AV: A bigger and better change than people think

By voting Yes in the referendum on AV on 5 May 2011, the British public will be voting to give themselves a voice. AV isn’t just a slight tweak to the way we count votes. It’s an opportunity to make a truly historic leap towards real and effective democracy.

Our guest writer is Andy White, research analyst, Electoral Reform Society

Nick Clegg yesterday confirmed a date – 5 May 2011 – for a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV). Since the Coalition agreed to a referendum on AV, we in the Electoral Reform Society research office have been inundated with queries from sitting MPs. More often than not, they’re after projections of how AV might have affected the most recent general election. In short, they’re worried about how a switch to AV will affect their chances of holding onto a seat in 2015.

Some of them have every reason to be fearful: AV means that all MPs need 50 per cent support in their constituencies, and only a third of the current cohort of MPs command such levels of support. Many MPs are also concerned that AV will negatively impact upon their party. But there is a problem with trying to understand voting reform in this way.

For too long, the different options have been outlined in crude party political terms. So the Conservatives favoured First Past the Post, the Lib Dems were passionate about proportional representation, and Labour were divided about what would work best for them.

The AV referendum is a chance to rethink the debate. Nobody is sure which parties will get the most out of it (although we can state with some certainty that the BNP will struggle). British politics is now characterised by an unusual inter-party dynamic: the Lib-Cons in Westminster, an SNP minority government in Holyrood, and a Labour-Plaid coalition in Wales.

It is extremely hard to predict how voters will use their second and third preferences – the crucial votes needed to push candidates over the winning mark. This is a marked difference from the mid-nineties, when the Jenkins Commission concluded that AV was “unacceptably unfair to the Conservatives”. Back then, the anti-Tory vote was so strong that most voters would happily have written “1” next to a Labour candidate and “2” next to a Lib Dem, or vice versa.

Now, though, several parties have had a taste of government. The party system is fractured, and the parties themselves look fragile. Will Lib Dem voters reward the Conservatives for working with them in government? Do left-leaning voters who opted to vote tactically for Lib Dem candidates feel betrayed? How will things pan out in Scotland and Wales, where the nationalist parties enter the fray?

These questions are difficult to answer, hence the dithering on this issue from the Conservative and Labour leaderships. And therein lies the beauty. The great opportunity that AV offers is for the people not the politicians. MPs will no longer be able to depend on a minority of diehard supporters in their constituencies. They’ll need to build consensus across the community, attracting second-preference votes from supporters of other parties. This much is obvious.

But what nobody has really picked up on is the effect the newness and unpredictability of AV will have on British election campaigns and party manifestos. In recent years, we have become accustomed to highly sophisticated election campaigns from the richest parties, exemplified by Lord Ashcroft’s Tory strategy at this year’s election. Millions of pounds are funnelled into a small number of key constituencies, where the latest marketing techniques are used to attract the swing voters who decide the election.

AV won’t make “safe” or “marginal” seats extinct, but, crucially, the battleground seats will be much harder to identify. The parties’ well-oiled campaign machines will be forced to broaden their range of targets for fear of being ambushed in previously secure seats. Sure, the Tories won’t have to worry about Windsor or Tunbridge Wells, but current strongholds like Bournemouth, Canterbury, and Chelmsford will suddenly seem a bit too risky to ignore.

By voting Yes in the referendum on AV on 5 May 2011, the British public will be voting to give themselves a voice. AV isn’t just a slight tweak to the way we count votes. It’s an opportunity to make a truly historic leap towards real and effective democracy.

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