The Old Politics case for AV

by Atul Hatwal

What a strange situation. Secretaries of state facing-off at cabinet meetings; shadow cabinet members at loggerheads and rival gangs of activists squaring up, hoping one of the other lot will spill their pint.

Who knew electoral systems were so emotive? It’s enough to make you want to shout “leave it, Lee; it’s not worth it”.

Like many, I find myself looking on, bemused. The intensity of the debate on the referendum on the alternate vote (AV) is in equal parts bizarre and disengaging.  Babies without incubators, Nazi fellow-travellers and a rag-bag of random celebrities are all part of the carnival of the absurd wending its way across our news pages.

In terms of the actual argument underneath the artifice, the case is finely balanced.

Most people get Cameron’s Usain Bolt analogy and intuitively feel it odd that someone finishing second in a race should end up winning. But, equally they understand that voting is about building legitimacy, and for most voters, a second best choice as MP is better than someone who the majority actively opposed.

As neither side has delivered the killer blow in their initial pitch, the approach of both campaigns has been to just shout louder. A ten-pints-of-lager strategy.

So they continue to brawl, while people, who are only now just beginning to look at the issue, feel a bit like they have walked into a taxi queue at club kicking-out time in downtown Croydon on Saturday night.

If this was the limit of the discussion, come May 5, I’d probably stay at home. It’s not been edifying, we don’t have any local elections in London and based on the underlying arguments, I don’t mind who wins.

Fairer votes would be fine, but the system we’ve got isn’t critically unfair and, as a Labour party member, I can’t get a nagging scene out of my head: the announcement of the result of the Labour leadership election last year, with the numbers from each stage of the voting flashing up on the big screen and no-one understanding quite what was happening or who was winning.

But this isn’t the limit of the argument.

For those of us less versed in the new politics, other things also matter. More than the marginal differences between different democratic processes, outcomes are what count.

Two questions in particular define the choice on whether to say yes, no or stay at home: which system will deliver the most seats for Labour at the next election? And which referendum result will cause the coalition most problems?

The Labour Yes campaign has clearly made a case on the first question. The evidence stands in their favour that AV would have meant more Labour MPs in most recent elections.

But the next election won’t be like any recent contest. In fact, it won’t be like any election since the 1930s – the last time there was a Tory-Liberal coalition in government.

The result of the one competitive by-election since the general election highlights how the impact of AV, at the next election, would in fact likely be minimal.

AV transfers votes from supporters of smaller parties to their second and third preference candidates till one has more than 50% of the vote. But, in Oldham East and Saddleworth, a place which had been a three-way marginal in 2010, voters just saw a straight choice between Labour and the Tory-Lib Dem coalition. As a result, there were unprecedented levels of switching from Tories to the Lib Dems, who were viewed as the best chance to stop Labour, and from left-wing Lib Dems to Labour who were the anti-coalition choice.

AV wasn’t required to transfer votes, electors did it for themselves.

The result was a Labour victory on 42%, up from 32%, the Lib Dems also slightly up on 31.9% from 31.6%, unheard of for a governing party, and the Tories collapsing to 13% from 25%. Transferring minor parties’ votes under AV would have made no difference to the final result.

Recent YouGov polling shows almost 50% of those intending to vote Lib Dem at the next election are solid supporters of the government programme and backers of Nick Clegg’s leadership. Given that most Lib Dem voters who might switch to Labour have already jumped ship, these die-hard Cleggites provide the Tories with a similar reserve of potential extra votes where it’s a straight Labour-Tory fight.

It’s a paradox for the committed supporters of electoral reform, who are also often the strongest advocates of tactical voting. On the one hand, coalition government has massively boosted the potential for tactical voting: it’s made many Conservatives comfortable backing Lib Dems and vice versa. But if the pattern set in Oldham East and Saddleworth continues, tactical voting will bring a de facto return to a two-party system rendering AV largely irrelevant, at least for the next election in 2015.

So if the case for more Labour seats from AV anytime this decade is dubious, what about the impact of a yes vote on the coalition?

There’s a lot more potential here. It’s is an issue that could detonate on the true fault line in the government – the rift between the Tory leadership and its right-wing.

The Tory right are the ones with the real power to shake the government. They might have been quiet so far, but they are certainly not sleeping. Articles from in-house Tory commentators like Paul Goodman and Iain Martin reveal the thoughts of a constituency which is growing increasingly restless.

Losing the AV referendum would catalyse this discontent in three ways.

First, regardless of the changed dynamic with tactical voting, many MPs fear for their seats under AV. MPs of all parties are notoriously prone to nerves and melancholia when it comes to their own seats and a new electoral system would set off a wave of panicked tea room chatter.

Second, for the Tory right, changing something as traditional as the voting system would be tantamount to constitutional vandalism. That it happened on the watch of a Conservative prime minister would only make things worse. It’s not what Tories should be about and would set off a separate wave of angry tea room mumblings.

Third, the smiles on the faces of Lib Dem MPs would be red rags to Tory backbench bulls. AV would crown what is widely perceived as Lib Dems’ disproportionate influence in government at the expense of core Tory interests. If the Lib Dems had AV, the right would demand its pound of flesh. Cue another wave of tea room angst.

The combination of these three waves would batter Cameron in a way not seen so far. A resurgent right that wanted to teach its leadership a lesson would make the balance the Tory leadership has maintained between its backbench and the Lib Dems almost impossible to sustain.

Out of all of the arguments on the referendum, this is the one that gives a clear-cut reason for a Labour supporter to get out and vote yes on May 5.

It might ignore the democratic case for fairer votes. It might be the type of realpolitik which is the antithesis of the new politics that AV is meant to usher in.

But, politics, old and new, is about power.

The coalition’s signature achievement has been defying political gravity by holding together so well despite the biggest cuts in generations. If AV reasserts the fundamentals of political physics and helps break its hold on power, then it will have been a change worth making.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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One Response to “The Old Politics case for AV”

  1. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    I think you need to consider what happens next.

    Does Cameron cave to his right-wing? Of course he caves. He doesn’t like unpopularity and he doesn’t like facing a strong and united opposition. He’ll give in to whatever demands he can make without alienating other supporters.

    This will entail forcing concessions from the Lib Dems, but if Clegg’s just won the AV referendum then he’ll be willing to be magnanimous and in any case he’ll have to – the Lib Dems are still too far down in the polls to want to threaten to bring down the government.

    But what demands will the Tory right make? We can expect them to be simple, populist and based upon attacking an old enemy such as Europe, those on benefits or political correctness. Now there is some merit from a dispassionate perspective to letting them get on with it, as they may overreach and allow us some opportunity to counter-attack. But we can’t be that dispassionate, because they can do a lot of damage before that and we can’t stop them.

    So before you vote yes on the principle of ‘confusion to my enemies’, ask yourself exactly what this confusion will involve. It might be better not to wind up the sleeping dragon of the Tory right.

    (For the record, I shall be voting yes, because I believe AV is a slightly better system than FPTP, but with no great enthusiasm.)

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