Shedding the AV mask: lessons from Australia
By Nishma Doshi. This is the first in our series in the run up to the Green Party conferences, where, among other things, Green Party of England and Wales policy on the AV referendum will be debated.
The current AV reform in the UK is viewed by many in the left as a progressive move; they argue that AV will remove the idea of a wasted vote and, most importantly, keep the Tories out. This support by minority parties and their members is detrimental to bringing about change however, as AV (or preferential voting) in the Australian system has created immense difficulties for the Greens, the third largest party, to gain any seats in parliament.
In all aspects, at a glance, AV makes sense – it should be a fairer system with the notion of a wasted vote absolved, but further analysis into the way that people actually vote brings out the fundamental flaws that are accrued with voting methodology.
Let me explain: in the forthcoming election about 12% of the populace state that they are going to vote Green. The chances are that voters of other minority parties are those feeling ostracised by Labor (ALP) or the Liberal/National party and their controversial new leaders; therefore, they will probably place ALP or Liberal as their second. Alternatively, they will be voting tactically in their second to keep one of the two major parties out. As each minority party is reallocated to the other parties, the piles of ALP and the Liberal/National votes will increase at the cost of the Greens. Ultimately therefore, the two-horse race dwindles down to the two major parties, with the Greens sectioned out much more adversely than with first past the post.
Even as the third major party in Australia, the Greens (and previously, the Australian Democrats) have continually failed to get a representative proportion of the seats in the House of Representatives. Alternatively, the Senate, which operates on a state-based Proportional Representation, both have gained a much larger control. Although voters vote differently in Upper & Lower house elections, the difference of 6 versus 0 is a clear indication of the fallacies in this form of electoral voting reform. If anything, it shows the clear injustice in the system and explains how the House of Representatives retains a two-party system – detrimental to democracy.
Going for reform – All or None
There is an equally strong argument that should a referendum on voting reform pass, it will be used as an excuse to prevent real parliamentary reform. There are two key elements to this rationale:
1. The government has been successfully voted into power through the current system & are therefore obviously reluctant to do anything that may challenge that.
2. Acceptance of a limited choice (AV or not) means that we are accepting the choices presented to us rather than demanding a fair system. Once again, we are letting the right decide what we discuss rather than shifting the argument onto our side of the court.
Australian republicans are all too aware of these issues. In 1999, while all opinion polls suggested otherwise, a referendum on the monarchy failed to change the status quo. The result was not surprising, however, as the Liberal Party had taken various measures to ensure its failure, in line with John Howard’s monarchist principles. Eleven years and a new government later, there has not been another referendum on a republic.
While the Liberal Democrats have jumped into a pit of death by forming a coalition with the Tories and while Labour still doesn’t quite understand its position on reform, we have a unique opportunity to highlight the Green Party’s continued support for actual reform and our refusal to accept pointless excuses
The ConDem coalition is playing the same game: our choices are limited to AV or FPTP, not real parliamentary reform. Just as republican Australians accepted the un-alternatives to the constitutional monarchy as proposed in the referendum, we are letting the right-wing inform us on what reform is.
There is no-one else to make a stance on implementing real parliamentary reform: the Liberal Democrats have accepted AV by forming a coalition with the Tories and Labour still doesn’t know where it stands. As this point it is up to the Green Party to decide: do we want to be seen as accepting and supporting electoral reform that will do little to improve our democratic representation, or will we make a case against a seemingly half-way mark?
The chances are that this opportunity for reform will not come again, especially if we accept AV as a legitimate form of voting reform. There is a chance to make a stance and we are not alone: Unlock Democracy and POWER2010 have joined forces to push for parliamentary reform; hundreds of disillusioned Liberal Democrats will support us; and together we have the opportunity to bring true democracy into British politics.
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Adam you are precisely why people think Greens are a waste of time. Why bother trying to achieve anything other than the ideal solution? Just sit back, swear all over the internet so future employers can see what a charm you are, and say the Lib Dems achieve nothing.
Hehe! What are your chances David? I don’t know much about the Salford Green scene! x
I’m pretty sure I’ll also be either voting no or spoiling my ballot paper with “PR!” scrawled across it. At least we have locals on the same day so voting for oneself its some compensation 😉
And David, your neutral position argument is a good one. I’m not campaigning for or against, but may well vote no, if I can be arsed at all.
Nishma, your article makes a hell of a lot of sense, and an aussie I live with makes much the same points. Also compulsory voting in Aus may play some sort of factor (perhaps)?
AV is an absolute pile of crap compromise. I’m voting no, and I want PR. Not establishment Tory shit.
I’m glad there are some sensible greens seeing that AV will be a load of garbage, and will stop electoral reform for at least another decade. We need to be agitating for real PR, not licking Clegg’s arse.
Actual Rupert if you want to talk about polls? Interestingly YouGov ran one only last June for the European Elections commissioned BY us, the Green Party which put us at 15%!.. mind you that’s under PR, so it would perhaps be less under AV.
Out of 14 national polls the Greens polled at 9.1% (which was about accurate in the end), even UKIP’s commissioned YouGov poll put us on 11%. Polls and results also include Scottish Greens.
