AV: Myths, Lies, and Distortions

Posted on April 20, 2011 at 10:01 am,

Yesterday, I gave a quick overview of what AV is and isn’t. Today, I want to look at some of the myths, distortions, and outright lies that are being peddled by both campaigns, by the media, and by members of the public. Incidentally, of the two campaigns, the No campaign is the least honest by a long way, and pretty much all of the outright lies come from their side of the fence.

AV will let in the BNP

This one is a complete lie. The thing that AV is best at is keeping unpopular extremists out of office. The BNP are the party that is most likely to suffer under AV, as they have no hope of getting 50% of first preferences anywhere in the country, and even less chance of getting a decent number of second, third, or even fourth preference votes from other parties. There’s a good reason why Nick Griffin described AV as “a conspiracy against the BNP”.

AV will lead to pandering to extremists

This is the softer, and more plausible, version of “it will help the BNP”. However, if misses the fact that candidates from the big three parties already pander to the interests of parties like the BNP. Phil Woolas broke election law to do so in Oldham East and Saddleworth. In fact, it’s possible that this may become less common. If voters for more moderate parties are turned off by such pandering, then bigger parties that do pander to the extremists could be denied seats.

AV will cost £250 million

This is a big claim from the No Campaign, and yet their own breakdown of the figures reveals that the figure is completely made up. Once you take away the £91 million for holding the referendum (which will be spent whether or not we change systems), and the £130 million on electronic vote counting machines (which nobody is planning to buy), you’re left with £26 million which they claim will be spent on explaining the new system to voters (is it really going to cost that much to say “rank the candidates in the order you’d prefer them”? The remaining £3 million is presumably the cost of spending a couple of hours more when counting some seats. So, in the end, we’re left with the real cost of AV being £3 million – which is almost nothing in terms of government spending.

AV will lead to undemocratic coalition governments

This one is possible, but by no means certain. In Australia, the only comparable country which uses AV, there has been a hung parliament precisely once (in 2010) since they introduced the system in 1918. Whilst there have been coalition governments, these have been the equivalent of the the Liberal/SDP Alliance of the 1980s (where the two parties that later merged into the Liberal Democrats didn’t stand against each other). By contrast, under first past the post Britain has elected five hung parliaments (1918, 1923, 1929, February 1974, and 2010) over the same period.

Also, coalition government is by no means undemocratic. The big three parties in the UK are already coalitions between different interest groups who aren’t always natural allies (the compassionate conservatives and the Thatcherites in the Tory Party, or “New Labour” and “Old Labour” philosophies). And the fact that in the current system, elections are decided by a small number of voters in marginal constituencies means that the big three parties have all tailored their policies to appeal to that particular group of swing voters. In a good proportional system like in Germany, however, the big five parties have retained their distinctive ideologies, and there are clear differences between them. The policies that a government follows reflects the way the electorate voted, rather than the electorate having to choose between three flavours of vanilla.

AV gives some people more votes

This is a serious misrepresentation. Everybody has one vote under AV. It’s just that those who vote for less popular parties get their vote redistributed. Nobody seriously believes that people who in London who voted 1st vote Green and 2nd vote Labour in the elections for London Mayor had more votes than those who voted the other way around, yet that’s exactly what No Campaigners using this argument are saying. Or, to use another analogy, it’s like going to a newsagents and finding out that your usual newspaper has sold out, and then buying your second favourite instead. You aren’t getting to choose two newspapers. If voters whose second are redistributed get their votes counted twice, then so do voters whose first preferences are still in.

AV will ensure that every MP has 50% of the vote

This is an exaggeration. Because nobody will be forced to list a preference for every party, there will be some constituencies where enough votes are thrown away that the eventual winner has less than 50% of the vote.

AV will end tactical voting

Depending on how you understand the claim, this is either an exaggeration or a lie. AV will end tactical voting as we know it. Nobody will be forced to vote for a party they don’t really support in order to prevent a party they really dislike from winning in their constituency. Instead, voters who do vote tactically will be able to put their genuine first preference, and indicate their preferences for the other parties with a lower placed vote. In other words, tactical voting will be built into the system, rather than actually eliminated.

