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In Constitutional Spotlight, Events, Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics, The Media on September 27, 2010 at 4:18 pm

David Weber

I do not have particularly high hopes for the hopefully forthcoming referendum on the Alternative Vote. My reasons are mainly that it tends to be the most intelligent, careful reforms which garner the least respect from those who are interested in them. Therefore, I would not be at all surprised if many of those who advocate electoral reform simply do not turn out, or actually vote “no” next May. To the passionate advocate of PR, all that matters is the national outcome. On the local level, the strength of personal representation, and the quality of debate during an election, are all unimportant.

However, one thing I do respect about the objections of more radical constitutional reformers is that they at least have accuracy in mind. Despite a misplaced focus, their objections are entirely correct. The Alternative Vote is not more proportional than First Past the Post. This is because it does nothing to reform the basis of the system, which is local, nor the form of representation, which is direct. Instead, it merely makes the form of these elections fairer.

So though it might be a game-changer during individual elections, it will do little to change the party system. The two parties would likely remain entrenched in United Kingdom politics. The Liberal Democrats would likely become more listened to, but only marginally more representated. Independents would be able to stand in good conscience of contributing to the debate without splitting the vote — but that is all. Moreover, extreme parties like the BNP would become more frozen out than ever from hope of winning seats, as the system of election would rely on finding broader support among the electorate.

So I respect the objections of many to AV, despite supporting it firmly myself and believing it would do a lot to improve the fairness of political discourse. It is a ‘small’ reform, the electoral equivalent of the first stage of Lords reform, designed to make a flawed system stronger without overhauling its composition. So no wonder why it is so unlikely to incur passionate support in the electorate. I doubt we would have flocked to the polls in support of the constitutional reforms of the past 13 years, for they have nearly all been the minor, careful reforms that are the proud tradition of the British Constitution.

However, if I am resigned to expecting an unenthusiastic debate at best, I would at least have hoped for an honest one. Not so, it seems. For the more verocious opponents of any change whatsoever, every argument is fair game, no matter how mis-informed or, indeed, deliberately misleading.

Or so a recent article by Matthew Elliott, chairman of the “No2AV” campaign, would suggest. In it, Elliott impressively manages not only to lower the tone of the whole political debate, but also apply the wrong arguments at every corner. Not since Simon Heffer accused Gordon Brown of trying to introduce PR have I seen someone so wilfully misunderstand one of the most simple reforms to the electoral system there is. Elliott manages to use Australia to back up his argument that AV will “lead to permanent hung parliaments”, apparently having missed the fact that Australia had only 6 Hung Parliaments in the previous century — despite having shorter parliamentary terms than the UK, at 3 years.

Elliott also claims that AV would not address what Nick Clegg calls the “scandal” of safe seats. Here is is in less uninformed company, as this is often an argument made hastily by some Lib Dems. The reality is that it is utterly counter-intuitive to suggest that AV would do nothing about safe seats, because many are won by under 50%, or barely over that mark. Bringing the threshhold of election to 50% would have the effect of suddenly making many of these MPs more wary, as they realised that a sudden swing of unpopularity in their direction and the votes of their opponents could easily stack up against them.

This brings me to an earlier point he makes, that the system violates OMOV (One man, One Vote). This is one of the most baffling criticisms of AV that I’ve come across, as it appears to confuse the act of voting with the process of elections. Under AV, anyone can fill out a full preference vote. So it is clearly not the case, as Elliott seems to think it is, that only the supporters of minor parties get to “vote multiple times”. Yet if this is not what Elliott refers to, then he can only mean the process of election, i.e. which votes “count” towards electing the winner.

If Elliott refers to the process of election, then by his own logic First Past the Post would be a far worse offender. Under AV, 50% of the votes might end up “counting” to the election result. But under First Past the Post, there is no lower limit to the amount of votes that have to “count”. So in other words, First Past the Post would be a massive failure of OMOV. The winner does not even have to gain a majority of votes, merely a plurality — one more than his nearest rival. AV is not particularly representative in terms of “which votes count”, but FPTP is dreadful. Elliott might as well claim that the 2005 Conservative leadership election violated OMOV, because some people voted for Ken Clarke in the first round and David Cameron in the last, while some people voted both times for Cameron.

