The Great Bubble Debate: to AV and to hold?

Josh Cole:

This is a short article born largely of fear. My fear is that after all the votes have been counted for the May 5th referendum we will be told that the people of the United Kingdom have decided against reforming the voting system and will therefore be staying with first past the post. I would like to take some time in the following lines to explain why this would be a huge mistake.

The supporters of the NO campaign say that we shouldn’t vote for AV because it is unfair. They say that it is unfair because some people’s votes will be counted more than once. This is not true. We all get one vote; we all get one opportunity to state our preferences on a single sheet of paper. However the new system will be more responsive so that depending on the circumstances your second, third or fourth votes may also end up being taken into account. The reason this is done is to try and ensure that the eventual winner from each constituency is a proportional winner; they will have to have achieved at least 50% of the vote. This gives everyone who participates more control over the entire electoral process.

The supporters of the NO campaign also claim that AV is too complicated a system. This is a blatant and embarrassing lie. Blatant because the new system literally takes less than five minutes to understand, embarrassing because they believe that by appealing to what they perceive as the ignorance and laziness of the British people they will be able to get what they want. Under AV when you go to the polling station to vote for your MP you have a choice that was not previously there. After putting down your ideal candidate you also have the option of listing in order of preference as many others as you wish. You could put down one more, two, three, or even none at all. After all the votes have been cast and if no candidate has greater than 50% of those votes the candidate with the least is eliminated and his second choice votes are redistributed to the remaining candidates. If there is still no individual with over 50% then this process continues in rounds until someone does. Doesn’t sound too harrowing, does it?

The third and final objection I’d like to deal with before moving onto some positive reasons to vote for AV is that of expense. I saw a broadcast by the NO campaign today that put the price at £250 million. Assuming for now that this isn’t something of an exaggeration let’s take a moment to consider this sum for what it is. £250 million paid for by a population of 61.8 million equates to just over £4 per person. This is a trifling figure. We’re talking about a once in a lifetime opportunity to make the way we elect MPs fairer and more representative; when put like that the cost should look pretty small.

I’ve gone over why we shouldn’t vote against AV, now I want to say a few things about why we should be for AV. Many people have pointed out that AV isn’t perfect, that it isn’t the change they want to see, but no voting system is perfect. What we must remember is that what we are being offered on the 5th of May is not just an alternative method for electing our MPs. We are being given an opportunity to express our political desire for change. If the result on the 5th of May is a NO then the politicians will consider the issue of voting reform effectively put to bed. However if the answer is YES then a door to new possibilities opens up. Ministers will be forced to acknowledge, contrary to many of their surmises, that this is an issue of real importance to the British people. Vote YES on Thursday even if you think AV is only marginally better than FPTP and show the government that we are serious about reform. Vote NO and we consign ourselves to political oblivion.

I would now like to make one further point. Without wanting to sound too much like Ed Miliband, there really is good cause for believing that the UK is resident to a progressive majority. To realise the true potential of AV as a new voting system we need to go beyond party politics. Labour and the Lib Dems have more in common with each other than they do with the Conservatives and could both be convincingly described as centre-left parties. Accepting capitalism but seeking to reform it through government-led changes, maintaining the welfare state and looking out for workers’ rights is inherent within their objectives. The problem in Britain is that there is one right party and two left so that under the current first-past-the-post system their vote is split and seats are invariably lost. I’m not talking about levying for a rebirth of militant trade unionism, Marxist economics or a workers revolution; I’m talking about the social democracy that underlies the majority of modern centre-left policies, Labour and Liberal.

How many times have we heard someone say they’d put down Lib Dem if they didn’t think it was a throwaway vote? Under AV we could unite the Left by being able to show our support for both of the current progressive parties and then have that support taken into account when new MPs are elected. The NO campaigners will say that we are electing a government and that the only way to do that respectfully and properly is by placing a single cross next to the name of a single party. It doesn’t have to be this way. Under AV we can choose our government but we can also make a more general choice about the type of ideals we want our state to be based on. We can vote for how we want our country to be run as well as who will run it, so that even if our chosen party does not make it into power many of our principles still will. The future of the modern Left is in our hands; what will we decide?

