Dear Dawn Primarolo MP
I wish to respond to your reply to my email asking whether you will be supporting the referendum on the voting system in May 2010. A copy of your reply follows this open letter.
I was very disappointed in your reply due to it’s simplification of the issues and inaccuracies over the facts. I will deal with each of your points in turn.
(1) “AV is much more likely to produce a hung Parliament and therefore a need for a Coalition government”.
There has been much research on the current first past the post system, and it can be seen that because it is based on having a 2 party system and we no longer have only 2 political parties vying for a substantial number of votes, that we are more likely to have a coalition government regardless of the electoral system employed. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) published a paper earlier this year called WORST OF BOTH WORLDS: Why first past the post no longer works. This clearly shows the trend of voting behaviour which is leading to less support for the 2 main parties and the likelihood of more coalition governments. (IPPR, http://bit.ly/hWrYc0 )
The support for the 2 main parties has fallen steadily since 1951 (the high watermark of the 2 party system) from 96.8% of the vote to 65.1%. The system now has a multi-party interest without the necessary representation in parliamentary seats. It is rather arrogant to suppose that it is democratic for any party to govern with a working majority with only 35.2% of the vote, as in 2005 under New Labour.
The conclusions of this report are unambiguous and show that hung parliaments are far more likely in the future even without a change in the electoral system.
(2) “this Tory-led coalition government clearly demonstrates that promises made before a general election . . . . are abandoned for an agreement negotiated after the election.”
This implies that (a) we don’t have coalitions within the governments we have under the FPTP system, (b) that governments never change their policies after the election. This is clearly not the case.
The previous Labour government promised not to bring in tuition fees or to increase National Insurance contributions but did so as soon as the election was won. There are many other examples but these are just 2.
What your reason negates to appreciate is that all political parties are coalitions within themselves and over time the make up of those coalitions and the emphasis the policies take over time changes. This happens within government as well as between elections in opposition, even to the point where leaders are “appointed” by the political parties, changing the emphasis of that coalition, yet not allowing the electorate a say.
Two notable examples of this was John Major in 1990 and Gordon Brown in 2007. We of course all know about the splits and negotiations that went on in the background between Blairites and Brownites, Thatcherites and Wets.
(3) “Creates strong, accountable Government with no horse-trading behind the scenes”.
The FPTP system may well provide strong government but not better government or indeed representative government, both of which are incredibly important in a democracy and to give legitimacy to any administration.
In addition, your reasoning does not take into account how common coalition governments are with FPTP in the first place. We have had coalition governments on no less than 8 occasions: 1910 (Jan), 1910 (Nov), 1923, 1929, 1974 (Feb), 1976, 1995–97, 2010-? In addition we have had governments with extremely small majorities where working with other parties became a day to day activity in order to provide stable government : 1950, 1964, 1974 (Oct), 1992. (IPPR, p18)
With this in mind, along with the well known splits between the 2 wings of the major parties that eb and flow, it is hard to argue that the FPTP system gives stronger government than any other type of electoral system.
(4) “Is simple to understand” –
This explanation is simply insulting to the electorate. This excuse used to be used 30 years ago, but surely not today. The public vote in many different types of elections using different election systems. From FPTP in the General Election, to Proportional Representation in European Elections and the Additional Member System in Wales and Scotland. It seems that the public are quite able and intelligent enough to understand the system they use to cast their vote!
(5) “Is better value for money” –
That is a matter of your opinion of value. It is of no value to the electorate if their vote is not counted in an election campaign as happens frequently with FPTP, or if candidates are elected with less than 50% of the vote in their constituencies allowing unrepresentative and unpopular candidates to represent a constituency.
Any democracy that works costs money to run, this is a small price to pay to have a truly representative election system.
(6) “Is fair because one person has one vote – unlike AV where supporters of minority parties end up getting multiple votes”.
This is factually not correct. Nobody will get more than one vote.
In the FPTP system many votes are not counted at all in the election of a government unless you vote for the person who wins in your seat. “Under FPTP millions of votes cast in each election count for nothing. FPTP wastes votes in two ways: the votes for losing candidates in each constituency do not get represented in parliament, while surplus votes for winning candidates have no impact on the result either. In the 2010 general election, around 15.7 million votes were cast for losing candidates, comprising approximately 53 per cent of all voters (by ippr’s calculation). Additionally, there were around 5.4 million surplus votes cast. Taken together, this amounts to over 21 million wasted votes, or 71 per cent of all votes.” (IPPR – p17)
There are over 380 safe seats in Parliament, so unless you happen to live in a marginal constituency you are not likely to influence the election result. This has many effects on the electorate, reducing turn out, after all why bother voting if your vote is unlikely to count?
In addition, if you want your vote to count then you may have to vote for a candidate you don’t really support, voting tactically to vote for the least disliked candidate to make your vote count.
With AV no one gets more than one vote, but to avoid the “wasted” vote, if the candidate you vote for is knocked out in the first count but no one has more than 50% of the vote, their 2nd preference vote is transferred to that candidate until someone gets more votes than all the others combined, ie) over 50%. This means that we can all vote for the candidate we want rather than the one we least dislike and we have a better chance of our vote actually being represented in Parliament. This is a very important democratic point.
(7) “Is quick and easy to count” –
A quick result does not make a correct or democratic result. We did not technically have a government for several days in 2010, and the country did not fall apart. Maybe that’s another idea?
Personally I would rather the people of the United Kingdom were given a proper choice of FPTP, AV or Proportional Representation, but the 2 main parties will not allow the country to have that vote. With the choice ahead of us of FPTP or AV it is clear that AV keeps the link with the constituencies but allows more pluralism to flourish in our democracy and allows more votes to be counted, leading to a fairer electoral system.
I would urge you with this overwhelming amount of evidence against your arguments to reconsider your point of view and join the Yes campaign for the AV system in May.
Jason Washbourne BSc
This is the transcript of the letter from Dawn Primarolo MP dated 28th January 2011
Thank you for your email ragarding the referendum on the voting system due to take place in May this year.
I am not against the referendum, but I personally do not support the alternative vote (AV) system and will be voting against.
AV is much more likely to produce a hung parliament and therefore a need for Coalition Government. This Tory-led Coalition Government clearly demonstrates that promises made before a General Election, and on which voters make their choices, are abandoned for an agreement negotiated after the election.
I believe our current system is better than AV because it:
- Creates strong, accountable Government with no horse-trading behind the scenes
- Is simple to understand
- Is better value for money
- Is fair because one person has one vote – unlike AV where supporters of minority parties end up getting multiple votes
- Is quick and easy to count
I hope this clarifies my views on this matter, but please do not hesitate to contact me again if I can be of further help with this or any other issue.
Labour MP for Bristol South
(Please note this is from a guest blogger on this site)