AV: No BNP
Or 'How the Alternative Vote Referendum can be won'
All is not lost for the AV Referendum. What has been overlooked is the potential for AV to raise the barriers to extremism in British politics. Extremist parties like the BNP know that the first past the post system can potentially deliver a Westminster seat to the BNP with only a minority of voters supporting them. AV kills that opportunity. Labour cannot afford to give the Liberal Democrats free rein to campaign amongst part of its ethnic minority core vote on an AV: No BNP platform. Labour may be forced for moral and political reasons to support AV - and that could be a gamechanger.
The commentariat are beginning to write off the chances of a Yes vote next May in the Referendum on the Alternative Vote. The opinion polls over recent weeks have been sliding away from the Yes camp. Then this week it was announced that that the formidable political campaigner Matthew Elliott, Director of the Taxpayers Alliance, will head the No campaign.
The Yes camp are now facing most of the Conservative party, most of the Labour Party, the trade unions, plus almost all the media save The Guardian and The Independent opposing AV. On one side there will be the formidably well resourced NO camp drawing upon large numbers of footsoldiers from the two main parties and the unions on the other the limited resources of the Liberal Democrats and the Electoral Reform Society.
The AV referendum begins to look like a rerun between the Christians and the Lions.
However, the NO camp would be unwise to write off the Yes campaign just yet. There is still over nine months to go before the vote and the Yes camp do have at least one major strategic advantage they can play with a large part of the electorate: The potential for AV to eliminate extremism.
The commentary on AV so far has focussed on the benefit of AV to the Liberal Democrats or the prospect that a landslide electoral victory could be magnified by AV (on one analysis the Conservatives would have been reduced to approximately 70 seats in 1997).
What however is overlooked in the debate so far is the damage AV does to extremism. Under the current first past the post (FPTP) system political competition between three or four parties can allow a party with only 20 or 25% of the vote to win a seat. The best bet for extremist parties to get elected to Westminster is to build up a local base of support in specific Parliamentary constituencies. They don't have to win anything like 50% of the vote. Political competition between the other parties reduces the number of votes needed to win a seat and establish a Parliamentary bridgehead.
It is true that in a by-election it is relatively easy even under FPTP to identify the danger from an extremist party and the nearest rival to the extremists. This is much more difficult to do however in a general election, when much more is at stake nationally and voters naturally want to vote for their party and who they believe should govern the country.
AV has all the advantages of FPTP in that its lack of proportionality makes it very difficult for extremist parties to convert say half a million votes directly into Parliamentary seats. AV however scores over FPTP in that it raises the barrier to extremism in individual parliamentary constituencies. Instead of 20 or 25%, extremist parties such as the BNP will now need an improbable 50%. In a general election scenario as described above voters can vote for whomever they believe should run the country on their first preference and their second preference can be allocated to whomever will beat the BNP.
One response of Mr Elliott and the No campaign will be no doubt that this threat is extremely theoretical. It is true that despite the election of two BNP MEPs at the last European elections the actual number of votes cast for the BNP actually fell. However, it remains the case that particularly for voters from black and asian communities, facing heavy extremist campaigning in their neighbourhoods or near neighbourhoods, is intimidating-whatever the immediate prospects for election are. There is also the reality that FPTP does open the opportunity for political competition between parties providing a window for extremism. The AV referendum provides an opportunity to shut that window.
The Yes campaign could make a strategic decision to deploy both a “fair votes” argument and the ‘No BNP-No Extremism' argument.
Politically the advantage of the latter argument is that it puts the Labour Party in a quandary. Supported by The Guardian and The Independent, the Yes campaign could create a very strong progressive alliance for AV to raise the electoral barriers to extremist politics.
The Labour leadership would morally find it very difficult to remain on the wrong side of such a progressive alliance. Politically it also creates grave risks for Labour. The nightmare for the Labour leadership is that the Liberal Democrats respond to Labour opposition to AV by seeking to detach a large part of its ethnic minority support.
It would be tactically be very sensible for the Yes campaign and the Liberal Democrats to run the “AV: NO BNP' argument and deploy their limited resources in constituencies with heavy ethnic minority populations to maximise turnout. It would also provide the Liberal Democrats with a dry run to seek to take those seats (almost all Labour) at the 2015 general election.
If the Yes campaign seeks to deploy the AV: NO BNP argument the Labour leadership will have to think long and hard about the costs of opposing the AV referendum. They may find themselves in a position where they are morally and politically obliged to support AV. Such support would be a gamechanger to the prospects of a Yes vote.