AV: An anti-extremist alternative

By Jonathan Bartley
January 26, 2011

Tomorrow I’ll be speaking at a conference on racism, religion and public policy and so I thought I would do a quick blog on why the Alternative Vote (AV) will help to tackle extremist politics. (Ekklesia has been examining/exposing the links between religion and the BNP/extremism in politics/public policy, since 2004. For a list of articles, reports etc... see here ).

One of the interesting features of the AV referendum is that many smaller parties are lining up to support reform of the voting system. They recognise that it is an empowering alternative, gives voters a chance to vote more honestly with both their heads and their heart rather than tactically, and will create a broader political agenda in the UK.

A notable exception however is the BNP, who are campaigning against reform of the voting system. Why is this?

It is pretty clear that the BNP recognise they stand to lose out under AV. Currently because MPs can get elected with support from less than one in three voters, there is always a risk that extremist parties can get in. Certainly at local council level the BNP have already managed to gain dozens of council seats. Under AV however it would be that much harder. The BNP would need to win the support of half of the people in any given constituency.

But as groups like Operation Black Vote, who are also part of the Yes campaign recognise, there is another reason for the BNP’s opposition to AV, and that involves understanding the roots of BNP support.

What is it that fuels support for extremists? The simplistic answer often proposed is “immigration”. Analysis by the IPPR suggests this not to be the case. In fact they found that the more immigration an area has experienced, the less likely there is to be BNP support. The study covering 149 local authorities launched in April 2010 found that where people have experience of living with people from different backgrounds, including migrants, they are less likely to vote for the BNP. The study also points out that nine out of 10 of the local authorities with the highest proportions of BNP votes in fact had lower than average immigration.

But the report also highlights an important correlation between support for the BNP and areas where people are politically disengaged. The BNP's success in gaining council seats cannot be put down simply to a lack of voter turnout says the IPPR. The BNP feed off a sense of powerlessness and alienation. Their popularity is due - at least in part - to a political system which doesn’t inspire confidence. Conversely, the more people are engaged, the worse it is for the racist party. As the BNP know, AV will allow people to engage more fully with the voting system. People will feel that their votes count for far more under AV.

And of course AV is also likely to increase voter turnout, making it harder for the BNP to make gains as a result of voter apathy.

Other studies have also suggested the BNP will suffer under AV. A study by the Electoral Reform Society in Burnley in 2004, where the BNP gained 8 council seats under First Past the Post, found that only very small numbers of supporters of other parties would give their second or third preferences to the BNP. It also suggested that the BNP would have won no council seats, rather than eight, if the AV system had been used in the 2003 council elections.

Such projections need to be treated carefully as voter psychology changes significantly under AV. But if anything it may be that BNP support would have been still smaller than the ERS projection, because under AV people will feel less disenfranchised and alienated from the political system.

This is the fourth in a series of posts exploring different aspects of AV

AV: The fair alternative
1. A more honest alternative
2. A more consistent alternative
3. A more just alternative
4. An anti-extremist alternative

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