Plebiscite: The Great AV Electoral Reform Swindle

Calling all plebs! At least 470 of you are planning to vote in May’s red hot referendum on adopting the Alternative Vote for Westminster Elections. Vote yes, says Nick Clegg and we can say goodbye to the Victorian system that’s so dismissive of Liberal voters while giving those forces of conservatism a damn good thumping. Sounds good doesn’t it?

Well, it isn’t.

Noses to the glass

Pity the small political party, a troop of discontents intellectually incapable of challenging the main parties because of one fatal handicap; no unifying ideology.

Narrow focused and optimistic (the Greens) or narrow and bigoted (UKIP, BNP, Respect, et all), they pray no one will ask them to plot a programme for government. When pushed on how they’ll reform the way the country is governed and represent town and country, young and old, educated and NEET, they fix their glare across your shoulder. When you turn around to look at the source of their fascination, they run for it.

‘Oh please,’ scream these lobbyists, belting up the road and into the distance, ‘don’t caricature us as parties of protest. We protest!’

In Britain we have a method of registering protest votes without said ballots having a direct impact on the result. It’s called First Past the Post (FPTP) – a system that stubbornly refuses to countenance fringe parties by insisting that they drum up the largest number of votes in each constituency in order to win a seat.

It’s a real bind having to win over so many people and often very frustrating for those who look to the main parties, wondering why they’ve enjoyed such success historically when all they’ve offered is broad identifcation with a large cross section of the population.

It’s not just fringe parties that can’t make a dent in this duopoly, it’s also those bronze medallists of British Politics, the Liberal Democrats. The burden FPTP puts on Liberal candidates appears insurmountable. The problem is this absurd notion of direct representation, supported by philosophical jargon like “being directly accountable to your constituents”, a concept that can turn blood to ice in 5 seconds. If they weren’t saddled with this ludicrous system that forces a party to convince local constituents to change their affiliation and vote for the challenger in greater numbers than the incumbent, then winning seats would be easy as pumpkin pie.

If only single member constituencies could be abolished, or a new way of counting votes introduced that removed the link between the locals and the MP altogether, something like proportional representation? Then all those inefficiently distributed Liberal votes could be totted up and although no longer reflecting the intent of the largest number of voters within each constituency, could be consolidated to produce truck loads of new Liberal MPs. The election in Lower Dunwich may have Thorpe all to do with what’s happening in Old Crevis and Barrowman, but in Liberal Britain it wouldn’t matter. The only agenda that counted would be the one imposed from above.

It may be naked self-interest but the main parties see PR as ballot cancer. FPTP doesn’t link national vote share to seats won, as you’d expect in a series of 650 local competitions, so the party with the largest number of votes usually gets to govern alone. PR would put an end to that, as well as our ability to know the shape and policy programme of a government before we vote. PR is a mechanism for making coalitions. Because it’s a substantial reform, it’s unlikely to be offered as long as voting patterns remain as they are. Instead we’re being offered a reform the main parties can live with, the humble Alternative Vote. What does that mean? It means it won’t radically change the results. What it will do, contrary to any hype you may have enjoyed, is weaken the link between the elector and the elected and that, whatever they tell you, suits the political class fine.

AV tries to mitigate against a problem that doesn’t exist by giving you several votes, thereby turning your ballot into a parlour game played out over several rounds. As the game continues your original intent is diluted. As ever the result is contingent upon how others voted and in what quantity. The difference is that measuring the likely effect of your vote becomes far more difficult. It’s no longer win or lose, rather win outright, win a little, feel okay about what’s happened or lose, but win a moral victory by knocking the hated first choice of your fellow constituents into second place.

AV is a good system for the third party because it allows their vote to go further without the chore of building additional support, abolishing the donkey work required in convincing more people to change their political affiliation and/or galvanising those who don’t vote to cast their ballot. I know, you thought that was what political campaigning was all about, didn’t you? Not a progressive thinker then.

Don’t misunderstand me. It doesn’t matter to me if smaller parties wish to circumvent the way we vote to boost their representation but it might have been better for democracy if they’d won that support, rather than redefining how it was calculated. Also, why treat us with such contempt? I know we have a tendency to vote the wrong way, but really!