Luckily, I don’t think we need accept Elliott’s definition of OMOV, because no system has yet been devised by man to allow every single vote to count toward an election result, even that holy grail of voting systems, STV. To my mind, and to the minds of most, I think, OMOV merely means giving everyone the same voting opportunities — i.e. not giving a landowner two votes more than a tenant. How they use that vote and to what advantage is entirely up to them.

Elliott also characterises the current electoral system as “long-standing”. I suppose this depends on your definition, but to most historians, I suspect it would be anything but. First Past the Post was not been used to elect every single MP until after the second world war. Prior to that, there were multi-member constituencies in places, and at one time there were many. In fact, the gradual change of our electoral system from the time of rotten Boroughs to today is a great argument against the idea that the British Constitution has been successful and unchanging. All too often, it has been neither.

Nor is it the case to claim that electoral reform, or “political tinkering” was unheard of in ages gone past. One of the lesser-known measures of the 1867 reform act was Limited Voting, where multi-member constituencies would elect 3 members on 2 votes per person, thus providing for minority representation — in some ways, a simpler version of what STV attempts to do. Other ideas in the past have included STV elections for the cities and towns, and AV for the counties. And a bill to introduce AV for elections in the UK was only thwarted by the House of Lords back in 1931.

As for First Past the Post producing “clear and uncomplicated election results”, it’s surprisingly difficult to work out what those election results mean sometimes. I’m not referring, unlike Elliott, to hung Parliaments (though it is worth noting the two results of 1951 and 1974, when governments were ousted despite winning the support of more people than their challengers). But I’m referring to what election results are precisely taken to mean.

1992 is a brilliant example. When formulating their review into the electoral system, the Jenkins commission effectively made one of their criteria that the system they recommended would have delivered a hung parliament in 1992, but not in 1983 or 1987. Quite why they did this is unclear, for John Major’s conservative party suffered a mere -0.3% swing at the polls in 1992, and actually won more actual votes than they had in the previous election, 1992 being something of a triumph for turnout. The reason Major’s majority was reduced to a mere 21 is almost entirely down to the workings of First Past the Post — yet the Jenkins Commission appeared to not even consider this, because of the widespread (and false) idea that the Conservative party lost much of their support at the polls in 1992.

Or what about 1983? The triumph for the Thatcherite government, returned with a majority of 144? Not necessarily. The proportion of the voting electorate they secured had actually fallen, from 43.9% to 42.4%. The old adage is true — you can prove anything with statistics, and what FPTP actually does is to add to the confusion of election results. (It is, however, true that Labour were roundly punished at that election, losing over 9% of the voting electorate. This, more than anything, was the reason for the sweeping victory the Tories’ secured).

As for accountable government (or accountable opposition, as we have just seen), AV might not change much on the national scale, but it cannot be denied that it is a way of making individual MPs more accountable. What the Conservatives have tentatively suggested with one or two open primaries is in some ways very similar. And the way the Conservative party elects its leader is also very similar, being a series of run-off elections. AV simulates run-off elections, at a fraction of the cost. Indeed, it is ironic that, given their support for FPTP, the Conservative party is strangely lacking in exercising that system in its internal party democracy. I suppose this is no less dubious than Labour’s stance — the only party to propose the system in their manifesto, who now oppose a bill to introduce it after they were defeated on an amendment.

So to sum up, I think I would prefer it if proponents of PR were allowed to chair the No2AV campaign. Then at least we would have some real understanding of electoral reform. It would also make life easier for the Conservatives to get on with what they’ve always done at their best — outflank the opposition. There are few legitimate reasons for the Conservatives to oppose AV. It does all of what they regard as good and right in First Past the Post, better, with a few additional advantages of its own. The only criticisms that are really applicable come from quite different directions.