Yes people will be able to put a ‘First and Second’ choice, but how do you measure that statistically in comparison to PR and even FPTP? Won’t that split actually Green votes between the two options? I don’t know to be honest. There’s still no concrete information about the process. Some people assuming wrongly all candidates can be “scored” 1-10 for example.
I’m starting to think there needs to be a “Neutral Position” option at Green Party conference in September.
As Nishma quite rightly hits the nail on the head, AV and the proposals this bill puts forward are neither black or white.
The Green Party certain is “different”. With Labour & Tories opposing and Lib Dems backing maybe we’d gain ground by abstaining or not making a FIRM decision pending further debate, urging our membership to participate and decide closer to the time?
This is one way to offer a genuine alternative to the BIG THREE!
Assuming it is actually AV, which I’ve seen no evidence to the contrary, you will be able to rank all candidates, just listing first and second is contingency voting. If the system is properly explained to people, then, no one should have to put anyone other than their ideal choice first, so all those, perhaps 10-15% of people (if we’re lucky), who might vote green if they thought it was worth while can do so, safe in the knowledge that it won’t let the coalition back in. That’s enough, in a cycle or two, to get us into second and third places where we can then pick up other preferences and seats, and to build a bigger profile for other elections.
I doubt a neutral position would get much coverage, party with 1 MP says they don’t mind what happens isn’t much of a story, and I imagine that’s how it would be seen by most people. We can certainly try to make a case for going further but I don’t see staying neutral just to be different as persuading many people.
Nishma, according to the Aussie Greens I know, what you are saying here is simply wrong, simply mistaken. You still haven’t answered my basic point: why are the Greens polling 10% plus for first preferences, in Oz? Answer: because of AV. What wouldn’t we give to be at 10% in the polls!
Your remark that ‘AV has stopped the Greens being elected [in the lower house]’ is embarrassingly ill-informed and unfounded.
You are still not thinking deeply enough about the effects that AV has. AV stops the wasted vote and tactical voting arguments. Period. It floats the PR boat (in the Senate).
Sorry to be brusque, but it is very problematic to see misinformation like this being spread about AV.
Of course, it doesn’t really matter in the end because the Tories will just include some sort of poisen apple in with the AV option (I think I recently read somewhere that, as part of the AV ‘option’, they plan to include proposed changes to electoral boundaries that would work in their favour) thereby ensuring that Labour will vote against AV to avoid the poisen apple and we’ll just stay with FPTP. Tories win.
Which as far as I can see also voids one of the main justifications the Lib Dems had for forming the coalition in the first place.
Frustrated ex Lib Dem voter.
Does anyone know what position the Scottish Party is likely to take? It might be good if there’s some sort of similarity – or will the Scottish Party just do whatever the England and Wales Party decides 🙂
Whilst AV is not the best system, it is better than first past the post(FPTP). Sadly, for reasons we may guess at, the Tories will not put the proportionate STV system on the table much as I – and I am sure the Lib Dems – would like them to.
Whatever we do or say, the choice will be between only AV and FPTP. AV is better than FPTP and reformers who oppose it in the hope of getting somethong better will simply be playing into the hands of FPTP supporters.
AV lacks proportionality but, if we win the AV referendum, it would be very simple to make it proportionate by merely grouping constituencies together,which would be STV.
So far as Greens are concerned, it is very likely that many Green supporters, who now vote Labour to keep the Tories out (or perhaps vice versa), would vote first for the Green Party if we had AV. In other words, AV would encourage closet Greens to come out. Moreover, Green supporters could give their second preferences to whichever candidate from the other parties they thought was the greenest. This would encourage other parties and candidates to become more green to attract Green votes.
Please visit http://www.stvAction.org.uk to see more about AV.
Rupert, in response:
I think I need to clarify the parliamentary system in Australia, as I clearly have not explained it well.
There are 2 Houses which you vote for at every election:
The Upper House – Senate – elections are PR based on state and terms are 6 years, with half the house re-elected each election.
The Lower House – House of Representatives – elections are AV, constituency organised, with elections every 3 years.
In no way do people vote Green in the lower house because of AV. In fact, the Greens now have a policy on emphasising on voting Green #1 in the Senate, and not really counting for the Lower House (with the exception of Adam Bandt in Melbourne). This is because AV has actually stopped the Greens from being elected as people always put bigger parties as either their number 1 or 2 preferences.
There are Green Party Senators because they are voted in according to Proportional Representation, not AV.
So what are the real reasons the Greens?
1. They are the only left-wing party alternative to the Labor/Liberal-National parties (after the collapse of the Australian Democrats which had much to do with AV problems in the first place)
2. They have always been particularly LOUD in the Senate and made sure they’re heard.
3. They do BIG actions, like heckling Wen Jiabao when he came to Australia at Howard’s request, standing in the way of logging, etc.
AV has stunted the growth of the Greens in Australia, not helped them.
By standing with the Liberal Democrats and Labour, we will be saying that we’re okay with AV as genuine reform, and we will have failed to push through real reform. I do not agree that we should let the Liberal Democrats push aside our chance for true democracy, so I think, as a DIFFERENT party, we should make a stance.
