Four weeks today, and Croydon and the rest of London ought to be going to the polls.
While much of the rest of the country will also be voting in some form of local elections, the only thing for Londoners to determine is their choice of electoral system in a referendum on whether to say “Yes” to the Alternative Vote system, or “No”, and retain the discredited existing first-past-the-post system.
The referendum on the Alternative Vote, or AV, was the sop to the LibDems to secure their support for Call Me Dave’s Tory-dominated coalition.
What this referendum has produced is a Frankenstein’s monster of a coalition.
The Say No-ers have seen Croydon South MP Richard Ottaway and Waddon Tory councillor Clare Hilley out on the streets to join a campaign headed by the likes of “Lord” John Prescott and former head of the People’s Socialist Republic of Sheffield, David Blunkett.
It is all rather uncomfortably familiar to the last time we staged a national referendum in Britain nearly 40 years ago. Then after Ted Heath’s Conservatives had broken public promises of holding a referendum on whether Britain should enter what was then the Common Market and took the UK in anyway, Harold Wilson’s subsequent Labour administration offered a pointedly different question in 1975: should we pull out?
That brought together some very strange bed-fellows, with the likes of Tony Benn, and Michael Foot occupying the same anti-EEC platform with notorious right-wingers such as Enoch Powell. Historical note: the Conservative line was to vote to stay in, enthusiastically supported by the new party leader, Margaret Thatcher.
Anyway, we digress. Then, as now, the essential question offered to the public in the referendum was framed to elicit the answer required and preserve the status quo.
In 2011’s referendum, the thing to realise is that there is barely any difference in the first-past-the-post and AV systems.
Those who are truly committed to a more proportionally representative democracy, and who are strongly in favour of junking the existing first-past-the-post system, know too well that AV is not the answer.
There is little surprise that the likes of Tricky Dicky Gettaway backs the existing voting system. Truth is, for once he may not be acting in unenlightened self-interest. AV would make little difference in a constituency like Croydon South: only once in five general elections since he first got voted in to Westminster has Ottaway’s share of the vote dipped below 50 per cent. It is one of the country’s safest seats, a virtual sinecure for life; it is little wonder that without any fear of losing his seat, Tricky Dicky felt able to take such liberties by living outside the constituency, put his missus on the Westminster pay-roll and make merry with his expenses claims (all entirely legit, naturally).
Under an AV system, Ottaway – or his successor, probably that other expenses expert, current Croydon councillor Steve O’Connell – would expect to be safely returned after the first vote.
And even under AV, that means that the 49 per cent of people in Croydon South who did not vote Conservative have their views left unrepresented.
A similar scenario of AV offering a “no change” change would be played out in Malcolm Wicks’ Croydon North constituency, although at least there, only 40 per cent or so of the electorate’s votes are rendered valueless.
AV is where voters’ second and third preferences, if they have them, may be taken into account, but only if no candidate receives 50 per cent of the ballot. It appears to be as flawed a system as first-past-the-post.
But in Cameron and Clegg’s desperate grab for power last year, it was the least unpallatable option that Call Me Dave could sell to his Tory back benchers. And it was the closest thing to a concession that Cleggy was ever going to get to justify shoring up so many Tory policies.
The whole point of considering a different voting system is to make elections more representative. The LibDems want reform because they are fed up with polling 25 per cent of all votes, but getting less than 15 per cent of the available seats under the existing system. But AV ain’t the way to change that.
Don’t take our word for it: see what Woy Jenkins, the patron saint of what is now the Liberal Democrats party, had to say 13 years ago after conducting a review of proportional voting systems.
Jenkins wrote shortly after Tony Bliar’s first election win in 1997 that AV “offers little prospect of a move towards greater proportionality, and in some circumstances, and those the ones which certainly prevailed at the last election and may well do so for at least the next one, it is even less proportional than FPTP”.
Even on last year’s General Election results, the outcome would be barely altered, whether using FPTP – first-past-the-post – or AV. Under AV, the 2010 result would have seen the Lib Dems, who won 23 per cent of the vote, still end up with just 12 per cent of the seats (79, up from the balance-of-power controlling 57 that they now have).
By contrast, under the Single Transferable Vote, the proportional system originally favoured by the LibDems, they would have won 162 seats.
Check out this excellent online democracy tool, the Voter Power Index, to illustrate how AV would barely affect the outcome in your constituency (before any boundary changes, which based on population ought to see Croydon gain a fourth MP).
- Croydon South goes from being “ultra safe” to being only “very safe”.
- For Croydon North, there is no change whatsoever.
- It is in the already marginal Croydon Central constituency where things are more interesting. But then, even under FPTP, Gavin Barwell’s seat is a two-way battleground, the Conservative being elected to parliament last year with the support of less than 40 per cent of his electorate, and a majority of just 328 votes.
Wicks justifies his support for the Yes campaign by saying, “Surely to be an MP you should have more than 50 per cent of votes cast? If second preference votes are cast we can elect MPs with true majorities and therefore democratic legitimacy.”
Wicks highlights that the No campaigners have resorted to scaremongering tactics. Some of us would use less parliamentary language, and call them outright lies. This week, they are saying that the BNP would benefit from AV, conveniently overlooking that BNP leader Nick Griffin is supporting the No campaign. We ought not be surprised, then, that Hilley has this canard prominently displayed on her own blog.
Wicks also points out that the No campaign has the full support of the Conservatives and is well-funded by interest groups keen to block any democratic change.
Which is fine. But the chances are, AV will pretty much maintain the status quo, too.
Updated Nov 9 2011: “Inside Croydon and Councillor Clare George-Hilley earlier this year both concluded, albeit for different reasons, that AV was not a credible voting system.. We accept Councillor George-Hilley has a right to express her own views. Inside Croydon has never suggested that she acted improperly or dishonestly in doing so. Councillor George-Hilley and all other interested parties are always welcome to submit their comments for publication on this article”.
- On your bike! Out of touch Ottaway’s latest gaffe (insidecroydon.com)
- Croydon’s MPs decide you won’t get a vote on Europe (insidecroydon.com)
- The AV referendum explained (blogs.confused.com)
- Crisis? What Crisis? Ottaway’s getaway on his yacht (insidecroydon.com)