No to PR, Yes to AV

by Tom Watson

When Roy Jenkins recommended a change in the electoral system twelve years ago I helped lead the campaign to defeat it and preserve the first past the post system. I was dead against any form of proportional representation then and I still am now. But whilst I remain as firmly opposed to proportional representation as ever, I have become convinced that our current first past the post system is in need of reform and upgrading. That is why I am supporting the campaign to introduce the alternative vote and will be voting Yes in tomorrow’s referendum.

The main objections I have to proportional representation do not apply to the alternative vote system. One of my main concerns has always been that PR would give the BNP a greater chance of gaining representation at Westminster. But that is even less likely with AV than FPTP. That is why the BNP have come out to say they will be supporting a No vote in the referendum. AV is the anti-extremist system. With AV, no-one can get elected unless most people back them. Therefore the risk of extremist parties being elected by the back door is eliminated.

Another of my traditional objections to PR was that it will lead to unstable government. But hung parliaments are no more likely with AV than with first past the post. As the recent election showed, first past the post has not given Britain any special immunity to hung parliaments. The result at the last election was not an exception. It is the result of long-term changes in our voting patterns here in the UK which means the current voting system can no longer be relied upon to deliver a clear-cut result with a strong and stable single-party system previously the strongest argument for preserving first past the post.

The last of my major objections to PR, and to the hybrid system Roy Jenkins put forward, was that it was too complicated and alien to the way we have always voted. But AV, in contrast, couldn’t be more straightforward. It simply allows you to choose your candidates in order of your preference. It is literally as easy as 1,2,3. For voters, it simply means swapping an X on your ballot paper for a 1,2,3. And if you still want to vote for only one candidate you can.

So the alternative vote doesn’t have the disadvantages I have always associated with PR. But it does offer advantages that I believe will help change the way we do our politics for the better.

It is not a risky or revolutionary step. It is a small, sensible change that will make a big difference. The new voting system will keep what is best about our current system – the link between an MP serving their local constituency – but strengthens it by making MPs reach out widely to ensure they get over 50% support in their constituencies.

I do not think it can be justified any longer that MPs can be elected by as little as 1 in 3 voters. As the recent report from the independent Institute for Public Policy Research showed, the last election was decided by fewer then 460,000 voters or 1.6 of the electorate. The current electoral system leaves whole swathes of voters in the country ignored and neglected. This is not something we as MPs can be complacent about in the wake of the expenses scandal and the long-term trends of declining trust in politics and politicians.

For all these reasons, I have become convinced of the need for change.

One thing I should make clear though. This is not a campaign about Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems. If it was I would be voting No, especially given the way the Lib Dems have lumped the referendum legislation in with the Tories efforts to gerrymander our electoral system. But I am voting Yes because this is about something much bigger than the dwindling fortunes of Nick Clegg. It is about seeking ways to make our politics more responsive to the people we represent.

This is why I have joined with other Labour colleagues, including Ed Miliband, to support a Yes vote in the forthcoming referendum. Ed is right to respect the fact there are legitimate views on both sides of our party on this issue and allow party members the freedom to campaign on either the Yes or No side. I am encouraged so far that both sides of this debate between Labour members have been respectful and friendly. But we must take care to keep it that way. Because, whilst we can take different sides on the referendum question, we are joined together to defeat this Tory-led government at the next election under whatever system that vote takes place.

Tom Watson is Labour MP for West Bromwich East.

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10 Responses to “No to PR, Yes to AV”

  1. HarryJ says:

    lol good luck

  2. Andy says:

    Tom, in answer to your points on PR:

    First, the way to defeat the BNP is through community organisation and activism, not by gerrymandering the electoral system against them. Trying to use the voting system to shut them out ignores the wider issues of why people turn to the BNP in the first place.

    Second, “stable” government is perfectly possible with coalitions, as numerous governments around Europe attest. Whether you think “strong” government is a good thing or not depends on your point of view. Personally I think the kind of “strong” government that gave us the worst excesses of Thatcherism – on the support of a minority of the electorate, I should add – is not desirable.

