NEW POLL: should the Lib Dems support AV?

by Stephen Tall on June 10, 2009

For a brief moment last night, it sounded as if the Prime Minister was at last going to seize the reform agenda, and perhaps even promise a referendum on voting reform. The reality is, as so often with Labour, more disappointing than that:

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said he has “no plans” for a referendum on changes to the electoral system before the next general election. … he told prime minister’s questions he had “never supported proportional representation for Westminster elections” and ruled out a referendum.

Labour’s brief flirtation with electoral reform appears to have centred around adopting the Alternative Vote, a non-proportional system of preferential voting which retains MPs’ constituency links while ensuring all elected MPs have the support of more than 50% of their voters. The Lib Dems, of course, favour the single transferable vote (STV) in multi-member constituencies, the purest form of proportional voting which ensures elected representation in accordance with the preference of voters.

Now to start debating the system of PR before the principle of PR is actually on the table is all a little bit arse-about-face. Before we know it the People’s Front of AV+ will be at the throats of the People’s Front of STV (“Splitters!”), while the united forces of First-Past-the-Post gaze on with amusement from the sidelines.

This is one reason why (as James Graham has pointed out) the Electoral Reform Society’s Referendum 2010 campaign and Unlock Democracy’s Citizens’ Convention campaign have both called for voters – rather than the politicians – to be given the power to decide what should happen next with our electoral system.

But, still, this morning’s mini-debate about the pros and cons of the Alternative Vote showed there is no settled opinion within the Lib Dems to the invidious – but perhaps one day inevitable – question, “Should Lib Dems back AV if it’s the only option for voting reform?” As Jonathan Calder noted on his Liberal England blog, the party declined even to debate the issue on BBC2’s The Daily Politics.

Two noted Lib Dem bloggers have this morning put forward their own arguments for the party accepting and rejecting the Alternative Vote. First, here’s James Oates on his Cicero’s Songs blog arguing against supporting AV or any of its variants:

Despite the temptation of our own sectional party interest probably being boosted by adopting AV+, the Liberal Democrats must resist that temptation. A half baked reform is worse than no reform at all. We must take our case to the wider country- which is only now beginning to see how “safe seats” and embedded party interest has corrupted MPs and destroyed the power of the House of Commons to the benefit of the office of Prime Minister.

If we are to be true to our principles and our country we must tell Gordon Brown that he has no mandate for reform, and that the only way that he can get one is to go to the country. During that election the Liberal Democrats can put forward their more thought-out and integrated programme for reform against the gimmickry of the Conservatives and the self interest of Labour.

And here’s Joe Otten on his Extra Bold blog arguing that AV would be brilliant:

Not so brilliant for the Lib Dems, but good for democracy. Not as good as STV of course, but let’s face it, what is? First Past the Post is the cornerstone of the brokenness of our politics. It has the power to subvert all your campaigning efforts for a good cause, making that cause weaker instead of stronger. …

AV fixes all this. It lets you stand and campaign for what you believe in without damaging the causes you support. It lets you vote for what you believe in without having to second guess what the result will be and support the lesser evil. Sure, it’s not proportional. That stinks. But proportionality is not the only important feature of an electoral system. If it were we would support list systems rather than STV. And this is the worst time of all to hold a referendum on a proportional system, when the BNP have just won seats.

And now to turn the question over to you, LDV’s readers – “Should Lib Dems back the Alternative Vote in a referendum if it’s the only option for voting reform?” Here are your options:

  • Yes, it’s better than first-past-the-post
  • No, we should hold out for a truly proportional system
  • No, we should stick with first-past-the-post
  • Other [please state in comments]
  • Over to you…

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    No comments

    Are you asking about AV on its own or AV+?

    There is a world of difference between the two.

    by Chris Keating on June 10, 2009 at 2:27 pm. Reply #

    He ruled out a referendum before the general election – not completely. That holds open the door for a referendumon the same day as the GE or for one to be scheduled now for after the general election.

