In a summary of the views he expressed at the recent NUS hosted debate on the Alternative Vote referendum Dylan Sharpe, head of press for the No Campaign, hinted that the Alternative Vote system would help the BNP and therefore voters should support the No Campaign. I believe this to wrong in principle and in fact.
In his essay (found here)
he points out that the BNP finished 5th in total votes and therefore implies that the Alternative Vote will help extremist parties like the BNP.
I object to the premise that the Alternative Vote system assists the BNP and therefore must be a bad thing on two grounds. One of principle and one of fact.
I do not think our electoral system should be based on preventing a particular party winning seats. Who becomes an MP is a decision for voters. The electoral system should facilitate voters in expressing their choice. To say that we should not have a particular electoral system because it might allow undesirable parties to win seats is both disenfranchising voters and patronising them. What you are saying is that voters cannot be trusted with a voting system that allows them a full choice of candidate, they can only be trusted with a limited palette of ideologies to chose from.
Would you accept the argument “We mustn’t have the Alternative Vote because it might allow the BNP to win a seat” if, the BNP were replaced with the party you voted for? Would you accept it if instead of the BNP the argument was made about the Big 3 party you liked least?
If you are going to chose an electoral system solely on the grounds that it disadvantages a particular party you may as well gerrymander all the seats, or just ban them from standing candidates.
I think Alternative Vote is better at facilitating voter choice than First Past the Post because the elected candidate is likely to be the one with the broadest appeal. I think it places trust in the electorate to make the right decision for themselves. If they chose to vote for the BNP the blame for that lies with the other candidates and the voters themselves and not with any particular voting system.
I think bandying about the BNP is approaching Godwin’s Law territory. It is an act of desperation. It trades on the long and proud history of British opposition to extremism.
My second objection is that, on the facts, AV does not particularly assist the BNP.
There are only 26 seats where the BNP polled more than 3,000 votes. In only 3 seats did they poll more than 10% of the vote. In only 2 seats did the BNP poll in 3rd place (and therefore a potential winner under AV). These seats are Dagenham and Rainham, and Barking. In Dagenham and Rainham the BNP are 10,231 votes behind the second placed candidate. 6,284 votes were cast for candidates ranked 4 and below. In Dagenham and Rainham there are not enough voters who did not vote for the top three placed candidates for the BNP to get in to the last two places and conceivably win the seat, even if every other voter ranked the BNP their second preference. The BNP would need a swing of 11.6% from the Conservatives to come second.
The other seat in which the BNP polled third, Barking, was won by Margaret Hodge with 54.31% of the vote. Ms Hodge would have won on 1st Preferences.
Mr Sharpe points out that the BNP polled more than the SNP. This is true. True but meaningless. The BNP polled 564 thousand votes to the SNP’s 491 thousand. However the BNP stood in 338 constituencies and could have had candidates in all 650. The SNP, being an entirely Scottish Party, confine themselves to the 59 Scottish Seats. Of the electorate the SNP offered themselves to the SNP polled just over 20%. Within that 20% they had a measure of geographic concentration. In no seats did the SNP poll fewer than thousands of votes, in 14 of the seats the SNP contested they polled more than ten thousand votes, finishing first or second. Five figure support in 1 out of every 4 seats contested for the SNP. The BNP’s best result was just a shade over six thousand votes.
A further consideration is the BNP’s ability to pick up second preferences, or rather, their inability to pick up second preferences. According to research on second preferences conducted at the time of the 2010 general election by the London School of Economics and a discussed here http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/?p=4965 the BNP pick up between 1% and 4% of second preferences from the Big 3 in England. They do pick up second preferences from 17% of UKIP voters. In Scotland and Wales they don’t appear to get a mention. Compare this to the preference distribution to the SNP. The SNP are placed second by 31% of Labour voters, 22% of Conservative votes and 20% of Liberal Democrats voters. Where the SNP finish in the top 3 they have a decent chance of picking up large numbers of second preferences and winning the seat.
The assertion that the BNP will benefit from the Alternative Vote is wrong in principle and wrong on the facts. Perhaps that is why the BNP are voting no.