Why it is wrong to call for a NO vote on AV

The Tory-led, and heavily funded, campaign for a NO vote in the AV referendum appears to be winning the contest hands down. Cameron, with a total commitment to the corrupt FPTP system, is whipping Tory voters (in particular) into line with a series of dire predictions and downright lies about the consequences of AV which bear no factual relationship to the issues at hand.

They are wiping the floor with the lack-lustre, under-organised, and gimmick-ridden campaign for a YES vote led by the Labour leadership and the Lib Dems. Whilst Lib Dems are strongly behind a YES vote Labour are divided on it from top to bottom. Much of the Labour Left is also for a NO vote.

Unfortunately most of the far left are also supporting the NO campaign. Yet if the NO campaign wins it will be seen as a thumping endorsement of the current FPTP system which delivered outrageously undemocratic election results throughout the 20th century in defense of the two party system and which, in the event of a NO vote, will be set to continue doing so for the foreseeable future — and with a referendum decision behind it.

Under FPTP in the last election the Tories won just 36% of the vote which gave them a much higher proportion of MPs. In 2005 Labour polled just 35.2% of the votes cast but for this they got 55.1% of the seats in Parliament – way above their proportional entitlement. The Tories polled 30.7% of the vote and 32.3% of the seats – just above their proportional entitlement. The Lib Dems polled 22.1% of the vote and all they got for this was just 9.6% of seats – less than half of their proportional entitlement.

This meant that it took 26000 votes to elect a Labour MP, 44000 to elect a Tory MP, and a huge 96000 to elect a Liberal Democrat MP – nearly four times as many votes as those needed by a Labour MP. Such a system is scandalous and indefensible even before you consider the way it stacks the odds against small parties.

It also meant that around 70% of voters cast votes which make no difference what-so-ever to the outcome since they were in safe seats of one kind or another and the election is won or lost in a minority of marginal seats.

The latest far left organisation to adopt a NO vote stance is the SWP — see SW of April 16. In doing so they have recycled some of the most vacuous justifications.

The first is that a NO vote will “deepen the rifts in the coalition”. This is not only the wrong approach but it is problematic as a prediction. Whichever way the vote goes it will cause a crisis in the coalition. Whilst a NO vote would precipitate a crisis for the Lib Dems a YES vote would be totally unacceptable to a swathe of mind-dead Tory MPs, who see FPTP as akin to a religion, and who would blame Cameron for getting them into it.

The issue of AV, however, should not be judged on the conjuctural effect of the referendum on the establishment parties but whether it is an improvement (even a very small one as in this case) over the existing system and\or does it have the propensity to open the door to further reform towards a proportionate system which would deliver fair votes: i.e. a Parliament where the number of MPs for each party directly reflect the votes polled by each party?

A a vote for change would show that change was possible and pose the issue of further change, particularly since the most of those supporting it would want to go further, while a vote for FPTP would retrench the existing system

The second argument SW advances is that voting in bourgeois elections is not that important anyway. “Having a vote is better than not having a vote” SW argues and goes on, “The capitalist class can live with political democracy—the election of parliaments and governments—because the decisive levers of power are outside parliament.”

This seriously misunderstands the importance of the electoral field to the calls struggle under capitalism and understates the right of the working class to democracy under a bourgeois-democratic system. Bourgeois democracy is not workers democracy of course but the struggle for a democratic voting system under capitalism is a part of the struggle for socialism. It also downplays the struggles historically for the universal franchise (the Chartists and the women’s suffrage movement) — which were about democracy under a bourgeois system.

In Britain in the 20th century there were periods which were effectively elected dictatorships based on huge majorities in Parliament, yet these majorities bore little relationship to the support the parties enjoyed amongst the electorate. It is not in the interests of working class for such a system to continue.

AV of course will not resolve that because it is not a proportional system but a vote of confidence in FPTP will not resolve it either. It could set back change for another generation.

The SW article argues that AV will not strengthen the left — but this is not true. It would at least allow voters to express their genuine preferences without the pressure to vote tactically and allows small parties to stand without fear of splitting the vote. It therefore benefits small parties as against FPTP at the constituency level. This does not mean it would be easier for small parties to get into Westminster, only PR can do that, but it would at least give small parties a more representative vote at constituency level which would increase their credibility in elections.

It would ensure that all MPs are elected on the basis of majority support (at present only a third of them achieve this and would undermine, least to some extent, the safe seats which FPTP provides for Labour and the Tories which disenfranchises swathes of voters at every election.

SW argues that: “Many European countries have more progressive voting systems than in Britain. Portugal has PR—but workers still face savage cuts.” Of course no one is arguing that the voting system can replace the class struggle. But it should be remembered that the left is strongly represented in the Portuguese parliament, including the far left, and that would not be the case under FPTP.

The SW article even uses the London mayoral election as a negative example of AV, arguing that it was still a contest between the two main parties. This may be true, given the electoral relationship of forces, but it least allowed the voters to vote both for their preferred candidate as well as voting against the worst main contender — which in this case was the Tories. FPTP would be far worse for the London mayoral elections.

