promised too much. If AV is defeated, electoral reform is damaged because it will be very difficult to justify another referendum for decades. The “No” campaign will argue that it proves that the British are happy with the system as it is (they aren’t) and the British public will feel that the question has been answered.
I have come to believe that there can be no positive outcome from this campaign. If the “Yes” campaign succeeds the impact on our political structures will fall far, far short of the preposterous promises they have made for this very modest proposal. The result, I fear, will be a significant increase the public’s sense of disenchantment with politics. By contrasts a win for the “No” campaign will simply reinforce the belief, already strong amongst much of the political class, that political campaigns can only be successfully fought by exploiting ignorance and stirring fear.
Britain needs an electoral system that is proportional – that allows greater representation of political ideology and of the true make-up of modern British society. We need political structures that allow ordinary people to have a real influence over how policy is made. We need a system that allows people to hold their representatives to account. We need a way of voting that gives people a real opportunity to positively vote for candidates that will actually represent them, not just keep out those they most dislike.
All these things are achievable, but none of them are addressed by this referendum. AV will have only minimal positive impact and, in some cases, even if the “Yes” campaign wins, the end of this parliament will see us further from these goals than we are now.
I thought about abstaining.
But I can’t.
I thought about holding my nose and voting “yes” because, maybe, any change is better than no change.
But this is an electoral system no one believes in shoved at us as part of the backroom fix necessary to foist on us a government almost no one wanted. Both sides in the campaign have run misleading campaigns, the “yes” campaign has been largely incompetent and the “no” campaign has frequently been hateful. Between them they have managed to take political campaigning in the UK to new depths (and that’s saying something).
I don’t want to be on the side of the conservatives (big or small “C”) but I’m not voting for something I don’t believe will help and which may well make real electoral reform harder to achieve. I can’t see significant benefits in the referendum’s proposals but I can see significant dangers.
Maybe, in the end, the final consideration that made up my mind is a powerful desire to kick Nick Clegg as hard as possible, but I hope not.
AV is a bad option forced on us for bad reasons.
So, though I’m far from happy with the company I’m keeping, I’m voting “no”.