Saturday, 26 February 2011

Yes 2 AV, part one: cost

Leading up to the May referendum on switching to the Alternative Vote system for UK elections, I'm going to be doing my little bit to help put out the message in favour of the change. We've currently got a lead in the polls, but must push the message out to get undecided people on our side and ensure supporters turn out to vote.

The No 2 AV campaign is focusing on cost, claiming that £250 million is going to be used by switching to an AV system. Part of this, they say, is due to an £130 million cost of electronic vote counting machines. These vote counting machines are entirely imagined; there's no reason to believe that that would be implemented: the referendum will not introduce electronic counting machines; the Government doesn't plan on forcing the use of electronic voting machines; Australia, which uses AV for general elections, doesn't use electronic counting machines; and devolved assembles using different voting methods don't use electronic vote counting machines. There  cost of rolling out electronic voting machines might be £150 million, but it's no more relevant to the debate about whether to change voting systems than stating that the cost of hiring an elephant to dance the fandango whilst trumpeting the results is £500,000. (Though that would make elections much more exciting.) Channel 4's impartial FactCheck considers the assertion that vote counting machines would be implemented to be fiction. Update: Moreover, a recently leaked letter from the Treasury says the cost of the next election is fixed at £130 million, no matter what system it is conducted under. But the No 2 AV campaign isn't one to let truth get in its way.

A journey home from London a few days ago was made bearable by the presence of the London Evening Standard in my paws. Particularly an opinion piece by John Kampfner. In it, he noted that the No 2 AV group is focusing its efforts upon supposed costs of the referendum, stating that the money could be put to better use if they were spent on public services. This is one of the particularly shocking and tasteless adverts they've used:

There is truth in the claim that the referendum will have a cost associated with it; of course it takes money to print the papers, transport them, and have them counted. I do wonder though whether the AV campaign has realised that voting no won't actually somehow save this magical figure they've created of £250 million, because the referendum is going ahead. Even if we vote no, there was still associated cost of holding the referendum. How exactly the No 2 AV lobby thinks that voting no is going to save the money already spent on holding the referendum remains to be seen. I also wonder whether the No 2 AV campaign would like to set up a No 2 Elections campaign. There are costs associated with having elections, so perhaps we should get rid of them to save money.

Let's for a moment presume that the £250 million figure is correct. Even if true, that's less than 0.04% of total projected government spending this year. It's hardly an astronomical cost for letting people decide whether they want to change voting systems. It's disingenuous to present this as a large cost which is depriving us all of services.

Moreover, given that some of this cost-related rhetoric comes from anti-AV Labour dinosaurs, there's more than tad of irony in that the referendum on introducing AV was in Labour's 2010 manifesto, and Brown offered a referendum on AV to the Lib Dems during the coalition negotiations. Apparently this terrible evil referendum will only cause babies to die when held under the current coalition Government. Apparently if Labour were still in Government, the AV referendum would go ahead but somehow avoid the death of babies which the No 2 AV campaign implies will occur with their cheap-shot adverts. If there was a genuine concern to be had over the cost of the referendum, perhaps they ought to have voiced their concern before it was put in the Labour manifesto, rather than playing partisan politics now.

Even more ironic is that, as the veritable Kampfner observed, much of the most virulent opposition to changing the voting system comes from the Conservatives, especially the Right of the party. Therefore, given that the Conservatives are leading the spending cuts and the Right of the party hunger for deeper cuts, it's a teensy bit ironic to see the campaign for a no vote in the referendum is trying to tug at the heartstrings by saying that the referendum money could otherwise be spent on public services. It's beyond hypocritical that a large part of the No campaign clamours for more cuts and a less active government, whilst simultaneously claiming that if the money weren't spent on the referendum, it would be put to use saving the lives of babies.

And who has been hired to lead the No campaign? None other than the Taxpayers' Alliance chief executive Matthew Elliot. So again, forgive me if I think it's a bit hypocritical for a campaign led by someone who consistently calls for spending cuts and less government services to be focusing its attacks on how the referendum money could be better used. Focusing upon cost in a time of government spending cut-backs is a very clever tactic, but it's clearly manipulative two-faced nonsense. It's the sign of a campaign led by backwards-thinking dinosaurs looking to protect their safe seats and easy route to large majorities for their party.

Visit if you want to be part of the optimistic movement for change.

Edit: Article was changed to reflect No 2 AV's imagined cost of electronic counting machines as £150 million, not the previously written £80 million.


  1. The magic words are "optimistic". AV is a corrupt system, just as FPTP has flaws. PR is worth electoral change.

    Both sides have used mistruths and arguments which stretch the boundary.

  2. Hi Anon - thanks for your comment.

    I also support PR, but feel that there is no chance of getting it within the next few decades if we turn down AV. I believe the Alternative Vote to be a better, fairer, more democratic system than FPTP, so I am naturally voting in favour. If we say No in this referendum, I don't see why any party would want to put future referendums before us on other systems; they wouldn't want to look unpopular and out-of-touch with the public. Especially now with Ed Miliband taking over as Labour leader, there's chance to show an appetite for parliamentary and electoral system reform and for that appetitie to be reflected in Labour policy.

    Regarding mistruths, I'm genuinely not aware of any from the Yes campaign, and certainly not on the scale of making up a figure with no basis in fact. I think it's fair to say that making the claim that AV is a way to tackle the expenses scandal is tenuous to a degree. But it is a valid point to make that if MPs had to focus on maintaining the support of 50% of their constituency, they may be a little more careful in the future about what they get up to rather than relying on a minority of loyal party supporters.