19 April 2011

Using the Alternative Vote to cane Nick Clegg

Voting no to AV just to hurt Nick Clegg is cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.

On 5 May 2011 Britain will have its first referendum on electoral reform. On offer is to replace the current simple majority system (aka. first-past-the-post) for electing the House of Commons with the alternative vote. According to opinion polls, the “No to AV" campaigners have a 16% point lead in a referendum campaign which has generated little enthusiasm among the electorate. It seems that those planning to vote are more intent on having the cane bite deep into Nick Clegg’s backside, than they are on marginally improving the effectiveness of their votes in general elections.

AV, if introduced, would have two noticeable effects. The first would be to permit some voters a first preference vote for candidates who can’t win (Green, BNP, etc) and after those candidates are eliminated to transfer their votes to the big parties. This is a sop to gesture politics, nothing more.

Second, in those constituencies in which the winning Tory or Labour candidate had less than half the votes and the Liberal Dems were in a strong second place, transfers would give some of these seats to Clegg’s party. The result would be to boost the possibility of the hung parliaments – and hence Clegg’s bargaining power. It is exactly to prevent that latter possibility that many will vote no to AV – even if it is cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

AV, however, need not always increase the chance of hung parliaments. In 1997, for instance, AV would have increased New Labour’s massive overall majority because votes for eliminated Liberal Democrat candidates would have disproportionately transferred to Labour candidates leading to more Tories losing their seats to Labour.

While AV does lessen the amount of wasted votes in elections, it is not a system of proportional representation. Only full fledged PR can realise the principle of one person, one vote, one value – and Cameron has made sure that is not on offer.

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