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Monday, 25 April 2011

You're AV-ing a laugh aren't ya? The election system referendum.

In 1998 former SDP Party leader Roy Jenkins was asked by Tony Blair to lead a commission on electoral reform. It was asked to take into account four requirements: Proportionality of the relationship between votes and seats in parliament, the need for stable government, the extension of voter choice and the maintenance of a link between MPs and geographical constituencies.

The commission suggested the 'alternative vote top up' system or 'AV+' which would directly elect some MPs by the alternative vote, then add a number of additional members elected from top up lists according to proper proportional representation. Nothing happened afterwards, in that contrary to Labour election manifesto promises no referendum was held in response to the commission's report.

But now we finally DO have a referendum being held to change the electoral system we use in this country, because the Conservatives had to promise it to the Lib Dems last May to get them to join the governing coalition. And yet instead of a change to AV+, which was selected as the best solution according to the conditions above by those that studied electoral reform, we are being asked to choose whether or not to change simply to Alternative vote.

 This is the 'fallacy of false choice' if there ever was one. This is a type of logical fallacy that involves a situation in which only two alternatives are considered, when in fact there are additional options. There are additional options, and if we had enough intellectual curiosity and if our politicians trusted us, we would be considering those options properly.

But the politicians don't trust us, and this has been shown by the paucity and mendacity of the current campaigns by both sides of the current referendum debate, in particular the 'No' campaign. Politicians will argue that they are acting in this way precisely because we in the UK public lack that intellectual curiosity. Yet I think it's because of the false choice before us, and that is a shame.

Let's start with the main problem facing the 'No' campaign. When studying the issue of electoral reform for AS politics students were faced with the task of weighing up the importance of "strong government" against other criteria. Strong government meant the ability of the governing party to make decisions and to legislate because they had enough seats to command a clear majority, negating the need for coalitions and granting them a mandate to carry out their manifesto commitments. The nature of First Past the Post (FPTP) makes it most likely that the winning party has over the 325 needed to form a government by themselves. 

The 'No' campaign has tried to use this to help their case, pointing out the difficult compromises and back-room deals that have bedevilled the current coalition government in the public's eyes. Yet therein lies the problem....we have a current coalition government and it was created by the FPTP electoral system. So there goes their main argument for no change.

So instead the 'No' campaign have been left clutching at straws. They argue that AV can let the candidate that came third in the first choice votes win the seat, and also that AV breaks the principle of one-person-one-vote that should lie behind every fair electoral system. They also argue that AV would mean parties having to speak more to extremist voters to attempt to secure their second choice votes. Finally they point to the massive cost of using counting machines for AV.  Let's break these down a little bit.

1) At the moment if you happen to be living in a "safe" seat for any of the major parties - but particularly for Conservatives and Labour then since the only votes that matter are those for the winner - a vote for any other party is a wasted vote. You cannot express your preferences in any way that matters and so the resultant vote count is not reflective of the peoples' true wishes. In AV you can vote for any party you like with your first choice vote as even if they don't come in the top 2 your 2nd preference votes count, then 3rd preference, meaning that every participant in the election will have more of a role. The first place votes will tell us more about the true choice of the country, and if it so happens that a lot of people have a favourite candidate but feel that if not them they would like to have someone else then with AV they have a chance to express that preference. If the result is that the 3rd placed candidate after the first round wins out, then that is the will of the people, and there shouldn't be a problem with that. It SHOULD raise political participation and voter turnout.

2) This issue is where the 'No' campaign are particularly distorting things. They like to use the example of someone voting for the BNP, them not winning, and then that person's 2nd preferences being counted and 3rd preferences and making a real difference to the outcome. They then argue that that person has 3 votes and, say, a Conservative voter only has one vote. Simply not true. If the first round result was 40% Conservative, 30% Labour, 15% Lib Dem and 15% BNP and 10% of the BNP voters' 2nd preferences were for the Tory and 5% for Labour the result would be 50% Conservative and 35% Labour and the Tory would win BUT remember that both parties had their vote counted twice as well - once in the first round and again in the second round. So everyone has their votes counted the same amount. Each round is like a round of voting, and in each round it is one person one vote. Some people will say "but not everyone will use all their choices and that's not fair". Yes it is, it's up to them not to use their choices.

