Thursday, October 21, 2010

AV or not AV: that is the question no-one's asking

This is a guest post by Zach Johnstone:

After a tortuous period of deal-brokering behind closed doors, the Coalition has largely settled in to government. This may not be the ideal state of affairs from a Conservative standpoint, but the recent Lib Dem poll slump has had the serendipitous effect of binding the party to any Conservative-inspired policies or decisions, irrespective of their popularity. Yet almost as widely covered as the coalition agreement itself was the announcement that Cameron had conceded a referendum on electoral reform to the Lib Dems. On May 5th 2011, we will therefore be asked whether we wish to change the method by which we elect our representatives. In this article I intend to spark the debate by making the case against such change.

In seeking to contest the wisdom of ushering in the Alternative Vote (AV) electoral system, I do not wish to convey the impression that I see no case for electoral reform whatsoever. Whilst firmly of the belief that the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system is intrinsically suited to the Westminster model, arguments for increased proportionality and a more amiable, collaborative dynamic between the major parties are legitimate, and have their place in any sensible discussion surrounding electoral reform. The problem lies, however, with those who attempt to portray the Alternative Vote system as a paragon of adaptation; the answer to all the flaws inherent within FPTP. This perspective, as I hope to demonstrate, rests entirely upon dubious logic.

The Electoral Reform Society, in making their case for AV, use a phrase which recapitulates this: it is their claim that the proposed reforms “represent a logical progression” from the current system. This seems a strange choice of wording; straight away, all those who are thinking of voting ‘no’ in May are ‘illogical’ by default. The Society goes on to assert that AV will ensure that “all MPs have a real mandate” in future elections, the implication being that under FPTP MPs do not sufficiently reflect the will of the electorate.

Yet if enhancing the proportionality of the system is their concern, it is difficult to see why it is AV and not some form of proportional representation which is being propounded as the solution. In the electoral aftermath, the Guardian published the ERS’s own data which showed that, had the 2010 election been conducted under AV, the proportion of seats would have been remarkably similar (though perhaps crucially with a slight increase in Lib Dem support). Fundamentally, it would have still given the largest number of seats to the Conservatives within the context of a hung parliament, with negligible gains for any party outside the ‘big three’. If linking vote share to seat numbers in a fairer manner is truthfully the purpose of reform, then why not the Northern Irish-style Single Transferrable Vote, under which minority parties would see genuine gains?

Even if - as Nick Clegg professed earlier in the year – the biggest change that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill (and the associated referendum) would institute would be to erode the concept of ‘safe seats’, there are ways of achieving this without obliterating a system which has delivered strong and stable government for generations. The government’s ideas surrounding recall mechanisms, or even the increased use of local referenda, would allow for transparency and legitimacy to permeate those seats in which incumbent ministers face little incentive to enact the will of their constituents. In looking to demonstrate the futility of AV in giving those elected to office a more legitimate mandate, the recent Australian general election serves as a stern warning. The Liberal/National Coalition led the contest on first preferences. They even led on second preferences. However it was Labor who came out of the negotiations as the party of government. The Miliband saga, in which a majority of MPs and Labour Party members backed the losing brother, only serves to accentuate the injustices inherent in the AV system.

Arising from this is that which I consider to be the Alternative Vote’s most innate flaw. It is certainly true to say that the system is no more representative or proportional than the current system and certainly not the most effective way of increasing accountability in safe seats. But above all else, AV fails to make an imperative distinction: the choice between the most liked and the least hated is not the same thing. Under FPTP, for all its flaws, the winning candidate will always command the highest share of the vote; namely, he or she will always be the candidate expressly preferred by the greatest number of people. It may not always be 50%, but it will always be genuine, first-degree approval. Conversely, the situation under AV (with the reallocation of preferences from eliminated candidates) permits candidates to be elected if they are at least vaguely approved of. As Matthew Elliott of the Telegraph argues, “candidates will win, not by being the most popular, but by being the least disliked”.

Amidst the interminable barrage of words from the ‘yes’ campaign in the coming months, it will be almost too easy to come to view the introduction of AV as the policy of a third party seeking to enact one of its key manifesto pledges. Yet when taking to the polling stations next May, remember that the policy was nowhere to be found in the Lib Dem manifesto. Remember that Clegg, in the run-up to the election, sought only genuine proportional representation, denouncing AV as “a miserable little compromise”. But above all else, remember that this is nothing more than the fallout from Gordon Brown’s death-bed conversion to electoral reform in a cynical attempt to woo the Lib Dems and thus prolong his tenure.