  1. I think your post is a little downbeat but contains some factual demolitions of some of the no campaigns propaganda. The no campaign wants to spread apathy along with their mis-information, but I am meeting a lot of people who are very much in favour of AV and are excited by the prospects.

    1) ‘The Alternative Vote is not more proportional than First Past the Post.’
    This appears incorrect. AV is on average slightly more proportional than FPTP. It is still very random because it is not very proportional but if you look at the worst that both systems comes out then with FPRP is far worse, and if you look at the best the systems can come up with AV is slightly better (this is from AV a better alternative issued by the ERS), they show the maths behind the statement to support it factually.

    2) ‘Therefore, I would not be at all surprised if many of those who advocate electoral reform simply do not turn out, or actually vote “no” next May.’
    This statement is does not reflect the current situation. The Electoral reform movement were balloted over where they were to support AV or not and over 80% of the returned votes said we are all for it. The only issue is to convince the other 20%. After listening and talking to pro PR people it does look like a lot of these (many %s) are open to the notion once they are told the truth about AV. The truth is that it is AV or nothing (well AV or the decrepit delusion of democracy we currently have) and therefore we have chosen AV (the royal we is based on the above mentioned ballot)

    3) “Elliott wilfully misunderstand”. I said to my daughter she had willfully misunderstood me when I catch her lying. She doesn’t seem to ‘willfully misunderstand’ me as much as Elliott ‘Willfully Misunderstands’ AV, its amost as if the only way he has a chance of wininng is to keep this willful misunderstanding up

    The real problem we have as a movement is getting the information out there. AV is better than FPTP – this is a fact. The problem is the No campaign is not going to use all the facts. It can’t because if it did it would show AV is the best. Instead they are either willfully misunderstanding (sorry I almost said lying then) or using mis-inofrmation (not lying but just giving a little bit of fact to grossly distort the truth. A bit like the misinformation used in supermarkets – i.e. something has the word ‘contains no calories’ on the box but inside the box is 40% saturated fat and enough e numbers to keep a kid up for a week). This type of tripe is what the lovely, impartial (winner of a Tory best mates award 3 years ago) Mr Elliot is going to have to do. Disgusting, yes. Unfair, yes. Supported but the millions of £ donated from the rich boys who don’t want the system to change so they can keep milking it – yes.

    All as the yes camp has to do is get all of the truth out there. I say all, this is a hard battle but one we must win. We are doing this person to person and it feels like pushing a snowball around – but the snowball is getting bigger and bigger 🙂

  2. Hi Dave,

    I’m not going to argue about how upbeat the case really is, because I hope you’re right.

    I’ve always held that arguments concerning proportionality comparisons between AV and FPTP are a little flawed as they hold tha voting choices would be broadly the same under the two systems. If that was the case, there is some evidence to suggest that AV would ahve been less proportional than FPTP in 1997, and some people also argue 1983.

    The other argument I make is that disproportionality is more “logical” under AV, as it’s more likely to reward cross-party support and punish divisive politics. So it would be less likely to lead to disproportional swings because of divided support for opposition parties, for example. I suppose you could say that was an argument for it being slightly less disproportionate.

    As for the support AV has already accumulated, that’s good, but I’d make two points. The first is that 20% is still a substantial amount of people, enough I’d argue to qualify as “many”. The second is more important, in that I doubt the electoral reform movement comprises all who are in favour of electoral change, and all those interested in voting in the referendum.

    As regards wilful misunderstanding, I was possibly a bit harsh. For example, I think Simon Heffer probably only misunderstood AV rather than deliberately misunderstood it — it doesn’t excuse the sloppiness, though! As for Elliott, I’m not so sure — I’d be very surprised if he really understood it so badly.

    I’m always surprised at the number of conservatives who seem ideologically opposed to AV, though. I guess it’s a result of recent party history, but I’m fairly sure that it wouldn’t undermine Conservative ideas about how the political system should work.

    Anyway, good to hear your thoughts. Thanks for contributing!

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