    “Cameron: “Let’s be clear about what you seem to be considering. We are in the fifth and final year of a Parliament. There have been reports that a referendum on electoral reform is being considered for before the General Election.

    “Can you confirm those reports. Is that something you are considering?”

    Mr Brown said: “There are no plans for that.”

    http://www.theherald.co.uk/news/news/display.var.2513584.0.Brown_no_plans_for_referendum_on_voting_reform.php

    by Paul Walter on June 10, 2009 at 2:51 pm. Reply #

    It’s unclear which GB is proposing: he flat out rejected PR for Westminster in PMQs, but then backtracked and explained that AV had been the system recommended by the Jenkins commision to both keep broadly existing boundaries and keep out the BNP – where it actually recommended AV+ with it’s proportional regional top-up.

    I think we should hold out for a truly proportional outcome. I believe in STV but Clegg has already conceded to AV+ in the Take Back Power campaign. Maybe AV will be the starter for real reform, or maybe we will lose vital support for propping up the government on this issue.

    by Robson on June 10, 2009 at 2:51 pm. Reply #

    A tough question, but I’m inclined to vote with Robson. I can stomach AV+, but Alternative Vote on its own will look like a cynical Labour attempt to rig the system in their favour. We cannot allow ourselves to be tainted with that.

    by Niklas Smith on June 10, 2009 at 3:06 pm. Reply #

    I don’t see how AV could be said to be a rig in Labour’s favour. Labour will be hammered by it, for the same reasons the Tories would have been in 1997. It is time for a change, they are discredited, and they won’t get many transfers.

    And can anyone explain to me how rejecting AV would make PR come about any sooner? There’s not going to be another chance under the Tories!

    by Joe Otten on June 10, 2009 at 3:13 pm. Reply #

    “the purest form of proportional voting”? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. STV’s decent but it’s far from perfect – it doesn’t give full proportionality and it’s not a Condorcet method. STV is popular because it’s very easy to understand, not because it gives ideal results.

    IRV (also called AV) is junk. It benefits the biggest party at the expense of the smaller ones, since the minority votes get redistributed to the big parties. It’s likely to give the Tories a majority at the expense of the BNP. This is *not* a good thing for Lib Dem, since our ideal would be to distribute the seats more among the smaller parties. AV+ would be marginally beneficial because we’d scoop up more seats on the proportional bit – AV is only good for Labour and the Tories.

    by Andrew Suffield on June 10, 2009 at 3:20 pm. Reply #

    Look, it’s not going to happen, so don’t waste time discussing it. Go for the french system; much more fun!

    by Martin Land on June 10, 2009 at 3:21 pm. Reply #

    Yes, people opposed to AV cant keep having the argument both ways. Either it is a cynical attempt by Labour to cling on to seats, or it is even less proportional than FPTP and will punish the losing party even more. It cant be both.

    Rejecting AV would mean no more PR chance for over a decade. You’d have to be daft to do that but there are plenty of daft people around.

    by Mark Wright on June 10, 2009 at 3:22 pm. Reply #

    I’ve vote in lots of Australian elections which has AV in its lower house (House of Representatives).

    There it works well in the sense that the conservative vote is split between the Liberal (a misnomer) Party and the National Party.

    The effect is that it does allow proper representation of mainstream parties, but does nothing for smaller parties.

    The Australian Democrats (a liberal democratic party that committed sepuku by going too far to the left) always had a hell of a time getting any seats at all in the House of Reps.

    The Senate (the upper house) is where things get more interesting where there is STV. Smaller parties, or even a single independent often have/has the balance of power.

    There are other nuances in the senate that don’t make it directly comparable to the UK situation, but STV can be both positive by keeping the incumbents honest and on a tight rein, or negative by frustrating the governments perceived mandate.

