Sally Bercow prefers electoral reform to adult videos

by Sally Bercow

It is hard to get excited about electoral reform. Indeed, mention AV to the proverbial bloke on the bus and he will look completely blank. And then perhaps he will think “audio visual” and start fantasising about the latest 52” Sony Bravia with Bose surround sound. Or maybe he will blush because “adult video” has popped into his head (though he only watched one, many moons ago, purely for research purposes – honest). Or, if he is a retired cardiologist, he might claim to be reminiscing fondly about aortic valves (believe this if you will).

Only if you have chanced upon a Liberal Democrat (increasingly improbable, statistically speaking) or your telltale cagoule-clad political geek, will he say, “aah – the alternative vote, the electoral system in which voters rank constituency candidates in order of preference”. Which, of course, is the right answer in the context. Please note if you have landed here after googling “AV”, this is Labour Uncut. No adult videos here.

The trouble with electoral reform is that people are just not interested. Even the most football-phobic would rather discuss the offside rule than consider the relative merits of first past the post (FPTP) versus AV. Although electoral reform in general, and AV in particular, fails to fire the imagination, it is important. AV is a relatively modest adjustment to our voting system that will actually make a big difference to politics (in a good way). Admittedly, the forthcoming referendum has come about because the power-hungry Liberal Democrats demanded it – which is enough to put anyone off AV for life. The toxic Clegg association is the main problem we face in the Yes to AV camp. Nevertheless, to put tribal head-banging aside for a moment, it would be churlish to vote against AV, a policy Labour backs, just to spite the Lib Dems.

No voting system is perfect. But FPTP is the most imperfect system of all. It is an outdated dinosaur that is no longer fit for purpose. For millions of voters their first choice is neither Labour nor Conservative and FPTP fails to reflect this. In 1951, 93% of the electorate voted for one of the two main parties, whereas in 2010 only 65% did. As a result, thanks to FPTP, we witness hideous discrepancies between votes cast and the allocation of parliamentary seats. In other words, millions of people do not get their voices heard, which only fuels the general sense of political apathy and disengagement.

The existing system also means that the real balance of power lies with just 80,000 or so voters. All the action is concentrated in a small minority of swing seats, where tactical voters effectively determine the election result. If you are a Labour supporter in a Lib Dem/Tory marginal and you want to keep the Tories out, who would you vote for? AV will eliminate the need for tactical voting. Voters will be in charge. We can all vote for the constituency candidate we actually want (radical huh?), with back-up preferences, without fear of wasting our vote.

Switching to AV will also put a rocket under the political establishment. Every MP will have to earn the support of a majority of their voters. At the moment, only one in three MPs enjoys majority support, the lowest figure in British political history. Bang go complacency and a sense of entitlement. In come politicians who will not take voters for granted – and who will enjoy stronger mandates in return. And the added bonus is that it will make life very difficult for extremist parties like the BNP, who are unlikely to gain many second-preference votes. Under AV, parties will have to reach way beyond their core vote and build relationships with people who will not give them their first preference but may well give them their second. This will reward broad-church policies. Perhaps MPs would not have voted to treble student fees if they had been elected under AV.

It is true that AV is not a proportional system and that certainly disappoints some. But it is the only change on offer – and surely something has got to be better than nothing, even if you are an STV or AV+ diehard. So let not the best be the enemy of the good. If we do not win this referendum, we are unlikely to see a programme of electoral reform in our lifetime.

That is why people of all ages, from all sections of the Labour party, will be saying yes to AV. From former supporters of FPTP, like Jack Straw, to long-time advocates of PR such as Alan Johnson. AV unites Ben Bradshaw, Tony Benn, Peter Mandelson, Roy Hattersley and Ken Livingstone. It inspires talented new MPs such as Chuka Umunna, Gloria de Piero and Alison McGovern. Ed Miliband supports AV, as does most of the shadow cabinet (not one shadow cabinet member has come out for the no campaign).

