Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 9 July 2010

It is easy enough to see why Nick Clegg supports introduction of the alternative vote for elections to the House of Commons. All the indications are that it would make it much easier for the Lib Dems to retain the parliamentary seats they currently hold – and they could well need all the help they can get after jumping into bed with a Tory party that seems intent on crashing the economy just as it did in the 1980s.

Why anyone apart from Clegg and his party should want AV is, however, something of a mystery. AV would do nothing to address the major flaws in the first-past-the-post system we currently use for Westminster elections, which are its gross disproportionality and its concomitant tendency to turn general election campaigns into battles for the votes of a few hundred thousand wavering voters in a hundred of so marginal seats. And AV might make these flaws worse.

AV is not, repeat not, proportional representation. It is not even a step towards it. It is the electoral system used in Australia for the House of Representatives, in which voters in single-member constituencies rank candidates on the ballot paper in order of preference (1, 2, 3, 4 etc) rather than putting a single “X” next to their first choice as we do in first-past-the-post elections in the UK. If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of first preferences, the second preferences of the candidate with the lowest number of first preferences are redistributed. The process is then repeated until one candidate reaches 50 per cent plus one of votes cast.

AV has two superficial attractions over FPTP. Every winning candidate under AV can claim to have the support (however grudgingly faute de mieux) of a majority of his or her constituents; and AV makes the practice of tactical voting much less of a guessing game for voters. A UKIP supporter in a Tory-Labour marginal who prefers the Tories to Labour, for example, would be able under AV to vote “UKIP 1, Conservative 2” with a reasonable level of confidence that the second preference would count rather than, as now, having to decide whether or not to put an “X” next to the Tory candidate’s name for fear of letting Labour in by “wasting” a vote on UKIP.

But there are downsides even to these attractions. Is a candidate in a three-way AV contest who wins by 51 per cent to 49 per cent with the help of second preferences, having trailed 46-29 on first preferences, more democratically legitimate than someone who wins a three-way FPTP contest 46-29-25? Why should your second choice have the same weight as my first choice?

AV encourages the worst kind of lowest-denominator politics – every marginal contest is a sordid scurry to be everyone’s second choice – and, partly because of this, it delivers more ludicrous landslides than FTPT whenever one political party is no one’s second choice despite having a solid core of first choices. Labour was massacred in 1983 under FPTP: it would have been worse under AV. Ditto the Tories in 1997.

Sorry, but this is a farce. FPTP is crap – but so is AV. We are going to be asked to choose between the two, if the government has its way, in a referendum next May. The choice is an insult. If the referendum bill cannot be amended to include a genuinely proportional third option, reformers should spoil their ballots in the referendum by scrawling “AV is not PR” across their papers.

* * *

On a different matter entirely, I was sorry to read last week of the death of Ken Coates at the age of 79.

I first met him in the early 1980s through European Nuclear Disarmament, when he was chair of the co-ordinating committee that organised annual anti-nukes conventions for thousands of activists from across the continent. He had recently fallen out with most of the rest of END in the UK over who ran the organisation’s magazine – Edward Thompson referred to him as “the renegade Coatesky” (if you don’t get the joke, don’t worry) and I was in the Thompson camp – but he struck me as a strangely impressive figure.

A veteran not only of the implosion of the Communist Party after 1956 but also the first wave of CND, the early-1960s revival of Trotskyism, the anti-Vietnam war campaign and the early-1970s movement for workers’ control, he was extraordinarily well connected and well read … and a faction-fighter of the old school. He became a Labour MEP in 1989 and worked impressively to persuade the world of the benefits of a co-ordinated European full-employment policy before falling out irrevocably with Tony Blair as Labour leader, being expelled by Labour and fighting the 1999 European election as an independent.

I disagreed with him a lot, but he was personable and kind and a Tribune regular for more than 40 years. RIP.

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