The case for AV

This article is taken from Litmus newspaper. Download the Litmus PDF for free from

The 1997 manifesto was precisely worded. The incoming government was only “committed to” a referendum on the voting system while the removal of hereditary peers was a mere step on the route to a “more democratic and representative” House of Lords.

Then, as now, an electoral system ill suited to multiparty politics was in use for the Commons, and no legislator in the Lords (aside, perversely, from the 90 remaining hereditary peers) has faced an election.

Failure to deliver the two reforms was caused primarily by a lack of consensus on what new system to adopt. The status quo was always more appealing than a step into the unknown. Thanks to the Labour party’s return to the issue during Gordon Brown’s tenure as Prime Minister there is now an off-the-shelf solution for both electoral and Lords’ reform, which the Lib Dems in government wish to deliver.

A move from First-Past-The-Post to the Alternative Vote has three principle attractions. All are achieved without losing the constituency link, which opponents of proportional representation cherish.

First, voters are able to vote for whomever they wish. Never again should a letter come through the door of a Labour supporter in Tatton or Newbury informing them that their vote is a wasted one. Even if the Labour candidate has no chance of winning the seat, supporters can place a ‘1’ against their name, thus registering their true support in the constituencies but knowing that they can still keep out the party they like least.

Second, AV encourages more pluralism. As Fabian Society General Secretary, Sunder Katwala has reflected, “Our current electoral system creates incentives for much exaggerated hostilities between those who you are ideologically closest to. Try talk to Lib Dems and Greens about each other, especially if there is a by-election on! But politics, like society, is becoming more plural, but the electoral incentives are against this. Preferential voting [like AV] changes this.”

Third, it is harder for extremists to gain parliamentary representation. While low turnouts or a 3-way contest risk electing members of the BNP under FPTP, their chances are considerably reduced under AV as voters of mainstream parties all combine to vote against them.

Opponents who like to point out that only one other major democracy – Australia – uses AV fail to recall that variations of this system are good enough for the leadership contests of all three parties as well as for London mayor. It is also wrong to claim that AV exaggerates majorities. It would have done so in 1997 but in other instances, 1987 and 2001 for example, it would have reduced majorities. In any event, these “predictions” assume that voter behaviour would remain unchanged, which is doubtful.

A wholly elected House of Lords must be vastly preferential to the current system. It cannot be right in a democracy for the whole of the second chamber to be appointed. Yes, the traditional untrammelled power of party leaders to appoint has been modified by a separate system for cross-benchers. But the chamber still lacks a fundamental legitimacy.

An elected second chamber would put in place legislators who owe their position to voters rather than party bosses. The Coalition’s approval of “single long terms of office” – similar to Labour’s proposals – will encourage independence of thought once elected.

But it will be crucial in the legislation for the new second chamber that the relative power of Commons over Lords is set out with the former’s exclusive rights over public spending explicitly outlined on the face of the Act.

The principled arguments for these constitutional reforms are clear. But given that the Parliamentary Labour Party is by all accounts split 50/50 on AV versus FPTP and that Labour voters are needed to pass a ‘Yes’ vote, the Liberal Democrats have risked jeopardising the prospects of electoral reform through the attachment of so-called “reduce and equalise” boundary reforms to the Parliamentary legislation.

Nonetheless, Labour should not allow its understandable objections to the abolition of local inquiries and special fixes for Lib Dem seats in the north of Scotland to get in the way of support for a ‘Yes’ vote if a referendum takes place. Taking the progressive stance will also help attract wavering Lib Dem voters.

Despite being seriously wrong on the pace of spending cuts and their Parliamentary tactics, the Lib Dems are right on these constitutional reforms which will improve British politics for the better. The Labour party should put principle above short-term political advantage.

Litmus is a special publication from, and in which leading thinkers from across the political spectrum address six key questions facing Britain today.

The Labour YES! Reception takes place tonight in the Obsidian Bar, Arora Hotel, Princess Street, Manchester.

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9 Responses to “The case for AV”

  1. Eddy Anderson

    Nice post. My one fear with the AV referendum though is that it’s obscuring some pretty messed-up boundary changes–something Ed Balls has brought up a lot. Anyone know if the current legislation is likely to change on this issue?

  2. Andy White

    Great article.

    @Eddy The current legislation is somewhat flawed – I’d like to see constituency equalisation based on census data rather than the electoral register. This would remove the anti-Labour bias.

    However, it’s important for Labour supporters to recognise that this referendum will NOT affect the boundaries legislation – that is happening regardless of the result. Labour supporters should still vote ‘Yes’ to AV, even if we’re unhappy with “reduce and equalise”.

  3. Nick Sutton

    RT @leftfootfwd: The case for AV >> Hope Lab get behind the Yes campaign.

  4. Mr. Sensible

    Will, am unsure on changing the voting system; AV is better than something like STV since it retains the link between MPs and constituencies.

    But we most oppose the Con Dems’ gerrymandering of constituencies.

    But I certainly am not in favour of an elected lords.

    I don’t really see how such can be independent when parties are increasingly involved.

  5. Billy Blofeld

    I enjoyed the voting system that Labour used to pick Dannii rather than Kylie Minogue this week.

    We could achieve the same effect if we rolled it out across the whole nation…….

  6. Mr. Sensible

    I of course meant must, not most.


  7. dave thawley

    I think the article is great. There are quite a few people that I know who still think the referendum has something to do with boundary changes when in fact it does not. Its just the route to get the referendum agreed has been lumped with the boundary changes. There is more in it for us (the majority of the population) who are centre-left of centre than those who are right of centre. Even forgetting this though, AV is just a better way of doing things. Its not PR (which I would prefer) but it is fairer than FPTP. Its great to see Ed continuing his pre-election stance on pushing this for us. Thank you Ed.

  8. peter facey really good article by Will Straw on AV. #fairervotes #yes2av #takeitback

  9. Ben Cadwallader

    RT @PJfacey: really good article by Will Straw on AV. #fairervotes #yes2av #takeitback

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