Mark – my words
This evening I attended the Reading AV debate organized by the No2AV campaign. This is a rather rushed and selective account of the proceedings, from the perspective of a Yes2AV supporter. I went along to see how the debate was run and to discover whether the No speakers really would advance some of their more preposterous arguments, and in that respect I wasn’t disappointed.
The No side were clearly very well organized, handing out leaflets to people as they arrived, offering tote bag goodies, and having set up a podium with a backdrop (as seen in other debates), PA and lighting systems, video recording and still photography.
No was also very well and professionally represented, with two seasoned debaters — Sam Gylmah, Conservative MP for East Surrey, and Mark McDonald, a human rights barrister and lifelong Labour supporter — to advance the case. The Yes side was unrepresented by the official campaign, something that the No side didn’t fail to point out at every opportunity, however a 6th former from Reading School, Charles Hindhoff(?sp) stepped up to the plate to bat for the Yes side. Charles put up a reasonable showing but this could hardly be described as a fair and balanced contest.
I fail to understand why the Yes campaign is not putting “official” speakers up for these debates. They are well-advertised on the No2AV website, so the excuse can’t be that we don’t know about them — I was able to find the Reading event and get an invitation to it (though I was not asked for my name or to show an invitation at the door). They do seem to be genuinely open events. The No campaign are already using the absence of an offical Yes speaker as a stick to beat the Yes campaign with, and I don’t doubt that they will continue to do so.
Unfortunately the chairman, from the Reading Chronicle, didn’t start by asking the audience to indicate their pre-debate inclinations, and nor did the event end with another showing of hands, which could have been easily done and which I felt was a definite missed opportunity. However after Sam and Charles had made their first statements, Mark McD did ask for a show of hands. Nobody did any counting, but from where I was sitting it seemed like there were about equal numbers of Yes and No supporters, and rather fewer who admitted to being undecided. I’d estimate that there were perhaps 30-40 people there in all, including the panel, some press, and those doing the recording.
Sam Gylmah had three main No arguments: First, that AV would make it harder to “hire & fire” the government, because it would lead to the LibDems being perpetually in power as coalition kingmakers. Of course much was made of the “broken promises” record of Nick Clegg. Second, only three countries use AV, the implication being that it must therefore be an inferior system. In contrast to universal suffrage and lowering the voting age to 18, AV would be a very minor and unworthy amendment to the British constitution; and third, that AV does not address the issues facing politics in the UK. It does nothing for low turnout or voter disillusionment. There are many excellent MPs — for some reason Sam singled out Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, as being a hardworking MP who had been elected on only 30% of the vote, suggesting that she wouldn’t have won under AV.
Charles then put some pro-AV points, including that FPTP is desgined for, and really only works for two-way contests; it encourages, if not demands tactical voting, whereas AV allows voters to express their real preferences. He also pointed out that AV is very widely used in non-parliamentary elections and is well tested. Contrary to allegations from the No side, AV does not assist minority views, indeed it makes their lives harder as they typically fail to gather enough support to prevail — however BNP et al have gained in local elections under FPTP.
Mark McD then (after taking his straw poll), proceeded to rehearse most of the expected and less credible anti-AV arguments, such as the huge cost (which he put at £200M, rather than £250M, as if that’s any more believable — he was well heckled on this point); only three countries use AV and at least two of them are unenthusiastic or in the case of Fiji have even discarded the system; that AV in Australia makes voting compulsory; that AV is complex and will need expensive and unreliable machinery to count; that AV is not PR; and that it won’t make any difference anyway. Most of the current MPs would probably end up getting elected under AV so what’s the point. He described AV as a squalid political fix, cooked up between Cameron and Clegg whe it was in neither manifesto, more broken promises.
I got in to speak from the floor and made several points — probably too many, there were just so many false and misleading allegations being made by the No speakers. I’d like to think that some of my rebuttals, such as denying the need for counting machines, were “hits”. Other speakers from the floor included a self-styled LibDem activist (Mark Thompson?), who I felt was unnecessarily confrontational, and would not have swayed anyone undecided. We also heard some differing views on whether AV would increase LibDem representation.
The topic of Australian poll cards came up — a self-confessed Labour “fixer” saying that most voters would either vote for just one candidate like they do under FPTP, or they would vote as instructed by their party. I think that was a rather tribal viewpoint but there is probably some truth in it. If Yes wins, the parties that oppose AV will very likely tell their supporters not to exercise additional preferences. Of course it will be perfectly legitimate for a voter to do that if they truly feel that only one candidate could represent them, but I’d hope that voter education will make clear the consequences of witholding additional preferences. I hope to post something further about this in the near future.
A good point was made by one speaker from the floor that this whole debate should not be about politicians or political parties, it should be about voters having the ability to make an honest statement about who they would like to see as their MP.
A Wokingham councillor whose name I didn’t catch made an extremely puzzling allegation to the effect that votes which become exhausted under AV (i.e. those where all the candidates for whom a voter has expressed a preference have been eliminated) would somehow “disappear”, and that this would compromise the fastidious verification of the count of votes cast. This was a new one on me. I wonder whether he thought the exhausted ballots would vanish in a puff of smoke! Clearly they would remain to be accounted for, in a similar way to spoilt papers.
Overall I think the debate was conducted fairly impartially; the true test would come if the Yes campaign were to put up speakers, and I would urge them to do so, if only to be seen to participate. To do so would disarm yet another of the No side’s arguments. But in the final analysis, it was pretty clear that no-one there was very likely to be persuaded away from their pre-debate position. Events such as this, at this relatively early stage in the run-up to the referendum, will only attract the committed few.