Sayeeda Warsi: AV will give extremist parties more credibility

The Rt Hon Baroness Warsi, Wednesday 29th March 2011

Speaking at Toynbee Hall on the impact of AV

Salaam Alaikum, Shalom, Namaste! Thank you all for being here.

It’s a privilege to welcome you to this historic setting. Toynbee Hall is a great symbol of what building a fair, responsible and cohesive society really means.

Years ago, this hall stood at the heart of the British Jewish and Irish communities….

…and over time, its residents played an important part in London’s campaigns for fairness for ethnic minorities….

….standing up against fascism in the 1930s….

…and fighting for a fairer, freer and more just society.

Today, Toynbee Hall continues to build on that legacy…

….helping young people and local families from all faiths and backgrounds to play their part and succeed in their communities…

So it is right that we come here today to talk about an issue which raises serious questions about all of these values….

….and gets right to the heart of what it means to live in a free and fair democracy:

The referendum on AV.


On May 5th, Britain faces a massive choice about the future of our democracy.

I call it the mother of all elections…

….because this referendum will affect not just the outcome of the next general election…

….but the outcome of every single general election to come.

Over the last few months, we’ve heard many of the reasons why AV would be wrong for our country.

Many of Britain’s leading historians have said that AV would undermine centuries of political history.

Prominent past and present Foreign Secretaries have argued that AV would limit our democratic influence in the world.

We’ve even heard many leading Liberals – including Lord Owen – saying they oppose AV because it’s the wrong reform for our country.

But this week, an even more important argument has taken centre stage….

…it’s an argument about a fundamental British belief…

…a belief that has been the beacon of British democracy for centuries….

…a principle that has inspired millions of democrats around the world….

…the idea that one person should get one vote and every vote should weigh the same.

Let me explain.

For centuries, generations of British reformers have been inspired by that principle.

They believed that because each person is equal – no matter who you are or what your background – every person should have an equal vote.

It took many years for that principle to become part of our politics.

But today, that principle stands as the cornerstone of our democracy – enshrined in the current system as one person, one vote.

Look around the world and we see the legacy.

2.4 billion people use our voting system.

It’s the most widely used voting system in the world.

By contrast, only three countries in the world use AV.

So ask yourself this:

What on earth will all these billions of people think if they turn to the mother of all democracies after May 5th and find that Britain has turned its back on two centuries of history?

Under AV, instead of one person, one vote – some votes get counted more than others

Instead of everyone being equal, some people are more equal than others!

So it’s absolutely vital that we defeat this disastrous, discredited and unfair voting system.

As Winston Churchill put it in the 1930s:

AV “is the stupidest, the least scientific and the most unreal” voting system.

It means that elections “will be determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates.”

And if it becomes part of our democracy: “an element of blind chance and accident will enter far more largely into our electoral decisions..

…..and respect for Parliament will decline lower than it is at present”.

He knew then – like we know now – that AV is totally wrong for our country.


But today, I actually believe that there’s an even bigger argument to make against AV.

You see, the problem with AV isn’t just that it counts some people’s votes more than others.

It’s the issue of who those people tend to be.

Now AV is such a complicated and confusing system, that you’ll forgive me if I explain carefully exactly what I mean.

Under AV, the candidate who comes bottom after the first round of voting is eliminated.

But the people who voted for that candidate then get another bite of the cherry as their other preferences come into play.

So while all the people who backed mainstream candidates only have their first preferences counted, all those people who picked fringe candidates have, in effect, a second or third bite of the cherry.

It’s not just the sheer unfairness of this which gets me.

It’s the fact that for some completely arbitrary reason, AV gives more power to those people – fringe voters, Monster Raving Loonies, and yes, fascists – who are voting for precisely the kind of extreme policies most people want to marginalize.

You don’t need me to tell you that this represents a serious danger to our democracy.

It means that bigots will be given more power in our politics…

….and extremists will look to gain more influence over mainstream parties.

The danger is that under AV, our whole political system would take a giant leap backwards, becoming more warped and disproportionate as fringe voters hold sway.

Now before I go any further, let me be categorically clear:

I am absolutely not saying that this is something anyone in the Yes campaign want to see.

Of course, the people backing the Yes Campaign rightly abhor extremism and I don’t for one second doubt their sincerity.

What I am saying is that, yes they may be sincere, and yes, they may oppose extremism….

…but by backing AV, they’re backing a system which rewards extremism and gives oxygen to extremist groups.

