Put aside the Cleggphobia and then vote No to AV

by Jim Murphy

I have stayed out of the debate about the AV referendum until now. I have surprised myself because instinctively I usually know where I stand on all the big issues, but on this I have found it easy to sit it out. There are so many other more pressing issues – a view that I know those involved in both campaigns share. I have waited in the expectation that the pro-AV campaign would make a convincing new argument.  They haven’t, so when the referendum comes on May 5th I have decided to vote No.

There are many people I know who are voting No simply to spite Nick Clegg, but I’m not one of them. This was a really important point that Ed Miliband rightly raised yesterday. To vote against AV to get back at Nick Clegg is a churlish way to conduct politics. A change in the electoral system could be permanent, but say whatever you want about Nick Clegg one thing for sure is that he is certainly temporary – this is probably his last job in frontline British politics. If last year’s post-election political gamble of switching to the Tories’ macro-economic policies turns out to be as bad economics as it is bad politics then it’s questionable whether he’ll even lead his Party into the next election.

So let’s put all the Cleggphobia to one side. My decision is based on the merits of the case. The main reason I have decided to vote ‘No’ is that the supporters of changing the system haven’t made a convincing enough case that this is the right kind of change. They have struggled to make a persuasive argument about why the country’s politics would be better with AV. It may seem unfair, but in all these constitutional debates most of the burden of persuasion falls upon those advocating change – that is certainly my experience with devolution.Some of the arguments made by the pro-AV campaign are, I think, counter-productive. To use the entirely justified public anger about MPs’ abuse of expenses as a driver for an AV voting system risks further alienating the public from the political process because everyone knows AV wouldn’t deal with that problem.

The idea that AV would have prevented previous misuse of expenses is wishful thinking (although some wishful thinking is understandable over that self-inflicted political crisis). It seems to assume that those MPs who had misbehaved on expenses wouldn’t have done so for fear of losing some 3rd and 4th preference votes under an AV system. In truth, MPs who misbehave on expenses rightly lose votes (and seats) under all electoral systems – that’s one of the few laws of electoral gravity.

Transparency, a right-to-recall MPs and a better expenses system would have been part of the answer. After all, I can’t remember anyone at the height of the expenses scandal saying “If only we had AV…”  Proponents of AV also claim that a new system would get supposedly lazy MPs in safe seats to work harder. I might be in a small minority, but I believe that the vast majority of MPs of all parties work hard and long hours.

Political complacency is wrong in all circumstances. If the ‘problem’ AV is trying to fix is the political culture in safer seats then it isn’t the remedy. AV only comes into play in seats where the first round winner has less than 50% of the vote, meaning that the safer seats where the current First Past the Post winner gets more than half of the votes will be unaffected. I suspect that many or most of those who want to move to AV really want to move towards a proportional system in the future, and because AV is almost no-one’s first choice it’s been harder to construct a strong case for it.

The ‘Yes’ campaign hasn’t been alone in making unfounded claims. The No campaign has also been at it. Their poster of a squaddie which claims that the inflated costs of AV would be better spent on body armour is at best misjudged (although it might be effective).

During the campaign we’ve also had claim and counter claim about the BNP’s motivations. The grubby spat between Lib Dem Chris Huhne and Tory chair Baroness Warsi has been the lowest level of political debate I can remember. Allegations of Goebbels-like publicity are pathetic.  As a rule in modern British politics, if you have to rely on comparing your mainstream opponents to the politics which threatened Europe in the 1940s then the substance of your argument is vapid. My Labour colleagues like Ben Bradshaw, Peter Hain, John Denham and many others are a far better example than the Lib Dem wannabee leader Huhne and the under pressure Tory chair on how to conduct this debate.

So why has the campaign been like this? My general view is that the smaller the disagreement in politics the higher the octane of the rhetoric.

