Introducing AV is a small change – but it could have a big impact


For me, securing a yes vote in the referendum is about helping to create a more open and participatory politics. A lot of people in this country find politics a really big turn-off – and I can understand why. They want to see a change in the way politics is done. I do too.

It is hardly earth shattering to suggest that if we MPs are going to claim the right to speak for our constituents, we should each secure the support of 50% of those who voted. Preference voting systems – such as AV – are already used up and down the country in the internal elections of membership organisations, businesses and unions. Labour and other political parties use them to elect their own leaders.

That preference voting for the House of Commons is sometimes regarded as an outlandish suggestion says a lot about the narrow culture of the existing political system. It will take more than a new voting system to change that culture. But it will certainly help.

Last week I was interviewed about AV on the BBC Politics Show along with the Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski. Like many others who oppose change, Daniel claimed that AV would give some voters a second vote whilst others got just the one vote. This is nonsense. When votes are counted in every round of an election held under AV, every citizen who casts a vote has his or her vote recorded equally – as one vote.

What AV does mean is that voters can express a preference. At the polling booth the voter can identify the candidature or party he or she would most like to support and cast a first preference accordingly. Under the current First Past the Post system, voters often feel obliged, not to vote for the candidate they most support, but rather for the one they think has the best chance of beating the party they least want to see elected. That fosters the kind of negative campaigning by political parties that is such big turn off for so many voters.

First Past the Post may have suited the political landscape of the 1950s, but, as a new report by IPPR demonstrates, it is an electoral system which has had its day. Indeed, the evidence suggests that these days it cannot even be relied upon to produce the decisive election results its supporters claim. Even so, it’s not surprising that the Conservative Party is overwhelmingly against change. They have traditionally done nicely out of First Past the Post – and it is likely to be even better for them if they manage to gerrymander parliamentary boundaries in the way they are trying to.

AV would be good for Labour, but the most important reason to vote for change is that it would be good for democracy.

First Past the Post is actually a misleading name for our current electoral system. Because there is no winning post that the candidate has to reach. Not a majority of votes. Not even a designated percentage. It’s like a race where it doesn’t matter if your horse ever completes the course – just as long as it gets a bit further than the other horses manage. The result is that many MPs are elected with less than one in three voters supporting them.

I did better than that at the last General Election, but I was still some way off the 50% mark. The atmosphere in the constituency and my assessment of what makes local people tick makes me think that I would have been successful if the election had been held under AV. But I cannot know this would be the case unless we give the voters the power to express those preferences.

If I am right in my assessment, I would win. If I am wrong, I should lose – however uncomfortable that would be for me. That knowledge would be an added incentive for all parties to stay closely in touch with voters, to develop a politics that embodies clarity and which is capable of securing a greater breadth of support. Surely that has got to be good for politics.

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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