What is more, on the old “your enemy’s enemy is your friend” adage, bear in mind that the overwhelming majority of the Conservative party is against AV, as are the Taxpayers’ Alliance and the right-wing media. This is pure self-interest at work since, despite the government’s recent gerrymandering, AV makes a whopping great Conservative majority much more unlikely.

Because AV is not a proportional system, it is not necessarily a recipe for coalition government either. Rather, AV is an incentive to candidates and parties to seek broader bases of support. And there is the rub. Do we have confidence in our values and policies and in their potential appeal? Supporters of Labour’s progressive values of opportunity, fairness and social justice should have faith that they can trump the brutal selfishness and rank injustice brought about by right-wing governments. Compared with the outdated and grossly unfair FPTP system, AV is better for Britain and better for Labour.

Sally Bercow is a Labour activist and a freelance writer and broadcaster.

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8 Responses to “Sally Bercow prefers electoral reform to adult videos”

  1. @gregalomaniac says:

    A superb summary of the benefits of AV (and far more erudite than one of my recent attempts). Well done Sal! ;o)

  2. chichesterleveller says:

    Up until reading this my enthusiasm for voting reform had been waning. How could we give such a gift to the Lib Dems after all they had done? And surely we shouldn’t be sidetracked when we should be fighting the coalition on all fronts in May?

    But then I read this and remembered we can’t transform society in a truly radical way until we ditch this stinking system and empower ordinary people.

    Spot on Sally Bercow! Now let’s get out there and win that battle.

  3. Duncan says:

    Dear Sally,

    This is wonderful news, and as a LibDem voter but more to the point a social liberal and a proud friend of the ERS I’m glad some of Labour are playing for the team even if David Blunkett considers it his tribal duty to spout lies about AV on national television. You continue to impress, as does your husband.


  4. LesleyAlmost says:

    Hi Sally,

    I agree. I disagree with tactical voting but realise that everyone is free to vote how they choose. Introducing AV would drastically reduce this practice and would make our politicians work harder to connect with all of their electoral base. A win/win for me.


  5. gender_agenda says:

    Great article Sally. You swayed me from FPTP on paragraph 6 – PPC’s campaigning/working to the interests of the majority of the electorate! Funnily enough I didn’t think about it that way until you mentioned it

    I’m still doing my homework on the pro’s and con’s of a change in the voting system. Would be great if you could elaborate more on the final para? You say AV is not necessarily a recipe for coalition government. A number of the arguments I have heard so -far for and against – have proposed the opposite ( that it WOULD be a recipe for coalition government)

    Any links to answer that question would be equally helpful. cheers!

  6. The Hodmeister says:

    Hi Sally,

    Excellent article. You have covered my own thoughts and much more besides. The main point where I am concerned is tactical voting. Why should voters be forced into voting for a candidate they may not truly have faith in. For example I was quite happy to vote for my Labour MP as I have done all my life, just didn’t support the Party this time around. My protest was carried by letting my Labour membership lapse. This would have remaned the case if David Miliband had won the leadership.

    I understand the argument that AV could be a recipe for coalition government but I do not see this as any more of a problem than it already is. The main thing is the voters get the MPs they vote for and that is true Democracy.


  7. Dan says:

    It is nonsense to say that AV eliminates tactical voting. Ultimately, you still have to vote for the candidate with the highest chance of winning, even if it isn’t necessarily your first preference. AV is just a convoluted, less clear version of FPTP, with the added poignance of an expensive and unnecessary referendum on a subject nobody cares about.

  8. Keith Underhill says:

    Tactical voting is where you do not vote honestly for your real preference, but you vote for a less favoured candidate to prevent an even more disliked candidate getting elected.

    This often happens under first past the past.

    Voting for subsequent preferences is not tactical voting it is honest voting in a system that allows you to rank the candidates in order.

    If you want your vote to count FPTP is more complicated because you have to guess which candidates are most likely to be the top two and choose between them.

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