The 2009 Labour conference was supposed to be my moment of glory. As an electoral reform campaigner, I’d been invited to speak at a big fringe meeting, and I’d prepared a tub-thumping rabble-rousing speech, guaranteed to instil in the faintest of hearts the passion I felt about the injustices of the current electoral system.
Surely, after hearing it, the crowd would surge forwards and carry me on their shoulders, from our hotel in Brighton maybe even as far as Westminster (stopping off at the Pease Pottage Services), where we would nail our Grand Remonstrance to the doors of parliament itself.
There were even rumours of a last-minute conversion by Gordon Brown, with the hushed whispers of a big announcement in the pipeline. It seemed anything was possible.
Then the announcement came – Brown had been converted to the cause of electoral reform! Woohoo!
He was to introduce a referendum! Woohoo!
A referendum on AV … er …
I thought it had to be a mistake; surely they meant AV Plus – the proportional system recommended by the Jenkins Commission in 1998, and about which Labour had long promised a referendum?
But, no, apparently Gordon had been convinced by the merits of plain AV, a system that Jenkins had called “disturbingly unpredictable”, and “unacceptably unfair”.
And Jenkins was right. It’s crazy to think that the alternative vote is an improvement to what we have now. It deals with hardly any of the faults in our electoral system, introduces a whole range of new ones, and, depending on who you believe, will cost up to £250m to implement.
Now I am absolutely in favour of reform, but not just any reform. I want to see proportional representation. If a party wins 40% of the vote it should get 40% of seats in the Commons. If a party gets 20% of votes it should get 20% of seats. It isn’t a hard concept to understand, and there are systems in place in countless other countries that produce this sort of result.
But AV is not proportional representation. It doesn’t stop majority governments being elected on a minority of votes, it doesn’t stop landslide results and it doesn’t do anything to ensure minority parties get even one seat in the Commons.
It isn’t popular anywhere. Only Australia, Papua New Guinea, and Fiji use it and six out of 10 of Australians want to get rid of it.
Now I don’t want to descend into a morass of statistics, nor do I want to try to address every claim made for AV, but I do want to examine a couple of the wilder ones.
First, that it delivers MPs with the support of more than 50% of the electorate. How can it? Unless a candidate is elected with more than half of the vote in the first round, then more than half of the electorate would prefer someone else. In fact there is no system that can guarantee support of more than half of the electorate, other than the “limiting-the-number-of-candidates-to-two” system, which I don’t think anyone is proposing.
Second, that AV is the antidote to negative campaigning. Well, let’s look at the record. Since 1993, nearly two-thirds of Australian political ads have been negative – almost double the rate in Britain. One report said that a trademark of Australian campaigning was that it relied
“heavily on extensive and overwhelmingly negative television advertising”.
In the words of prominent Australian commentator Tim Colebatch, Australia’s 2010 election was:
“A negative campaign, where the leaders stood for less than ever before, and insulted voters’ intelligence more than ever before. Both sides asked us to vote against their opponent, rather than giving us reasons to vote for them.”
Of course, I didn’t have all these facts at my fingertips in 2009. I was at a loss for what to say about a switch to AV. The best I could manage was “I suppose it’s better than nothing”.
But actually it isn’t. Don’t vote for it.