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Rene Kinzett

The case for AV

October 4th, 2010 by René Kinzett

I am speaking at a fringe evenat at the Conservative Party Conference being organised by Conservative Action on Electoral Reform this afternoon, alongside Dan Hannan and Douglas Carswell. I expect a rough ride as the only Conservative holding elected office to be speaking in favour of the Alternative Vote!

The Coalition Government which was formed following the outcome of the General Election owed much of the success of the negotiation efforts on the agreement to hold a referendum on replacing the First-Past-The-Post system with the Alternative Vote for electing MPs to the House of Commons.

I have previously gone on the record expressing my disappointment with the proposed referendum for missing the opportunity to give the electorate the choice of adopting the Single Transferable Vote method of electing our Members of Parliament.

The last few months of debating and reading about the proposed changes and also taking into account the politics of the Coalition, I have now come to the conclusion that reform of the electoral system is vital and that the choice before is, whilst no perfect, is the only opportunity we will get for reform for the foreseeable future.

Gordon Brown’s conversion to the delights of electoral reform, whilst languishing in his political death-bed, show that the Labour Government’s ideas of reform were hopelessly top-down and driven only by political expediency – i.e. in order to show a bit of ankle to the Liberal Democrats in the hope of enticing them into serious consideration of a post-election bunk-up. Even now, Ed Miliband’s commitment to “reform” doesn’t seem to be very genuine given the huge problems he will have in commanding a Parliamentary Party which did not support his leadership bid and a trade union block wanting their pound of flesh for propelling him ahead of his brother.

Any hope for reform, then, whether one is a Liberal Conservative Reformer (like me) or an unreconstructed Radical Liberal (like many of my old friends in the Liberal Democrats), the chance for change is now and such an opportunity will not present itself for decades to come.

That is not to say that “any reform is better than no reform” and I do want to engage in a sensible and informed debate about the problems associated with the Alternative Vote system and I will not pretend that the proposed new system is perfect or that it delivers “proportionality” in terms of share of vote cast, against share of seats won, by each party in a general election.

The AV system does deliver an end to complacent “safe seat” MPs, those who gain their seats with less than 50% of the vote, but who can continue to ignore or else not consider those who have voted for other parties due to the absence of a clear challenger. In such seats, second and third preferences will be crucial in deciding who will represent the electors in Parliament; any candidate, or indeed incumbent, will need to pay more attention to the building of broader coalitions of interest within his/her constituency in order to win, or hold on to, the seat.

There are those who argue that the Conservatives will have done worse under the AV system in 2010, but that is assuming that electoral behaviour would be the same under a new system and also it needs to be borne in mind that extrapolations from FPTP to predicting a result under AV is really just guesswork. Indeed, even if the Conservatives had done worse under AV than FPTP, the fact remains that our 47% share of the seats in the Commons is rather larger than our 36.1% of the share of the popular vote. This is an interesting point that needs to be considered by those like Douglas Carswell MP who opposes AV but supports STV, a more proportional system. STV would give parties a share of seats in the Commons rather nearer to their share of the popular vote, thus depriving both the Conservatives and Labour Parties of many more seats than they have at present.

AV would end the “wasted vote” argument. Conservative Party Parliamentary Candidates like me who were campaigning from a third-place position, had to endure countless bits of paper going through doors from the Liberal Democrats who, believing they could beat the local Labour candidate, told the electors that to support me in the polling station would be to cast a “wasted vote”. In an AV election, all parties would be able to stand on the doorsteps and ask electors to vote as to their conscience, to support the party that they most believed in, by giving them their number 1 preference on the ballot. It would then be up to any party that really thought it could win, but only with the subsequent preferences of those who have voted another party as their “number 1” choice, to build a coalition of support from amongst a wider base of the electorate. I confidently predict that support for the Conservatives in seats like the one I fought in 2010 (Swansea West) would rise sharply if the “wasted vote” argument was made irrelevant by the introduction of AV. As to whether the subsequent preferences of those who ranked me as their “number 1” would have elected a Liberal Democrat instead of a Labour MP is a moot point and one which could really only be tested by running an AV election. In seats where Conservative MPs feel vulnerable to the subsequent preferences of third-placed parties, perhaps it would be incumbent upon them to build bridges with their smaller opponents in order to gain their support on second and third preferences?

AV really does at least put the elector in a more prominent position in terms of elected MPs than the current FPTP. It allows supporters of all parties to properly register their support without risking the “wasted vote” scenario. AV also encourages MPs and parliamentary hopefuls to reach out into new parts of the electorate in order to earn second and subsequent preferences. The politics of the outcome of the 2010 General Election meant that David Cameron, whilst having to promise a referendum on electoral reform, he did not have to allow a choice on a more radical alternative than AV. This means that whilst the choice of reformers is more limited than many of us would like, the opportunity of gaining an electoral system with many more benefits than the current FPTP is now upon us and it is up to us to seize moment and vote for reform.

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Comments [ 1 ]

  1. Dave Thawley Dave Thawley says:

    Just wanted to say it is great reading such a well balanced and truthful analysis of Electoral Reform as it relates to the forthcoming referendum. As you said it is not perfect and it isn’t STV but it is a lot better in many respects than FPTP without the downsides and is therefore well worth going out on the 5th May Next year to vote yes to.

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