AV is a scam… and I’ll ruin a good pair of shoes campaigning FOR it

Today in 6 months, you will be asked to put a cross in a box. Depending on where you live, you may have more than one cross and more than one box to put it in, and there’s a big kerfuffle about that, but that aside, I am hoping that it will be the last cross you ever have to put in a box in a national context. I am hoping that next time, you’ll have numbers to put in your boxes.
Now, I have gone on the record a couple of times declaring that AV is a scam. And so last time I left off promising to explain why I had decided to campaign for AV.
I’m not going to take you on a tour of the Yes campaign arguments, good though they are. You can look them up for yourself. I’m not even going to stay on message as far the Yes campaign is concerned – these are my personal reasons and I speak only for myself.
So let’s talk first about why AV is a scam. The first time I said this was when Gordon Brown first brought it up in the run-up to the general election, in an attempt to pander to the Lib Dems. If you know anything about the Lib Dems you will know that they would like to move to a proportional voting system, which would reflect the percentage of votes gained by a party in the percentage of seats they receive in Parliament. For a party which needs about 126,000 votes for every seat it gains in Parliament, while its main rivals need somewhere in the range of 30-35,000, this is completely understandable. But looking beyond individual party interests, it seems obvious to me from looking at those numbers that the current voting system (First Past the Post, or FPTP) simply is not fair and not democratic. It disenfranchises the vast majority of the population, as only about a third of the votes cast actually make a difference to the election outcome. The rest of us – well, we might as well stay at home.
Having established that FPTP is unfair and that we would quite like a proportional system, the first thing to note about AV is that it is not proportional. If anyone tells you it is, they’re either misguided or outright lying. The AV system retains the single-member constituency. This means that only one party can represent a constituency, which in turn means that the result is not proportional to the number of votes cast for each party either in that constituency or in the country as a whole. (Whether single-member constituencies are a good thing is a question for another day.) So when Gordon Brown put AV on the table as his electoral reform of choice back in April, of course it was a scam.
For me, the biggest risk around adopting AV in May – and this is something I’m still genuinely concerned about – is that it will be used as an excuse to block further reform. We will be hearing the words “We’ve only just had a change, let it bed in” for the next 50 years.
Equally, however, AV is what is now on the table, and in this world, in this life, you play the hand you’re dealt. So I’m choosing to hope. The AV campaign will certainly get people talking and thinking about change and electoral reform. And hopefully if AV is implemented, it will demonstrate that change is possible and can be positive. Hopefully it will make people consider further changes in a positive light.
Beyond meta arguments on change, though, I do believe AV has one or two merits in its own right. Firstly, it eliminates the need for tactical voting. No more leaflets through your door using dodgy numbers and doctored charts to tell you how Labour can’t win here. No more grudgingly putting your cross in one box but really wishing the other guys stood a snowball’s chance in hell around here. No more trying to second-guess your fellow voters so you can vote with them rather than waste your vote. AV lets you rank candidates according to preference. So if you really like the Greens, you can say so. And if you don’t happen to live in Brighton & Hove, well then your vote still isn’t wasted, because you can say who you like second-best, and third-best and all the way down to the BNP. Being able to vote for the people you actually want to vote for, without wasting your vote, is worth a lot in my book.
The second benefit of AV is that we will actually be able to get some data on the results a truly proportional system would produce. Currently even the best numbers we have are estimates. If you just look at how people voted in the last election, it isn’t particularly representative as so many people would have voted tactically, rather than for their first preference. However, if people are allowed to rank candidates in order of preference we will get a much better picture of what kind of Parliament a truly proportional system would return. That way, when the PR referendum comes around, at least we won’t have all the scaremongering about letting the extremists in.
Those are my two reasons why I intend to ruin a good pair of shoes in the next six months. The Yes campaign has many more, and you may have some of your own. If you do, go and sign up. And if you’re not convinced yet, then talk to people about it. Ultimately, a healthy debate on the issue will only help all of us make up our minds.
And so tomorrow, I will be hosting the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign launch in Newcastle. It’ll probably rain, and we’ll probably get overrun by the people trying to shut down the Vodafone store just up the road. Hopefully, though, we’ll also get to talk to a lot of people, raise awareness, sign up lots of volunteers for the campaign, and change some minds. I’m looking forward to it.

6 thoughts on “AV is a scam… and I’ll ruin a good pair of shoes campaigning FOR it

  1. Peter Wilkinson

    In my opinion, the main way in which AV is not proportional is one of the best things about AV.
    Suppose one of the candidates is J. Random Nazi – who is immensely popular with 30% of the electorate and so utterly loathed by the other 70% that anyone else would be preferable.
    Under FPTP, J. Random Nazi is usually unlikely to get elected, but may well do if there are enough other candidates and not enough agreement among the 70% on the best tactical anti-Random candidate.
    Under STV or any PR system, J. Random Nazi is almost certain to get elected, albeit as only one of three or more successful candidate for the constituency.
    Under AV, J. Random Nazi can only get elected if people aren’t voting their full preferences.
    If you believe that parliament should be as accurate a reflection of the electorate as possible, even if that means a lot of parliamentary time getting wasted on J. Random Nazi’s spurious points of order, slander against other members and so on, then some version of PR is almost certain the right system.
    If you believe that parliament is elected to take decisions that a majority of the population is willing to go along with, then AV is better than PR.

  2. Milena Popova

    I count that as a success. Blog is under CC attribution/non-commercial/share-alike license, so feel free to repost, link etc. 🙂

  3. a6ruled

    i’m afraid i’m still viscerally opposed to AV in this referendum because the LibDems that we now see (presumably?) want it – i’m aware that this isn’t much of an opinion but there you go
    it’s interesting to reflect your two points though:
    1. i’m not sure how AV as such does remove tactical voting – it just seems to make it more difficult / complicated / prone to ‘error’ (this might add up to ‘reducing’ it i guess). i’m also sat hear wondering for the first time whether it even makes sense to rank people but i’ll need to think about that.
    2. it’s a fair old step to maybe get some slightly better data
    in terms of positioning btw, propose PR along with compulsory voting and i’m all over it

  4. Milena Popova

    The LibDems want STV but are settling for AV for now. Anyway, spite isn’t much of a reason for anything.
    Ultimately, my point is that AV is far from ideal, but it’s the hand we’ve been dealt and we need to play. I choose to play it by campaigning for AV.
    Let me know the outcome of your thoughts on ranking candidates – I’m interested.

  5. Milena Popova

    This is true under STV, not necessarily under other forms of PR. If you kill the constituency link and introduce a, say, 5% threshold at a national level, then J. Random Nazi may have 30% support in his local area but that still won’t get him elected.
    Anyway, I prefer to keep my Nazis where I can keep an eye on this. Nick Griffin going on Questiontime was the best possible thing for the country and the worst possible thing for him.


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