Historians say AV poses threat to democracy

A change to Britain’s voting system would threaten the principle on which democracy is built for the first time since universal suffrage was granted, a group of 26 prominent historians warn today.

The group which has written to The Times today warns that the Alternative Vote system will destroy the notion of “one man or woman, one vote”. Professor Antony Beevor, Dr Amanda Foreman, Professor Niall Ferguson, Simon Sebag Montefiore and Dr David Starkey are among the high-profile signatories. They urge the British public to reject AV, a system in which voters state their second preference, in May’s referendum.

“Men and women have fought for the right to vote. That long fight for suffrage established the principle of one man or woman, one vote. The principle that each person’s vote is equal, regardless of wealth, gender, race or creed,” they write.

The historians argue that it is a principle deeply rooted in Britain’s parliamentary democracy that reformers have dedicated their lives to. It is why Winston Churchill stood against the introduction of AV in 1931 arguing that it would allow elections to be decided by “the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates”.

The signatories, who also include Dr Andrew Roberts, Professor Michael Burleigh and Dr Sheila Lawlor, say for the first time in history, one citizen’s vote could be worth six times that of another. They add. “It will be a tragic consequence if those votes belong to the supporters of extremist and non-serious parties.”

The battle for AV has pitched the coalition partners against each other as the Prime Minister calls on Britons to reject it and his deputy argues for a Yes vote. Nick Clegg knows that voting reform will boost his Liberal Democrats who argue that First Past the Post is deeply unfair.

But for many Conservatives it is a toxic issue. They fear that a new voting system will inflict serious damage to their party.

One of the signatories on today’s letter is Chris Skidmore, a historian and Tory MP. He said: “Almost 30 of our most prolific and celebrated historians, many of them household names and whose expertise covers the full span of British democracy, have united to send out a message — that if the Alternative Voting system is adopted, it will undermine centuries of reform and run counter to the history of our nation’s democracy.”

Mr Skidmore argued that AV was “deeply dishonest” and could mean that a candidate who comes second or third on first preferences could be elected.

The issue of voting reform is not only causing tension for the Coalition. The Labour party is also split with the leader, Ed Miliband, promising to vote yes while dozens of his MPs sign up the NOtoAV campaign.

The battle between the two camps has become almost vitriolic. The Yes to Fairer Votes has so far tried to distance itself from politicians, instead boasting a long list of celebrities including the Oscar winner, Colin Firth and his co-star, Helena Bonham Carter.

But today the Liberal Democrats will launch their own campaign at the party’s spring conference in Sheffield. It will be chaired by Tim Farron, the party president, who hit out at the historians accusing them of a “selective account of history”.

He added: “I am sure that when they have sobered up and read their own letter they would score themselves a third for that piece of work.” He said that in safe seats across Britain, there were millions of votes that counted for nothing.