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Johann Hari: If you get the X Factor you'll get AV

You can vote No with David Cameron, the BNP and a campaign that thinks you are too thick to count to three

Johann Hari
Friday 22 April 2011 00:00 BST

The economy is bleeding by the side of the road. We are bombing another oil-rich Muslim country. The planet is hotter now than it has been for three million years. And I want to talk today about why we should vote to change the voting system here in Britain next week. No! Wait! Don't lapse into a coma! Stab cigarettes into your arm to stay conscious! Stay with me! We only get to do this once in a generation.

Today, I have a Member of Parliament I didn't vote for. So do you, in all likelihood. So do 66 per cent of us. At first glance, that seems impossible in a democracy. How can a huge majority of us end up with an MP we didn't vote for? Isn't the whole point of democracy that the majority prevails?

Not under our current voting system - First Past the Post (which I'm going to refer to with the sexy acronym FPTP). Next month, we are being offered an alternative - the Alternative Vote (AV). The difference is pretty simple. Under FPTP, you put a cross next to the person you want as your MP. Under AV, you number them 1,2,3 - so I could express my desire for the Greens first, Labour second, and so on, for as many parties as I want to give my approval to. Why does such a small tweak make a difference? The best way to think about it is to look at The X Factor. In the first week of the live performances, you have 12 candidates - including the poor weeping girl groups who are always doomed to be tossed out at once, only to howl into the camera "You haven't heard the last of uuuuus!"

The votes of the public are divided across these 12 contestants, so obviously nobody will get majority support. The most popular candidate at that very first step might get 30 per cent. If The X Factor declared that person to be the winner of the entire show there and then, it would be an FPTP election - and a replica of how we select our MPs now.

Yet most of us would think that was a bit odd. Should somebody who enthuses only a small but vocal minority win outright, even though most people are against them? It would markedly change the result of the show, producing a winner who would satisfy far fewer people - this year, it might have been Aiden Grimshaw, or One Direction. It would delight a minority, but bemuse the rest. That's why we are the only country in the entire European Union that chooses MPs like this.

There is another way on offer in the referendum on 5 May. It is to keep knocking out the most unpopular contestant round after round, until you finally get a winner who has more than 50 per cent support and can be drowned in confetti and Cheryl Cole's hairspray. That's exactly how AV works. Obviously, you can't force people to traipse to the polling booths for 12 weeks in a row, so you condense it by getting them to list the order in which they like the candidates. So if you choose the political equivalent of Cher Lloyd and she gets knocked out, they transfer your vote to your next favourite, Rebecca Ferguson, until somebody gets a majority.

This system has a series of obvious advantages. At the moment, your MP can appeal to a small minority and win. Under AV, she will have to work harder to appeal to a majority of people in your area - and you can express your political desires much more clearly. For example, I want a government that is more left-wing and more green than either Labour or the Tories, but at every election under FPTP, I have no way of saying that. If I vote Green, I risk splitting the centre-left vote, and letting a Tory win - the result I want least. So I have to vote Labour, even though it's an uncomfortable fit (especially at the height of New Labour). Under AV, you and I can express our views much more clearly.

It's a pretty small and moderate change. Most of the elections since the War would have ended with the same Prime Minister, although, according to Professor John Curtice's calculations, the Liberal Democrats would have replaced the Tories as the official opposition after 1997, and there would have been an option to have a Lib-Lab coalition in 2010.

Against this, the No to AV campaign has run the oddest political campaign in living memory. Their central argument is that the British people are too thick to understand the argument I've just made. Their broadcasts are filled with puzzled voters who are left helpless at the idea of counting 1,2,3 in the ballot box, and end up raging in incomprehension and begging to be allowed just to draw a cross. They then fall into such confusion they accidentally elect a fascist. I almost admire the boldness of this political message: vote No to AV because you and your friends are clearly brain-damaged.

When this argument gained little traction, they switched to another one. This next sentence is not a joke: check out their website to see it for yourself. They said that voting for AV would kill premature babies and soldiers in Afghanistan. Really. They bought ads showing these vulnerable groups, and claimed AV would take £250m directly from their incubators and body armour and squander it on counting. There's only one problem. The figure is made up. Where did it come from? They claimed AV requires voting machines costing £120m - even though Australia has AV and counts its ballots by hand. Then they included the cost of the referendum itself - which is happening now, whether you vote no or not.

Their arguments just got weirder and weirder. They claimed AV gives some people "two or three votes." How? If I go into a shop to buy a Mars bar and they've run out so I get my second preference - a Twix - do I leave with two chocolate bars? Then they claimed - in Sayeeda Warsi's words - "a vote for AV is a vote for the BNP". This can only be consciously dishonest. In reality the BNP is campaigning against AV, because they know it kills their chances: they might conceivably get 25 percent in a seat one day, but they'll never get 50 percent. This is the importing of the most crude Karl Rove-style tactics to Britain.

All this is a shame, because there is a real criticism of AV that has gone unheard. It's that it doesn't go nearly far enough. Nick Clegg once called it "a miserable little compromise", and there's some truth in that. Sauced with plenty of irony, AV wouldn't be my first preference.

Let me explain. In Britain today, we have a centre-left majority who want this to be a country with European-level taxes, European-standard public services and European-level equality. We have had this for a very long time. Even at the height of Thatcherism, 56 per cent of people voted for parties committed to higher taxes and higher spending. But the centre-left vote is split between several parties - while the right-wing vote clusters around the Conservatives. So under FPTP they get to rule and dominate out of all proportion to their actual support, and drag most of us in a direction we don't want to go. That's why the Tories are united in supporting the current system, and throwing a fortune at preventing any change.

AV takes a small step towards dealing with this - but it still doesn't get us very far. As his last act in public life, Roy Jenkins drew up a plan for a system that takes all the best of AV, and then makes it even better. It's called AV-Plus. (Stab another cigarette in your eyes now if they're drooping.)

Here's how it works. You vote in your constituency by AV to get your MP, who will now have majority support. Then - here's the Plus part - they add up the vote nationally as well and act to correct any weird lumps in the outcome.

So imagine the Greens got 15 per cent of the vote, but only 2 per cent of the seats. The Greens would be given extra "top-up" MPs to make sure they had about 15 per cent in the Commons, to make sure parliament represented the will of the people. You get a stronger constituency link, and stronger proportionality.

If you vote for AV, it's a small step in the right direction. If you vote against AV, you kill the possibility of the best system - AV Plus - for generations.

It comes down to this. On 5 May, you can vote No with David Cameron, the BNP and a campaign that thinks you are too thick to count to three, or you can vote Yes with all the progressive forces in British politics, massed together to move democracy forward a few small inches. I know what my preference is.

For updates on the referendum and other issues, you can follow Johann on twitter at

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