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The strange world of the AV campaign, and why it must be a Yes

It has been said that AV would be a “beautiful British compromise”. But for its combination of madness, naked lies and bile, the campaign surrounding it has seemed distinctly American. The Yes side, on which I sit, has been slightly dull. The Noes have been fascinating, not only for their outrageous campaigning methods, but for their surreal patchwork of supporters.
Oliver Huitson
1 May 2011

It has been said that AV would be a “beautiful British compromise”. But for its combination of madness, naked lies and bile, the campaign surrounding it has seemed distinctly American. The Yes side, on which I sit, has been slightly dull. The Noes have been fascinating, not only for their outrageous campaigning methods, but for their surreal patchwork of supporters.

The slip into the absurd began with NoToAV’s infamous poster campaign. A new born baby was held aloft, “She needs a maternity unit, not an alternative voting system”. It would be less pitiful if the No campaign wasn’t run, and funded, by the sort of people who have dreamt of dismantling the NHS for decades. As for the validity of the claim, it has none whatsoever. The £250m figure includes £80m for the referendum itself, regardless of outcome – the nation doesn’t get a refund for answering No. A further £130m is attributed to the cost of electronic voting machines – which there are no plans to use.

The gutter antics continued with Baroness Warsi’s claim that AV will help the BNP. Warsi, who has never been elected under any system, knows full well the BNP are supporting the No campaign – and with good reason; they will not benefit from AV. Warsi’s own election campaign ended in not only losing, but in being accused of homophobia by Stonewall. She followed this up two years later with comments that were widely condemned for playing up to supporters of… the BNP.

George Osborne’s contribution to debate was to call the Yes campaign’s financial arrangements “dodgy”. This from a man believed to be avoiding a potential £1.6m in tax on his inheritance, from a party funded by a billionaire tax exile, and in favour of a No campaign whose funding remains secret. An insight into the sort of people that might be funding NoToAV comes from the Institute of Economic Affairs. The right-wing lobby group warned last year that AV was “not a good way to elect Members of Parliament who will support radical free-market economic reforms”. For those on the left planning to vote No, this should give some pause for thought (Guy Aitchison covered the comments in full here).

Most bizarre of all has been the reasoning of some of those planning to vote No. Many full grown adults have said they will be voting No in what amounts to pulling a face at Nick Clegg. That’ll teach him. But when they’ve stopped sniggering and sat down, we will still have FPTP. And tuition fees. And Nick Clegg. Rather, the longest laugh would be from David Cameron. A No would hurt Clegg, undoubtedly, but a Yes would be a slap in the face to the entire political class and would leave the Tories reeling.

It is sometimes forgotten that there is no proportional option on the ticket, nor even visible on the horizon, yet there is a sizable herd operating on a “No to AV, yes to PR!” basis. It’s a tick box rather than free-style affair; you have just the two options. The idea that No will lead to a proportional system in either House is hard to understand.

For the Commons, firstly – a No will be held up as a sign of public support for FPTP, rather than an indifference to AV. As happened with Labour, any party that wins an election outright under FPTP has very little incentive to bring in PR. But coalitions are going to be more and more common under FPTP, regardless. In future, small parties negotiating for coalition will have a much stronger hand asking for a PR option if the AV vote goes through. Furthermore, AV+, as recommended by the Jenkins commission, is not an ideal form of PR but it is proportional nonetheless and would require minimal change from AV. Finally, I would just ask what scenario and timescales they are envisaging for this PR option – where is it going to come from after a No vote?

Others have suggested some form of proportional system for the Lords will be offered as a sweetener to the Lib Dems. Again, this seems unlikely, despite the rhetoric. Not only have the Establishment dragged their feet over elected Lords for a full century, but it would leave us in a constitutional mess. We would have a bicameral parliament in which our revising chamber had more popular legitimacy than our primary chamber. On what grounds could the Commons, elected under FPTP, force legislation through a proportional Lords? The upper chamber bends its knee precisely because it is not democratic. A newly legitimised Lords would terrorise the Executive and strike down vast swathes of legislation – and rightly so. Its powers to block rather than merely delay would surely have to be reinstated.

It is difficult to see a proportional Lords working with a Commons elected under FPTP; the Tories, like Labour before them, have no desire to give away power to the upper House. We cannot continue with an appointed chamber, it offends every principle of democracy. But we cannot have a revising chamber closer to the people than the primary. An elected Lords will come far easier from a Commons sitting on firm democratic foundations.

One final appeal – to Labour voters. Coalitions will become more common regardless of changes to the voting system, the public simply don’t vote like they use to. Some have said they see no reason to adopt a voting system that will weaken their own party once they return to power. To support such a manifestly undemocratic voting system for sectarian advantage is short-sighted. It may be tempting to hold on to the ‘elective dictatorship’ when it’s your turn on the throne, but the absolute power it affords brings out the worst in both parties. The Lib Dems, at grassroots, remain centre-left. The country, as a whole, remains centre-left. Clegg will go. There should be little to fear in future alliances, and a fairer voting system will always weaken the Tories.

Cameron offered the country a voting system nobody had asked for on the assumption they would reject it. The man who claims he wants to give “power back to the people” didn’t have the courage or principle for an open, multi-choice referendum. You can take his bait, vote No, and stand alongside the Tories, the BNP, the most reactionary elements of Labour, the Murdoch press and the free-marketeers. Or you can respond in the way that will hurt these groups most, that will empower the public most, that will greatly reduce tactical voting and safe-seats, and the one that brings a proportional, truly democratic voting system one step closer – Yes.

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