There is a clear and principled case against AV

Dylan Sharpe
28 October 2010

Dylan Sharpe, head of press for No2AV, responds to Andy May of Yes to fairer votes.

Andy, I enjoyed our debate at the NUS conference and I am glad that the train journey back gave you the chance to come up with some points you weren’t able to make during the meeting. But it’s a bit rich to accuse me of being 'spurious', 'deceptive' and 'attempting to sow confusion' before abbreviating my arguments to one line statements. The following is my response:

1. AV and the BNP

One of the facets of the Alternative Vote that the Yes side seem keen to stress is that AV allows everyone to vote for their first choice, confident that it will be counted even if - in the final tally - that choice isn't for one of the political parties that decides the seat. The natural progression from this argument is that you will see more people voting for parties that were previously on the fringe.

Now look at the results of the 2010 General Election. The BNP finished fifth with more votes than the SNP, Plaid Cymru and more than double the number of votes cast for the Green Party.

Ask yourself - if AV comes in, will that vote share go up or down?

2. The complexities of AV

We have no intention of insulting voters’ intelligence – and you shouldn’t do just that by trying to shut down the debate on the complexities of the voting system you’re trying to bring in. Numbering candidates ‘1, 2, 3’ may not be too confusing – but trying to work out the order in which candidates are likely to be eliminated, how to ensure your votes carry the most weight, and how the votes of other candidates will transfer are all more complicated. That’s why the political parties in Australia spend lots of time and energy working out the most tactical way for their supporters to vote – and then harangue voters with ‘How to Vote’ cards, essentially issuing instructions to voters. I don’t think that’s something British voters would be keen to see.

3. AV gives supporters of minor parties several votes, so extremists wield more political power

This is simple fact. If I vote for a Labour candidate in a seat in which Labour has a large share of the vote, I can rank every other candidate to my heart's content but those votes will never be counted. By contrast, if I vote for a fringe party that gets knocked out early, my second and third preferences can end up deciding the election.

Under those circumstances, the second and third preferences of fringe parties (some of whom may be moderate, some of whom may be extremists) become all-powerful, so candidates for the mainstream parties will have to pitch for them. Hence, under AV, the minor parties wield more power – both in the ballot box and on the stump.

4. Cross-party support for the No campaign

The Conservative Party are openly campaigning for a ‘No’ vote, so it’s no surprise that Conservatives were quick to get involved in the No campaign – nor are we trying to hide that.

But this is not a party-political campaign. We have spent the summer talking to people and groups across the political spectrum, building a coalition of people who are opposed to the obscure, complex and unloved system that is AV. Stay tuned to for announcements on the exciting people who will soon be joining the campaign.

And let’s not forget why we’re having this referendum in the first place: because the Liberal Democrats won it as a concession in return for their coalition with the Conservatives – while other things (like their tuition fees pledge) were cast aside.

The Yes Campaign was launched at the Liberal Democrat Conference, the vice-Chair was Nick Clegg's chief election strategist, the Yes campaign is being funded by the same organisation that funds the Lib Dems – and you, Andy, used to be a Lib Dem election agent.

Perhaps the Yes side could do with broadening its own base?

5. The Alternative Vote is a concession to the Lib Dems

See above for the first point, but I agree with you entirely when you say: 'The fact is that electoral reform is more fundamental than any political party’.

It is absolutely critical that the issue of electoral reform rises well above the level of party politics, which is exactly why I’m disappointed that we are having a referendum on a system about which not even the keenest electoral reformers had anything positive to say about before May this year. AV is a politician's fix – a ‘miserable little compromise’, to borrow a phrase – and a voting system that Roy Jenkins concluded would be even more 'unfair' and 'disproportional' than the current one.

You are right, there is 'cross party support for change' which is why so many electoral reformers are disappointed that groups like the Electoral Reform Society and Power 2010 have sold out on the first bit of meat to be thrown their way.

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