The Conservatives had to offer it; the Lib Dems had to take it. Neither wanted it.

And it is we who face being left with it.

18 Comments:

Blogger Gnostic said...

I think we should obliterate the entire system. Destroy tribal politics and start again from scratch. The current model is painfully unfit for purpose.

21 October 2010 at 07:49  
Anonymous Epictetus said...

More urgent than reforming election to the House of Commons is reform of the Lords. Bliar destroyed the old Lords, which may have needed doing, but then had almost no debate about its replacement and imposed a system that is even worse than that which it replaced.

The Lords could be appointed by lottery, with all citizens who are free of a criminal record (excluding driving offences) being automatically enrolled. This would give a truly representative and independent HoL.

Of course the main political parties would not like this, as the sheer legitimacy of a body drawn in this way will challenge the power of the political parties. But this is a good thing. Parties are efficient and may have been necessary because of that, but our aim should be for a free and open society equal under the law with statute law created by a democratic mechanism. A lottery for the HoL can be more democratic than any party system.

"Epcitetus"

21 October 2010 at 08:33  
Blogger D. Singh said...

Your Grace

This is an outstanding article by Zac Goldsmith MP. It begins with the necessary degree of humility: ‘In seeking to contest the wisdom of ushering in the Alternative Vote (AV) electoral system, I do not wish to convey the impression that I see no case for electoral reform whatsoever.’

He makes his position clear to the reader: ‘Whilst firmly of the belief that the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system…’

He then explains the pro and contra arguments for AV.

He reveals the ERS’s patronising position: ‘…it is their claim that the proposed reforms “represent a logical progression” from the current system…’ and concludes ‘…all those who are thinking of voting ‘no’ in May are ‘illogical’ by default.’

His analysis, argument and conclusion evince the hallmarks of a leader: he teaches whilst he leads.

He wins my vote: ‘But above all else, AV fails to make an imperative distinction: the choice between the most liked and the least hated is not the same thing.’

The people see policticians as remote from them. The politicians’ supporters see their masters as gods on Mount Olympus further distancing the politicians from we the people.

The introduction of AV is likley to strenghthen the insulation of the politician from the voter increasing the polictician’s and the voters isolation.

Of course the eurocrats, for obvious reasons, will support AV for Britain.

In the long-run AV wil lead to a repeat of the events that occurred in the 17th century.

21 October 2010 at 08:53  
Blogger Gnostic said...

Mr. Singh, Zac Goldsmith doesn't have the brains to write any such thing. Zach Johnstone, on the other hand...

21 October 2010 at 09:34  
Blogger Graham Davis said...

Zach says

Whilst firmly of the belief that the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system is intrinsically suited to the Westminster model

Up until now most people seem to have rather liked the cooperative spirit of the “new” politics, the way former political adversaries have gone out of their way to work together and accept compromise. So maybe it is the Westminster model that needs changing along with the voting system?

With three parties of not dissimilar size as far as share of the vote is concerned FPTP is intrinsically unfair so some form of proportion representation is inevitable. AV was the compromise option that allowed the Tories to form a government, so let’s not forget that.

In less than 5 years time we will see these three parties contesting another election. By then the political and social landscape will have changed enormously with many people having experienced austerity for the first time. The members of the coalition may be punished at the polls or they may be seen as this country’s only viable government. With the wrong Milliband in charge of Labour, from today’s vantage point they don’t look like they will be strong contenders.

However 5 years is a very long time in politics so I will not be having a wager on the result but it is likely to be contested by AV. If the coalition is reformed my guess the price the Tories will have to pay is full PR.

PS Congratulations Zach on a very mature and well written piece. I wish I could have written like that when I was 20!

21 October 2010 at 09:37  
Blogger Anthony Smith said...

The Telegraph link is wrong, and it is Daniel Hannan, not Matthew Elliot, who said “candidates will win, not by being the most popular, but by being the least disliked”: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/danielhannan/100052368/principled-supporters-of-electoral-reform-should-oppose-av/

21 October 2010 at 09:46  
Blogger D. Singh said...

Your Grace

Mrs Gnostic thank you. Mr Zach Johnstone I sincerely and unreservedly apologise.

I stand by my remarks.

