The New Statesman endorses the Alternative Vote

Why you should vote Yes to AV on 5 May.

In this week's Easter double issue (out today in London and the rest of the country tomorrow), the New Statesman endorses the Alternative Vote (AV). We argue that AV, though not a proportional system, would represent a significant improvement on first-past-the-post. Here, for Staggers readers, is this week's leading article in full.

Were one founding a new democracy, it is unthinkable that first-past-the-post (FPTP) would be adopted as the electoral system. It penalises small parties, wastes votes and encourages politicians to concentrate their policies on swing voters in marginal seats. FPTP might have been tolerable in 1955, when Labour and the Conservatives won 96 per cent of the vote and 99 per cent of the seats. But it is unfit for a three-party era in which political loyalties are more fluid. In the last election, Labour and the Tories won just 65 per cent of the vote but ended up with 87 per cent of the MPs. It was with good reason that post-apartheid South Africa, the former eastern bloc countries and the young democracies of Latin America all chose to adopt proportional models of voting, rather than FPTP.

On 5 May, for the first time ever, the British people will have a chance to reject FPTP and replace it with the Alternative Vote (AV). AV is not the system that we would have chosen. In some circumstances, it can lead to even more disproportional outcomes than FPTP. As the Jenkins commission on electoral reform noted, had the 1997 election been held under AV, Labour's majority would have swelled from 179 to 245. A genuinely proportional system, of the kind we support, remains the more desirable option.

But AV would represent a significant improvement on FPTP. It would lead to fewer wasted votes, greatly reduce the need for tactical voting and ensure that most MPs are elected with at least 50 per cent of the vote in their constituency. By requiring candidates to win second-preference votes, it would also encourage the parties to engage with all voters. The adoption of AV would enable the creation of a more pluralistic political culture, in which parties emphasise their similarities, rather than merely their differences.

The relentlessly negative approach of the No to AV campaign has only highlighted the paucity of the arguments for FPTP. In their desperation to preserve the status quo, the opponents of reform have claimed that AV would benefit the British National Party, that it would be "too expensive" and that it would prove to be too "confusing" for the electorate. In reality, no system is better at keeping extremists out; AV would not require expensive voting machines; and a system that is already widely used by businesses, charities and trade unions would not prove too complex for the electorate.

AV is not a panacea and, taken alone, it will not repair Britain's broken democracy. Reform of the voting system must be combined with the creation of a fully elected second chamber and the introduction of a written constitution. An increase in the number of directly elected mayors, as Andrew Adonis writes on page 74, is another measure that could address the democratic deficit. But it would be careless to miss an opportunity to reject the voting system that has done so much to discredit the UK's political system.

Those such as the former Social Democratic Party leader David Owen who have argued for a No vote in the hope of securing a more proportional system in the future are playing a dangerous game. As the Chancellor, George Osborne, has said, a No vote on 5 May would close the question of electoral reform "for the foreseeable future".

Not only would FPTP be preserved but it would be strengthened by a victory for the No campaign. A Yes vote, by contrast, would increase the possibility of a subsequent transition to proportional representation (PR). The claim that there is no appetite among the public for reform will have been exposed as a myth.

If the next election results in a hung parliament, the Liberal Democrats will no doubt demand a referendum on PR as the condition of any coalition. But that is a battle for another day. For now, the priority is to deliver a death blow to the unfair, undemocratic and unrepresentative FPTP system. It is for this reason that we encourage progressives of all parties to vote Yes to AV on 5 May.

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.