But the issue on the ballot paper isn’t whether you like the publicity of the campaigns; it’s whether we should change our electoral system. It just so happens that here in my seat more people now vote than in any other constituency anywhere else in Britain. And for the first time ever Labour got more than 50% of the vote. There are other seats where voter turnout remains healthy but even more where non-voting apathy gets more votes than any candidate. So of course there does have to be change in our politics and I support moves to increase accountability in our system. I support elected Mayors, lowering the voting age, greater power for local government, a right-to-recall system and reform of the House of Lords.

Does AV bring us closer to solving the wider problem of disconnection with politics? I’m not sure it does.  I am uneasy about a system where 3rd or 4th preference votes are recycled and given the same weighting as first preference votes. Do we really want a system where the casual 7th preference vote of someone staring down the ballot paper and thinking “Who have I not voted for yet?” or “Who on this list have I left out?” is worth the same as the passionate vote cast with conviction?  It’s possible that the introduction of multiple preferences could lead to more not less tactical voting.

Elections will always be fought hardest in the most competitive seats, and the big challenge for politicians and political parties is how to be more plural, responsive and open all year-round campaigners. I will leave it to others involved in the campaigns to go through the details of voting machines, Australia and all the rest of it, but put simply I don’t believe that AV is the right step, even a small one, forward. If I did I would vote for it. A lot of good, progressive Labour Party members will take a different view, and that’s no big deal, but there are many questions about how to improve our country’s politics, and, despite wanting to be persuaded, I’m not convinced that AV is the answer.

Having said my piece I won’t get involved in the campaign. I will get back to working with Labour colleagues on both sides of the AV debate on the campaign to maximise the Labour vote on May 5th.

Jim Murphy is the Labour MP for East Renfrewshire and shadow secretary of state for defence.

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12 Responses to “Put aside the Cleggphobia and then vote No to AV”

  1. Julian says:

    I suspect that if we do have AV, a lot of people will be surprised at how little difference it will make. Most constituencies will elect the MP they would have done anyway. There will be some high profile cases where a candidate placed second under FPTP will win and the press will make a big fuss, but mostly, that will not happen. I’m not convinced that anyone’s going to be greatly impressed that those MPs who are re-elected now have a notional majority of the vote.

    For me this is a good reason to vote No. It will not make a lot of difference in practice but will, in spite of the protestations, cost a lot to make the change. For all that the Yes campaigners assert that AV is simple, can you imagine an AV election without a massive (and massively expensive) advertising campaign to explain to people how to vote? There will also be the cost of counting machines or, if these are not used, training for humans to do the counting.

  2. Richard says:

    “I believe that the vast majority of MPs of all parties work hard and long hours.”

    They no doubt do, but too many work hard for their electorate and vested interests alone. When you have an MP like I do who ignores constituents on the basis of their postcode because they are from the Labour-voting part of town, then you will understand the deep sense of injustice and disenfranchisement that many voters feel and hence the falling number of voters.

  3. Richard says:

    “I am uneasy about a system where 3rd or 4th preference votes are recycled and given the same weighting as first preference votes.”

    Then as someone who has been at the top of the Labour party for some years, why have you done nothing to change the way we elect a leader?

  4. Liza Harding says:

    Finally! Someone from the front bench speaks sensibly on AV. I am against also mainly for reasons stated above and have felt that there hasn’t been a voice in the party for me and others. Was starting to feel really disillusioned and getting wrapped up in it too much when we should be fighting the real problems out there!
    Honestly think this will be a massive turn-off for the general public especially those who aren’t politically orientated and does the Labour Party really need to risk alienating people at this time?
    Thanks for restoring a bit of faith anyway, Jim!

  5. iain ker says:

    Not even the people who want AV want AV – that says it all about this exercise in money-wasting futility.

    Leads to an interesting take on the Lib-dems though. When Cameron and his team were horse-trading for LibDem support post-election, I suspect Cameron went through the whole LibDem manifesto saying. ‘We’ll give you that’, ‘OK, we’ll give you that then’, and ‘Well how about that then?’, to which the reply on every occasion would have been, ‘No, no, no we want PR’. (I’m excluding the loony stuff like No To Trident and A Windmill On Every House of course).

