Cameron’s hopeless case against AV

A point-by-point rebuttal of the Tory leader’s speech against electoral reform.

David Cameron's speech against electoral reform performed a valuable service by highlighting how weak the arguments against AV (and for FPTP) are. Here's my point-by-point rebuttal.

1. AV is disproportional

The evidence shows that AV would have produced even larger Labour landslides between 1997 and 2005 . . . and larger Conservative ones in the 1980s.

Cameron is right. In a landslide situation, such as 1983 or 1997, AV does increase the winning party's majority as second-preference votes tend to follow first-preference votes. A fully proportional system is more desirable. But this is not as strong an argument against AV as some opponents suggest.

The system is designed to ensure that the government elected has the broad support of the majority of the population. Labour would have won more seats in 1997, 2001 and 2005, as Lib Dem voters preferred them to the Tories. Unlike under first-past-the-post (FPTP), it is not possible for a government with minority support to win a large majority.

In any case, the logical conclusion of Cameron's argument is to support proportional representation, not FPTP.

2. AV is too complex

I don't think we should replace a system that everyone gets with one that's only understood by a handful of elites.

How stupid does he think the electorate is? The fact is, millions of people already use the system. AV is commonly used for internal elections in businesses and trade unions, for most student union elections, for many American mayoral and district elections, and for Labour and Lib Dem leadership elections. In practice, no one has ever complained that the system is too complex.

3. AV means that some people get two votes

[I]f you vote for a fringe party [that] gets knocked out, your other preferences will be counted. In other words, you get another bite of the cherry.

What's wrong with taking second preferences into account? Cameron uses the example of the "BNP or Monster Raving Loony Party" voter who gets "another bite of the cherry". But what about the Tory supporter who wants to vote for their party in a Labour-Lib Dem marginal? Under AV, they can vote for the Conservatives without fear of enabling a Labour victory (by putting the Lib Dems as their second preference). But FPTP means they must either take this risk or hold their nose and vote for the lesser evil. AV would dramatically reduce the need for the depressing act of tactical voting.

4. Only three countries use it

Only three countries use AV for national elections: Fiji, Australia and Papua New Guinea.

But this fact has no bearing on the intrinsic value of the system. As John Rentoul has argued, this is "akin to saying that we shouldn't have an NHS because other countries don't".

5. AV means more hung parliaments

Hung parliaments could become commonplace.

Having complained that AV will lead to more disproportional outcomes, Cameron now warns that it will lead to more hung parliaments. He can't have it both ways. But that glaring inconsistency aside, he's wrong about hung parliaments. Australia uses AV and has returned one hung parliament in 38 elections. Conversely, FPTP in Britain delivered hung parliaments last year, in 1974, in 1923 and 1929 and twice in 1910.

Ultimately, whether or not AV results in a hung parliament (or a one-party majority of 200+) depends on the will of the voters. It's called democracy. Is Cameron opposed to this?

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.