The unintended genius of No to AV, Yes to PR

Let’s face it. The AV referendum is lost. Opinion polls – at least, those that aren’t hamstrung by failing to adequately ensure that respondents know what the Alternative Vote actually is – seem to indicate almost universally that AV will be rejected by the electorate on May 5.

As far as the AV referendum goes, the relatively newly-launched “No to AV, Yes to PR” movement probably sum up my attitude best. The system by which we elect our MPs needs to be changed, but AV is not the change we need. In brief, as I’ve explained before, Westminster needs to adopt a proportional voting system.

That said, I won’t be voting No to AV. As the referendum asks us to choose between first-past-the-post and AV, and I don’t want either of them, I probably won’t be voting at all. There is a small chance, however, that I will vote Yes simply to register my discontent at the disgusting (mainstream) No campaign, but in all likelihood I will simply spoil my paper.

Yes advocates like Sunny Hundal and Sally Bercow, among others, have been making the argument that a No vote in the AV referendum “would kill off any chance of electoral reform for a generation.” In other words, since AV is the only reform on offer, and it might be marginally better than FPTP, we should accept it. Furthermore, a Yes vote might “open the door” to further reform, whereas a No vote would firmly shut it.

I’m sceptical that adopting AV would put us any closer to a truly proportional system (why would we change the system again, when we’ve only just adopted a new one?) but the fear that a No vote could set the cause back decades is a very real one. This is where No to AV, Yes to PR comes in.

By introducing this element into the campaign, “No to AV” no longer automatically becomes “Yes to FPTP.” Conservatives, the authoritarian wing of the Labour Party and others with a vested interest in keeping FPTP will no longer be able to claim that a No vote in May’s referendum would represent a “ringing endorsement” of first-past-the-post. A sizeable proportion of people – we won’t know how many, because the referendum doesn’t ask that – will have voted No not because they like FPTP, but because they don’t believe AV is the change we need.

My own belief is that, in those days of coalition negotiations, the Tories agreed to a referendum on AV because they believed it would not represent a sufficiently radical change to galvanise people into voting for it. The Tories fear electoral reform, because under a system other than first-past-the-post there is a strong chance that they would never again form a majority government. My theory would explain the rumours that surfaced a few weeks ago, that some right-wing Tory MPs were panicked into plotting to bring down the coalition if a Yes vote was secured.

Now it looks like No will win out, and the rumours have quietened down. But with a group openly campaigning for a rejection of AV so that a more proportional system is embraced, the idea that a No vote will kill electoral reform off for the forseeable future no longer seems credible.

The very existence of “No to AV, Yes to PR” ensures that progressives need not be terrified into voting for AV, for fear that real voting reform may not happen in our lifetimes if we don’t. It muddies the waters, relaxed the forced choice, and ensures that voting No to AV is not the same as voting Yes to FPTP. In many ways, it’s exactly the change I’ve been advocating.

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