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The AV referendum is on

Peter Rowlands sets out the arguments of the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns for May's referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote for elections to the UK Parliament

Until shortly before the 2010 General Election the Alternative Vote (AV) had not been an issue. Arguments over electoral reform had been about proportional representation (PR), with the Conservatives against, LibDems for and Labour divided on the issue.

However, Labour included a referendum on AV as a manifesto commitment, ostensibly to help promote greater clarity and honesty in politics after the expenses scandal, (the two are not really connected) but in reality to indicate to the LibDems that they would be prepared to talk about electoral reform in the event of a hung parliament. This happened, but it was the Conservatives who became their coalition partners and conceded a referendum on AV as part of the deal. This will now be held on May 5th, the date of elections for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, as well as local authorities in most of England outside London.

Before looking at the different positions being taken on the referendum, it is worth looking at the main arguments for and against  AV.

AV is a system based on single member constituencies, but where candidates are, or can be, listed in order of preference.  If no candidate secures 50% or more of the vote the bottom candidate is eliminated and his/her second preferences are redistributed, and this continues until someone achieves  50% of the vote, or until all votes are redistributed.  AV is not proportional, and can distort the outcome as much as First Past The Post (FPTP), while in most constituencies the result will be the same as under FPTP.  The change is not fundamental, but it does have certain consequences:  

  1. It is likely to prove marginally more proportional and provide for the most acceptable candidate overall to be elected.
  2. It is less likely that candidates of the far right or left would get elected as they would be unlikely to get many second preferences.
  3. There is no need for tactical voting, at least on first preferences.
  4. It encourages a less antagonistic approach than FPTP as parties will be looking for second preferences.

Points 2 and 4 are problematic in that AV could be seen to favour candidates of the centre.

Calculations after the 2010 election, based on AV being in place, gave the LibDems about 20 more seats, Labour about five more seats, while the Conservatives would have won 25 fewer seats than were actually obtained.  (This would probably have clinched a LabLib coalition).

The battlelines are now drawn.

Mary Southcott argues AV equals a more pluralist and progressive politics

We have a referendum on Alternative Vote (AV) which Labour put on the agenda and in its manifesto. We failed to hold a referendum after the Jenkins Commission reporting in 1998. Backing the current system First Past the Post, (FPTP), looks negative, reactionary and, mistakenly, self interested. We need to ask ourselves if we are part of the past or whether Labour can win under any other voting system in a future that moves away from the tyranny of middle England marginals and no-go areas, to a more responsive, pluralist and progressive politics.

FPTP is the 19th century product of a two party system. The UK is now a multiparty state. FPTP means that only a few hundred thousand voters actually matter. Our heartland Labour constituencies, which most of our MPs and Shadow Cabinet now represent, where low turnout may be a problem, often don't see the problem where Labour comes third and even Labour members vote tactically. But we all feel the effect of Labour's policies skewed to marginal seat floating voters not to our core vote. People who need Labour governments and would vote with us exist in all areas even where they have no Labour representatives.

Appealing to altruism is not as good as vested interest arguments. There are fears that the 'Reduce and Equalise' policies of the Conservative led Government, based on the registered rather than the actual population over 18, is being pursued to reduce Labour's chances of winning future elections any time soon. Although LibDems are the opposition in Islington, Chesterfield, Rochdale and Bristol West, there is no proof that more Tories will vote for them under AV than FPTP. Labour-LibDem marginals are still relatively small in number compared to the seats social Liberal MPs will lose to the Conservatives without Labour tactical support and Labour will win against the Tories often with LibDem and Green support. Without AV winning seats and elections will be more difficult for Labour. Let's do the health warning.

