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David Heath on the Alternative Vote

Tuesday 19 April 2011, 16:27
By David Heath MP

[Editor: The debate on electoral reform warrants thorough discussion by both supporters and opponents of the Alternative Vote system. We look forward to reading your comments if you agree with David, but we also invite anyone with an alternative view to comment on this, or one of the other related articles we've published, listed below:]

- Pro-AV article by Peter Roberts
- Anti-AV article by Nick Colbert

[This article first appeared in the Western Gazette on Thursday 14th April 2011]

David Heath MP, leaning rather heavilly on a rickety old fence.Somebody wrote to me last week asking for my "impartial" opinion on the referendum on 5th May on changing the Westminster electoral system. I tried my best, but it's a little difficult for me to be entirely impartial because I have a very clear preference myself, and that is for a change to the Alternative Vote system and away from the present First Past the Post method of electing MPs. That is not to say that AV would be my ideal solution. It isn't. I would like to see a properly proportional system, where the number of seats a party wins relates directly to the number of votes they get in a general election, but given the two biggest parties were against that, it's not on offer.

So why would I want a change? Well, first of all, when you listen to politicians talking about voting reform, bear in mind that they all have vested interests. I do too. There is evidence that, in most elections, my party would do a little better under AV, which would not be difficult. But bear that in mind as well when you hear the dragoons of old-style politicians supporting the status quo and campaigning for a no vote. They are the direct beneficiaries of the current system.

But the overwhelming arguments for a change isn't fairness to politicians but fairness to voters. Under the current system, only the votes of those whose first preference is the winning candidate count for anything at all. In my constituency, for example, at the last election I got just under half the total number of votes, 47.5%. That means that the votes of slightly over half of those who voted, who voted Conservative, Labour, UKIP or Independent, counted for nothing at all. Under AV, the second and third preferences of the candidates who did least well would have been added to the scores, and so whoever won would have had the support of most of the people in the constituency. At the moment someone who two thirds of the votes in a constituency think is appalling can nevertheless still be elected.

AV also has some knock-on effects. It means there are fewer "safe seats" where everybody knows which party is going to win, whoever the candidates are. It means that MPs have to actively seek the support of voters well beyond their own party supporters to ensure election. It means that those who really support a smaller party are not forced to vote "tactically".

The "Yes" campaign is also running a line that AV means that your MP has to work harder. Needless to say, I'm not best pleased with that particular line, because I think (although it's for others to say) that I work pretty hard already, but it may be true in safe seats where a degree of complacency can set in. I well remember as a newly elected MP astonishing some old-stagers in other parties by insisting that I get back to my constituency every weekend to do my advice surgeries. I got the impression that visits to their constituencies were occasional affairs, and might include being met by the town band at the station!

I'm afraid some of the campaign arguments have been extraordinarily lame. I disagree with one of my colleagues who suggested that the opponents of change are behaving like Goebbels. But the No campaign has come up with some entirely spurious costs of AV elections which they claim could be put to better use. The figures they come up are based on doing the whole election by electronic voting machines. No-one has suggested doing anything of the sort, nor is it remotely necessary. They also suggest AV benefits extremists. In fact, the reverse is true, which is why the BNP are one of the two parties campaigning for a no vote. Then there is the idea that it's all too complicated. That a nation used to voting for "Britain's Got Talent" can't work out how to write 1, 2, 3 against candidates' names rather than an X seems pretty far-fetched to me.

At the end of the day, people will read the material and make up their own minds. But don't come to me for impartial advice. I'm definitely voting Yes.

David Heath


Nick Colbert
Posts: 3
The case against
Reply #1 on : Thu April 21, 2011, 22:03:31
Nick Clegg described the proposed AV system as a "miserable little compromise" before the last general election.

David Owen: Has said I support a PR system, but I will be voting ‘no’ in the AV referendum
I have been a long-standing supporter of proportional representation and joined the Electoral Reform Society in 1985.
AV will replace a bad system with a worse one.

In 1998 a report into the alternative voting system was Chaired by Senior Lib Dem Roy Jenkins
he concluded a move to the AV voting system would be bad for the country - his 3 main conclusions were
AV is less proportional that FPTP
AVs effects are disturbingly unpredictable.
AV IS unacceptably unfair

Winston Churchill said AV is the stupidist, least scientific and most unreal voting system where worthles votes for the most worthles candidates are used again and again

Several historians, writing in yesterday’s Times say that the principle on which democracy is built will be threatened by AV. These historians include Simon Sebag Montefiore, Prof. Niall Ferguson, and David Starkey.
In a joint statement from the list of prominent historians, they said:

“Men and women have fought for the right to vote. That long fight for suffrage established the principle of one man or woman, one vote. The principle is that each person’s vote is equal, regardless of wealth, gender, race or creed.”

AV destroys this principle by allowing the most worthless votes to be counted over and over again.

First past the post is used by half the planet (21/2 BILLION PEOPLE) including major democracies like the USA & India.

AV is only used by 3 countries in the whole world.
In Australia 78% voted in the last First Past The post election, only 59.4% voted under AV, then they made voting compulsory, now 60% of the Australian people want to change back. The complexity of the system meant Australia's last election took 17 days to be resolved.