    Third, Jenkins recommended the AV+ system, which would be exactly the same as AV except that you fill in two ballot papers (one for the local constituency and one for the regional list) instead of one – hardly a great intellectual leap. STV, the preferred choice of many electoral reformers, has ballot papers that are filled in exactly the same way as those under AV. Saying that PR is “too complicated” is a bit of a red herring – voters need not understand exactly the way in which votes are counted in order to rank their chosen candidates in order of preference.

    Fourth, most PR systems (with the exception of pure list PR, which I don’t think anyone is advocating for the UK) retain some form of constituency link between voters and their representatives.

    Like you (and Ed M, it seems) I don’t see AV as a “stepping stone” on a road that will eventually lead to PR. But for me, that’s a criticism of AV, not a reason to support it.

  3. Jimbo says:

    You quote – “One of my main concerns has always been that PR would give the BNP a greater chance of gaining representation at Westminster.”

    Surely PR delivers a democratic mandate closer to people’s opinion and if it is the fascist BNP then so be it. They should be defeated by argument and reason not by denying them a voice. Isn’t this a first principle of democracy and I find it incredible you desire to curtail people’s right to have the opinon heard not matter how repulsive.

    Are you not also denying the opportunity of the Greens and other progressive minority parties from developing a mandate from the people.

    A weak argument against PR I’m afraid. Shame on you.

  4. Conrad Jarrett says:

    I am happy to hear that you have joined the AV vote, but saddened to read yet another linear perception of a PR system based around the House of Commons.

    To have ‘strong’, ‘stable’ Governments without the constitutional protections offered by a second, legislative chamber elected by the people, is inherently dangerous, as it leads to claims for duck houses, mortgage flipping, Jonathon Aitken’s ‘Sword of Truth’ and the Hamilton’s brown envelopes, as well as putting the nation as a whole at risk of autocracy and possibly dictatorship… the recent Met. Police ‘pre-emptive’ arrests of anti-monarchists are a symptom of this structural failing in the present structure of Government in Britain, and it raises the spectre of a Stasi-style police state if we do not strive for fundamental change.

    In addition to the Supreme Court, we need:
    1) A Government chamber elected by proportional representation, and comprising selected party candidates who form the government and its opposition;
    2) A House of Representatives (the ‘Commons’) elected by AV, and comprising constituency MP’s whose job is solely to challenge and scrutinise the government and to hold it to account;
    3) A written constitution, outlining the rights and responsibilities of both Government and the citizen.

    Until then, Britain will continue to waste its resources and talents in perpetual swings between pro-public sector and pro-laissez faire ideologies.

    Like many people that I’ve met over the recent months of campaigning for the AV vote, I want:
    – efficient and effective, but not intrusive government
    – competitive markets with effective safeguards
    – efficient, properly funded NHS
    – efficient, quality education
    – inter-modal transport
    – faith in our foreign policy
    – a strategy for UK plc, not vanity projects.

    Neither Labour, the Tories or the Lib-Dems hold sole possession for success… a political system that encourages competitive dialogue and cooperation is more likely to see progress than the juvenile-natured, yah-boo system we have at present.

    I hope you will continue to push for progressive parliament that protects the rights of the individual as equally as that of the whole nation.

  5. Henrik says:

    I note that a number of posters have zeroed in, as I did, on Tom’s desire to keep the BNP out of Parliament. Well, while I personally have no particular affection for the dimwit anti-Semites, if enough people vote for them because they think they represent their views, we’d be a pretty piss-poor democracy if we designed an electoral system specifically to keep those with whom we disagree from being represented.

    Ruling entire conversations to lie outwith the public realm both gives the impression that folk like the BNP have ideas so dangerously seductive that merely listening to them will turn the working class folk of the country into slavering Nazis and that they should therefore be protected from those ideas. This is both incredibly offensive to the intelligence of the working class folk of the country and utterly mistaken – the way to take on bad ideas is to engage them in debate and defeat them, ideally in a way which comprehensively invalidates them, ideally publicly and under conditions of extreme ridicule. Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time was a great thing – it made him and the party he represents look like the bufoons they are.

