Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Why I'll Be Voting "Yes" to AV

Next month I will be voting "Yes" in the referendum to change the voting system at British general elections from First Past The Post (FPTP) to Alternative Voting (AV).

I have never been one to get particularly excited about proportional representation. My default view is that when the time has come for change then democracy's natural selection process will eventually see to it that that change happens irrespective of which voting system we have. However slow and stupified they may sometimes appear, the voters tend to make the right decision on the day.

Alternative Voting is not proportional representation, of course. It is a fudge that lies somewhere between PR and FPTP. Essentially it means you can vote for a candidate whom you like but who is unlikely to win in the knowledge that when he or she is inevitably unsuccessful your second preference vote for a more credible candidate will still count for something. In other words you need not vote for a candidate who would not otherwise be your first choice for fear of wasting your vote completely.

From a purely selfish perspective I believe that on balance AV would have benefited ICG candidates at local elections, some might argue unfairly so, and that we probably would have won across the board in both Isleworth and Syon wards had it been in operation locally in 2010 in spite of the general election having been held on the same day. My reason for thinking this is that, whilst the politicos from both of the major parties might themselves prefer the relative safety of one another to the (to them) uncertain radicalism of the ICG, the voters themselves would probably have thought differently. In my view casual Labour voters (as opposed to members) would in most cases have preferred the ICG to their traditional Tory opponents, and likewise Tory voters would in most cases have opted for the ICG ahead of Labour.

In other words in the absence of a straight 50% first preference vote for either Labour or the Conservatives (unlikely in Labour's case and nowt but a pipe dream for the Conservatives), the likelihood is that the ICG's second preference vote tally would have been substantially more powerful than either of theirs.

At the local elections in 2002 and 2006 on the other hand, when we won our seats with very strong majorities in the absence of a "general election factor", AV would almost certainly have made no difference to the outcome.

But all that is by the by. All those elections were fought under FPTP and even the proposed changes would only apply to general elections, at least to begin with. So my interest in the subject now, inasfar as I have any, concerns the effect upon the national body politic of a conversion to an AV system of voting.

The likely consequence of "Yes" vote would be a significant increase in the number of seats held by the Liberal Democrats (under less controversial conditions than presently exist anyway), and an effective normalisation of the currently unusual spectre of coalition government.

Some Labour politicians (although not Ed Miliband) are opposing AV because they feel a "No" vote will weaken the political standing of the Liberal Democrat leadership, who have kissed a lot of butts in order that this referendum might become a reality. A "No" result would make so many of those sacrifices appear to have been in vain. Others are whining about the cost of holding the referendum.

But it is surely wrong to judge an issue as fundamental as electoral reform on consideration of short-term political advantage? And it is certainly not good enough to try to place a price on democracy (and let's face it, money is certainly no object where the crusade to "bring democracy" to the lesser breeds of the Middle East and North Africa via the bomb and bullet are concerned).

A more valid fear is that AV will lead to perpetual coalition in which Labour might be the loser. Anybody who has had dealings with Labour as an organisation will know how politically frigid and unapproachable they tend to be and this leads sometimes to the most improbable coalitions finding themselves lined up against them often almost by default.

Some, most notably the Labour leader Ed Miliband, take the contrary view that Britain has an inbuilt "progressive majority" which would make it much more difficult for the Conservatives to achieve absolute power, a view that may be shared by the Tories themselves if their almost unanimous opposition to AV is to be explained.

One possibly accidental consequence of the AV debate therefore has been to force the Labour camp to consider what is ultimately more important to them - their "progressivism" or their party badge.

I believe Ed Miliband has taken a very intelligent position, probably recognising as a forward-thinking and relatively young man that the shelf-life of the Labour Party, like those of the other traditional parties, is nearing its end and that the product is likely to be replaced sooner or later by something altogether less tribal, less reactionary and more suited to the open society that must be an inevitable consequence of the Internet age.

There will as I see it be a realignment in our body politic with new alliances being formed that will empower the progressive majority but at the expense of the Labour Party in its current insular persona.

Almost anything that shakes up the stale old system and that encourages voters to think outside the box into which it has successfully confined them for so long has to be a good thing. That is why I intend to vote "Yes" on May 5th.

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