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Janice Small: Why Conservatives should vote ‘Yes’ to the Alternative Vote

Picture 13 Janice Small is director of Conservative Action for Electoral Reform and fought the key marginal of Batley and Spen at the general election, gaining an additional 5,000 votes.

In the tribal world of party politics, MPs and party members are often wary of any change tabled by their opponents. It is no surprise, then, that voters and politicians alike have struggled to come to terms with the Coalition’s promised referendum on the Alternative Vote.

This unease is rooted in history. Most Conservatives will remember New Labour’s promise to look at a more proportional voting system in their 1997 manifesto. Back then, it was seen as a way of sidelining the Conservatives and strengthening the Lib-Lab bloc. The issue, like so many others, was ultimately kicked into the long grass, but it left Conservatives with a lasting suspicion of voting reform.  A suspicion that is, in fact, unfounded.  The 1867 change in the voting system was widely hailed at the time as a ‘leap in the dark’ and a ‘conservative surrender’.  However, the act arguably cemented Tory party dominance throughout the early 20th century.

The Alternative Vote (AV) is a different kettle of fish. It would not profoundly change the ‘shape’ of our election results, but rather the strength of our MPs’ mandates. It is a much needed upgrade to ‘First Past the Post’ – not a step into the uncharted territory of proportional representation.

Many Conservatives acknowledge the need for voting reform of some kind. Accountability and transparency are modern conservative values, which ensure that the marketplace of ideas functions effectively. But while some reforms, including open primaries, recall votes, and local referendums, have gained currency in Conservative circles – and I am a big supporter of Douglas Carswell and Dan Hannan as two of the greatest thinkers in our party for putting these ideas forward – there is still a fear that the Alternative Vote will benefit the left-leaning parties.

The truth is that the Coalition has blown all previous assumptions out of the water. The ‘progressive’ bloc no longer exists. The second- and third-preference votes which differentiate AV from ordinary First Past the Post are no longer a means of bolstering the left-wing vote. Indeed, the evidence is that public opinion has shifted rightwards since 1997, although we could not convince the voters that we should have an overall majority.  I know, I fought the key marginal of Batley and Spen and lost by 4,000 votes to the BNP and an increased LibDem vote, with neither candidate having a visible campaign.

So those who focus on crude party political outcomes are missing the point. AV is not about irrevocably shaking up the party system, but about restoring legitimacy to our democratic process. This is something that voters and politicians of all colours should join together to support.

Under our present system of ‘First Past the Post’ elections, most MPs fail to secure a majority of the vote in their constituencies. Only a third of the present cohort of MPs can claim this level of support. Under AV, virtually all MPs would enjoy such a mandate. 

There are also specific benefits for Conservatives. British party politics has become increasingly ‘fragmented’, to use the psephological term. The rise of UKIP – which placed fourth at the 2010 General Election – means that ‘the Right’ is no longer represented by a single, unified force. Old-fashioned First Past the Post is notoriously bad at coping with fragmented party systems, but AV resolves this problem by allowing votes to transfer between similar parties and candidates.

The core features of First Past the Post remain intact under AV: each constituency elects one MP, and the system tends to return single-party governments. It is inexpensive to run, easy to understand, and robust. It is also identical in principle to the system used to elect the leader of the Conservative Party.

Scaremongers will portray this referendum as a battle between ‘radical change’ in one corner and ‘tried and tested tradition’ in the other. Or they will change tack, and claim that it isn’t radical enough. Ultimately, this referendum is a chance for the British people to rubberstamp a small but crucial improvement to our proud tradition of representative democracy.

I will shortly be publishing my survey of Conservative MPs who will be supporting the AV vote and research on likely UKIP/Conservative voting patterns under AV.

CAER will also be holding one of its very successful conference fringe meetings on the AV vote on Monday, 4th September at 4.30pm in the Freedom Zone.  Guest speakers include Douglas Carswell MP, John Strafford of Conservative Campaign for Democracy, Ryan Shorthouse of Bright Blue, Peter Facey of Unlock Democracy and Dan Hannan MEP (tbc).


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