18 Apr 2011

Political heavyweights do battle over AV vote

Former home secretaries John Reid and Alan Johnson go head-to-head on Channel 4 News ahead of the referendum on AV, as an expert panel analyses the “Yes” and “No” campaigns.

Alan Johnson and John Reid have done battle over Alternative Vote (AV) on Channel 4 News, with Lord Reid calling the attempt to modernise the UK’s voting system a “miserable little compromise by Nick Clegg“.

The ex Labour ministers are lined up on opposite sides of the debate, with Mr Johnson campaigning for the “Yes” vote, Lord Reid campaigning for “No”.

Lord Reid attacked a system that could potentially produce repeat hung parliaments.

He explained: “All of the facts and evidence shows that in the last four elections we would have had a hung parliament – which, as David Cameron said this morning, would mean politicans made promises before the election – but after the election had the excuse that they weren’t a full government, in order to avoid the very pledges they made to get votes in the first place.”

But Mr Johnson hit back saying: “Well they haven’t got [First Past The Post] in Australia, New Zealand or South Africa…. Eastern Europe and South America.

“This nonsense argument equating one member one vote with FPTP is ludicrous. It’s not just imperfect, it’s wholly inadequate.”

He also said: “This is not about which party gets advantage, it’s about empowering the electorate.”

Gutter talk

After an AV referendum campaign described as getting “down in the gutter and slinging mud at each other”, Paul Bickley, senior researcher at public theology think tank Theos, told Channel 4 News: “Today’s events were fine, but still the whole conversation has suffered from exaggeration.”

“Both campaigns are trying to create interest by using exaggeration and hyperbole and over-egg the extent change would make… FPTP and AV are close cousins, if not siblings, and in some senses a change would not make that much of a difference.”

Mr Bickley, co-author of a Theos report which aims to guide referendum voters through the murky waters of the AV debate, highlights the importance of voters being able to put discussions of reform “in context”, something which has not been facilitated by “the very technical conversation that has been taking place”.

AV referendum: ballot box ready for 5 May vote. (Getty)

Mud, however, sometimes sticks, and some fear this will lead to votes being cast to punish government rather than express genuine opinion on electoral reform – an issue Ed Miliband tackled in his speech earlier. While the official line of the Fabian Society is “complete neutrality”, General Secretary Sunder Katwala has written in a personal capacity for LabourList on this issue, warning against “expressing a view about the government of the day” at the ballot box.

A no vote to punish Clegg will be a yes vote to George Osborne’s plans for his 2015 election campaign. Sunder Katwala

“There is no simple way to vote against the coalition in this referendum,” Mr Katwala warned. “A no vote to punish Clegg and the Liberal Democrats will be a yes vote to George Osborne’s plans for his 2015 election campaign… George Osborne is not just chancellor but Tory election strategist too – and a No vote on AV is a crucial part of his plan for a majority in 2015.”

Voter promiscuity

The Institute for Public Policy Research, in a report published on Monday, claims that the Alternative Vote (AV) system would suite the British electorate better than First Past the Post “because voters have become more ‘promiscuous’ and less tribal in the way they vote.”

“Voters are happy to express more than one preference when they cast their ballots and most people are prepared to express three preferences,” the report says.

Nick Pearce, Director of IPPR, said: “AV is not a proportional system and it will not increase voter turnout but it is a better system than First Past the Post at reflecting the pluralism of the modern electorate. There is no such thing as a perfect electoral system but AV will make politics more competitive and make politicians appeal for votes from a wider section of society.

The report also argues that the “biggest driver of hung parliaments is not the electoral system but voting behaviour, and concludes that hung parliaments are here to stay, whether elections are held under AV or FPTP.”

Joe Cox, Campaigns Organiser for Compass told Channel 4 News that the Conservatives have a vested interest in sticking with FPTP: “The NO2AV campaign is 99 per cent funded by Tories and run by the Taxpayers Alliance because they have a vested interest in keeping First Past the Post; first past the post has helped to deliver Conservative government for the majority of the last hundred years, despite a majority voting for progressive parties.

“The right are happy that the votes of a few swing voters have a stranglehold on our politics because it is on their agenda. This referendum could start to break their stranglehold on power and help deliver more progressive government, that’s why they are fighting tooth and nail.”

And, reflecting Vince Cable‘s comparison of AV with public voting on Strictly Come Dancing today, Mr Cox said: “AV is not costly, the cost of the referendum remains the same whatever the result. It is also particularly offensive to suggest that voters lack the intelligence to rank candidates in order of preference. To use a well worn adage, it is a simple as 1,2,3.”

Both campaigns are trying to create interest by using exaggeration and hyperbole. Paul Bickley

However, on the subject of safe seats, Fabian Richter, in a report for The Centre for Policy Studies, argues that the case for electoral reform is “evaporating”. The report, which analyses the extent of safe seats, challenges the claim made in favour of AV that millions of voters are disenfranchised by the current system.

Mr Richter says: “85 per cent of seats, representing approximately 39 million voters in the UK today, are either marginal or give voters at least a reasonable chance of changing their Member of Parliament.”

He argues that: “As many as a quarter of those seats which are considered to be “safe” have in fact changed hands over the last 30 years.”