If you want to confuse the issue it’s as easy as Rebecca Black karaoke. Talk about national percentages, despite the fact that General Elections aren’t plebiscites. Follow that up with the  discrepancy between national vote share and seats, despite one having Clegg all to do with the other. You’ll be winning over angry voters in no time.

Still, let’s look at the arguments for changing from First Past the Post to AV, unless you’ve got somewhere you need to be.

MPs will work harder

Under AV, only an MP with 50% support in their constituency can be elected and that will mean candidates appealing to a broader church to be sure of victory. That’s the claim of the Yes campaign. Well, let’s look at that a little harder. Having 50% of the vote is meaningless; it’s an arbitrary threshold in a multiple candidate election. You may have 35% from first round votes and the rest from 2nd and 3rd preferences for example, but that other 15% of voters didn’t really want you, else you’d have been their first choice. So your vote is topped up by negative votes, ballots from people that hoped to see someone else win but couldn’t get their own way because another group had the audacity to vote for their opponents in greater numbers. That’s a victory for pragmatism not activism and not quite the same as a FPTP victory where a new MP takes their seat knowing that everyone who voted for them actually wanted them to win.

As MPs are duty bound to represent all their constituents anyway, it seems odd to suggest that an AV elected MP will feel obliged to work harder than their predecessors. This is also a formula for bullshit. Under the current system MPs appeal to their own support and can therefore campaign along party political lines. It’s straightforward and in the interests of candidates to be distinctive from their competitors. Under AV, we’ll be asking our candidates to reach out to people they don’t agree with and consequently the rhetoric will become distinctly New Labour – catch all and empty.

Surely as long as the largest group of voters wanted candidate x to be elected and they were, then in a single member constituency the will of the people has been served? More may have voted against them than for them, but those people weren’t united around a single opponent. Assuming there were more than two candidates the result is legitimate. Opposition votes are divided amongst many disparate groups. Consequently, when an AV campaigner talks about an MP’s minority vote, or a government elected on a minority vote, it’s rhetorical sleight of hand not a serious critique.

50% support is regardless, misleading because whereas in some constituencies this will lead to MPs being elected outright, in others it could be 50% totted up over many rounds. Those that might have been defeated in a straight election could, in some circumstances, win. So vote yes and get some MPs that are more legitimate than others. In fact, as some voters may choose to exercise a few votes*, say three as opposed to your one, AV also opens the door to two tiers of voter.

What could enrich a democracy more?

*The Yes camp has argued that preferences are not votes, consequently under AV, as now, you’ll still have one vote. This is a crucial point. You make up to four choices but, they say, its just one ballot.  Isn’t a vote a choice? I thought a vote was a preference. If you have four preferences, instead of one, then that’s four bites of the cherry, surely? They may not all be counted but you’ve made them and ironically, the number of times you vote may have a baring on whether your fellow consitutent’s additional votes need be counted.

If your first vote is indecisive, your second is counted, the numbers recrunched and so on, until the threshold is reached. It’s like the returning officer saying to you, “Terribly sorry, but no one got quite enough votes on that round, would you mind voting again from this smaller pool of candidates?” That’s not a second vote? Of course you won’t know, as you stand in the polling booth, the result of the first round, so it’s hard to know what that second vote will do, or the third…or the forth.

AV will give people a stronger voice

In other words, everyone gets a say under the new system; there are no “disenfranchised” voters. That’s a seductive argument but it manifestly fails to deal with the fact that these newly larynxed multi-voters can use their disproportionate amount of power to tip the result against the candidate who enjoys the most support, possibly leading to a result which wasn’t the first choice of either camp.

“The only people shut out are extremists like the BNP,” reads the Yes camp literature but this manifestly isn’t true. BNP voters will be able to vote as many times as they like, just like everyone else, and their second, third and fourth preferences could easily effect the result, just as any minority party’s supporters could.

BNP candidates won’t get far under AV but then they don’t now, unless that figure of zero BNP parliamentarians is somehow misleading. Under FPTP they have no say in mainstream debate. Under AV they’d have to be courted like everyone else and will quickly learn how to vote tactically, along with every other fringe outfit, to maximise their influence, perhaps colluding to sabotage some counts. I don’t know about you but I’d feel great shaking the hands of the returning officer, knowing I’d won with the help of a nudge from the fascists.

Everyone having a stronger voice, whether they’re using it to spout nonsense or not, is the perfect formula for retarding political debate. If MPs rely on 2nd, 3rd and 4th preferences from loons to win, they’ll need to throw those shuntsacks some bones, else risk defeat next time around.

