There is a clear and principled case for AV

Elliot Folan
30 October 2010

 Elliot Folan, a grassroots activist for Yes! To Fairer Votes, and a member of the Green Party of England and Wales, responds to Dylan Sharpe

I’m glad that Dylan Sharpe felt willing to respond to Andy’s piece recently on the Alternative Vote (AV); but his retorts to Andy’s points can be equally argued against. 

1. AV and the BNP - Why does the national vote matter?

As far as I can make out, Dylan hasn’t actually countered Andy’s point that the BNP wouldn’t win under AV; instead he’s simply responded by saying that, because AV eliminates tactical voting (which I’m pleased he’s noticed) people would be more likely to vote for parties “that were previously on the fringe”. 

I’d say this is good. My party, the Green Party, was previously on the fringe before our breakthrough into Parliament this May. AV would allow people to vote Green without worrying about wasted votes. And, yes, more people could vote for other fringe parties, like Respect, the Socialist Party, and the BNP. But does this mean they would always win?

To answer that question, I‘ll examine the vote share argument. Back before May and immediately afterward we had the debates about Proportional Representation, where national shares of the vote would be proportionally reflected in seats. If the BNP’s vote share went up nationally, as Dylan predicts it would, then under a national proportional system, such as Party Lists or the Additional Member’s System, it would be reflected in seats (and in the European elections, done by Party Lists, it was).

But we’re not discussing Proportional Representation - the Alternative Vote is a local, one-member one-seat system, rather than a national system And so we shouldn’t really concern ourselves about national vote shares, but local ones. And, by a local vote share, the BNP has only ever won by the surges that first-past-the-post (FPTP) creates. Peter Kellner, the President of YouGov, gave an excellent example of a BNP-style candidate in Australia, who would have won under FPTP, but “when second preferences were taken into account, she lost”.

2. Simplicity of AV

As someone who has actually been at street stalls for AV all over London over the last 6 months, from Barnet to Wimbledon and from Harrow to Islington, the argument that the voters will not understand AV simply does not stand up to the evidence. I accept Dylan’s point that the complexity argument is not about the numbering process but instead the count, and I am countering that point when I discuss it here.

Whenever I have been out on the streets, nearly every single person I have spoken to has, after an explanation of AV, gone “Oh, yeah. I understand that”. I must have spoken to a thousand people over the last 6 months, and from my memory only one has said he did not understand the system once it had been explained - that is, the concept of distribution, 50% thresholds, etc.

And no wonder - the idea that you can vote for who you like, rather than scrutinizing graphs, pie charts and bar charts all the way up to election day and than flipping a coin to decide how to cast your vote, is quite welcome after the Tactical General Election of 2010.

3. AV gives supporters of minority parties one vote, which is transferred if the candidates don’t win

If we’re talking facts, then this is simple fact. Not for nothing is AV’s proportional cousin called the “Single Transferable Vote”.

I’m pleased, again, that Dylan has noted that politicians from the main parties will have to appeal to voters’ second preferences. That’s the biggest advantage of AV. But appealing to second and third preferences doesn’t mean that you have to turn extremist. It just means you have to confront the issues that have been raised by those extremist parties: meaning that Labour and the Conservatives have to actually think about things like immigration properly. Now, for me as a Green that means ceasing to use immigration as a political issue to mask the fact that we don’t have enough social housing and so forth, and actually looking to solve the issues that cause people to migrate. But hey, let’s have the discussion. All that AV does is force parties to think things through. Is that a bad thing?

4. Cross-party support for the Yes campaign 

Dylan talks about spending the summer “building a coalition of people who are opposed” to fairer voting. Well, all I can say is that I spent the summer actually talking to the ordinary people of Britain, and the official Yes campaign spent the summer gathering support from people from all parties and none, even those never involved in politics before, and building up local groups all over the country, from Cardiff to Edinburgh, from Barnet to Birmingham. And these are not just fine words. In my local group there are people who have come out on the campaign trial purely for electoral reform.

But I will obviously await Dylan’s announcement of who supports his campaign, and look forward to seeing who has decided to range themselves against upgrading our electoral system.

But may I ask Dylan why it is that of all the leaders of his campaign announced so far, every single one has been a Conservative? 

I certainly question the idea that we’re run by Lib Dems. Our head of Communications, Paul Sinclair, is Labour, and a former advisor to Gordon Brown. Willie Sullivan, the head of our ground campaign, worked with Vote for a Change and is also Labour. Our director, John Sharkey, is a Liberal Democrat, and we have many other staff who are Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems. As to our supporters, some prominent ones include Paul Perrin, the UKIP candidate for Brighton and Hove in the election, and John Denham, Labour shadow secretary of state for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Support by Liberal Democrats is welcome, as they have always supported reform, but so also is support from Labour, the Greens and Conservatives. A truly cross-party group includes everyone.

The "Yes" Campaign was not actually launched at the Lib Dem conference. What was launched there was the Lib Dems’ support for the “Yes” Campaign. The official “Yes” Campaign will be rolled out fully next week during Bonfire night, as it is six months exactly before the referendum. But truly our campaign as been going ever since the referendum was announced, and our activists have been door-knocking, leafleting and setting up street stalls for months.

As to funding, if we’re going to talk money, then one must ask why the funding for the No campaign seems to come mainly from the Taxpayers’ Alliance, essentially a Conservative think-tank…

5. The Alternative Vote was proposed by Labour in the first place, not the Lib Dems

That the AV referendum is taking place is testament to the fact that several politicians can get together and do a grown-up coalition deal where the two sides both get things they want. In a personal capacity, I’m not a supporter of many things the Liberal-Conservative coalition is putting through (I will be joining an anti-fees and anti-cuts protest in two weeks’ time) but the coalition deal itself was sensible, and mature, and hopefully the sort of thing that will continue into the future, whether under first-past-the-post, AV, or proportional systems. 

Without a doubt AV was proposed by the Liberal Democrats, but who put the idea of AV into the mind of the generally Single Transferable Vote-supporting Lib Dems? It was the Labour Party, who welcomingly included a referendum in their election manifesto. So if there is anyone who inspired the referendum, it was Labour and not the Lib Dems.

The Alternative Vote is widely used in Britain - in Trade and Student Unions, in political parties and in workplaces The Electoral Reform Society considers it the best system “when you’re out to elect a single winner”. And to claim, as Dylan has, that many reformers are “disappointed” about AV, one must really be blind to the fact that majorities in the Electoral Reform Society, Unlock Democracy and Take Back Parliament voted in favour of backing AV.

Finally, if Dylan Sharpe is talking so much about “disproportionate” voting systems, one must ask: does he support proportional representation? If he does not, then why does proportionality so much? If he does not, why won't he say?

The answer, as Andy May told us before, is not known.


Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData