Power to the People

John Rentoul

50332 159851064027619 2204 n Power to the PeopleJonathan Isaby at Conservative Home has exposed the weakness of the arguments of the No to AV campaign for next year’s referendum. It is a shame that the No vote is likely to win if it cannot do better than this. These are Isaby’s 11 reasons, which actually amount to three or four, for rejecting the Alternative Vote:

1. AV IS OBSCURE: Only three countries in the world use AV for their national elections: Fiji, Australia, and Papua New Guinea. Well, that’s an argument of principle. Akin to saying that we shouldn’t have an NHS because other countries don’t.

2. AV IS UNFAIR: Supporters of fringe parties can end up having their vote counted five or six times – and potentially decide the outcome of the election – while people who backed the mainstream candidates only get one vote. The old Winston Churchill canard: voters who support a minority party have their vote re-counted only because their most-preferred candidate has been eliminated.

3. AV IS UNEQUAL: AV treats someone’s fifth or sixth choice as having the same importance as someone’s else’s first preference – but there is a big difference between positively wanting one candidate to win and being able to ‘put up with’ another. The same as no 2; the opposite is the case: under AV every voter has an equal chance of influencing the result.

4. AV IS ‘EVEN LESS PROPORTIONAL’ THAN THE CURRENT SYSTEM: So concluded the independent Royal Commission chaired by the senior Liberal Democrat Roy Jenkins in 1998. That depends how people vote; it is up to them. For most of recent history, the Liberal Democrats and predecessors would probably have won more seats.

5. AV IS ‘DISTURBINGLY UNPREDICTABLE’ – another warning from Roy Jenkins. Elections fought under AV would either wildly increase the majority of the winning party (e.g. Labour in 1997, the Tories in the 1980s) or create hung parliaments by giving the balance of power to the third party. Democracy is a bit like that.

6. AV IS NOT WANTED – EVEN BY THE YES CAMPAIGN: Before the general election, Nick Clegg described AV as “a miserable little compromise” and the Electoral Reform Society said they did “not regard it as suitable for the election of a representative body, e.g. a parliament”. I want it.

7. AV IS NO-ONE’S FIRST CHOICE: AV was not in the manifestos of either the Conservative Party or the Liberal Democrats. Many people who want voting reform have spent years campaigning for proportional representation – which AV is not. It is my first choice.

8. AV IS COMPLEX: The Government will have to spend millions of pounds explaining to voters how AV works to prevent a fall in turnout at elections. In Australia, the only reason they have high turnout is because they made voting compulsory. How stupid do FPTP supporters think we are? Are you able to rank more than two options in order of preference?

9. AV IS EXPENSIVE: Under AV we won’t be able to count ballot papers by hand on election night if we want a quick, decisive election result. Local councils will have to purchase electronic counting machines that are very expensive and prone to malfunction. AV can easily be counted by hand. How much longer it would take depends on how people vote; in many cases it will take as long as FPTP if one candidate has more than half of first preferences.

10. AV IS NOT THE REFORM WE NEED: There are lots of genuine reforms which would go some way to restoring people’s trust in politics – but changing our voting system to AV is not one of them. That’s why it’s a shame that we’re about to spend £90 million and five months debating a system that nobody really wants. Let’s have other reforms too, then.

11. AV WILL MAKE POLITICIANS’ PROMISES EVEN MORE MEANINGLESS: AV is a system which will deliver more hung parliaments and therefore necessitate more coalitions. Coalitions mean political leaders picking and choosing which parts of their manifesto they seek to implement after you’ve voted for it, meaning you cannot have confidence that they will stick by any of the promises they have made if they enter government. Contradicted by no 4. Proportionality is not an aim of AV; in practice, Australian elections have produced fewer hung parliaments than British ones.

The argument for the Alternative Vote is that it gives more power to the voters. As I have said before,

being able to rank candidates in order of preference gives more voters more of a chance of a say in the outcome. It is not morally superior, or perfection, but it minimises the need for tactical voting and reduces wasted votes.

It is a small but important change, and the real shame is that the confused arguments of the Nay-sayers are more likely to gain a purchase on political activists for whom the Coalition is a reason to be against coalitions in principle, which they associate with electoral reform.

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  • postageincluded

    Yes, and its sensitivity is such that a small number of voters (even a single voter) by changing only the order of their 9th and 10th preferences in a seat contested by 10 candidates can change the final result dramatically.

    As a consequence even the order of names on the ballot paper (combined with voter laziness) can determine the result when voters number candidates they don’t much care about in the order they run down the paper.

    I can’t see how your linguistic quibble “progresses” the discussion. Perhaps as you have little or no grasp of voting theory you are falling back on that old standby of and English and/or History graduate, bon mots.

  • postageincluded

    Pedantic I maybe, (I prefer the term “correct”), you are merely enthusiastic.

    If you can provide references to results from voting theory that demonstrate this “dramatic” reduction in the need for tactical voting then I would be more glad to look them up and consider them. I tackled my first tome on this subject in the late sixties, when my mind was young and fresh, but I could still make at stab at it. More of a stab than most people can be bothered to make – as evidenced by most of the comments here.

    Nor am I sure that directions from a political party – even one I largely support – about how to place my preferences in an AV ballot can really be called “information”. Disinformation more like.

  • postageincluded

    You have misunderstood my post entirely. It is perfectly possible to vote tactically in a preferential voting system. In some cases you can even further your most favoured party’s chances by giving your first preference to your least favoured party. If you deliberately did this you’d be voting tactically.

    Nevertheless I am in favour of AV. Not because of some supposed “benefit” to do with tactical voting but because a) it forces parties to contest the centre by punishing them harder than FTPT if they leave it b) it makes an individual MP beholden to secondary voters as well as to primary ones, while at the same time c) it doesn’t tend to produce coalitions (as PR usually does, often in defiance of voters expectations).

    If you’re interested in this subject don’t read Rentoul, or me, read anything you can on voting theory.

  • postageincluded

    I really don’t agree with much that you are saying here. But I do feel that, should this subject come up again, we can at least have a rational disagreement, and I look forward to it.

    The enthusiasm of Mr Rentoul et al seems to me to be nothing more than a delight in making lists. Perhaps all those interminable list shows on the box are to blame?

  • postageincluded

    Thank you again for your support! I think your analysis is correct here, though I draw different conclusions.

    I will vote for AV, cautiously. I believe it the best system for the Commons if it is combined with PR (as proportional as you like) in the Lords. If we take one step the next may be easier. Have a think about the idea, you’re the philosopher after all.

  • voting

    Dear commenters,

    The proof of the pudding is in the eating. (Science depends on evidence

    not just theorising.)
    If, as people seem to think likely, AV is defeated, can we look forward

    to politicians electing their leaders by First Past The Post?
    Thought not. Politicians are hypocrits. One retiring Labour MP said as

    much (in The Mail on Sunday) before the 2010 election.

    Moreover, the same test by results proves STV is in turn better than

    AV, which only elects a minority of first preferences, while STV elects

    a large majority of better first preferences, because from a better

    choice of candidates.

  • David Lea

    Your argument in relation to point 2 is so bogus as to be fundamentally dishonest. AV is deeply undemocratic for this reason. Your difference between getting one vote counting for different candidates or lots of votes for one is hair-splitting. You shouldn’t get presents for voting for an idiot.

  • David Lea

    Sorry, my post directed to Imogen Carter, not JR.

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