    The thing is, that while the closed and elite political and media classes huddle around their dinner tables and decide what’s best for the nation, the conversations and topics they deem too dangerous to be discussed are in fact being discussed and debated up and down the land. Often, the topics are contentious and the views expressed would be repellent to a BBC executive or a Labour Party apparatchik – but they will be sincerely held and often forcefully expressed.

    As to AV, meh, who cares? It’s going to be NO, it was always going to be NO – for the simple reason that no-one who’s not a politics nerd gives a toss. Lower my taxes, yeah, I’m listening, mess with the constitution in order to keep a gang of sandal-wearing lefties who still can’t believe they’re in government and don’t understand things like collective responsibility, sorry chaps, I’m out of here.

  6. Barny says:

    I don’t think I can elaborate on the posts above that take your position apart. Your reasoning certainly hasn’t persuaded me to drop my support for PR.

  7. Hobson says:

    “With AV, no-one can get elected unless most people back them”

    That’s not true, Tom. You must know it’s not true.

  8. iain ker says:

    Nasty intolerant ranting unthinking bigoted bully-boys of the BNP – Eow bad.

    Nasty intolerant ranting unthinking bigoted bully-boys of the UAF – mmmm good.

  9. Harry says:

    Tom – It is possible that there are voters who would vote BNP, but don’t because they think the vote would be wasted. With AV, they might be tempted to vote say, BNP, UKIP, Tory in that order, in the knowledge that their other votes would kick in. In this case there is a small chance the BNP might get an unexpected boost. Who’s to say?

    As for not trying to manipulate the voting system to deliberately keep the BNP down? It’s a shame but many people are only capable of seeing the upside to extremism – either not caring about or not understanding the consequences of Nazi style policies. If you offer a free house that someone else has bought and earned in front of a person who simmers with resentment for anyone who has what he does not have, the answer will normally be “when do I get the keys?”. This was played out in Germany when German citizens were given the homes and furniture of the Jews who had been re-housed elsewhere.

    We have a dangerous resentment culture brewing here and looking at the reasons why always seems to me to be missing the point. If someone feels they must vote BNP to fix their hurt feelings or to regain a past that never existed, or build a present inspired by allegiance to a strange geometric symbol, or get a kick out of the ritual hanging of black dolls, or experience tears of joy at news of a European-only Neanderthal genetic heritage or any of the other hate or envy fuelled beliefs these people live by, not only do they not deserve a vote. They are way past any kind of community help. Theirs is a mental illness, not a political one.

  10. Henrik says:

    @Harry. While I wouldn’t disagree that many BNP policies are wicked, imbecilic and wrong, I would hesitate to tar all those who vote, or might vote, BNP as being mentally ill or as not deserving of a vote. It’s only a short step from that to reasoning that folk who disagree with one on anything are equally bereft of intellect and judgement and hence also do not deserve a vote. They’re wrong and mistaken, sure, but the cure for that is to inform, explain, enthuse and convince – not to ban or insult.

    This neatly encapsulates classic liberal/progressive thinking – folk of that persuasion tend to assume a moral and intellectual superiority which fails to grasp that people who don’t agree with you are not necessarily evil, or stupid, or unpatriotic – they just don’t agree with you. Your views and arguments are *not* so self-evidently right that only a cretin or a Nazi would fail to be convinced of them – you must make the intellectual and moral case for them and accept it, grudgingly if you like, if you fail to do so. It is not the fault of the listener if he is not fired with enthusiasm at the merest sniff of a Labour manifesto.

    I read this site with interest and find it enlightening in many ways. It’s important to me as a socially liberal, fiscally conservative, geoplitically pragmatic individual, for whom no single party speaks, that whichever government is in power has a responsible, constructive and competent Opposition, which can take a measured and sensible view of its obligations – which are not blindly to oppose everything proposed or undertaken by the government, but rather to provide an alternate voice for those who didn’t vote for the government and helpful suggestions for the national good.

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