Bernard Jenkin MP writes a useful piece about the potential pitfalls of switching our electoral system to the Alternative Vote method, on Platform today. It's too early to be worried about campaign strategies, I know, and I don't disagree with anything he has written, but there's a common theme in Mr Jenkin's piece with other conversations I've heard about why we should reject AV. It is that they focus on historical outcomes - Julia Gillard remaining Australia's PM, Ed Miliband becoming leader - rather than (as I think they should) directly confronting the main claim made for the system.
We can't credibly (only) reject AV as leading to governments whose legislative platform was in no party manifesto - because that's what we have now. And the Coalition came into being after a First Past The Post election. Ah, the argument continues, but AV would lead to such outcomes more often. Well, if you think that's a bad thing, then you must be arguing that the Coalition is a bad thing. I have a disturbing image of Government ministers appearing in referendum debates, tying themselves in knots as they argue Well of course, in our particular instance, the voting system we support led to the outcome we warn you about under AV, but on this (real) occasion it's led to a good government, while the other (theoretical) times it wouldn't. I mean, Ed Miliband. Julia Gillard. I don't think this will work.
I appreciate that my own particular disdain for AV would also not be electorally tractable (the fetishism of requiring a candidate to have 50% of the distributed votes). I'll never convince anyone that an arbitrary percentage entails no legislative significance, since majoritarianism is so ingrained in our being (but if 50% is good, surely 60% is better? And 60.00000001% is better than that. Now pick an arbitrarily small, positive epsilon, and add it to your "necessary" figure, and explain why the result is not even more necessary. Etc). But there's a connected issue which I think does have traction, and which I would recommend the NO2AV team to pick up.
It involves taking on the main argument for AV head-on, and ridiculing it. AV will be "fairer" because candidates will have the support of 50% of their electors.
No, they won't. You can make this argument only if you agree that a voter's fifth preference (for example) should have identical weight to their first. AV MPs will have the support of 50% of their voters only if we assume that every voter ascribes equal weight to their first and last choices. This strikes me as absurd, and it also, at a stroke, disarms the 50% fetish. I would make this argument central to the campaign. Pro-AV people will say this aspect of the system is a strength, because it somehow disarms tactical voting. Apparently tactical votes shouldn't have the same weight as non-tactical ones. I'll decide for myself how I vote and why, thank you.
And the campaign, if it can be truly Tory, could go further - admit that there are good consequences of an AV system, but that we can introduce them without changing the voting system. The single best aspect of AV is indeed that we would have the freedom to vote for more than one candidate; you could end up with more than one candidate from every party, and this would indeed loosen central control over candidate selection, and the power of the whips over the ultimately elected members, and for all the obvious reasons I think this is a good thing.
But we can achieve these good outcomes anyway, with First Past The Post still in place. Completely open primaries should be mandatory in every single constituency at the next election, whether the member is currently a Conservative or not. I think this is the admirable Douglas Carswell option. That would achieve what we really want, without the gamble of a voting system which is actually designed to produce the least offensive member, not the best one for the constituency. We have the chance to be radical Tories, like Disraeli, and introduce electoral reform that will leave the Whigs looking feeble. I hope we do it.
On the train to Birmingham. See you at conference I hope!