Why Churchill is hardly the font of all knowledge: Debunking the myths surrounding AV

To combat the No camp's propaganda, Matt Chorley and John Rentoul trawl through the arguments to offer a guide to electoral reform

Sunday 17 April 2011 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


With only 18 days to go, and volatile polls suggesting the outcome is far from certain, both sides in the debate about changing the voting system have stepped up the rhetoric. On 5 May, voters across the UK will decide whether to replace first past the post with the Alternative Vote to elect MPs to Parliament. It would mean instead of putting a cross next to one name, voters would rank candidates in order of preference. Low-scoring candidates would be eliminated and their second and, later, third preferences redistributed until the winner had secured more than 50 per cent of votes cast. Those who favour keeping first past the post have made numerous claims about the failings of AV. But are they true? From sporting metaphors to whether we should listen to Winston Churchill, here are some myths explained and propaganda unravelled.

1. "The AV referendum on 5 May is going to cost the taxpayer up to £250m."

Andrew Bridgen, MP for North-west Leicestershire, Daily Mail, 14 April

Staging the referendum will cost about £80m, which would have been more if it had not been held on the same day as the local elections. That cost will be felt regardless of the outcome. Opponents of AV say £130m will need to be spent on electronic counting machines – but they are not needed and are not used in AV elections in Australia.

2. "The alternative vote is so complicated that it will put people off voting."

James Cracknell, Olympic rower, 14 April

Most people can count beyond the number one. A lot of people go into the polling booth having thought tactically about whom to support. Under AV, voters can rank the candidates in order of preference, without having to sideline their preferred party "because they can't win here".

3. "In sport, as in elections, you have a winner and a loser."

David Gower, cricketer, The Sun, 14 April

Except when it's a draw, obviously. And you would still have a winner under AV, except they would have to gain the support of half the voters. Sporting metaphors and politics don't mix, particularly when describing electoral reform as a "googly".

4. "If the last election had been under AV, there would be the chance, right now, that Gordon Brown would still be Prime Minister."

David Cameron, speech, 18 February

Unlikely. Even if the result had been closer and a Lib-Lab coalition had been mathematically possible, the Lib Dems would have been forced to choose. Nick Clegg had made clear that Brown would have to fall on his sword. The only recent election that might have had a different result was 1992, which might have been a hung parliament instead of a Tory majority of 21.

5. "Here in Britain, we have a clear, decisive and effective system."

Lord Howard, BBC The Daily Politics, 5 April

Except that first past the post gave us a hung parliament last year. All the doom and gloom warnings – yes, Mr Cameron, we mean you – have not turned out to be true. It is claimed AV will lead to more hung parliaments but Australia had a hung parliament last year for the first time in 100 years. There have been more in Britain in the same period.

6. "An electoral system that is not used anywhere in the world apart from Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Australia."

GMB general secretary Paul Kenny, BBC, 11 March

It is also used for Scottish local councils, in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. (They all have multi-member constituencies, but by-elections for a single vacancy are held under what is, in effect, AV.) Also, in several US cities to elect mayors. Moreover, AV is like the French two-ballot system in one go. Most of the world drives on the right, but no one is suggesting there is anything wrong with our left-leaning motoring.

7. "If in doubt, trust Winston."

David Cameron, Daily Mail, 4 April

The Prime Minister invoked Churchill, who opposed AV in 1931 because it meant results being "determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates". While we are not seeking to denigrate the wartime PM, his views on electoral reform might not chime with 21st-century Britain. He once remarked in 1910: "I do not believe that the great mass of women want a vote." Oh, and actually Churchill supported proportional representation, not first past the post.

8. "Under AV, people who back the likes of the BNP and Ukip would have several bites of the cherry, transferring their votes between candidates."

John Healey, Labour MP, 'The Independent', 16 March

The British National Party opposes AV, which would force mainstream parties to appeal to a wider section of public opinion. This could mean candidates addressing the legitimate concerns that are exploited by extremist groups in some areas. Oh, and we live in a democracy. Voting for the BNP isn't illegal.

9. "It would mean candidates who finish third winning elections, and an end to the principle of one person, one vote."

William Hague, campaign email, 31 March

The democratic principle is one person, one vote. Everyone gets one vote in each round of counting; it would just mean the "big parties" getting a wake-up call that their constituents do not think they represent all of their concerns, hopes and fears. The candidate who came third on the basis of first preferences could go on to win, but it would be rare and would mean the top two had failed to broaden their appeal.

10. "When the Australians introduced AV, turnout nose-dived. They had to make voting compulsory."

Baroness Warsi, The Sun, 16 April

Not strictly true. In the first federal election after AV was introduced in 1919, turnout was 71 per cent, down slightly from 77.7 per cent in 1917. Both were up from 50 per cent in 1906 and significantly higher than the 65 per cent in the British general election last year. Turnout in Australia later fell to 58 per cent in 1922, before compulsory voting was introduced.

And, finally, a Yes myth debunked:

"Do you remember how it felt when you heard about MPs spending your money on duck houses and having their moat cleaned? First past the post doesn't work any more. The Alternative Vote is better, fairer. It puts you back in charge and makes MPs work harder for your vote."

Nick Clegg, speech, 23 February

The Yes campaign hasn't helped itself by suggesting that because AV will lead to fewer safe seats, it would therefore have prevented the expenses scandal. Douglas Hogg, who claimed the cost of moat cleaning, had secured more than 50 per cent of the vote under first past the post so is unlikely to have been affected by AV. MPs would have to work harder to persuade a broader base to support them at election time. A threat of jail is more likely to affect their behaviour between polling days.

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