Billy Bragg: AV would marginalise extremists

Nigel Morris,Deputy Political Editor
Wednesday 13 April 2011 00:00

The singer Billy Bragg, a high-profile campaigner against the British National Party, will today argue for electoral reform as a crucial step to marginalising extremist politicians.

The Tory chairman, Lady Warsi, has claimed that a Yes vote in the referendum on 5 May on replacing the first-past-the-post system with the alternative vote would boost the BNP's prospects and give extra influence to its supporters. But Bragg, who will today launch a "yes to AV" poster campaign, ridiculed the argument and received the backing of a detailed study into the effect of a move to AV on the BNP.

Bragg said last night that it stood its best chance of getting its candidates voted into office when there were small turnouts in elections conducted on the current system. "It's much easier for them to get elected under first-past-the-post – they need a small number of angry, highly motivated people to win under first-past-the-post," he told The Independent. "If there was a plurality of parties standing that would help marginalise not just the BNP, but also all extremists."

He said one of the problems in the Barking and Dagenham council elections in 2006, when it won 12 seats with 14 per cent support, was that disillusioned voters were forced to choose between Labour incumbents and the BNP.

Bragg added: "If AV is going to help the BNP, why are they against AV? They are opposed to AV because they know that to win power they have to gain more than 50 per cent of the vote."

A study of voting patterns for the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) think-tank contradicts claims by opponents of electoral reform that AV would mean BNP supporters having an extra bearing on election results.

The IPPR report, to be published next week, concludes that BNP voters could not have changed the outcome in any Westminster seat if last year's general election had been held under AV. It considered whether a mass transfer of BNP supporters' votes alone could have pushed a candidate over the 50 per cent threshold required under AV and examined whether their second preferences could have produced different winners from the actual victors in May 2010. It concluded: "Those that claim the BNP could exert influence in elections under AV seriously overestimate their chances of doing so."

The IPPR examined dozens of marginal seats where the BNP performed relatively strongly last year, but could not identify anywhere its supporters could have made a difference. Professor Dennis Leach, a specialist in voting reform at the University of Warwick, argued yesterday that moving to AV would "lock out" extremist candidates from office.

He said first-past-the-post had allowed the BNP to win a foothold on Burnley Council, where one of its candidates was elected with just over 30 per cent support after a three-way split among voters. He said: "A majority of those voters would probably have preferred any one of the main parties to the actual winner. AV would undoubtedly be an improvement on first-past-the-post, which is just about the worst election method ever devised, because it does not require that the winner gain a majority."

With just over three weeks to the referendum, the two sides clashed last night over how they raised their campaign funds.

Yes to AV said 99 per cent of the No campaign's money came from longstanding Tory donors, while No to AV said their opponents' main backer, the Electoral Reform Society, had earned £15m of taxpayers' money in three years through contracts with councils and health trusts.

The myths about AV

The change will cost up to £250m

Opponents of electoral reform reach the figure by adding the alleged £150m price of electronic machines to count votes cast under AV, the £82m cost of the referendum and £20m-plus expense of publicity campaigns to explain AV if the system changed.

However, there is little suggestion counting machines would be required – they have never been used in Australia. The referendum would have been held anyway under the coalition agreement.

The Electoral Commission has put its cost at between £95m and £109m.

AV is rarely used

A recurring argument is that only three countries elect their MPs by AV – Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. However, it is less of a novelty than opponents suggest. It is used to choose Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders, as well as select committee chairs. (It is also arguable David Davis would have beaten David Cameron to the Tory crown in 2005 under first-past-the-post). It is also used to choose the Irish President, in many US mayoral elections and for the Best Picture at the Oscars.

It separates MPs and constituencies

Supporters of first-past-the-post assert AV is merely an initial move to proportional representation which would destroy the connection between politicians and their electors.

This is scaremongering – whatever the result on May 5, the issue of how MPs are elected will be off the agenda for the foreseeable future. In fact AV could be argued to strengthen the link. Elections would be fought on the same constituency boundaries and successful candidates could be forced to obtain majority support of voters.

It's too complicated

Mr Cameron has described AV as a "voting system that people don't understand". The same argument was repeated in this week's "No to AV" television broadcast. It risks insulting the intelligence of the public, who are only being asked to rank candidates in a "one, two, three" order of preference, and ignores the fact that a preferential system has been used without problem to elect the London Mayor and members of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

It leads to more hung parliaments

The Prime Minister maintains that hung parliaments, leading to post-election haggling between parties, would become "commonplace" under AV. There is an irony in the argument being used by the same man who has spoken of the merits of a coalition of parties in the national interests. The evidence does not bear out his argument, either – Australia has had one hung parliament since adopting AV more than 90 years ago; Britain has had six under first-past-the-post since 1910.

It's unfair

This ignores the bizarre outcomes of elections under first-past-the-post. Tony Blair won a majority of 66 in 2005 with just 35.2 per cent of votes. The resulting Parliament did not reflect the popular will – a pattern that has grown since the decline of two-party domination. On a local level, it is possible to win a seat with less than one third support (one Lib Dem MP picked up just 29.5 per cent last year) and two-thirds of MPs have less than 50 per cent local backing. AV would go some way towards ironing out these anomalies.

Nigel Morris

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