    Point being it shows that the LibDem Party is (like the Green Party, BNP et al) nothing more than a single-issue pressure group with a load of other pretend policies tacked on to pad out the manifesto while at the same time whoring for the none-of-the-above vote.

    I defy any LibDem member to say what the Party actually stands for.

    And nice line about how hugely hard-working our MPs are – that’s why the Commons is empty on a Friday – every Friday – is it.

    And who said the (Pretendy) Left don’t do comedy.

  6. Rachel says:

    “the passionate vote cast with conviction”

    I don’t know anyone who votes with one of those.

  7. AnneJGP says:

    A very good article, Jim, thank you. I haven’t yet been able to make up my mind which way to vote; I’ve dismissed both campaigns as being content-free; I rather think we may be too concerned with the outcome per constituency and not focussing enough on the impact nationally.

    I’m quite surprised to read that Mr Miliband considers that voting against AV “to get back at Nick Clegg is a churlish way to conduct politics”. That remark would sound more authentic if he hadn’t refused to share an AV platform with Mr Clegg.

    It’s just unfortunate for the Lib Dems that voting reform, which is perhaps the most long-standing policy on their agenda, should have so little resonance with the country at large. No-one can blame them for taking the chance of a referendum when it arose, but to my mind, the best outcome they can hope for is that AV both passes and starts a real public debate on voting reform. Even if it does, however, that debate isn’t likely to kick off until after the first GE under AV. If the “campaign” has showed us anything, it’s that the overwhelming majority of people simply aren’t interested at the moment. For AV to be true to its own principle, there should be a turn-out hurdle of 50% + 1.

  8. Robin says:

    Conservatives: 36% of votes, 47% of seats
    Labour: 29% of votes, 40% of seats
    Lib Dems: 23% of votes, 9% of seats

    The current system gives you a massive advantage and a guarantee of power every decade or so, no surprise that you want to preserve it. All your rambling prevarication above is concerned with the politics of the debate, not the facts of the two systems which you and many others seem quite keen to avoid. Let’s face it, you’re quite happy with FPTP because it works well for you. Well it doesn’t work well for the electorate. It is a grossly unfair system and a relic of a long-gone political age. So many progressive countries have seen the need for change and updated their systems. What is it about the UK that keeps everyone so thick and impressionable, besides the omnipotent mass media with which your kind conspire?

  9. Bill says:

    Like Jim, I am in the indifferent-against category. I do think what is unspoken is that maybe AV will lead to some pandering to the extreme right, in search of second and third choice votes.

    I wonder, for example, whether the touted AV system in Australia explains, to some extent, the harshnesses of its immigration laws.

  10. You would be right if not for the fact that AV is not a system of PR and can be far less proportional than FPTP. The Jenkins Commision estimated that AV would have given Labour a larger majority in 1997 and the Labour Yes campaign led on AV’s apparent bias towards Labour.

    Strange as it sounds FPTP is the more proportional system. So if you support PR vote no to AV.

  11. Mickey Smith says:

    Robin absolutely spot on mate. How absolutely disgusting to see John Reid a so called progressive sharing a platform with an Old Etonian millionaire Tory leader currently setting about the destruction of the welfare state with unashamed glee. Useful idiots for the Tory Party and the No to AV campaign’s shadowy backers the lot of you. I am on the verge of resigning my party membership as I no longer wish to be associated with Murphy, Reid , Prescott, Beckett and the rest of the self servers and have already decided never to vote again in FPTP elections, as in ultra safe seats like mine (St Helens south and Whiston) the local party doesn’t even both canvassing for Westminister elections. If they can’t be bothered why should I?

  12. Richard says:

    Stephen, FPTP is not more proportional than AV, as the Jenkins Commission also concluded.

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