Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day: Why I’m Voting Yes to AV

This post was written by Salman Shaheen on April 11, 2011
Posted Under: Democracy,Green Party,GreenFeed

We all know that the Alternative Vote isn’t the panacea. It’s not going to cure all the ills of our democracy. Only true proportional representation can do that. But since it’s the best we have on offer, it deserves fair consideration on its own merits.

I support AV because I believe that in a democracy, I have the right and the responsibility to vote for who I want to run the country, not who I think would be least bad out of the devil and the deep blue Tories. Under AV there is no wasted vote, no ridiculous need to squander my democratic right on tactics, no dyed pink in the wool New Labourites telling me that if I vote Green or Respect or whatever I believe is best for this country and the world, I’m letting the Tories in through the back door.

The last eleven months of Tory-Lib Dem cuts and fees have already left an unpleasant taste at the back of my mouth. But a decade of Blair’s neoconservative wars hardly made me feel much better. Like so many people I know, I marched against the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. We’d campaign against Blair for five years, shouting from the streets and rooftops, across blogs and broadsheets, but come polling day, so many of them would swallow that sick and stick their cross next to New Labour for fear of the Tories getting in. As George Monbiot told me before the last election, “As much as I dislike and am disgusted with the Tories, I think you have to vote for what you think is right. And if you cling onto something bad for fear of something worse, no one will end up with the government they want.” I will always vote for what I think is right. Under AV, I can do that safe from the fear of something worse. A two party state, after all, is only twice as good as a dictatorship, and I refuse to accept a system that allows me the choice between one of two evils.

This is exactly why Reuben was wrong to argue that AV should be voted down as the most extremist-proof electoral system. True, the BNP are voting against it, which in itself might be enough to make any sensible progressive support it, but there are more compelling reasons. What Reuben has done is mistake radical parties for parties that are unpalatable to the majority, fascists for example, who may well lose out under AV because they are less likely to be able to attract second preference votes from the mainstream, as Rupert Read argues. As Martin Kettle writes, however, the German experience suggests parties like the Greens could do very well out of AV. This is precisely because the progressive majority we hear so much about in this country will no longer feel that a vote for their conscience is a wasted one.

Some radical have argued that AV will constrain extremist viewpoints because it will encourage parties to attract the widest possible range of voters to scoop up their second and third preferences. They’re right to argue that AV is about coalition building, but I see it not as a constraining force, but an enabling one. As Labour MP Alison McGovern explained to me, this process of pre-election coalition building will naturally benefit the UK’s progressive majority. After all, Labour can look to pick up support from the Greens, the Lib Dems and other left of centre parties. In doing so, it will mean the party, already on a leftwards tilt, will be forced to abandon the banal middle ground, get off the fence and start reaching out to progressives with policies that will appeal to them. Who will the Tories reach out to? UKIP? Perhaps, but go too far down the Europhobic line and they risk falling back into their familiar patterns of disastrous infighting. The BNP? I don’t think so.

Some on the left have argued that the best reason to vote against AV is to deal a blow to the Lib Dems and cripple the coalition’s weak link. Hate Nick Clegg, vote against AV. Hang on, isn’t David Cameron doing the same thing? Don’t we hate him even more? I think we need to be more sensible in picking both our enemies and our battles. The Lib Dems may be the weaker part of the coalition, but it won’t come apart if AV fails, the Tories have thrown them enough bones and there’s no where else for them to go. It might ruffle a few backbench feathers, it might irk the rank and file, but the Parliamentary Lib Dems will stay behind the coalition because they’ve lost their clothes and the wilderness is too cold without them. AV, on the other hand, will benefit genuine progressive reformers. It is childish to put short term political gripes that we all share ahead of long-term democratic reform. Nick Clegg deserves to be the punchbag he wishes he weren’t. He deserves every expletive, every hate-filled column inch, every ounce of fight we can possibly bring to him, but the future of our democratic system is not the right battle.

And let’s not forget, this really is about the future of our democratic system. AV is far from perfect. It’s a sop, another Tory bone, a limp excuse for listening to the people and above all, it’s not proportional representation. But it’s all we’ve got for the moment. We can either say yes to meagre change, or stick with what we’ve got. If we vote down this reform, we will derail all attempts for genuine democratic reform for decades to come. Our opponents will say ‘look, no one wanted AV, there’s no demand for PR’. And the debate will die there for another generation. If we vote to pass AV, we have a platform. We have an argument to say this is just the beginning, we want more and we’ll have the power of a referendum behind us.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. But when Honorious saw the Visigoths coming over the hill and decided to do nothing, it was sacked much more quickly.

That is why I’m voting for AV on May 5.

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Reader Comments


It’s going to take a bit more than PR to cure the ills of our ‘democracy’ Salman. Not only is this too little too late but full PR would be too little too late to redeem the corrupt parliamentary system.

Written By J on April 11th, 2011 @ 8:00 am

I agree that more needs to be done than electoral reform alone, but what speicifically do you think PR would fail to address?

Written By Salman Shaheen on April 11th, 2011 @ 10:09 am

Our politicians being bought by rich people.

Media moguls offering election wins in return for increased monopoly over their sector.

The problem that putting a bit of paper in a box every few years can’t be said to be control over your own life.

Written By J on April 11th, 2011 @ 4:54 pm

This is an excellent post, and I entirely agree with it. I’d also add that there’s a decent partisan lefty reason in favour of voting yes that you didn’t mention – namely that it’ll royally piss off the Tory right (who think they’ll never hold power outside of a coalition if AV comes in) and help to drive a wedge between them and Cameron.

Written By Owen on April 11th, 2011 @ 6:05 pm

I’m sorry but AV, as with every other majoritarian voting system, results in wasted votes, granted there are fewer, but nothing aside from PR results in a significant reduction.

Furthermore, the idea that a Yes vote would build a platform is utterly wrong. If AV is accepted then it makes the case for PR weaker; constitutional changes such as this do not come about frequently.

Perhaps those who support AV as a ‘stepping stone’ ought to be making the valid case for PR itself.

Written By Charles on April 11th, 2011 @ 7:01 pm

Charles, unlike a fair few in the yes to AV camp, I would much prefer to see PR, I think I made that clear in this article. That case has been made time and time again and should continue to be made regardless of which way the country votes on May 5. But do you really think voting down this reform will make PR more likely?

Written By Salman Shaheen on April 11th, 2011 @ 8:36 pm

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