This is not a black & white issue – so by standing for ‘No’ you’re not standing on the side of the Tories, you’re saying that this political reform is not reform, is much of a muchness.
For more on the pro-AV arguments, try http://rupertsread.blogspot.com/2010/07/av-referendum-where-do-greens-stand.html , and http://broadleftblogging.wordpress.com/2010/07/20/don%E2%80%99t-be-a-dinosaur-get-on-board-in-the-battle-for-av/ – and of course Jean Lambert’s impressive article in the new issue of _GW_.
Nishma, I’m afraid your argument is badly factually-flawed.
You notice that the Aussie Greens have 12% in the opinion polls. You don’t stop to ask HOW they have got that high in the polls. What wouldn’t we give to be at 12% in the national opinion polls! The answer is that they have got that high BECAUSE OF AV! Because it eliminates the wasted vote argument and largely eliminates tactical voting. And that is ALSO why the Aussie Greens have 6 seats in the Senate – BECAUSE people can vote first-pref for them in the House, and so have got into the habit of thinking of themselves as Green voters. As things stand in Britain, we have to start from scratch at every Euro election, re-persuading folk who never vote Green to do so in a PR election. They don’t have that problem in Australia!
Ask Aussie Greens what they think of AV – they will tell you that they would be shafted without it.
Also, your all-or-none case for PR is empirically-ill-founded. As Adam and Lallands imply above, a NO vote will play into the hands of right-wing Tories (Are you happy about being on the same side as them in a referendum, Nishma??) and will scupper the chances of further reforms that we badly want – such as a genuinely-reformed House of Lords elected by PR, and (eventually) PR for local government elections. A NO vote will send a clear message that Britain is happy with politics as usual.
Which would be the opposite of everything you are hoping for, N.
So I beg you to reconsider.
An idea I’ve just had, and one there’s probably problems with, but what about a campaign encouraging people to spoil their ballots by writing ‘PR’ across them? This way it would be possible to support reform without having to vote for either AV or fptp.
“But, as you say, whichever way it goes, bloody Lib Dems may have screwed us out of decent chance of PR in our generation…”
I would say this is certain. Whichever way it goes the message will be that people have had enough of reform.
My slight worry is that ‘the green party supports AV in a referendum where PR isnt an option’ several months before the referendum is voted to parliament is too nuanced an argument for modern British political discourse and will be immidiately contracted to ‘AV is the green parties favourite choice’
I think something useful we could do now is attempt to get Labour to support an amendment that includes something like AV plus, possibly on the argument that a top up list(s) would partially scupper the Tories boundary gerrymandering. That way the Lib Dems couldn’t use the ‘our votes wouldnt matter’ like they did for their poor turnout in the DEBill vote and actually vote against or abstain on the reason a couple of million people actually voted for them.
Agree with Adrian on this one. If people vote No, the establishment will say we don’t want change. I know AV is not what we want, but we do want change.
But inclining towards a ‘yes’ as the least-worst response. The decisive moment, I suspect, has passed by during the coalition negotiations. That can’t be restored now, with the best will in the world.
What to do? This is a difficult one, for those of us in favour of PR-based electoral reform. Best I can see, nobody really wants AV. It is a fig leaf for the Liberals to justify entering a coalition. That doesn’t answer the more humble question – what should I and others do, come the referendum and the ballot before me?
Although not a Green, and hence, not wildly interested in the partisan case yea of nay, at least at the moment, a no vote seems more destructive than a yes vote. I’ve set out my doubts here. Fundamentally, I’m still undecided how to respond.
I think that you are right that we need to be clear it’s a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ scenario. I think, quite possibly, that we are having this referendum is a bad thing, and makes it harder to win PR in the next 15 years or so.
However, I will be voting in favour of the party backing a yes vote – ideally with a slogan along the lines of: “Vote yes, then demand more”.
This is because, while a yes vote could well shut down political debate, a no vote almost certainly would. It will be easier for Lab/Cons to say “people don’t want reform” if it’s a no.
It’s also because I’m fed up with elections being about who can win. While AV doesn’t make it much easier for Greens to win, it does mean that there is no such thing as a wasted vote. And that means we could at least spend our elections in target seats explaining our policies and vision rather than always having to answer the ‘can you win’ question. And that gives us a chance to shift the debate.
So, I agree with your points, and they are useful. I think that they mean we have to be very careful with how we pitch our yes campaign, but I still think we should campaign for a yes.
But, as you say, whichever way it goes, bloody Lib Dems may have screwed us out of decent chance of PR in our generation…
Sadly I suspect you are right here, a) Its not proportional b) from a Green Party point of view Greens generally poll between 5% and 10% in much of the world, so no seats under AV, the Austalian Greens together with Caroline’s 30% plus vote in Brighton are exceptions.
The ever excellent Aus Greens might pick up one seat via AV but we shall have to see.
Sadly I think we have been sitched up by the Lib Dems, damned either way the referendum goes.
Point a) is the more important of course.