Voting No will get back at Clegg or even bring down the coalition.

Whilst the first statement is mere opinion, it is seriously being put forward by some parts of the No Campaign. Hopefully the electorate will give this argument the contempt it deserves. Our votes in this referendum should reflect the merits of the two systems that are on the ballot paper, and not be about punishing one half of the coalition. The fact is that the coalition is split on the referendum and voting no on party-political grounds would be as pro-Tory as it is anti-Lib Dem.

Also, a no vote probably won’t make the Lib Dems leave the coalition and force a General Election. They know full well that doing so now would lose them most of their seats, so they’ll almost certainly hang on in the hope that things improve for them.

3 Comments

  1. Posted April 20, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this, very helpful. Just one quibble: “In other words, tactical voting will be built into the system, rather than actually eliminated.” If we define tactical voting as modifying your voting behaviour based on how you think other people will vote, then I don’t see voting under AV as tactical voting. It’s just listing your honest order of preference. Otherwise, what would non-tactical voting under AV mean?

    I don’t doubt that people will still try to vote tactically – i.e., change from their honest order of preference because they think (probably mistakenly) that it will lead to a better outcome – but it will certainly be much less of an issue.

  2. Stephen Gray
    Posted April 21, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    Hi Anthony,

    Point taken.

    Ultimately, it all depends on what you mean by tactical voting. Tactical voting under first past the post is all about getting the lesser evil of the big parties to win your constituency. Under AV, achieving that aim is something that’s built into the system, rather than being the way you choose to vote. Which is what I was trying to get at in my post.

    Stephen

  3. Posted May 2, 2011 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    In Australia, the only comparable country which uses AV, there has been a hung parliament precisely once (in 2010) since they introduced the system in 1918.

    I’ve seen this one floating around a few times and it’s definitely inaccurate. However determining the correct number is not simple because of differing opinions of the Coalition between the Liberals (and their predecessors the Nationalists and United Australian Party) and the Nationals (previously the Country Party).

    There was definitely a hung parliament produced at the 1922 election and the Coalition was formed as a result of it. It lapsed after it lost power in 1929 then in 1931 the UAP won a majority in their own right but 1934 produced another hung parliament and the Coalition was reformed. In 1940 there was a close election result with two independents holding the balance of power between the Coalition and Labor; 2010 saw a similar result albeit with four independents, a Green and a maverick state National Party thrown in the mix. So that’s a definite four rather than one.

    (There are some figures that show 1919 as a hung parliament and I’m a little surprised these haven’t been trumpeted as it was the first AV election. The confusion is that several sitting Nationalist MPs stood for re-election with the additional endorsement of various state Country parties. When the various Country MPs came together as a federal party some of the joint MPs sat with them, others stayed with the Nationalists.)

    However one could also list 1925, 1928, 1937, 1949, 1951, 1954, 1955, 1958, 1961, 1963, 1966, 1969, 1980, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2004 and the list gets a bit longer. In each no single party got a majority (1996 & 2004 saw the Liberals get exactly 50% of seats but there’s no precedent for a dead heat), but the Coalition went to the electorate as a joint entity and got a majority. (The Coalition also won in 1975 & 1977 but the Liberals alone got over half the seats.)

    Now some of this could be hair splitting, but it’s wrong to simply assume that the Nationals/Country Party are a ) merely the rural wing of the Liberals (and predecessor parties) or b ) that the parties have always been as close as they are now. There have been periods when the Nationals have really asserted themselves in the Coalition (e.g. under Jack McEwen), threatened to walk out of the Coalition (e.g. 1968) and even did so (e.g. 1939-1940 or 1987). Even today the Western Australian branch of the Nationals don’t operate the Coalition in their own state and want the federal party to do the same, with the sole WA Nats MP sitting outside it.

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