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AV will strengthen the centre, not the left

This article is over 11 years, 2 months old
Having a vote is better than not having one. But what we vote for bears little resemblance to what we get.
Issue 2247

Having a vote is better than not having one. But what we vote for bears little resemblance to what we get.

UK general elections use the first past the post system. The candidate with the most votes wins, regardless of their share of the total votes cast.

So, at the last general election the Tories got just 36 percent of the vote—but ended up with a far higher percentage of seats in parliament.

This system, which allowed Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair to win election landslides with just two fifths of the vote, is unfair.

Socialist Worker supports electoral reform if it helps break the dominance of the increasingly unrepresentative big parties, and opens up a space for the left.

The upcoming referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) voting system does not offer this opportunity.

AV allows people to vote for candidates in order of preference—if they want to. So they would put “1” by their first preference candidate, “2” by their second preference, and so on.

The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their preferences transferred. This process goes on until one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote and is declared the winner.


The present system makes it very hard for minor parties to get elected. That why some right wingers want no change while some on the left think any change must be good.

But AV would not help minor parties win elections. AV strengthens mainstream parties because those who vote for smaller parties give their extra votes to the centre.

The Electoral Reform Society says that if the 2010 general election had used AV there would be a slight reduction in the number of Tory MPs, a slight increase for Labour and the Lib Dems, and no increase for non-mainstream candidates.

The Green Party’s Caroline Lucas could have lost in Brighton under AV and George Galloway could have lost in Tower Hamlets in 2005.

With AV, the coalition parties could recommend that their supporters give a second preference to the other coalition party.

The main likely effect of AV would be for the Lib Dems to grab second votes from the Tories and fend off total annihilation.

The proposal for AV doesn’t come from a commitment to better democracy.

It comes from a shoddy deal between the Tories and the Lib Dems as they stitched together the coalition government.

A genuinely proportional system would be very helpful to the left—and to the UK Independence Party and the Nazi British National Party.

But AV is not proportional representation (PR). It doesn’t deliver seats on the basis of the percentage of votes.

It doesn’t improve democracy, even within the limited terms of Britain’s parliamentary system.

One argument for a yes vote is that people could vote left of Labour without fear of letting the right in.

But AV is no magic formula for the left to win more seats. In the London election for mayor in 2008, where voters had a second preference, most people still saw the election as Labour versus Tory and voted accordingly.

Socialist Worker backs a no vote in the referendum on AV and supports PR. But we don’t consider voting systems to be the key question. Many European countries have more progressive voting systems than in Britain. Portugal has PR—but workers still face savage cuts.

Divisions over AV are blurred. Some 200 Labour MPs and peers support the No campaign, alongside the majority of Tory MPs.

The GMB union is against AV but the PCS union is for it. Labour leader Ed Miliband is campaigning for the Yes camp alongside the Lib Dems, claiming that AV would enable “progressive” parties to come together.

Both the yes and the no campaigns are unappetising, trading celebrities and spurious arguments.

The left should not get trapped in a debate about constitutional reform that serves the interests of the big parties.

The problem with today’s democracy is that it is extremely limited. To address that we need to go far beyond what type of voting system we want.

To make democracy truly relevant to the majority of working people, we need economic and social democracy as well as political democracy.

The capitalist class can live with political democracy—the election of parliaments and governments—because the decisive levers of power are outside parliament.

Voting on AV won’t change that but voting no, and rejecting what Nick Clegg called “a miserable little compromise”, can deepen the cracks in the coalition.

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