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Robert McIlveen: The IPPR's unconvincing claims about AV

Dr Robert McIlveen is the author of Policy Exchange's 'The Alternative Vote: the system no-on ewants.' He received his phd, on political party organisation and strategy, from the University of Sheffield in 2008 and is advising NO to AV.

McilveenrobertIPPR’s new report on AV makes some interesting concessions in the debate, as well as some new – and unconvincing – claims on behalf of AV. As the author of Policy Exchange’s work on AV (available here), which concluded that AV is ‘the system no one wants’, it’s interesting to see the Yes side try to make its case better than just insulting MPs’ work-rate.

First the concessions. The report admits that AV will not eliminate safe seats – I’d go further and argue it will have no effect on them at all. Seats are only as safe as the voters make them – it’s not a problem if a local MP is popular, and nothing is forever (look at Redcar in 2010, or Sheffield Hallam between 1987 and 1997, or Enfield Southgate in 1997, among many other examples). Even if you believe that such so-called safe seats are a problem, AV is not the solution: if a MP gets over 50% of the vote – as over 200 MPs currently do – they would win in the first round under AV and the result would be identical to FPTP.

IPPR also concede that AV will have no effect on turnout. If you were out doing a street stall at the weekend, you’ll know just how little impact AV has made on members of the public – certainly in sunny Lewisham we spent as much time explaining what it was as why it should be rejected.

So, what positive case can they make for AV? An earlier IPPR report on voting systems made only one positive mention of AV, arguing that it allows voters the ability to express their first preference without worrying that their vote will be wasted. The new report adds a few more claims: that it will make politics more competitive, reduce tactical voting, and better reflect the growing “promiscuity” of voters.

For anyone who has involved in a marginal seat campaign – and these are the only seats where the redistribution of second preferences under AV could possibly change the result – the thought of it being more competitive must make the mind boggle. The intensity of competition is surely about as high as it can go. And while AV would reduce the majority in some seats, it would increase it in others. The end result would be simply changing around which seats are very competitive and which are slightly less competitive.

What I think IPPR really means is that AV will force candidates who expect to be in the final round to appeal to supporters of parties that are likely to have been eliminated. And there is no doubt that AV will have some effect on how the parties campaign in marginal seats. They will still appeal for tactical support, but change the wording from “the Lib Dems can’t win here – only a vote for the Conservatives can beat Labour” to “the Lib Dems won’t make the final round – put Conservatives second to beat Labour.” And don’t think there won’t be plenty of dirt being thrown around – if someone won’t vote Tory or Labour the next best is to encourage them not to vote for the other party in the last round. Is that an improvement?

This links to IPPR’s claim that AV will reduce tactical voting. But really it just incorporates tactical voting into every voter’s decisions. If I live in the constituency over the road at the next election, which of Labour and Simon Hughes I preferred would probably come into play under AV. Under FPTP I don’t need to think about my preferences – they’re both awful – but under AV I am strongly encouraged to prefer one to the other, and possibly decide the outcome of the election. This leads right back to the fundamental flaw with AV: why should my third or fourth preference be weighed equal to sincere first-choice support for either of the leading candidates?

Where IPPR is on slightly firmer ground is arguing about the “promiscuity” of voters – meaning the weakening of tribal loyalty – linked to the argument that AV allows voters more scope to express their true preferences, which have become more complex over time. This is what Sayeeda Warsi was getting at when discussing the BNP – they would undoubtedly secure a higher percentage of first-round preferences than they do now, as would the Greens and UKIP.

But this, if anything, makes the “unfairness” of FPTP worse. UKIP got 3% of the vote last year but no MPs. They could probably expect to get closer to 10% of first round votes but still get no MPs under AV (because the hurdle for getting into parliament rises to something closer to 50%) – a deeply unfair outcome. In other words, with AV small parties may get more votes, but they will be less likely to win a seat.

Given that the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens got less than 50% of the vote in every seat they won in 2010, AV might give voters more voice but at the cost of fewer small parties actually winning seats in Parliament – making it less representative than it is today. Hardly “going with the grain” of a plural electorate.

Finally, the report claims that hung parliaments are here to stay under any system. Unless IPPR have a time machine, I suspect this is just making a massive assumption about the durability of the Lib Dems – pretty brave given the likely results on May 5th.


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