Fiji has had a military coup after the result of an AV election and has since banned further elections.

In Papua New Guinea they had one election under AV, in 2007, but voting was so complicated that even with a population of fewer than seven million, it took 23 days to determine the result.

AV has been tried in three provinces in Canada and a handful of city elections in the US. Resulting in confusion, controversy and rapid rejection of AV.

AV was simply the result of a fudged compromise between two men who had not slept for 48 hours trying to reach a coalition agreement. Nick Clegg wanted PR David Cameron wanted First Past The Post - no one wanted AV.

I'm definitely voting No!
Last Edit: April 22, 2011, 15:28:42 by Nick Colbert  
James Phillips
Posts: 4
Re: David Heath on the Alternative Vote
Reply #2 on : Fri April 22, 2011, 22:10:19
I would have dearly loved to be the pro-AV speaker!
Nick Colbert
Posts: 3
Reply #3 on : Fri April 22, 2011, 22:51:40
James, Your Mum said you like to argue an imposible case.
James Phillips
Posts: 4
Re: David Heath on the Alternative Vote
Reply #4 on : Sat April 23, 2011, 12:25:48
Very true, though I'm perfectly willing to argue a more possible case if it does some good!
Nick Colbert
Posts: 3
Reply #5 on : Sat April 23, 2011, 15:03:39
Good, then help me argue against the core strategy plan that says we must have 1053 new houses by 2026 even if we have no jobs for people to come to. Particularly against building all over the green belt farmland behind Dancing Lane. I am sure you would agree it will destroy Wincantons character as a market town.
Julie Girling MEP
Posts: 1
Reply #6 on : Wed April 27, 2011, 14:43:21
I was interested to read David Heath's arguments in favour of AV. Perhaps I might make some comments:

1) David admits AV is not his preference, a full PR system would why all this expense and fuss to hold a referendum for a system that no one really wants?

2) Why would a magical extra 2.5% of votes under the FPTP system make him more legitimate? This obsession with passing the 50% threshold seems bizarre to me. It's relevant if there are only 2 candidates, but where there are more than 2, the candidate with the most votes wins. What's wrong with that?

3) Under FPTP no vote is wasted, or to use David's words, doesn't "count for anything at all". It's just that some votes go towards a winning candidate and some are cast for the loser. The idea that all the preferences under AV "count" in some way is misleading and simplistic. The FPTP system works on the basis of a clear winner in the best British tradition.

4) I do agree with David about the "lame" arguments in this campaign, but I think he should have the good grace to acknowledge that this criticism applies to both sides.

All in all, I am voting NO because I see no reason to make a change to a system that even it's proponents see as a half baked compromise.

The British electorate are much too sensible to support such a half-hearted approach. They might take more notice of a campaign that stuck to its principles, but all we've seen is a plea for change just for the sake of it.

Parliament and the British people have much more important priorities.
James Phillips
Posts: 4
Re: David Heath on the Alternative Vote
Reply #7 on : Tue May 03, 2011, 21:21:44
Ah, Julie Girling. The MEP who dodged and spoke untruths in response to my questions about Michael Kaminski at Bishop Wordsworth school politics society.

In response
1) Of course, compromise is an obvious thing and it is the obvious reason why Mr Heath supports it. Full PR does not seem a possibility as of yet, so a half way point is therefore a necessary step. Just because one cannot stop all genocide, doens't mean one shouldn't go some of the way. I believe this was Mr David Camerons logic, and Mr Heath is using it here.

2) 50% is a significant marker because is means a majority of the vote has gone his way. Hence, this is why the house of commons requires a majority vote. To understand the concept of a majority seems to me to be fairly simple. Now, in Mr Heaths case the extra step to a majority is small and I think this is why you used it in an attempt to ridicule it. However, in most cases the gap is not so small and in many the gap is very, very large. The reason that it is important if there are more than 2 candidates is that one may get a tiny fraction of the vote and still win. It is why the conservative party uses AV to choose its leader after all, and Mr Davis would be the tory leader if it was not for such a system.

3) "basis of a clear winner in the best British tradition." I'm quite unsure how the appeal to nationalism actually works. It is also puzzling as to how a right wing party getting 35% of the vote and winning the seat, whilst two left wing parties each get 30%, constitutes a 'clear winner'. In fact it seems that left wing policies were the most popular, the most sought after and the most desired by 25%, whilst the winners policies got just 35% of the vote. This does not amount to a clear winner.

4) Of course, both sides have put forward lame arguments, yet one look at Baroness Warsi reveals that the No side has an impressive preponderance of distortion and outright lies.

Finally, 'change just for the sake of it' is such a poor statement that I merely highlight it for others to enjoy and laugh at.

"Parliament and the British people have much more important priorities." May I briefly ask what is more important than the way we elect our officials to office? It does seem fairly fundamental both to parliament itself and to the citizens of the country.
James Phillips
Posts: 4
Re: David Heath on the Alternative Vote
Reply #8 on : Tue May 03, 2011, 21:23:09
And to Nick, arguing against the core strategy does indeed seem to be a good use of time.

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