The UK Av referendum campaign is in full swing now, as the May 5 vote date creeps ever closer.
Labour leader Ed Miliband and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg are campaigning for the Yes side, while Conservative Party leader David Cameron is firmly opposed to AV.
For readers not following this campaign very closely (or at all), you would think that having two of the three leaders of the main parties would be a boon to the Yes side. However, that isn’t the case. Nick Clegg’s personal unpopularity in the UK (some would argue he’s the most hated figure in UK politics at the moment), has created some problems for the Yes side. There was a very public spat recently when a Yes rally was almost called off because Ed Miliband did not want to share the stage with Clegg. The event finally did go ahead, with former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy taking part. I’ve previously posted that many people who would normally vote for AV are planning to vote no because they see this as an opportunity to punish Clegg for reneging on manifesto promises and/or entering into coalition with the Conservatives.
The No side is using Clegg’s unpopularity to further its cause, with repeated references to “President Clegg” deciding who will form the government after each election held under AV.
David Cameron has had a smoother ride the few times he’s publicly spoken out against AV. Cameron recently warned that AV would make Britain’s democracy “less strong” and quoted Winston Churchill, who once said of AV would allow “worthless” candidates to win elections. In his first speech against AV, on February 18, Cameron has argued that (emphasis added):
It’s not so much that the winner has half the electorate behind them……as that by virtue of a weird counting system, they have crawled over the finishing line.
And isn’t this the point?
This backing is not actual approval. It’s passive acceptance.
It can mean someone who’s not really wanted by anyone winning an election because they were the least unliked.
It could mean that those who are courageous and brave and may not believe in or say things that everyone agrees with are pushed out of politics…
…and those who are boring and the least controversial limping to victory.
It could mean a Parliament of second choices.
We wouldn’t accept this in any other walk of life.
Can you imagine giving the gold medal to someone who finishes third?
No. Of course not.
And we shouldn’t accept it with our democracy either.
A number of bloggers and commenters like to point out that the problem for Cameron is that he owes his position as leader of the Conservative Party to a system similar to AV. This isn’t exactly true – the Conservatives don’t use any form of preferential voting in their leadership campaigns. They simply have separate ballots, eliminating the last place candidate each round, until there are only two candidates remaining. No votes are transferred. It is true, however, that Cameron was not the first choice for party leader on the first ballot – he came second out of four candidates and remained the 2nd choice on the 2nd ballot. It was only on the run-off vote between Cameron and David Davies (which was conducted separately by postal ballot) that Cameron emerged as the winner. Another AV opponent, Mayor of London Boris Johnson, was elected under AV, however. If we are to take Cameron at his word, then Johnson won the mayoralty because he was the second choice, boring, not controversial, the least unliked, passively accepted, and owes his victory to a “weird counting system”. Or, in the words of Winston Churchill, he’s a worthless candidate.
The Alternative Vote is being used by the UK House of Commons to elect Committee chairs. This reform, adopted at the end of the previous Parliament before the election, was used for the first time last fall, and by all accounts has worked well. Committees are functioning smoothly, churning out reports and scrutinizing legislation – I don’t recall anyone arguing that any of the Committee chairs are somehow worthless, second rate or only passively accepted. Perhaps the committees are functioning as well as they are because the chairs are the most acceptable choice to the largest number of their fellow MPs rather than potentially more partisan and divisive figures appointed by party whips.
Nick Clegg hasn’t remained silent on the issue, despite his popularity issues. Like Cameron, he made his inaugural speech in favour of AV on February 18 (which you can read in full here). Clegg admitted to the Independent that he told Cameron he talking “complete bilge” after Cameron defended FPTP during Prime Minister’s Questions on March 9. However, he has been very low-key, with most of his pro-AV statements made during media interviews such as the Independent article or during Deputy Prime Minister’s Questions (today was a prime example of that).
Labour leader Ed Miliband is in a rather unique situation among the party leaders – many in his party don’t support AV, even though the party promised a vote on AV in its election manifesto. While there are a handful of Tories who support a move to AV, most of the party, like Cameron, back FPTP, while the Lib Dems are all squarely in favour of AV (although they’d probably all prefer a more proportional system, such as STV). Miliband, however, is at odds with a significant number of his caucus and other supporters, such as the trades unions. Miliband was elected leader of the party via AV; his brother David was actually the first choice among MPs and party members, but Ed moved ahead among members of trade unions and affiliated organisations in Labour’s electoral college voting system. Given Miliband’s less than stellar performance thus far as party leader, this might explain in part why many in his party aren’t keen on AV.
In short, it it would seem that Clegg’s participation in favour of AV is more of a plus for the No side, while Ed Miliband’s credibility is somewhat undermined by the fact that he can’t get most of his own caucus to support an initiative that was part of the party’s manifesto and that they all campaigned on during the last election. Cameron certainly isn’t hurting the No campaign – but isn’t helping his own credibility by repeating some of the more highly debatable claims of the No side, notably that switching to AV will cost £250-mn and that AV will lead to constant hung parliaments. On the face of it, having the party leaders involved is perhaps more of a hindrance than a help.