Red and wrong: Labour No to AV’s dubious claims

Dr Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, takes apart the arguments against AV used by some in the Labour party.

By Dr Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos, Senior Lecturer in Politics, Birkbeck College, University of London

The Labour opponents of the Alternative Vote propagate several dubious – at best – arguments that deserve to be answered head-on.

“Keep one person, one vote” they claim, but where is the equality in a system – such as the current one – that awards a parliamentary seat to a candidate whose opponents outnumber their supporters.

Their slogan amounts to little more than hypocrisy when it comes from supporters (and even MPs) of a party that gives more than one vote to some of those who elect its leader.

More importantly, what is wrong with having the support of an absolute majority (as opposed to a mere plurality) of voters.

If the Labour opponents of AV genuinely care for equality of representation, they should be supporting a system that brings an end to artificially ‘safe’ seats where huge numbers of voters have little chance of affecting election results.

Some skillfully try to associate AV with the empowerment of ‘fringe candidates’ or even extreme parties like the BNP but fail to tell us why voters would choose these candidates if their concerns had been successfully addressed by mainstream parties.

Ignoring the essence of the forthcoming referendum – i.e. the strict choice between the two options – some amongst them point out that AV is not a proportional system. While this is true, the Labour campaign against AV should use this argument only if they tell us (i) that they support proportional representation and (ii) precisely how they will bring about its introduction.

In addition, they argue that AV would be:

 “…taking power away from voters and allowing the Liberal Democrats to choose the government after each election.”

In reality, AV is much fairer than the current system because it enables voters to indicate – only to the extent that they wish to do so – the range of parties they are willing to support thus giving a steer to politicians when they conduct such negotiations, if the election leads to a hung parliament.

Indeed, the leaders of parties that conduct these negotiations would be far more constrained if they knew – along with the voters themselves – the full range of preferences of the voters who supported them; thus preventing unpopular coalitions.

Some also claim that electoral reform is not amongst the issues that are ‘raised on the doorstep’. I wonder, was the regulation of the financial services industry – i.e. the industry that has been allowed to wreak financial and economic havoc in this country and beyond – ever raised at the doorstep until 2008?

True to the pluralitarian logic of the system that they support, they claim that 2.4 billion people use it; however, this does not make it fair. If – as John Healey implies – AV ought to be rejected because it is only used in three countries, what exactly is Labour willing to do in order to introduce PR; which is used (in one form or another) by the vast majority of European countries?

Citing the Sun, Labour opponents of AV claim to have demonstrated that the introduction of AV will cost £250 million – including £13om on counting machines – when these machines are not needed, as the long Australian experience demonstrates. Moreover, as Channel 4’s FactCheck pointed out,

“no one – not the Treasury, not the Cabinet Office and not the Electoral Commission – is seriously thinking about bringing in electronic voting. So the main claim of the No to AV camp, that voting machines will add an extra £130m to the bill for an AV election, still looks decidedly dodgy.”

Nevertheless, even if the overall figure were accurate, it would certainly be justified, even in an era of austerity. After all, the gradual expansion of voting rights has made the electoral process more expensive to run but who would oppose this development on grounds of cost.

Given that symbols matter, they consistently link (the now much less popular) Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats with AV but fail to acknowledge that they themselves have de facto joined forces with David Cameron, George Osborne and the Murdoch-owned Sun in support of the current electoral system.

Despite notable exceptions including Ed Miliband, the small groups that run the two main political parties do not want power to be dispersed. Rather, they want it to remain concentrated in a handful of people. AV can help ordinary citizens shape political outcomes to a much greater extent than the current system would ever allow them to do. This is why it is a step in the right direction.

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