We cannot predict future outcomes under other voting systems, because not only do the electors respond differently but parties campaign differently. Fighting for first preferences in many areas outside the current targets will help elect Labour councillors and Labour MEPs whom we lost in 2009 to the BNP and UKIP. AV is the fascists' worst system. There is a progressive majority in every area of this country. BNP voting is very often protest voting caused by neglect. Once parties wake up they can beat the fascists and AV makes it also impossible for the BNP who don't get many transfers. NO Labour campaigners don't have to appeal for their second preferences. Labour has to appeal to be their first choice. 

Often we look at who is supporting a policy and judge it by its friends. At the moment we are understandably fixated on the LibDems and the fact that they went into the election last year as a progressive party and now are in league with the Tories. But in the referendum it is the Conservatives (with or without the capital C) who are supporting the NO. It is the Tax Payers Alliance CEO who is leading the NO campaign. Whereas Ed Miliband, the majority of the Shadow Cabinet, Ken Livingstone and Oona King, Tony and Hilary Benn, both Kinnock peers, eight out of our Labour MEPs are Labour YES! voters.

For those who prefer PR, it is not on the ballot paper and we can get it for the replacement Lords. For those who prefer the status quo, ask yourself why on this issue you are conservative. For those who want Labour to win a general election sooner rather than later, to fight for votes and be relevant everywhere, to be on the side of the future, join Labour Yes! and vote positively in May (www.labouryes.org.uk).

Tom Harris MP makes a stand against secret deals of perpetual coalitions

A quick look on Twitter and on political blogs most days will reveal a heated debate taking place between supporters and opponents of electoral reform. You might be forgiven for believing that this is a subject about which the great British public feel very strongly. But, of course, you would be wrong. The only people engaged in this debate are those who are already politically motivated, in other words, a tiny proportion of the electorate.

The reason we're being asked to vote on whether to replace the existing electoral system with the Alternative Vote (AV) on May 5 is not because the public demands it, but because our Tory-led government believes they're worth it. Both the LibDems and the Tories have historically opposed this particular system. Nick Clegg himself dismissed AV as "a miserable little compromise" just a few short weeks before greedily seizing it and proudly presenting it to his parliamentary party, much in the same way that Jack showed his mother the magic beans he had received in return for the family cow.

Ironically, the method by which this grubby little deal was done between Cameron and Clegg - with no transparency or accountability, behind closed doors, after the voters had been given a say - is precisely the way future governments will cobble together policy if AV is approved by the British people. The LibDems know that AV gives them, at the very least, an increased chance of hung parliaments in the future. And hung parliaments mean the bigger parties dancing to the tune of the third party; in Scotland we call it "the tail wagging the dug".

Most of those now leading the Yes campaign have always opposed AV and see it merely as a stop-gap, a stepping stone on the way to introducing full-blown proportional representation in the form of the Single Transferable Vote (STV). If AV doesn't take us at least a bit further down that road by making hung parliaments more likely, then why on earth would the LibDems support it?

Fundamentally it's the national repercussions, rather than the local effect, of AV, which are most objectionable. Coalition governments result in secret deals during which parties feel perfectly justified in binning large parts of the manifestos on which they've just been elected. Witness how every minister now responds to accusations of betraying their own pre-election promises by citing the "coalition agreement", as if such a document has any democratic legitimacy at all.

General elections are, primarily, for electing governments, not local MPs. As evidence of this assertion, consider the average person waking up on the Friday after polling day, having been too tired to stay up to watch the election results. He turns on the TV, not to find out whom his MP is, but to find out who the Prime Minister is. In 2010, the country had to wait five days until Nick Clegg had made up his mind. Under first-past-the-post, such results are the exception. Under AV, hope its supporters, they could well become the rule.

The claims made on AV's behalf - that it will mean an end to safe seats, to tactical voting and to MPs being elected on less than half the votes cast - are all demonstrably false. Its only real "benefit" is its likelihood to lead to more hung parliaments in which the LibDems will have the casting vote in perpetuity.

The AV referendum is a cynical political fix. It is not about giving ordinary voters more of a say; it is entirely about keeping two parties in a loveless marriage long enough for them to implement a programme no-one voted for.