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.

Getty
Show Hide image

How Labour risks becoming a party without a country

Without establishing the role of Labour in modern Britain, the party is unlikely ever to govern again.

“In my time of dying, want nobody to mourn

All I want for you to do is take my body home”

- Blind Willie Johnson

The Conservative Party is preparing itself for a bloody civil war. Conservative MPs will tell anyone who wants to know (Labour MPs and journalists included) that there are 100 Conservative MPs sitting on letters calling for a leadership contest. When? Whenever they want to. This impending war has many reasons: ancient feuds, bad blood, personal spite and enmity, thwarted ambition, and of course, the European Union.

Fundamentally, at the heart of the Tory war over the European Union is the vexed question of ‘What is Britain’s place in the World?’ That this question remains unanswered a quarter of a century after it first decimated the Conservative Party is not a sign that the Party is incapable of answering the question, but that it has no settled view on what the correct answer should be.

The war persists because the truth is that there is no compromise solution. The two competing answers are binary opposites: internationalist or insular nationalist, co-habitation is an impossibility.

The Tories, in any event, are prepared to keep on asking this question, seemingly to the point of destruction. For the most part, Labour has answered this question: Britain will succeed as an outward looking, internationalist state. The equally important question facing the Labour Party is ‘What is the place of the Labour Party in modern Britain?’ Without answering this question, Labour is unlikely to govern ever again and in contrast to the Tories, Labour has so far refused to acknowledge that such a question is being asked of it by the people it was founded to serve. At its heart, this is a question about England and the rapidly changing nature of the United Kingdom.

In the wake of the 2016 elections, the approach that Labour needs to take with regard to the ‘English question’ is more important than ever before. With Scotland out of reach for at least a generation (assuming it remains within the United Kingdom) and with Labour’s share of the vote falling back in Wales in the face of strong challenges from Plaid Cymru and UKIP, Labour will need to rely upon winning vast swathes of England if we are to form a government in 2020.

In a new book published this week, Labour’s Identity Crisis, Tristram Hunt has brought together Labour MPs, activists and parliamentary candidates from the 2015 general election to explore the challenges facing Labour in England and how the party should address these, not purely as an electoral device, but as a matter of principle.

My contribution to the book was inspired by Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. The track list reads like the score for a musical tragedy based upon the Labour Party from 2010 onwards: In My Time of Dying, Trampled Underfoot, Sick Again, Ten Years Gone. 

Continued Labour introspection is increasingly tiresome for the political commentariat – even boring – and Labour’s Identity Crisis is a genuinely exciting attempt to swinge through this inertia. As well as exploring our most recent failure, the book attempts to chart the course towards the next Labour victory: political cartography at its most urgent.

This collection of essays represents an overdue effort to answer the question that the Party has sought to sidestep for too long.  In the run up to 2020, as the United Kingdom continues to atomise, the Labour Party must have an ambitious, compelling vision for England, or else risks becoming a party without a country.

Jamie Reed is Labour MP for Copeland.