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Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Study finds that AV will empower voters

This morning's Independent carries news of an independent study by nef (new economics foundation) think-tank, which finds that a Yes vote in the 5 May referendum would boost people power by increasing the number of very marginal seats from 81 to 125. The number of very safe seats would fall from 331 to 271.

I don't think that anybody can claim that the Alternative Vote is significantly more proportional than First Past the Post but the one thing that is clear to me is that it is fairer. It will also empower voters over politcians and enable a first step towards more far-reaching reform later. A 'No' vote on the other hand will rule out any change for a generation or more.

According to the study, the Liberal Democrats would have been the big winner if last year's general election had been fought on AV, winning 87 seats rather than 57. Labour would have had slightly fewer MPs (245 rather than the 258 it won) while the Conservatives would have been the biggest loser, with 286 rather than 305 seats. In many ways though this is not relevant as different elections would produce different results. What is important is that the results would more realistically reflect the way people voted.

The NEF say that although the Tories would still have been the largest party, an AV election might have allowed Labour to hold on to power by forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The two parties would have commanded an overall Commons majority between them, which they failed to do in the actual election. So there would have been a real choice of governments after an indecisive election.

The former BBC director general, Greg Dyke however, points to one of the main reason why people want change: "It's hardly surprising that MPs seem so remote and unresponsive when the voting system has handed most of them a 'job for life'. A Yes vote for AV will help bring politicians back down to earth by making them work harder for their jobs. A No vote just tells Westminster we're happy with business as usual, expenses scandal and all. It means nothing will change."
The point I would question is the oft-made claim that a 'Yes' vote in the May 5 referendum would be "a first step towards more far-reaching reform later".

AV has not, in practice, led to further electoral reform in countries where it has been adopted. Australia has retained the system for 90 years: because it inherently bolsters the electoral dominance of the two largest parties, they have no incentive to make any further change.

And in Western Canada, where dissatisfaction with AV did grow to the point of abolishing the system after 30 years, it was replaced not by PR but by a return to First Past The Post!
Having now read the New Economics Foundation report, I would add the following comments:

1. Regarding the forecast that adoption of AV would increase the average power of UK voters from 0.285 to 0.384 of a vote, where '1' represents a fair vote, the NEF report itself acknowledges that this means the electoral system would remain far short of a fair one. I myself would describe the improvement as the difference between 'very poor' and 'not quite so very poor'. As the report says, neither FPTP nor AV is very good at translating votes into electoral power.

2. Another comment made in the report is that "Many of the problems are a result of the UK’s use of single-member constituencies, and addressing them would require a more fundamental change." In my view, refusing AV and campaigning for genuine PR — which AV is not — is the course that should be followed, remembering how, in Australia, the adoption of AV has been set in stone for 90 years because of the advantages it gives the two largest and most powerful parties at the expense of the rest.

The argument that a 'No' vote would postpone electoral change to a remote future doesn't hold water: the history of referenda in the UK is that claims that a particular result has 'ended the debate once and for all' have in several instances been proved unfounded within only a few years.

3. In the light of the above, the comment by Nic Marks of NEF (quoted in the 'Independent') that "voters need to decide for themselves whether these improvements are worth a Yes vote", seems apt. The AV procedure, being more complex than FPTP, would also be more costly; and with such limited enhancements to show for the change (always supposing that the NEF model proves valid in practice), the question of value for money is a legitimate one.
Your proposed course of action would lead to no change at all. You would be cutting off your own nose to spite your ideologically pure face.
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