    In any case, IMO reform of the Commons is useless without reform of the Lords. For instance some Australianesque admixture of AV and STV across both houses could possibly work quite well here.

    by Wayne Lawrence on June 10, 2009 at 3:27 pm. Reply #

    @Joe Otten: the argument already being wheeled out by the Tories is that all Lib Dem voters and Labour voters would give each other their second preferences, so shutting out the Conservatives. It is inaccurate, but most Tories will believe it nonetheless. See this, for example. (Hat tip to Mike Smithson.)

    by Niklas Smith on June 10, 2009 at 3:29 pm. Reply #

    I’m a bit naive about AV, AV+ etc, but wouldn’t it be better to go for AV if that’s the only option? Surely that way we’d get a foot in the door of fairer representation and we could then go on to seek a better (fairer?) system after that. Don’t we need a ‘proportional’ number of MPs in order to be able to effect real change?

    by Roy Soulsby on June 10, 2009 at 3:40 pm. Reply #

    Yup, we should accept AV is that’s all that’s on the table. Once Cameron is in you can kiss goodbye to any reform:

    http://libcync.blogspot.com/2009/06/how-to-sell-electoral-reform-ditch.html

    by LibCync on June 10, 2009 at 3:46 pm. Reply #

    Mark: You are thinking this through wrong. Brown isn’t looking to introduce it before an election, so hes not looking to introducing a new system to save him- he is looking at trying to appear as a “reformer” to win votes. While having a system that would still allow labour majority governments to easily be formed in the future.

    AV is a bad system. Our party is often proportional- all the evidence shows AV is often worse that FPTP for that. We should stand against it. Win or lose, if there is a referendum on AV with Lib Dem support, no major party will discuss electoral reform again for a generation.

    by Tinter on June 10, 2009 at 3:51 pm. Reply #

    Surely the thing to remember for those who believe that AV will provide more proportional or fairer representation is that AV wont at all, in fact it could in some scenarios make disproportionalities even worse. AV’s only benefit is that being majoritarian in nature it adds legitimacy to governments and candidates who need a majority of votes to get elected either at the first round of counting or once preference transfers have taken place(although it can revert in all reality back to the first past the post system should no candidates get 50% even with transfers at any stage of the count with weaker candidates eliminated leading sometimes to the winner just needing a simple plurality).

    AV+ on the other hand ( which I suspect some are getting confused with AV) via the top up element does offer some proportionality albeit limited to the extent it could be almost negligible depending on the amount of top-up seats elected.

    I see little benefit for the LibDems in accepting AV, AV+ verges on being palatable and perhaps would be a better and more realistic compromise than pushing for STV knowing that should a referendum ever occur (which is unlikely in Brown’s remaining months and would never happen under Cameron)it would be so tightly managed by the labour and tory dinosaurs against PR that AV+ may have more chance in getting onto a ballot paper.

    In sum, we should push for STV and make the case much better than previous half hearted efforts by Lib Dem leaders whilst having the political acumen to accept AV+ as a compromise, not AV.

    by Adam Evans on June 10, 2009 at 3:56 pm. Reply #

    The poll misses the option “No, we want STV”

    by Duncan Borrowman on June 10, 2009 at 4:04 pm. Reply #

    @Niklas Smith

    the argument already being wheeled out by the Tories is that all Lib Dem voters and Labour voters would give each other their second preferences, so shutting out the Conservatives.

    Well this is an earth shattering admission coming from a Tory.

    Take the latest poll:
    Con 38
    Lab 22
    Lib Dem 20

    What this Tory is saying is that the voters prefer a Labour government to a Tory one, by 42 to 38. Also that the voters prefer a Lib Dem government to a Tory one, also by 42 to 38.

    So they are not the most popular party, they are not even second. Of course they should be shut out! It would be an utter disgrace for a system to give the third most popular party a working majority.

    (But as you say, the scenario isn’t true.)

    by Joe Otten on June 10, 2009 at 4:31 pm. Reply #

    Every time I watch the TV I get more and more annoyed.

    First we have Danny Alexander refusing to mention the term “STV”.

    Next have Andrew Marr saying that any discussions of different electoral systems will make the viewers switch off, and the Lib Dems refuse to even go on the programme.

    Then the BBC confuses AV with the systen used to elect the London Mayor.