The far left needs to think again on this issue.

Alan Thornett


  1. A welcome contribution.

    I think the idea that the so much of the British left can effectively support the FPTP system – that delivers massive majorities to parties with 30 odd percent of the vote… is astounding.

    True: AV/preferential voting will not end in the two (three) party system. It will mean a party will at least need 50% plus of votes after preferences to legitemately govern. It would open a space for left of labour candidates to run while still alowing votes to flow to Labour.

    I really wonder sometimes if these sections of the ” British left” really are left at all…

  2. I think the idea that the so much of the British left can effectively support the FPTP system.. is astounding.

    Here’s an extraordinary idea Ben. Perhaps some people think FPTP is a terrible idea and think that AV is even worse. Being against two things! Can you imagine it?

  3. AV is of no use to left-of-Labour parties as they will inevitably find themselves unable to cross the 50% barrier; this makes it less likely for leftwing candidates to win seats than under the current system. Majority voting systems privilege the political centre and suppress hard left politics, just look at what happened to the Communists in France. Only an actually more proportional system with a low barrier to entry would be of use to the far-left. Even worse AV is likely to pull Labour even further towards the political centre in the need to win 50% in each constituency and to permanently court a coalition with the Yellow-Tories.

    The suggestion that we should support a less proportional system (AV) today in the hopes that it may hasten a referendum on a more proportional one is a dangerous gambit. It’s perfectly possible that if AV passes, having secured their kingmaker position, the Lib Dems will cease advocating PR, or at least stop firmly pushing for it. They wouldn’t want to risk opening up Parliament to other prospective coalition partners.

  4. Our arguments for AV are not tactical – whether it will or will not make election of a Labour government easier. (In any case, how can you tell, when how people vote – or whether they vote at all – is currently so distorted/determined by the vagaries of the voting system?) Our support is because AV is a tiny bit more democratic than FPTP – that’s all. We’re in favour of democratic reforms in bourgeois society: they give the working class a little bit more space for political activity. I support fixed-term parliaments for the same reason: they are slightly more democratic than allowing the incumbent PM to decide.

  5. What makes AV more democratic? It’s less proportional, so that can’t be it. It may produce a particular MP who is more representative of the constituency but taken in aggregate it produces a Parliament which is less representative and a Government which is less accountable.

  6. Simon: On your first posting I would have thought it was fairly obvious that a YES vote would show an appetite for change whilst a NO vote would show an appetite for the status quo. Most of those supporting a YES vote (including most Lib Dems actually) see AV as inadequate and want to go further towards a PR system. In the event of a NO vote those who have won it (and in that sense own it) will be supporters of FPTP and will regard it and use it to defend the existing system. Any mention of electoral reform would in future be met with the stock response that “we have had a referendum and that is the end of it”.

    For an MP to need (as with a government) to win majority support would be a progressive reform and we should therefore support it even if it would prevent very occasionally a left-wing candidate being elected in a split, and therefore minority vote. Though whether this would actually happen under AV would depend on the distribution of other preferences. We should not argue for a less democratic system in order to benifit the left. The way to redress injustice against small parties in the electoral system is not to protect an undemocratic practice but to fight for a democratic system. In any case there has only been one (or two depending who you count) left party which has won a Parliamentary seat in this way (on a majority vote) in the last 60 years — not a particularly regular event or rapid way forward.

    AV would clearly benefit left parties at local level because voters could vote for their preferred (left) candidate as well as voting against their worst option to keep them out. It would mean that the full left vote could be registered as left voters would not face a pressure to use their single vote to keep out (probably the Tories) rather than vote for their preferred left candidate.

    AV is not a less proportional system it simply does not address proportionality at the Parliamentary level because its effects are confined to constituency level.

  7. AV’s effects are not confined to the constituency level and are manifest on the Parliamentary level. It results in a different balance of overall Parliamentary representation, one less democratic than even we currently have.

    The requirement for local majorities only serves as a filter against the election of those who deviate from the centre chasing norm. It results in a Parliament even more uniform in its New Labour/New Tory/Yellow Tory political composition. This is a political composition entirely unrepresentative of the electorate nationally. How can such a system be called more ‘democratic’?

  8. But surely the only impact AV has at the Parliamentary level is that it sends MPs to Westminster who have been elected in their constituency in a more democratic way.

  9. Surely the bottom line here is that it is not possible to elect a truly representative parliament through single-member constituencies. As long as we maintain this fetishistic insistence on one MP representing each constituency, we will have a legislature that is unrepresentative. With an even distribution of votes, and several parties competing, a parliament could theoretically be elected comprising solely members of one party, which gained under 30% of votes nationally. Unless this issue is addressed, any electoral change is likely to be tinkering at the edges.

    I don’t support FPTP — indeed, I first campaigned against it at school 45 years ago — but I can’t see AV as an improvement. So I intend to spoil my ballot paper, writing in a demand for single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies.

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