Dominic Lawson: Vote yes, or no – the outcome will barely make a difference

When Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg proclaim that the introduction of AV will 'end politics as usual', they are either fantasising or conning us

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What, exactly, is a wasted vote? I ask, if only because the most common complaint by those campaigning to change our current electoral method of first-past-the-post to the Alternative Vote is that at the moment "too many votes are wasted." This was exemplified by the lead letter in yesterday's Independent, from a Mr Callaghan of London W5, which began "I have voted in every local and general election since 1970. My vote has never counted... the same party has been in power since before the Second World War."

I don't mean to trivialise Mr Callaghan's democratic plight, but I wonder if it did not occur to him, sometime over the past forty years, to move to a nearby constituency in which one party's control was not so predictable – there are plenty of those in London. Of course, even if he were to have moved to a neighbouring area of less political homogeneity, his vote would still be "wasted", at least in the sense that it is only if such a contest were decided by a single vote, that Mr Callaghan's own personal ballot would have been necessary – and then only if the party he supported won by that solitary vote.

It is true that under a fully proportional system, such as that employed within the State of Israel, every vote does "count"; although you might think that its impact on Israeli politics, where a mixed bag of more or less obscure religious and nationalist parties currently holds the balance of power in the Knesset, is not something we would wish to emulate. The method known as the Alternative Vote, however, with no departure from the current single winning candidate per constituency is no more proportionate than the system which has so depressed Mr Callaghan.

This can most clearly be seen in analyses of what would have happened in previous general elections, based on surveys of intentions carried out at the time. For example, it is generally agreed that the 2005 election was not a good advertisement for our current method. Tony Blair's Labour Party won an overall majority of 65 seats at Westminster, despite the fact that less than 36 per cent of those who voted backed them – and they gained the positive endorsement of barely a fifth of the electorate. Yet under AV, according to those surveys, Blair's overall majority would have actually been higher – Labour would have had 84 more MPs than the combined total of all other parties. The Liberal Democrats, for whom AV is supposedly a kind of electoral bonanza, would have gained only 3 more seats than they achieved under first-past-the-post.

One reason for this phenomenon is that voters have become increasingly sophisticated at gaming the current system by tactical voting. In a sense, they are using first-past-the-post to mimic the effects of the Alternative Vote. Therefore, just as the pro-AV campaigners have grossly exaggerated the change that their proposal would make to our politics, so those arguing for the conservation of first-past-the-post are talking rubbish when they say that its abandonment would prevent us from "throwing out the rascals", that is, an unpopular government.

This argument, that it would lead to a succession of coalitions, is hardly borne out by the experience of Australia, the only country of any note to use AV in its general elections. The administration recently formed by Julia Gillard is the first coalition government in Australia in 70 years of elections under AV. In Canada, by contrast, which like the UK, the US and India, uses first-past-the-post, they have had no fewer than 13 hung parliaments over the same period.

So when Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg proclaim that the introduction of AV will "end politics as usual", they are either fantasising or conning us (which, you might say, is indeed politics as usual). It is, in fact, gloriously ironic that the proponents of the change from our current system have, over the past few weeks, increasingly used the sort of low campaigning methods which are said to characterise the worst of first-past-the-post contests – though, by definition, a referendum is an example of proportionate purity: every vote counts.

Thus Tim Farron MP, the ferociously anti-Tory president of the Liberal Democrats – presumably a very conflicted man – said that first past-the-post had made possible what he termed the "organised wickedness" of Margaret Thatcher, and even blamed slavery on this form of democracy. It has been a secret to Mr Farron that William Wilberforce was a Tory, although even if he is ignorant of history, the fact that William Hague is Wilberforce's biographer might have given him a clue.

Similarly, the Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, having earlier accused the Conservative co-chairman Sayeeda Warsi of being a follower of Josef Goebbels, last week said that the No to AV campaign illustrated the fact that "The Conservative Party has, throughout history, opposed changes giving more power to people, whether it was votes for every man or votes for women."

It is true that the Conservative party is not so named by accident; but it is still remarkable that a man with a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford is unaware that in 1867, the Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli pushed through the great Reform Act which gave the vote to every male householder, and all those who were tenants paying at least £10 for unfurnished rooms.

I'm assuming that this is indeed ignorance on Mr Huhne's part, since it is surely inconceivable that he would engage in an outright lie, especially as he has threatened the "No to AV" campaign with legal action over some of its own less scrupulous literature.

If I were cynical, which God forbid, I would wonder if the virulent anti-Tory tirades of these two leading Liberal Democrats were not simply a desperate attempt to minimise the switching of disenchanted Lib Dem voters to Labour in the forthcoming local elections which, not coincidentally, are being held on the same day as the AV referendum.

Oh well, there are only two more days of this – and then Mr Huhne and Mr Farron can get back to the business of governing with the wicked Tories.



d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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