A postscript to my last word on AV
PS: Dear M***, I can’t resist quoting your succinct remarks on AV: ‘I would vote for AV if we were only electing MPs. But we’re electing a govt and I want to be able to pick the government, and not just change the relative negotiating position of the parties. So I shall be voting “no”.‘ My views exactly. Thank you.
I’m afraid I can’t pay the same compliment to the pro-AV article in yesterday’s Observer under the names of John Denham (Labour — remember him?), Chris Huhne (LibDem minister in the coalition government, emerging as principal scourge of the prime minister) and, alas, the usually estimable Caroline Lucas, leader and sole representative in the Commons of the Greens. Can they all have read it when they agreed to put their names to it? In the very first paragraph, we read:
On only two occasions in that long century – 1900 and 1931 – have the Tories won a majority of the votes. Instead, they have divided and ruled. No wonder David Cameron says the current system “has served us well”
— which is pretty disingenuous, considering that in that ‘long century’ (much longer than any other?), as in this shorter one, no other party ever won a majority of the votes in any general election either. The reason has nothing to do with the electoral system: it just reflects the fact that since the aberration in 1931 no one party has ever had the support of half of the electorate or more, whether measured by election results or opinion polls — and in recent years the proportion of the electorate supporting the two major parties has declined even further. So the more accurately this distribution of party support is reflected in the house of commons by the electoral system, the more likely it is that we shall be faced with virtually permanent minority or coalition governments, with all the drawbacks that recent experience has demonstrated. If the LibDems’ unpopularity, stemming from their marriage to an exceptionally reactionary Tory régime, leads to the final demise of their party as a force in British politics, AV (and any form of more proportional representation) will mean not only permanent coalitions but also coalitions of an incoherent temporary alliance or patchwork quilt of splinter parties, and death to any hope of coherent, durable, accountable government. Look at Israel!
Reciting, as our three heroes do, the mantra that “two-thirds of MPs have more people voting against them than for them” ignores the fact that the same is true of the voting record of every party in every election since 1931 — and that it will remain true under AV in every constituency where the winning candidate has to rely on second and third preferences for his ‘majority’. In every such case, more first preferences will have been cast against him than for him, and that reality can be reversed only by pretending that second, third, etc preferences are of equal value to first preferences — which, as a matter of plain, unvarnished fact, they are not.
Denham-Huhne-Lucas go on to suggest that under AV there will be a chance to challenge holders of what are now ‘safe seats’, whereas logic suggests otherwise — in most ‘safe seats’ the incumbent can expect to receive more than 50% of the first preferences, so second preferences will never be redistributed and AV won’t make the slightest difference. So the three writers’ jibe about MPs in safe seats under first past the post (FPTP) earning almost twice as much in outside earnings as those in more marginal seats is neither here nor there.
The three musketeers complain that the disproportionate results delivered by AV are not “a recipe … for a parliament that holds up a mirror to the nation”, which is true: but why should the house of commons (which is what they mean by ‘parliament’) be such a mirror? Someone recently quoted the now largely forgotten Harold Laski as writing in 1950 that “The first and most vital function of the electorate is to choose a House of Commons the membership of which makes possible the creation of a Government which can govern.” Just so. The more proportional the voting system, the less likely is the creation of a government ‘which can govern’: and AV, while often no more proportional than FPTP and sometimes actually less so, also makes effective government less, not more, likely, by increasing the votes and seats of third and other smaller parties at the expenseof the two major ones. Demanding a mirror misses the point.
Never mind the three authors’ misattribution of the phrase “the mother of parliaments” to the parliament at Westminster (actually it refers to England): there’s no excuse for their carefully worded suggestion that “no major democracy” apart from Britain uses first past the post when two of the biggest democracies in the world, the United States and India, use it and show no signs of wanting to change it.
Then finally: what’s the basis for the claim that “under AV, voters will no longer face the dilemma of voting ‘tactically’“? AV is nothing but a formalised system of tactical voting which requires the voter, if she wants to make the most effective use of her preferences to influence the result rather than merely to make an ineffectual gesture, to try to guess which of the candidates is likeliest to be eliminated at the first and each successive recount and which of the front runners is likeliest to benefit from successive redistributions of preferences. AV has been likened to the French Presidential electoral system in which if no candidate wins more than 50% of the votes on the first polling day, those who came first and second have a run-off election a week later, ensuring that one of them will score the magic 50%+1. But in that system, the voters know in the second election which of the candidates are still in the race, and can cast their votes accordingly. Under AV, you have to guess who’s going to be knocked out in the early rounds if you’re to make intelligent use of your preferences. That’s ‘tactical voting’ par excellence.
Few commentators have remarked on the rushed and deeply unsatisfactory manner in which the electorate is being confronted with this option of a major change to our constitution. Such a change should have been analysed and debated at far greater length before a decision on it is taken. Where was the Speaker’s Conference or Royal Commission, representing all the major parties, academic experts and ordinary voters, tasked to analyse the experience of other countries, to consider and lay out the pros and cons of the options and to make an objective recommendation, free as far as possible from party bias, that could be properly put to a popular vote? As it is, the lion’s share of the (mostly inadequate and often misleading) discussion of the issues in the media has been directed to guesswork about which result will do the greater damage to either Mr Clegg or Mr Cameron. The general expectation is that fewer than half of the electorate will bother to vote in the referendum on Thursday. According to the polls, opinion varies widely in different parts of the UK, with at present a slim majority in favour of AV only in Scotland. This opens up the possibility that on a very low turnout (influenced mainly by which voters are also voting at the same time in local or national elections), the outcome could be determined almost at random by a narrow majority voting in Scotland. This is no way to amend our constitution. The whole thing is no more than a bargaining chip used by the Tories to seduce the LibDems into joining them in the coalition. If as a quasi-federation of the four UK nations we had a proper written federal constitution setting out the respective powers of the four nations and the federal centre, it would also necessarily set out special procedures for amending the key provisions of the constitution, making it impossible for such a thing to happen in this negligent, almost frivolous manner. The Conservatives and LibDems responsible for it should be ashamed of themselves.
I’m uncomfortably aware, M***, of the unattractive company you and I will be in when we vote No on Thursday — Blunkett, Reid, Straw, Cameron, the BNP! — and even more uncomfortable at the thought of the rubbish arguments that some of them have been putting forward for rejecting AV when there is a perfectly sound case readily available instead. Those of us who see FPTP, with all its imperfections, as the lesser evil, will indeed be in some nauseating and unscrupulous company, but that doesn’t make us wrong. I’m glad you’re going to vote No on Thursday: so am I.
 Please however now see the comment and my response to it at https://barder.com/3206#comment-100604.