Mark Harmstone:

For someone who wishes there were more referendums in Britain, the past few weeks have been remarkably unedifying. Both sides in the AV debate have fought extraordinarily dirty campaigns: on the one side, Chris Huhne smearing his opponents as Nazis, and the other Yessers sneeringly dismissing the anti-AV crowd as too stupid to understand (that’s always a sure-fire way to win votes); on the other, the No side’s completely fictitious £250 million cost of the change, and the ease at which they evoke the spectre of Nick Clegg. Ironically, for a campaign which is ostensibly to clean up politics, what has been debased the most is politics itself.

Why do we have democracy? It’s not principally because it produces the best men for the job – very few people must think that, out of all the 60 million people in Great Britain, David Cameron is objectively the best man to be Prime Minister. Far more important, rather, is the issue of legitimacy. No-one seriously thinks that an MP doesn’t have the legitimacy to represent their constituents if they only get 45% of the votes; it’s all posturing for political show. Indeed, in the last Parliament the Lib Dems tabled an amendment which would have introduced the Single Transferable Vote, the multi-member version of AV. Given that they envisaged Glasgow having seven seats, this would mean that a Glaswegian MP could get elected on 12.5% of the vote. Like the Electoral Reform Society deleting all anti-AV arguments from their website once they heard of the referendum, the Yes side are guilty of infantilizing the debate by pretending that there’s no legitimate opposition to the Alternative Vote.

Yet AV can only have a 50% threshold by redefining what “vote” means. At heart, the system is fundamentally dishonest – its central conceit is that second preferences are morally as valid as first ones, but it only takes certain of these preferences into account. At the last election, both Conservative and Labour voters would have plumped overwhelmingly for the Lib Dems as their second choice, had they had the option; in theory, the Liberals could have won way over half of all preferences in every seat. If we really wanted a system which pushes politics more to the centre ground, as AV half-tries to do, we would instead have Approval Voting: electors vote for as many candidates as they wish, and the one with the most votes wins. This is the system AV wants to be, but can’t quite pluck up the courage to manage it.

In effect, despite its proponents’ claims about its fairness and its simplicity, the way AV allocates preferences is essentially arbitrary. This leads to what has been dubbed its “dirty little secret”: under AV, it’s perfectly possible to lose by winning more votes. Take, for instance, the election results of the fictional constituency of Casterbridge West:

The 2010 election is a “two-horse race” between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, with Labour in a distant third. Neither of the top two parties have enough votes to clear the 50% threshold, so Labour are eliminated, pushing the yellows over the bar and resulting in a Liberal Democrat MP. Now, flash-forward to the next election: most of the Lib Dems’ voters, disillusioned with the Coalition, have defected to Labour, leaving behind a rump of Tory-inclined Liberals. As the Lib Dems are now last on first preferences, it is their preferences which are now redistributed as shown. All that has changed between the two elections is that Labour have won support off the Lib Dems, but this results (paradoxically) in the election of a Conservative candidate. For all the claims of Yes2AV that AV would prevent the so-called “spoiler effect” – the beer and coffee analogy of the official election broadcast, or the cats and dogs of the rather more entertaining amateur version – a party has once again crept through the gap.

There is a theory in vogue among some of the Left at the moment, that in Britain there is a natural “progressive majority”: that if we could only change the voting system, the Conservatives would be excluded from power forever, and we’d all live in a social democratic utopia. Not only does the Casterbridge example give the lie to this, but so do the experiences of Australia, the only major country to use AV at present. Both voters and parties take time to adjust to new electoral systems – in the short term it would definitely benefit the centrist Lib Dems, notwithstanding tuition fees – but the idea of a long-term realignment is ludicrous. The majority of SDP voters would have preferred Mrs. Thatcher to Michael Foot in 1983, after all.

Scholarly studies are hard to come by, but the best guess of AV’s effect seems to be that it would make hung parliaments slightly more likely – and not introduce them in perpetuity, as Louise Bagshawe claimed on HIGNFY – and otherwise exaggerates swings, making landslides much more common. Neither of these seems a very attractive prospect. For all its faults, FPTP does tend to produce strong and accountable (i.e. non-coalition) governments, which are nevertheless not immune to criticism. One of the biggest lies is politics is that, in the words of D:Ream, “things can only get better”. There are major improvements that could be made to our present set-up – open primaries spring immediately to mind – but the country should think twice before replacing our current system with one that is manifestly not fit for purpose.

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