Howard: “I don’t believe in the notion of a safe seat”

Today, The Daily Politics hosted a special debate on the Alternative Vote referendum, which takes place in just over four weeks' time, on Thursday, May 5th.

Today’s Daily Politics featured a debate on the Alternative Vote (AV), just over four weeks out from the referendum on May 5th, featuring four big beasts from the three main parties. Opposing AV were Michael Howard and John Prescott; arguing in favour of reform were Charles Kennedy and Tessa Jowell.

The debate demonstrated the extent to which the recurring myths surrounding AV remain strong and the extent the Yes campaign is still being hamstrung by Nick Clegg himself and his “miserable little compromise” gaffe.


However, the biggest gaffe of the debate came from Michael Howard, who said, quite incredibly:

“I don’t believe in the notion of a safe seat.”

Here are some other highlights of the debate:

After whipping out his pledge card, John Prescott, in his closing speech, said:

“First it will lead as in other countries to coalitions, hung parliaments and reducing the influence of the individual voter and eroding trust in government.

“The second reason is that AV makes manifesto commitments irrelevant by ignoring the election mandate from the public and letting a few politicians produce a coalition agreement that no one voted for, and finally the AV referendum is part of a coalition constitutional fix; by strengthening the Lords, weakening the commons, introducing a five year fixed term parliament, making it even harder to pass a vote of no confidence and the gerrymandering of the constituency boundaries.

“The loser is the voter. The only winner are the minority king makers like Nick Clegg. God help us.”

In a tactic that perhaps only he could pull off, Prescott uses the problems of the status quo to defend the status quo.

Despite this tour de force of counter-intuitive logic he is wrong on his main point, as Will Straw pointed out here:

“Hung parliaments are no more likely with AV. Australia, which uses AV, has had only two hung parliaments in 90 years compared to four over the same period in the UK.  Equally Canada which uses FPTP has had three successive hung parliaments since 2004.”

Tessa Jowell also refuted this point in the debate arguing UK elections would historically have produced no more hung parliaments under AV. However she had a hard time getting heard as her biggest opponent appeared to be Andrew Neil, the host; who clearly likes the sound of his own voice more than hers.

Michael Howard added:

“First it’s (AV) deeply unfair because some votes get counted more than others, secondly it’s perverse because the candidate who comes third or fourth can end up coming first and thirdly it’s a totally discredited and unpopular system used by only three countries in the whole world.”

Going on to say:

“What it would do is give those people whose first choice is the BNP much more influence in the outcome because they would be able to vote for the BNP first and then they would have their second and third preferences.”

Firstly everyone’s votes are counted in every round, the difference is people voting for minor parties have their vote re-allocated. The idea that some votes are counted more than others is plain wrong. As Will Straw has pointed out in the link above if you ask for Carling but get your second choice of John Smith’s you’ve still only had one pint.

In relation to the BNP and other extremists this argument has been refuted by Sunder Katwala here, pointing out AV is the most extremist proof system.

With regards the issue of how many other countries use AV, Charles Kennedy pointed out how odd it was to have to have to use the language of a Euro sceptic to argue against a Euro sceptic; but shouldn’t Britain decide what’s best for Britain.

Back to Michael Howard’s common sense-defying argument that AV wouldn’t create a broader politics with fewer safe seats, Left Foot Forward invites his successor as Conservative leader David Cameron to forsake Witney (Tory majority 22,740) and stand in Liverpool Riverside (Labour majority 14,173) at the next election, putting Howard’s theory to the test.

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