IN one of his own recent newspaper columns, Boris Johnson set out his case against the Alternative Vote system (AV), decrying it as a “gigantic fraud”.
Given his own elevation to the post of Mayor of London was as a result of a form of AV, should we conclude that his mandate rests on the same fraudulent basis?
For me, the debate surrounding AV was launched at the beginning of the year before Boris got in on the act.
Last January, I found myself debating at the University College London (UCL) Union Society for the motion “This house would vote yes to AV”. I was joined by speaker Jonathan Bartley (“Yes” to fairer votes campaigner) in favour of the motion.
Dr Robert Mcllveen (author of Policy Exchange’s publication on AV) and Stephen Parkinson (Conservative national organiser of the No2AV campaign) argued against.
Considering Nick Clegg has put his and his party’s reputation (what’s left of it) on the line for this issue, I would ordinarily welcome this opportunity to give him and the Lib Dems a bloody nose.
However, I would like to commend some of the merits of an AV voting system. The most important for me is that it can open the door to the United Kingdom’s progressive majority, particularly in London.
Take the City of Westminster, traditionally a Tory stronghold. The most recent election results suggest Labour has a progressive vote greater, in fact, than the Tory vote. With AV, who knows what can be done to change things in central London?
For me, the biggest prize would be to achieve greater representation of the progressive majority, thereby achieving better representation within our political system. AV can achieve this.
Let’s be clear about what exactly is being proposed in this referendum on May 5.
The idea is a voting system where instead of just placing an X against the name of the candidate you want to win, voters will be asked to list in numbered priority their preferred candidates (1, 2, 3 etc).
This is what the electorate were asked to do for the Mayoral contest in London in 2008 and will be asked to do again in 2012 at the next London Mayoral elections, with just two votes known as the supplementary vote (SV), a variant of AV.
The proposed “national” system of AV for MPs will give you several more opportunities to number preferred candidates. To achieve a majority vote, politicians would have to widen their appeal beyond their own core vote. It is, and can no longer be, the case that MPs can scrape by with the endorsement of only 20-30 per cent of the electorate.
The case against AV is sometimes based on ignorance of the system being advocated.
This is not a vote for Proportional Representation (PR) as the No campaigners would have you believe.
PR is what we unfortunately have with the election of MEPs in the European Parliament and also list members for the London Assembly, like myself.
Hence many of the arguments deployed for a No vote are not in fact anti-AV, but anti-PR.
AV doesn’t break the constituency link either. In fact, this issue is being addressed by a different bit of legislation, where it’s proposed to change the boundaries of the present seats by getting rid of 50 parliamentary seats.
Also, AV doesn’t help small parties as it works against extremists like the BNP as moderate party supporters tend to transfer between each other.
It is often argued that AV would result in more coalitions. In fact, as it is the candidate with the most votes who wins, it actually derives from the same family of systems as FPTP in the UK.
Therefore, hung parliaments are not more likely. As was demonstrated by our own most recent election results, FPTP has not given the UK any special immunity to hung parliaments.
So, AV keeps the best features of the current system – members representing their local communities with decisive results – but strengthens it by making MPs work harder to get elected and giving the electorate more say on who their local MP will be.
Returning to the debate on the motion at UCL, it was passed by 40 votes in favour and 28 against with 11 abstentions. I was certainly pleased to note that our students, our future electorate, had voted in favour of the motion, hopefully giving a good steer to the national debate.
Perhaps, given the topic, we should have allowed the 11 abstentions a second preference votes, which may have then given the Yes vote something nearer the 50 per cent approval that AV would ideally give elected politicians!
I think the debate at UCL shows that the argument for AV can be won. In London, we are already accustomed to a form of AV because of the way we elect our Mayor of London every four years.
If AV is good enough to elect the Mayor of London, then why not our Members of Parliament?
• Murad Qureshi is a Labour London Assembly member and lives in Marylebone.
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