21 October 2010 at 09:47  
Anonymous Voyager said...

we will therefore be asked whether we wish to change the method by which we elect our representatives

Of course we do but AV is a method of electing candidates chosen by parties and hardly represents change in "the method"

21 October 2010 at 10:03  
Anonymous Zach Johnstone said...

D. Singh, Gnostic and Graham Davis,

I thank you for your feedback; it is much appreciated.

Graham Davis,

Up until now most people seem to have rather liked the cooperative spirit of the “new” politics, the way former political adversaries have gone out of their way to work together and accept compromise. So maybe it is the Westminster model that needs changing along with the voting system

Whilst I differ from your perspective in this regard, I would emplore anyone of this conviction to simply ask: what type of change?

As I explore in my article, even if there is a case for transition, AV is not the answer. A more collegiate style of government can be achieved without electoral reform, whilst anyone who wishes to see change in a representative sense should recognise that AV would not deliver this at all.

21 October 2010 at 10:19  
Blogger Gerv said...

Let us not forget what the ERS site used to say about AV. They tried to put it down the memory hole, but the Internet has a long memory.


The Electoral Reform Society regards AV as the best voting system when a single position is being elected. However, as AV is not a proportional system, the Society does not regard it as suitable for the election of a representative body, e.g. a parliament, council, committees, etc.


Comparison with today's site:


The Society has long argued that AV is the best system when you're out to elect a single winner.


is instructive!

21 October 2010 at 11:16  
Blogger Johnny Rottenborough said...

If Parliament made all our laws, the method by which we elect MPs would be of some significance. But, with 80 per cent of legislation imposed on us by Brussels, Parliament’s rôle as a cover for dictatorship can proceed perfectly well with ‘first past the post’.

On a more important matter, and assuming that pissing on a burning man would help douse the flames, I can’t help thinking that alternatives 4 and 5 in Your Grace’s illustration are the wrong way round.

21 October 2010 at 12:28  
Blogger john in cheshire said...

YG, it may not be the most unbiased question regarding the forthcoming referendum on electoral reform, but I would like someone to advise me on this question :
which method of voting results in a higher probability of UKIP gaining power in Westminster? Because that's the one I shall vote for.

21 October 2010 at 13:53  
Anonymous PJ said...

More than half of European countries now have a coalition government, obviously some type of electoral form is needed

21 October 2010 at 15:21  
Anonymous Zach Johnstone said...

PJ,

So all change is good change...?

21 October 2010 at 15:47  
Anonymous PJ said...

Zach Johnstone, I did not mean that it anyway. One must find a balance between progression and conservation. I think there should be change but neither AV or FPTP are viable as the current situation of European politics shows, and therefore change in this case would be good change. Your article was excellent by the way

21 October 2010 at 15:59  
Anonymous Zach Johnstone said...

PJ,

Thank you, it means a lot to hear that the article was so well-received.

There is certainly common ground between us in stating that AV is a non-viable solution. I see the change of which you speak coming from other means, however. Things like referenda and voter empowerment.

That is not to say that I don't see the case for STV, though. That said, I think the positive aspects of FPTP outweigh those of STV personally.

21 October 2010 at 16:08  
Anonymous Keith Underhill said...

I love the ballot paper. That pretty much sums up the candidates for me.

In first past the post it is often the case for many voters that they realise that "the person I actualy want" does not stand a chance in the election. This is often pushed in marginal seats by the contending parties showing dodgy graphs to convince you that their candidate is one of the top two.

If I was convinced that "Would punch in the face if they stood on my doorstep" had a good chance of winning I might very well seriously consider voting for "The person I would tolerate at a push" if I thought she would win.

So in first past the post in a marginal seat you have to be an amatuer psephologist if you want your vote to count.

In the alternative vote you can cast your vote without fear of wasting it.

In the alternative vote you can vote your genuine preferences and this may increase the votes of the likes of UKIP and the green (but probably not the seats).

It at least gives them more of a fighting chance. In Austrailia an independent rebel ex green managed to win a seat depite coming forth in first preferences. I don't think it was because he wa the blandest candidate!

Of course if your MP gets more than 50% preferences it doesn't really matter what system you use.

21 October 2010 at 19:23  
Blogger Jared Gaites said...

Conservative Home describes you as a "Conservative activist", but despite this huge disadvantage you do indeed have a point worthy of consideration for those of us who are less inclined to fanatical bullshitting.

21 October 2010 at 19:41  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Newer›  ‹Older