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

Share
Related Topics

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

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
With an eye for strategy: Stephen Fry’s General Melchett and Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder  

What Cameron really needs is to turn this into a khaki election

Matthew Norman
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace