What to make of the AV referendum?
The TUC has no policy on how union members should vote in the AV referendum. There are people and unions on both sides of the debate. The great majority of unions seem not have made a recommendation to their members – though they still just about have time to do so.
But the TUC did produce a guide for trade unionists on electoral systems last year called Getting it in proportion. This came to no conclusion, but explained how different electoral systems work and tried to set out in a balanced way arguments for and against not just first-past-the-post (fptp) and AV, but various proportional systems too.
If it has a conclusion, it is that there is no perfect electoral system. There are two reasons for this:
- People expect electoral systems to do different things which are not all compatible with each other. Therefore the system you choose will depend on the importance you give to these different objectives.
- In addition the politics of countries can vary and change over time. So what works in one country at one particular moment, may not be appropriate in other countries or at other times. In particular a country like the USA, which has a very strong two party system, may well be happy with a first past the post system. A country with multiple parties on the other hand is much more likely to be happy with some kind of proportional system.
But while I find all this democratic theory fascinating, many people are simply judging the referendum on who they think will win or lose from either AV or the fptp status quo.
So for people on the left it often boils down to whether they dislike Nick Clegg or David Cameron the most – or perhaps a little more strategically whether they want to harm the Conservatives or the Lib Dems. Possibly in addition they might ask which is better for Labour. Over on the right, at least the Conservative Party bit of it, the issue has been much more clear cut, with only a very few Conservatives backing change.
But even these party interest considerations are not simple questions. Short-term interests may not be the same as long-term interests. And one thing that the TUC has argued in our rare forays into politics is that what benefits Labour voters (or union members) may not be the same as what benefits the Labour Party as an institution. For example a very right wing Conservative Party will do more damage to the things we value, but may be easier for Labour to beat.
Few think the referendum campaign has taken off – although this is as much a criticism of the media for not treating the issue very seriously. Neither of the organised campaigns seems to have impressed commentators much either. Even though there is substantial union support for a no vote, the no campaign appears to have been largely devised from a mix of the Taxpayers’ Alliance and the (over-lapping) people who defeated the regional referendum in the North East and certainly does not resonate with me.
On the other hand the yes campaign has, in my view, overclaimed the difference that AV will make – though I suppose that is true of all political campaigns. No-one gets much excited by the prospect of making a modest change to anything.
But while it is easy to criticise the campaigns, the depressing conclusion is probably that both have spent quite some time working out what arguments work best with voters.
As the electorate is probably as unenthusiastic about politicians as it has ever been, high-minded arguments simply won’t engage the majority of voters. Both campaigns have therefore ended up having strong anti-politics messages. This is not good for progessives, as while the right want things to be decided by markets and individual choice, we believe in the collective, and the power of the state and public institutions to do good.
As I want to discuss two particular issues that have been raised in the debate, I should probably declare that I will vote yes on May 5th (with all the disclaimers at the start of this post re-emphasised and in the knowledge that other Touchstone contributors may well be voting no).
However this post is not written as a polemical case for a yes vote – even a subtle one that pretends not to be – but a discussion of two of the issues raised in the original TUC document. Neither should be decisive in deciding how anyone votes, but they are important considerations for many.
Would AV benefit far-right extremists?
There is not a straightforward answer to this question. AV is not a proportional system so does not make it likely that a party that can get, say, 10 per cent of the vote will also get 10 per cent of the seats up for election.
Indeed AV makes it harder for a party that has significant minority support, but is hated by everybody else to get elected. Under first-past-the-post a far right party that gets 40 per cent of the votes in a constituency will win if three other parties – get 19, 20 and 21 per cent respectively. But if they are all united by a strong dislike of far-right extremism then the second and third preferences of the supporters of the parties eliminated as the AV ballot progresses will eventually ensure that a non-far-right party wins.
This is analagous to the French presidential election where Chirac and Le Pen ended up in the final round – and Socialist voters turned out in large numbers to ensure that Le Pen was defeated. (France’s two rounds of voting is rather similar to AV).
But on the other hand, AV allows people to express their real party preferences, while fptp encourages tactical voting. Many people today vote for the party most likely to beat the big party they dislike the most. Lib Dems, UKIP Greens and other smaller parties inevitably lose out from this in traditional races between the two big parties, although Lib Dems, unlike the others. also gain from tactical voting in many seats where they get more votes than one of the two big parties. Tactical voting probably leads far-right parties to under-perform as well, so AV may reveal somewhat more support than we see now for parties like the BNP – although my hunch would be that UKIP would be a bigger winner – and mostly at the expense of the Conservatives.
So AV probably makes it harder for the BNP to win seats, but may reveal more support for it.
Would AV make coalitions more likely?
The answer to this is also far from straightforward.
For a start no-one knows how a change in the electoral system might change the way people vote. Even a modest change will produce a somewhat different political culture within which people decide their vote, so even clever polling cannot really reproduce previous elections under AV.
As AV is not proportional it certainly doesn’t make a coalition likely in any situation where the winning party does not get close to half the vote or more. When parties have landslides – such as Labour in 1997 – or the Conservatives in 1983 – AV is likely to produce even bigger majorities for the winners. This is explained in Getting it in proportion.
Nor is it the case that fptp prevents coalitions or minority governments. That of course is obvious as we currently have such a government, but they have also frequently occurred in the past particularly in the early 20th century.
What stops coalitions is two-party politics. But since the end of the second world war, there has been a growth in support for other parties. Graphs on page 10 of Getting it in proportion chart the growth in support for other parties and the decline in backing for the winning party.
So whether we have AV or stick with fptp we are more likely to have coalitions or minority goverenments in future, unless we get back to a strong two-party system as the US still has and we had in the 1950s.
AV probably makes it harder for a party in a small lead over its rivals to form a government on its own (although both AV and fptp can produce quirky results), but the effect is probably less than some partisans seem to think.
And of course even those simply using a partisan measure may think that making it harder for the Conservatives to govern on their own is more important that making it easier for Labour to do so.
As Vernon Bogdanow writes the differences between fptp and AV in practice are not that big.
As I argue above, many of the arguments deployed in the debate are much less certain than some suggest.
But this does not mean that it is unimportant. What should unite trade unionists and progressives however they intend to vote on May 5th is deep support for democracy as the best alternative to either authoritarianism or market fundamentalism running every aspects of our lives.
Even small changes in our democratic system are therefore important, and should be taken seriously.
So either yes or no, but please not the fashionable, but cynical, meh to AV.