Max Wind-Cowie is Head of the Progressive Conservatism Project at Demos.
Sayeeda Warsi’s claim, in a speech yesterday, that a switch to AV would empower the BNP has met with a swift and hysterical response from AV supporters. Chris Huhne – Baroness Warsi's colleague in the Coalition Cabinet – has accused her of 'Goebbels-like propaganda' and the Yes campaign is busy asserting to anyone who’ll listen (an increasingly small number of people) that AV would, in fact, make life harder for the BNP.
So, what's the truth about the impact of AV on the character of British politics?
Well I’m no expert – so I can only really go on what the pro-AV campaign told me themselves. I was recently invited, along with a number of progressive conservative writers, policy analysts and think-tankers to a meeting at the official AV campaign HQ to be briefed on why we should support AV. I made it clear, along with other attendees, at the beginning of the meeting that I was as-yet undecided (a state of limbo I can happily report that I’ve emerged from subsequently).
Present was a former Parliamentary Candidate who was there to urge us to support change and to explain why AV would be of benefit to us all. She told us, in no uncertain terms, that she was supporting AV in part because she knew that, had she been able to pick up second preferences from BNP supporters by communicating to them her support for elements of their platform, she would have won her seat.
This was not some fringe candidate – she is a leading AV supporter for one of the three main UK political parties. Her views were not challenged by the other AV supporters in the room – although I have no doubt that they were equally disgusted by her apparent willingness to pander to extremists – and she wasn't called out because she wasn't wrong. No-one can reasonably argue that AV will not incentivise politicians to flirt with extremists – whose supporters’ votes will count more than once as their own candidates are eliminated and their second preferences counted. Be it the BNP, Respect or Islamists parties, AV will encourage candidates from the mainstream to make promises to the fringes.
Of course, Huhne and friends are right in one sense. AV would make it a little harder for the BNP to win a Parliamentary seat. The threshold they would have to break through would make it nigh-on impossible for them to establish a foothold in Westminster seeing as there is no evidence, whatsoever, that there is a constituency in the UK where more than half the population are racists or fascists. But he has fundamentally misunderstood the very real threat that Baroness Warsi is warning of. She understands, as should we all, that the BNP will struggle to break through into Parliament even under the current system – as evidenced by the plain, simple fact that they have been unable to do so thus far.
The difference, under AV, is that those voters who do lend their support to the BNP will be empowered to influence other parties too. After their first choice – their BNP choice – has been eliminated, their votes will be counted again and again till someone gets 50%. That provides a direct incentive to other candidates, other parties, to pander to that minority who believe in modern-day Nazism. And, on the basis of my strange conversation with a prominent AV supporter, some candidates are planning to do just that.
Some will say this is not really such a bad thing. It will provide a safety-valve for those who feel left out of mainstream politics, it might diffuse anger and resentment at the political class. But whatever your view on whether AV makes politics better or worse, there is no arguing with the fact that it will lend more influence and more power to supporters of extreme politics. And it is fundamentally dishonest for AV supporters to claim otherwise – especially seeing as their own spokespeople are more than happy to acknowledge the truth in private.