Conrad Landin

Home » Uncategorized » A protest vote against the coalition deal is fair enough

A protest vote against the coalition deal is fair enough

For the casual observer, the most noticeable image of the campaign against the Alternative Vote system has been the striking billboard ad suggesting that the “costly” system will mean less money for maternity wards.

The idea of judging democratic institutions on the basis of cost is somewhat flawed: on that basis, we could scrap elections altogether and spend the money we’d save on welfare.

The “yes” brigade, meanwhile, are attempting to detoxify their brand by shunning Nick Clegg. But they have failed to convince that a “yes” vote could be somehow divorced from a vindication of the Liberal Democrats’ decision to enter into coalition with the Conservatives last May.

This was, of course, the deal which saw Nick Clegg give the thumbs-up to billions of pounds worth of cuts he had campaigned against the week before.

Tuition fees will always be the embodiment of the broken promise. Faced with a similar situation a few months ago, the Irish Labour party refused to back down over free education. Clegg and his party also had the opportunity to stand up for the education maintenance allowance, the NHS and investment in schools. But instead the party chose to jettison almost everything bar their pet project of electoral reform.

If Britain approves this self-interested bid on May 5th, it will be a slap in the face to the thousands of students, activists and public sector workers who have demonstrated for this government to keep the promises it made to the electorate last year – and that includes the Tories as well, who have, bizarrely, also justified decisions on the basis that “no party won the election”.

The Alternative Vote is also nobody’s preferred option – indeed, bar parliamentarians in the negotiating room, very few have ever argued for it. In 1999, the Jenkins Commission into voting systems found it had the potential to produce less proportional outcomes than first past the post.

A debate about electoral reform would only be healthy for democracy in Britain, but when the only other option on offer is, in Nick Clegg’s own words, a “miserable little compromise” and not proportional representation, there’s no room for proper debate at all. The “yes” campaign has branded itself “Yes to Fairer Votes”, reinforcing the perception among the general public that the Alternative Vote is a proportional system. Opinion polls have shown that when the preferential system is properly explained, the public is less likely to back it.

It would be a misjudgement to vote “no” in any referendum in protest at unrelated government policies. But a protest vote at the shoddy betrayal of the electorate last May by the back-room coalition deal between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, and, indeed, against anything of its kind in the future, is something else, and entirely legitimate.

Switching to AV could easily allow this culture to continue: if the Tories encourage voters to second preference the Lib Dems and vice versa, Coalition MPs could escape the anger of the electorate through vote transfers after their bedfellows are eliminated.

The government has not allowed us to have a proper debate on electoral reform. Instead, we are faced with a choice between endorsing a philosophy of politicians’ back-room ploys or keeping our imperfect but practical system, and protesting against the betrayal of young people and the vulnerable.

If you read my piece on AV on this blog a couple of weeks ago, some of the above arguments may be familiar. But they’re better expressed here – and, I hope, in better prose. The previous piece presumed readers knew a good deal about AV already – the above one is more my own summary of where the campaign has taken us so far. And why I’m STILL, despite the abhorrent excesses of  the No to AV campaign, voting NO.



  1. Eddo says:

    I don’t see how you can say that yes would be a slap in the face to students, public sector workers etc, when voting no could be argued to be a development which simply plays into the hands of the Tories, the main force which will have driven the cuts.

    In a coalition there have to be compromises, and one must assume that had the Liberal Democrat vote been stronger, they would have had more bartering power, and been able to push through more of their own policies. No party would act so self destructively if it had sufficient control over proceeedings.

    For me, voting no would simply a submission to Tory dominance in the partnership, and an insult to the more liberal minded contingent of voters whose party is currently in coalition with them.

    You also argue that it has been shown that AV has the potential to yield less proportional outcomes than FPTP. First of all, it would be nice to know how a voting system that accounts for everyone’s preferences can be less representational. Secondly, ‘has the potential’ is a very loose phrase – you give no statistically informed probability of this occurence, nor a hypothetical one. This is hence a pretty meaningless statement.

    The word fairer in no way says proportional. It may suggest more representative, which it should, but any inference that people may have made that it is directly proportional is ill informed.
    Opinion polls mean nothing about how effective a system is, they just suggest what people think of it – everyone is an individual and must form their own opinion.

    If you are going to mention the fact that AV was chosen by the Liberal Democrats as the priority policy over tuition fees etc, and use very loaded language suggesting this was a bad decision, why go on to say that it’s a misjudgement to vote no that basis? It seems hypocritical to me to insinuate things about Liberal Democrat policy and then to say that one should be above acting on ones feelings on the matter.

    Lastly, why vote no in protest against backdoor deals? The recent ones happened under FPTP, so voting no does not guarantee we won’t have them. If we are going to have more coalitions in future as seems the case, it is because opinion among the populace is split, not because of the system used. Just smothering over people who don’t vote for the people who choose not to vote red or blue seems to me very undemocratic, and AV seems to me a good step to take to ensure that people who have less mainstream views actually have a chance for their views to be heard.

    • Kevin says:

      Hi Eddo,

      From a statistical point of view, voting NO to AV will statistically benefit the Conservatives. They would have less MPs in the House of Commons under AV (detailed report is on the Electoral Reform Society website).

      If you are a Labour voter, you should vote YES.


      • Thanks for reading and responses.

        Kevin – Not by this research –

        Eddo – To clarify the point you raised about protest votes, I’ve said that a protest vote against the government in general (ie. voting no simply because you don’t like the decisions taken on a day to day basis by Cameron etc.) seems a little petty – but one’s vote being motivated by protest the coalition DEAL (ie. the fact that Clegg wouldn’t stand up for anything bar electoral reform – and then not even properly) is legitimate.

  2. Kevin says:


    I’m a statistician and a Labour supporter. The problem I have with the campaign is that it is ignoring the most obvious question: who benefits from a change in AV? It’s clear and widely accepted that the Tories will lose out and the Libs will gain.

    The difficulty is the result on the Labour vote. Basically, the number of seats in the house of commons under AV for Labour would not change very much. This is causing confusion amongst Labour supporters. However, the Tories are still the main opposition in most seats, and the negative effect on the Tory vote would mean that Labour would be significantly more likely to get in power under AV.

    It is my opinion, that history will view this opportunity to change the voting system as a failure (i) of Labour to realise it is in their benefit; and (ii) to get the message across to their MPs and voters.

  3. Eddo says:

    Conrad – I still don’t see the point in this vote as a form of protest. It will change nothing aside from the electoral system, so why waste an opportunity to make a positive difference? If you want a government that is strong but doesn’t represent the views of its people well, then vote no. If you want a system where everybody’s opinions count, but there is some loss of ability to push things through, then vote yes.

    There are plenty of ways to protest, so don’t let dislike of the coalition deal cloud your judgement. Look at AV as a long term policy shift, not as a momentary thing – if AV goes through it will last beyond Cameron and Clegg.

    Regarding statistical evidence either way, I find it difficult to put a lot of trust in any source as there is always a motive, particularly in a debate like this. I think both Conservatives and Labour will lose seats, though only time will tell (hopefully) what the net effect will be.

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