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  • Published in Analysis

On 5 May, the referendum on voting reform will be held. At stake will be a proposed reform to the way in which elections are run. Instead of the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, we are being offered the chance to replace it with the alternative vote (AV) system.

The FPTP system has constituencies with single members, where the candidate with the most votes in a constituency wins the seat. It has been criticised, rightly, as producing undemocratic outcomes, in which parties that gain large numbers of votes nationally are under-represented in Parliament because their votes are spread across different constituencies. FPTP has been an important part in preserving the two-party system inside the UK, as it can block potential challengers. It has even been the case in the past that the party winning the largest number of votes has not won the election, as happened to Labour in 1951.

The supporters of AV claim it will make elections more representative. Instead of placing a single vote, AV requires voters to rank their candidates by order of preference. If a candidate wins a majority of first preferences, they win outright. However, in the more likely event that no candidate has a majority, the lowest-placed candidate is eliminated and their votes redistributed according to second preferences.

This process of elimination and redistribution continues until one candidate has a majority of the votes cast. AV is claimed to make the outcomes of elections more closely match voters’ preferences.

An undemocratic barrier to the Left

Our current voting system is deeply flawed. But AV cannot be considered a serious improvement on it. First, it is not a proportional system of representation. It is not designed to make more room in Parliament for smaller parties. Rather, research suggests that it would help prop up the existing party system, with the Lib-Dems gaining seats but other voices still excluded.

The squeeze on smaller parties could, if anything, be even worse than under FPTP. Popular left-wing candidates like George Galloway and Caroline Lucas can win elections by mobilising a solid base of support in a constituency - enough to overcome the major party machines locally. But the preference election system would allow more chance for the opposition to block them. Eliminated candidates’ preferences would transfer to the major, centre-ground parties at the expense of the Left.

Take Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005, when Galloway won. He received 15,801 votes to Oona King’s 14,978 for Labour. That is 35.9% for Respect - not enough, under AV, to win the election, and so the process of elimination and redistribution of preferences would then have taken place.

We cannot know for sure how the different preferences would have gone, but, after eliminating the minor left candidates, it is highly likely that both Lib-Dem and Conservative voters would have transferred very largely to Labour as a way of blocking Respect. With around 10,000 extra votes waiting to be redistributed from these two candidates, Respect would not have won.

A similar situation applies to Caroline Lucas, who won in Brighton and Hove in May 2010. She received 31.3% of the vote, to Labour’s 28.9% and the Tories’ 23.7%: again, not enough for an outright victory, and again, it is reasonable to assume that voters wishing to block the most radical candidate - the Green - would have transferred under an AV system so as to achieve this.

AV is a very efficient means for excluding minority voices from Parliament. This is exactly its intention - when its supporters say it will keep out ‘extremists’, this is the outcome they want. Of course, they claim it is about stopping the BNP. But stopping fascism is about rather more than tweaking the electoral system. Where there is a serious electoral challenge, as in Barking and Dagenham last year, it means campaigning on the ground to undermine fascist support.

The pull to the centre under AV would also have an impact on the mainstream parties. Labour candidates, eager to pick up Lib-Dem second preferences, would be pulled further to the right. Constituency parties would be even less likely to pick candidates from the left of the party. AV is designed to pull the whole political system back towards the ‘moderate’ middle.

Democratic deficit

The debate around voting reform is misleading. It implies that changing the electoral system from FPTP to AV is the solution to a problem - presumably that of the democratic deficit, the corruption of politics, and the increasing alienation of voters from the system. In other words, the debate can be used as a diversion from the real issues.

Let us restate them. Parliamentary politics has been hollowed out by neoliberalism. All three major parties support the free market, privatisation, and the cuts. The differences between them are matters of tone and pace, not substance.

The real political alternative - mass resistance to the cuts - has little to do with voting reform. It is much better for the neoliberal elite for people to be campaigning to change the voting system than to be demonstrating against fees and cuts.

Crippling the Coalition

There is a strong case against AV on its own terms. But there are also tactical considerations. The Coalition Government is divided on the issue, with the Tories opposing AV and the Lib-Dems supporting it. A
divided government is a weak government. The AV referendum provides a very good means to exploit and worsen those divisions.

A victory for the ‘yes’ campaign would be a blow for the Tories. The Right of the party, already visibly straining at the leash, would doubtless attempt to turn on Cameron. But Cameron has a substantial body of support inside his Parliamentary party, and a ‘yes’ vote would make his coalition with the Lib-Dems more secure. The damage to the government as a whole would be insubstantial.

The Lib-Dems and Nick Clegg, by contrast, are in a weak position. The Coalition has been a disaster for them: propping up an increasingly unpopular government, their own support has slumped, particularly after the tuition fees debacle. Clegg has very little to show his own party from entering into government. The AV referendum is one of the few things left. If he also loses this, he will have lost everything. Disputes inside the party will intensify and Clegg’s own position will be deeply undermined.

The Lib-Dems are the soft underbelly of the Coalition. Anything that can be done to undermine them weakens the whole government. And the weaker this government becomes, the less able it will be to force through the cuts.

Vote ‘no’ on 5 May

The case for a no vote is clear. AV is no improvement on the current system and will be a barrier to left-wing parties and candidates getting elected. It is expressly intended to prop up the moderate centre, not provide support for alternative voices.

It is no solution to the democratic deficit, and campaigning around it sidelines resistance to the Con-Dem programme of austerity and privatisation.

The Lib-Dems will be pushed into crisis by a no vote. Pressure on their leadership will intensify and it is likely that serious disputes will break out inside the party. That crisis for the Lib-Dems can be a headache for the whole Coalition Government, helping it towards its demise.

Counterfire is calling for a ‘no’ vote on 5 May. Electoral reform is needed, but we need a genuine system of proportional representation, not a prop for the current system.

James Meadway

James Meadway

Radical economist James Meadway has been an important critic of austerity economics and at the forefront of efforts to promulgate an alternative. James is co-author of Crisis in the Eurozone (2012) and Marx for Today (2014).

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