Karl McCartney: Please vote no to AV

Karl McCartney is the Conservative Lincoln MP

This Thursday on May 5, the first referendum in the United Kingdom for over 35 years will be held on Parliamentary voting reform. This referendum was the primary concession by my party, the Conservatives, to the Liberal Democrats in return for their support for a Coalition Government last May, and will ask “Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the ‘alternative vote’ system instead of the current ‘first past the post’ system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?”

As the Member of Parliament for Lincoln I would like to let you know my thoughts on this proposal. I believe, as many Members in both the Conservative and Labour Party do, that the Alternative Vote (AV) system would be wrong for Britain. It is obscure, unfair and expensive. It’s introduction would mean that people who came third in elections could end up winning. It would make our politics less accountable, and it would be a backward step for our country.

There are three big problems with AV that strike at the heart of how we believe our democracy should work. First, we believe power should lie with the people — and AV would take some of that power away. Second, we believe there should be real accountability between the pledges that politicians put in their manifestos and the action they take in Government. AV would damage that chain of accountability. And third, we believe in the principle of one person, one vote.

AV will mean the votes of some people are counted more than others – why should someone who supports one of the two or three main parties only have their vote counted once, whilst those people who vote for any of the minority parties have their votes counted four, five or more times? That is not a ‘fairer’ election system as we understand it in our country.

So my message to the people in Lincolnshire is that this referendum is about more than the voting system we use. It’s about the kind of country we are, about the democracy we have. The biggest danger is that Britain sleepwalks into this second-rate system, waking up after the referendum on Thursday with a system that permanently damages our democracy.

So if like me you want to keep the system that makes our politicians accountable and enshrines the principle of one person, one vote, please vote NO to AV on May 5.

I would also like to point out that of all the concessions Nick Clegg as Leader of the Lib Dems could have asked for, on issues such as tuition fees or Trident which have been Liberal Democrat policy for many years and could be considered to be in the national interest, he asked for the concession of a chance of changing our electoral system to a method which is only really in the interest of the Liberal Democrats themselves.

Why you should vote no to AV

So I am, and have been, campaigning for a ‘No’ vote in this referendum and I will outline the reasons why. Firstly the cost, a change to the Alternative Vote (AV) will cost up to an additional £250 million for General Elections. Local councils would have to waste money on costly electronic vote counting machines and expensive voter education campaigns.

We currently are borrowing £3000 million extra each week just to balance the books of this Country after the mess the Labour Government made of our economy. How on earth can this cost be justified at a time when we are cutting back on spending whilst trying to protect the frontline services that government provides?

Secondly, there is the complex nature of AV. I believe the winner should be the candidate that fairly comes first. However, under AV the candidate who comes second, third or even fourth can actually be elected. There are just three countries in the world that use AV — Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Australia. The system is so unpopular in Australia that they have to force people to vote through compulsory voting. They are also in the position where they are not able to form a government for several days after an election whilst they attempt to count the preference votes.

In an election in Australia a candidate who only polled 16% of the first preference votes won the day and one who polled 45% of first preferences subsequently finished second. Can this be considered either fair, or democratic? Many in Australia would prefer to return to First Past The Post elections, and as Fiji has suffered two military coups since 1997 it is not exactly a good advert for the Alternative Vote system either, indeed they are all set to drop it too.

There is also the fact that some voters will have their vote counted more than once and in effect have more say than a supporter of a mainstream political party, whose vote is only counted once. I do not believe that politicians should have to pander to both the right and left-wing extremes and prejudices of a minority in order to secure enough votes to get across the AV finishing line.

This is evidenced in the recent Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election where there were 10 candidates and none won more than 50% of the vote, so under AV there would have been a series of redistributions. This would have seen:

  • The 67 people who voted ‘Bus Pass Elvis’ would have been able to register eight preferences that would have been counted
  • 530 who voted Green would have had four preferences counted
  • The 1,560 who voted BNP would have had three preferences counted
  • But the 30,359 people who chose Labour, Lib-Dem or Conservative would have had only one preference counted.

This is not fair. Why should a supporter of ‘extremists’ have three or more further votes? I believe in one person, one vote, the first past the post system we have had for many centuries. This proven, fair system is our legacy to the world; when other nations threw off the shackles of tyranny and dictatorship, they were inspired by our system of elections and Parliamentary democracy. We can look around the world and we see that legacy: 2.4 billion people choose their governments using first-past-the-post. That’s 2.4 billion people — each with one ballot paper and one, equal, vote. Only three countries vote using the AV system and I urge you to keep it that way by voting NO to AV on the 5th of May.

So what would be the consequences of a ‘Yes’ vote to changing to the AV system? Well it would do one of two things, in landslide elections, it would give the winning party even more MPs. The Conservative Government of the 80s and the Labour Government of the 90s were accused by many people of being arrogant and out of touch due to their huge majorities. This is a situation which would potentially be exacerbated by the AV system leading to more arrogant governments facing even less parliamentary scrutiny.

This also defeats the nonsense argument from the ‘Yes’ side that AV will end ‘safe seats’, wasted votes and the idea that this will make MPs work harder. Nearly one-third of MPs in the 2010 general election were returned with over 50% of the vote without so much as anyone whispering “what’s your second fancy?” Even allowing for tactical voting inherent to first-past-the-post, the fact remains that a significant proportion of safe seats would remain totally unaffected by AV.

When there is a dramatic shift in public opinion safe seats are vulnerable even with first-past-the-post. The exemplar is the spectacular defeat of Michael Portillo in 1997, in which a 58% to 26% lead over the nearest rival was turned into a 44% to 41% defeat. Undoubtedly this requires tactical voting with first-past-the-post. But if it is true that AV would make some safe seats more vulnerable might it also make some marginal seats safer?

The other consequence is a split vote and an increase via second and third preferences of Liberal Democrat MPs. This would mean it would not be the people deciding the next Government, it would be the leader of the Liberal Democrats. And what would be the next concession demanded by the Liberal Democrats? Would it be something they believe in for the national interest? Or would it be something in the Liberal Democrats’ interest, perhaps Proportional Representation as a voting system? This what they really want and that is a system that will break the ‘MP to Constituency’ link and would see extremists’ voted into Parliament.

In conclusion, Nick Clegg called it right when he said AV was “a miserable little compromise”, as did the great Winston Churchill when AV was rejected in the 1930s, he said with the AV system “it would mean the most worthless votes for the most worthless candidates.” AV is unfair because it makes some voters more powerful than others in giving them up to eight different votes. It means the candidate that has come third can win, it would cost £250 million that we don’t have, the countries that have it don’t want it, and it won’t end safe seats. It won’t stop a Party enjoying a huge majority. It won’t fix broken politics and will act as a stepping stone to proportional representation and potentially BNP and other extremist MPs in the House of Commons.

So I wholeheartedly urge you to vote “No” to this discredited, expensive, unfair, alternative voting (AV) system and retain ‘First Past the Post’ which has served us well for so many years. Remember, if you don’t vote, you are saying Yes to AV.

— This columns has been republished from Karl McCartney’s website