3) Parties may decide to appeal more to extremists to secure their second preference. Labour may veer to the left to mop up any ultra-left voters and left-wing Lib Dems and the Tories to the right to mop up BNP and UKIP votes. This may have two consequences, both which could be regarded as positive. At the moment some people don't vote because they say that the major parties are "all the same" and are all slight variations of the centre ground. This might force them apart a bit to give voters a clearer choice. More importantly, if it is the presence of extremist parties that is causing problems (and given they are being used by both sides as the bogeymen in this referendum debate they probably are causing problems) then by actually daring to talk about the more controversial issues the main parties may 're-mainstream' some of the important debates. Think of it this way, the BNP got so many votes because none of the parties would talk seriously about the impact of immigration. That AV could force them to do so is no bad thing as good political debate isn't afraid of certain topics, but we in the UK have been afraid.

4) Apparently counting machines will not be used for AV. Should that be so then the claim that it will cost £130m for the counting machines is an outright lie. 

Meanwhile, the 'Yes' campaign have been spreading some rubbish of their own - in particular that AV would stop expenses scandals happening again and that since the BNP are supporting the 'No' campaign that should be enough argument against FPTP. This is a shame, because they would be better off highlighting the problems with FPTP as a system to help their case, but as I said before, they don't trust the public to listen.

1) Nick Clegg said that FPTP 'breeds the sort of complacency that led to the expenses scandal...If MPs feel no one is looking over their shoulder, is it no wonder some dipped hands in the till?’. This implies that the greater likelihood under FPTP of there being safe seats meant that MPs were more likely to be corrupt. Yet many MPs caught up in the expenses scandals were in extremely marginal seats, and the expenses scandal was down to not enough checks and balances in Parliament and the refusal to pay MPs a salary representative of their responsibilities and the skills needed. So whilst the expenses scandals happened under FPTP it was not CAUSED by FPTP - this is a logical fallacy.

2) The use of the BNP by the 'Yes' campaign is mendacious because whilst the BNP are against moving to AV it is absolutely NOT because they like FPTP - both are just as bad for them - although there are arguments both ways as to which would be better for them - under AV people may be more comfortable being able to put BNP as their 2nd or 3rd choice than they are to put them if they only have one choice. Probably the only way the BNP will win seats in the House of Commons is though the operation of full proportional representation through the list system - in which seats and votes are exactly aligned, so 5% of the vote gives you 5% of the seats. The BNP has seats in the European Parliament and in the London Assembly and the electoral system for both is the closed list system (Full PR). They are supporting the 'No' campaign because they think that AV doesn't go far enough, so this particular change is a waste of time. So yes they are voting against AV, but that DOESN'T mean that BNP support FPTP, and anyone who understands electoral systems knows that, so, given those in the 'Yes' campaign DO understand electoral systems, their use of the BNP involves a quite convenient bending of the truth.

I was speaking to a colleague the other day who was concerned who had the same problem as the BNP. They want electoral reform to a more proportionally representative system and AV isn't that, so they think they should vote 'No' as a 'Yes' vote would be a wasted opportunity for change as the change would be in the wrong direction. They don't want a 'Yes' vote for electoral reform to be seen as a 'Yes' vote for AV.

I reminded her of the problems of FPTP. That the Lib Dems received 23% of the country's vote but less than 9% of the seats in parliament. That in the Hampstead and Kilburn consistuency the THIRD placed candidate got over 16,500 of the vote and got nothing, but in Stoke -on -Trent the WINNER got 12,000 votes and won a seat. That the reality is that less and less people now vote for the two mainstream parties but the current electoral system means this isn't getting recognised in seats. That the result was a lessening of choice and a feeling of  votes being wasted that was reducing voter turnout.

The case for electoral reform is solid. It is even more solid now FPTP doesn't lead to strong government, which means there are literally no good arguments to keep it, hence the tactics of the 'No' campaign. . My feeling is that a 'No' vote will mean there will not be electoral reform in at least a generation. A 'Yes' vote will lead to AV in the next election and show that there is a real appetite for a proper look at the electoral system - or maybe just a re-reading of the Jenkins Commission Report and a chance to vote for AV plus.

So I advised my colleague to vote 'Yes', because of the symbolic nature of that choice - even though this particular choice is a false one.

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