    Then we have Ian Dale on the BBC implying that only FPTP retains the constituency link, and that “FPTP isn’t perfect, but nobody has come up with a better system”, without being challenged at all on that outrageous statement!

    If the media are going to items on electoral reform, why don’t they at least bother to inform themselves of what the arguments are?

    I’m so fed up with this backward country.

    by Another Mark on June 10, 2009 at 4:46 pm. Reply #

    There is not a magical rule that prevents us switching from AV to a better system down the road.

    The more important question is this – if the Lib Dems were capable of joining a coalition to run Britain after the next election, would we accept AV as part of that deal?

    by Huw Dawson on June 10, 2009 at 4:58 pm. Reply #

    Huw: Only if STV for local elections was also offered.

    by Mark Wright on June 10, 2009 at 5:08 pm. Reply #

    Any reform is better than no reform, as long as it isn’t necessarily the end of reform for another 50 years.

    by Lee Griffin on June 10, 2009 at 5:22 pm. Reply #

    STV not an option on the poll so I voted “Other”

    by Ian Ridley on June 10, 2009 at 5:37 pm. Reply #

    Unfortunately my feelings on electoral reform are more complicated than your FPTP poll. Could we not have an STV ballot on it instead?

    My choice:
    STV 1
    AV+ 2
    D’Hondt 3
    FPTP 4
    AV 5

    by Anders on June 10, 2009 at 6:01 pm. Reply #

    STV, STV, STV!

    larger multi-member constituencies. Most people live sub-regional lives and would appreciate the chance to have an MP to of their own persuasion to contact.

    and most importantly, power over the party machine without primaries.

    ONLY STV gives proportionality and power to the people. AV is not acceptable, it will only end up corralling voters into two party politics.

    Talk about turkeys voting for Christmas!

    by John Minard on June 10, 2009 at 7:06 pm. Reply #

    I understand all the arguments for the purity of STV, the proportionality of AV+ but for goodness sake let us have change from the discredited FPTP. If voting to have a referendum on changing our system for choosing our MPs recommending AV is all we can have then embrace it.

    by Roger Shade on June 10, 2009 at 7:18 pm. Reply #

    I’m with Duncan and the others: STV.

    Not because it’s proportional (is is only approximately so), but because it’s the only system that has been used in real national elections that GIVES THE VOTER REAL CHOICE.

    With all the talk about PR, people tend to forget that what REALLY matters is giving power to voters not to Party machines. As a counter-example look at last week’s Euro election: the first person on the list of the major parties is guaranteed a place, even if voters would prefer someone else. Unfortunately Britain chose to have closed lists, which are the worst form of a not very good voting method.

    Also, given that STV is the system officially supported by our Party, how come we have a poll on LDV that doesn’t even mention it??

    by David Wright on June 10, 2009 at 8:40 pm. Reply #

    “Not because it’s proportional (is is only approximately so), but because it’s the only system that has been used in real national elections that GIVES THE VOTER REAL CHOICE.”

    That’s not the case – open lists, such as in Finland or Sweden, allow the voter to order the party “list” in whatever order they choose (yes, the word ‘list’ looks evil, but when they’re open it just means ‘approved candidate’, such as we would have with STV)

    I have to admit, I’m not particularly sold on the merits of STV (or, for that matter just about any TLA voting system – my eyes glaze when enthusiasts start) – but am vaguely sold on the simplicity of FPTP runoff elections, such as in France, where the people have a cooloff period between the two rounds, allowing them to decide, for example based on how many constituencies were won outright, what size majority/minority they want to give parties (which AV would deny, being instant runoff).

    by Greg on June 10, 2009 at 9:19 pm. Reply #

    If Lib Dems will support AV or AV+, I wish that they would make absolutely clear that they would prefer STV, and are supporting AV(+) only as a transitional stage to STV and a lesser evil compared to the FPTP.

    by Hmmm on June 10, 2009 at 9:24 pm. Reply #

    If only I could write and article that covered ID Cards, Trident and PR, the whole site would collapse in terminal overload.

    by Martin Land on June 10, 2009 at 9:51 pm. Reply #

    All the technocrats and political-bubble insiders who have commented here are wrong, by definition.

