Bernard Jenkin MP should get his facts straight on the Alternative Vote

The Evening Standard ran an extraordinary piece on the Alternative Vote by Bernard Jenkin MP, one of the leading figures in the "No" Campaign. Since the Standard refused electoral reformers the right to reply to Jenkin's highly misleading piece, we are publishing a full rebuttal here by Peter Facey of Unlock Democracy.
Peter Facey
6 August 2010

The Evening Standard today ran an extraordinary article on the Alternative Vote by Bernard Jenkin MP, one of the leading figures in the "No" Campaign. Since the Standard refused electoral reformers the right to reply to Jenkin's highly misleading piece, we are publishing a full rebuttal here by Peter Facey of Unlock Democracy. 

When it became clear that there would be a referendum on whether voters wanted to keep the First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system or change to the Alternative Vote (AV), I hoped we could have a national debate based on the facts. 

That early optimism (or naivety) has already been dashed thanks to leading 'No' campaigner Bernard Jenkin MP.

Already it is clear that those supporting old politics are determined to stop change and don't mind resorting to misinformation to do it. Here, for the record, are Mr Jenkin’s accusations and the truths he hopes you won’t find out.

Jenkin’s Myth:Australia has a similar system, called preferential voting, but otherwise only Fiji and Papua New Guinea elect their parliaments by the Alternative Vote”.

Truth: AV is not only similar to the Australian system it is the same system.

‘No’ campaigners want to confuse people. AV, or versions of it, are already used in various elections, including ones right here on our doorstep.

The Alternative Vote (or, as Mr Jenkin insists on calling it, preferential voting) is used by Irish voters to elect their President, as well as in Irish by-elections north and south of the border.

Londoners recently used a truncated version called Supplementary Vote to elect their Mayor, whilst the Labour party is using AV to elect its new leader.

Jenkin’s Myth:The Labour leadership really wanted something called “AV-plus” ….The only reason it is on the UK agenda now is because of the quirks of coalition government”.

Truth: Labour’s manifesto committed the party to holding a referendum on the Alternative Vote, and the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown in his leader’s speech at last year’s Labour Party Conference committed to campaign for a Yes Vote. The fact is that if Labour had won the election we would still be having a referendum on the Alternative Vote.

Jenkin Myth:Many people want “fair votes” (ie more proportionality) but the alternative vote system is manifestly not “fair votes”. Researchers estimate Labour would have won a bigger 1997 majority (199) under the alternative vote than the 165 they got under first past the post. Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, appointed by Tony Blair to chair the 1998 Independent Commission on the Voting System, concluded: “On its own, AV would be unacceptable because of the danger … it might increase rather than reduce disproportionality.”

Truth: Yes - AV is not a proportional system! No electoral system based on single member seats can be proportional. However, the uncomfortable truth for the ‘No’ campaign is that if you compare the experience of AV in Australian Parliamentary elections with First Past the Post in Westminster elections, then AV has produced more proportional results than First Past the Post.

Neither First Past the Post nor AV are designed to produce proportional results. AV is designed to ensure that MPs have the support of a majority of their constituents, something our current electoral system fails to do.

When the House of Commons recently elected John Bercow as Speaker, it insisted that he should have the support of a majority of MPs. Members of Parliament like Bernard Jenkin insist that whilst it is good enough for MPs, voters should not have the same rights when electing their own parliamentary representatives. Now when have I heard MPs make that argument before...?

Jenkin Myth: Supporters claim the alternative voting system would “make every vote count”, but the votes cast for the smallest parties (like the British National Party) get recounted, possibly again and again. Why should BNP voters' second, third or fourth preferences count the same as a Conservative, Lib-Dem or Labour first preference?”

Truth: There is a real argument between those who believe individual MPs should have the support of a majority of their constituents and those, such as Mr Jenkin, who believe they only need that of the largest minority.

Mr Jenkin also implies that AV benefits the BNP, when instead the Alternative Vote would actually make it harder for the BNP to win, because they would have to persuade 50% of voters in a constituency to vote for them. That is why Nick Griffin and the BNP agree with No campaigners and support First Past the Post and oppose AV.

Jenkin Myth:It looks as if it [AV] would increase the number of Lib-Dem MPs, so then they would capture another hung parliament and could then force yet another change to the voting system”.

Truth: Bernard Jenkin’s own Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Lord Ashcroft, does not agree. His research carried out just last month shows that at the moment the Lib Dems would actually do better under First Past The Post and that the Conservatives would do better under AV. Whichever research is right however does not change the central point: it is not the Liberal Democrats deciding on whether to change the electoral system, it will be the voters in a referendum.

Jenkin:Whatever the outcome, a “yes” vote next year would be a leap into the unknown. The real question is, why abandon the system that is tried and tested, where each vote is of equal value, which has done the UK well for about 300 years, which remains the most widely used system in the world, and under which the most popular candidate wins?

Truth: First Past the Post in single member seats has not served the United Kingdom well and certainly not for 300 years, since it only came in for all seats in the House of Commons in 1950.

First, each vote does not have equal value under FPTP. Currently an MP can win a seat in the House of Commons with as many as 74% of their constituents voting for other people.

Secondly, FPTP allows MPs jobs for life. Since 1945, nearly a third of parliamentary seats have never changed hands (e.g. from party x to party y) and only 50% have done so since 1970.

Finally, since 1993 nine countries have moved away from first past the post and only one has adopted it.

Jenkin Myth:The real democratic advantage of the present system is that the British people can remove a government they no longer want. The House of Commons is not merely a representative assembly. It also chooses the government”.

Truth: if you ask Australian voters, (I’m married to one) they will tell you that their system does that too. The last Australian Conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, was not only kicked out of government by voters, he was kicked out of parliament too.

Jenkin Myth: "No serious democracy would hold a national referendum on a major constitutional issue on the same day as other elections. Can you imagine Switzerland voting on whether to join the UN with other elections going on at the same time?"

Truth: Nice argument - if it were true. Switzerland does hold referendums on the same day as other elections. In fact, according to The Electoral Knowledge Network, an organisation supported by a number of UN agencies, there are “quite a few developed and developing countries all over the world that have held referendums at the same time as national elections – examples range from the US to Uruguay, Armenia, Taiwan, Slovakia and the Cook Islands to only mention a few.”

I still hope we can have a referendum where voters decide on the basis of the arguments and facts, but I fear that Bernard Jenkin’s article is an indication from the ‘No’ camp that instead we are going to get half truths, smears and a deliberate attempt to confuse the public.

Read more about the AV referendum in OurKingdom's Referendum Plus section.

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