The fact is that whichever way you come at it, AV has some very worrying unintended consequences – and we need to make this clear to people before it’s too late.

What I am saying is grounded in very solid evidence.

This week, the No Campaign published some very important research about the last general election campaign.

They showed how it is possible that in 70 per cent of all seats, under AV, if you had voted for any of the three mainstream parties – Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat – only one of your votes would have been counted.

By contrast, the average BNP voter could have had at least two votes counted under AV….

…and in some cases, supporters of the BNP and the National Front could have had as many as six votes counted.

Right here in this constituency for example, in Bethnal Green and Bow, it could have taken at least nine rounds of voting to decide the winning candidate…

….and if you had voted BNP, at least three of your votes could have been counted.

Now here in this constituency, in Rushanara Ali, you have a fantastic female Asian Member of Parliament.

We may be from different Parties, but I am proud that it’s First-Past-the-Post that got her there!

So it’s absolutely clear that AV represents a real and present danger to our democracy.

And in particular, I believe that AV risks three very worrying things.


First and foremost, under AV, there’s a real risk that candidates would pander to extremists.


Because to win a seat, candidates will need to win the support of those whose first choices have already been eliminated – and in many seats, that means the BNP.

This could have serious repercussions on those constituencies where the BNP vote is bigger than the majority.

Take Dewsbury, which has a big personal relevance to me.

Back in 2005 I stood for my home seat of Dewsbury and lost by just over 4000 votes.

At the same time, the BNP vote was 5,066; more than the difference in votes between the top two parties.

So it’s not hard to imagine where AV could lead in places like Dewsbury:

More inflammatory campaigns, and more policies which appeal to people’s worst instincts rather that to the values of the mainstream.


But this is just the start of it.

The second risk with AV is that it could give parties like the BNP more legitimacy.

Let me be clear what that means.

Under AV, voters would be able to register a protest vote without considering the electoral implications – and then transfer back to a mainstream party.

The long-term effects are sadly all too clear:

More people backing fringe parties because they feel they can do.

More votes and more long-term legitimacy for the BNP.

All adding fuel to the fire and giving the false impression that voting BNP is actually ok.

Tied to this problem is another one:

More horse-trading.

Under AV, with hung parliaments more likely, it will be the smaller parties who often hold the balance of power.

Just imagine what that could mean for British democracy.

Party leaders striking bargains with extremist parties.

Unsavoury promises and dodgy deals.

And meanwhile, the representatives of those fringe parties enjoying greater stature and credibility as they swan off to meetings with leaders of the mainstream parties.

Now while I’m on this particular issue, let me address head on an argument levelled by the Yes campaign.

They point to the BNP’s position in this referendum and say that Nick Griffin wants to keep First Past the Post.

In response, let me read you this:

‘To continue fighting first-past-the-post elections and securing an ever-dwindling vote is simply a recipe for demoralisation and failure’

Those are the words of Mr. Griffin after his party’s disastrous performance in last year’s election – an election run under First Past the Post!

The point is that you and I know well that there is nothing the BNP say which has any value and it can never be taken seriously.

It’s all about tactics and deals.

And let’s be clear: What the BNP really want is PR…

….because as Nick Griffin puts it, under PR the BNP “could easily fill a bus with BNP MPs”.


And that brings me to the final point I want to make.

Many of those who are campaigning for AV actually don’t want AV at all.

They see AV as a stepping stone to another change in our voting system whereby we adopt PR.

But in the north of England, PR has let in two BNP Members of the European Parliament.

The fact is that of all the main voting systems, first-past-the-post has one of the strongest records when it comes to excluding extremists from Parliaments.

So it’s absolutely vital that we do everything we can to protect it – starting on May 5th.


The point about this referendum is that it’s not just a choice between two counting systems.

This is a choice between different values.
Whether it’s right that some people should have more votes counted than others.

Whether it’s right that our democracy should give extremists more power.

And above all, whether we should abandon our simple, straightforward, tried-and-tested voting system and replace it with another which is dangerous as well as unfair.

So that’s why, right here and right now, we need to pull together and fight for our democracy.

Let the message go out from Toynbee Hall:

We don’t just say No to AV, we say yes to our voting system.

We say yes to One Person One Vote.

So when, in years to come, people say: where were you when they decided the future of our democracy?

What did you do to win this debate?

We can all stand up and say:

I was there.

I was there when we protected our democracy.

I was there when we stopped extremists getting more power.

I was there when we protected one person, one vote.

I was there when we said No to AV.

(29th March 2011)