    The PUBLIC must decide. Fortunately “Unlock Democracy” have realised that.

    There are big technical flaws with AV+.

    There are big technical flaws with STV.

    There are massive democratic flaws with FPTP, and with AV.

    At the moment, it is only the voting-system nerds (like me) who have really tried to get to grips with these issues. Most of us have plumped for a nerd-favourite system. Most of us are therefore wrong.

    The world should NOT be ruled by nerds!

    We should convene a citizens’ “grand jury”, and we should educate the (large) jury in much the same way as the criminal courts inform their juries. Then, when the jury has understood the merits and problems of all the systems, they should decide what it is that actually matters to them, and hence, what system they recommend that we should use.

    (And if they pick FPTP, because it is decisive and gives the smack of firm government, then we should all roll over and accept that. But I bet they won’t!)

    by David Allen on June 10, 2009 at 10:18 pm. Reply #

    We have to say no to AV because if 1 party has a big lead, it will get an even greater disproportionate majority in a general election. I thought it was telling the contribution from the Australian who pointed out the problems the Australian Democrats are having with it.
    That said it may be all rather academic since we know that Labour will lose the next general election.
    However I agree entirely with Anders;
    STV 1
    AV+ 2
    D’Hondt 3
    FPTP 4
    AV 5

    by Geoffrey Payne on June 10, 2009 at 11:27 pm. Reply #

    Unfortunately there’s no “I’d rather have AV than STV” option.

    I feel that preferential voting is more important than proportional representation, and having single-member constituencies is important for our system of Government.

    I’d probably rather have STV than FPTP, but theoretical musings about proportionality don’t sway me as much as knowing that I have one and only one representative in Parliament.

    by Dave Page on June 10, 2009 at 11:29 pm. Reply #

    Yes, AV is better than FPTP.

    (But not as good as AV+ or STV)

    by Cabalamat on June 11, 2009 at 12:59 am. Reply #

    Are there circumstances where I might find myself supporting AV? If there was no other option AND it was introduced at the same time as a second chamber elected on a proportional basis, yes.

    But at the moment, with Labour on the ropes, why do we need to talk about compromise? It makes no sense. They will either introduce it without our support now or need our support later – in which case the price will be higher.

    The instinct of a lot of Lib Dems does seem to be to play possum at the slightest provocation…

    by James Graham on June 11, 2009 at 1:53 am. Reply #

    Labour have ten months left in office. That is nowhere near enough time to pass a bill of this significance in circumstances where:
    i) It isn’t even drafted
    ii) For which no Parliamentary time has been allocated.
    iii) Which has no Prime Minsterial support

    by Hywel on June 11, 2009 at 10:23 am. Reply #

    Guys, come on, you’re still thinking inside a box!

    1. We have always assumed that constituencies should be geographic. This presumes that people who live in a town have more interest in the town than anything else. Perhaps LGBT citizens would choose to be part of a multi-member LGBT constituency. Perhaps LD members would prefer to be part of an LD constituency. Then, the number of members in each constituency would determine how many candidates were elected from that constituency, and STV would determine which ones were elected.

    2. We are assuming that persons would still be elected to a House of Commons and that the Executive would still be determined by a single Member of the Commons and drawn from such Members with the odd Lord thrown in. Why would we draw an Executive from a Legislature? Split the two! Have scrutiny of both!

    3. Er, that’s it.

    by Darren Reynolds on June 11, 2009 at 10:56 am. Reply #

    We should not be compromising on this issue. Our leadership, as I stated in a letter to Nick Clegg, should stick to its guns on STV and campaign to influence the public of its benefits.

    The time is right for a public debate and we should be leading it. Certainly from knocking on doors during the last set of elections, people were responsive to the idea that their vote could be worth more under a different voting system.

    by Gavin Webb on June 11, 2009 at 12:32 pm. Reply #

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