Accountability is a thorny issue too. Are you as indebted to the interests of those that gave you their 3rd preference as the ones that put a 1 next to your name? If a 3rd preference voter doesn’t like what their MP is up to, can they claim their vote’s been obtained under false pretences? Once your vote’s been redistributed there’s no guarantee it will do what you wanted it to do. Were I elected under AV I’d feel safer pursuing my own agenda than a MP elected under the current system. Under FPTP a new MP can only write off those that didn’t vote for them. Under AV it’s possible to plausibly distance yourself from a good portion of those that did.

AV will tackle ‘Jobs for Life’ in Westminster

Which translated means that the entrenched Tory and Labour vote would be threatened in many parts of the country, or so the Liberals hope. It would take a system a lot more proportional than AV, i.e. a system that contained any proportionality at all, to prevent that happening.

“Force complacent MPs to sit-up and listen!” says the Yes people and it’s hard to argue with that, but to whom should they listen? Everyone? AV MPs can’t afford to ignore anyone’s vote, just in case they get Dave Millibanded on the final count. Great, you say. Well, do you remember when we used to talk about the problem with modern politics being that all the main parties were beginning to look and sound exactly the same? Do you remember, they were triangulating their support to cover as much political ground as possible, cultivating that safe, all inclusive, managerial approach to politics that’s been so successful at contributing to the plurality of debate in the country and engaging voters? Yeah, that’s what we used to talk about.

AV-ocates talk about disfranchised voters but people are enfranchised when they’re engaged by politics and vote, not when the person they want to win is victorious. Why should they vote at all if everyone is saying the same things to hit every part of the political spectrum? A party that stands for everyone stands for no one.

But look who’s saying yes!

You know a campaign has intellectual force behind it when it’s being supported by some of the greatest political thinkers in Britain. Joanna Lumley (The New Avengers), Eddie Izzard (Voyage of the Dawntreader), Colin Firth (Bridget Jones’ Diary), Honor Blackman (Goldfinger and TV’s The Upper Hand) and yes, V for Vendetta’s Stephen Fry are all on board.

Incidentally, I met Joanna Lumley once on the concourse at Victoria Station. I had to show her how to put her paper ticket through the slot to open the gate barrier.

Time for change?

Some bright spark in some paper or another, commenting on the country’s indifference to the referendum asked, “If AV is the answer, what is the question?” Well, I don’t know but it isn’t any of these:

1)  Name a system for conducting elections that strengthens the link between the people and their elected representatives.

2)  Name a constitutional change that favours the formation of strong governments with a clear mandate.

3)  Name a system for conducting elections that strengthens the accountability of MPs.

4)  Name a referendum that was legislated for in response to mass discontent with the First Past the Post system and not to strengthen the Liberal Democrats in government.

So there you have it, I’m going to vote no on May 5th. If you’ve got a good argument for voting yes, let’s hear it. I just hope you can operate the ticket gate at your local railway station.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m behind constitutional change wholesale, just not this piss-weak parody of it. AV makes the line between the elector and the elected a little harder to make out. I’m going to lock my yes vote away now. It’ll be taken out when the government comes back to me with something I can believe in.

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. As always the narrow minded liberal tosh. Why as always do you have a sensible party that wants reforms on immigration, a plan to release us from the burden of Europe and a party who want to make Britain great again as bigots!? I vote ukip and I am not a bigot, racist, or facist! I believe that we waste to much money on Europe every day (approx 45 million), when we should be looking after our own. We are over populated and need to control who immigrated in to the country. Furthermore I am strong believe in a multi racial society but not a multi cultural one. The only culture should be that of the native population and if you don’t like it immigrants can always go home.

    • Well, let’s clear up a couple of things.

      First off, “narrow-minded” and “liberal” are mutually exclusive. One cannot be both.

      The UK is not an isolationist nation. Perpetuating the “us and them” ethos serves no purpose other than to reinforce bigotry and ignorance. The common phrase “Let’s make Britain Great again” alludes to an idea that Britain used to be a nation that was superior to all others when in fact they were despised by most other nations as bigoted imperialists. They were the USA of their day.

      That’s not to say that they were all that popular at home either – part of the reason that the old British Empire thrived as an economic superpower was because of it’s unfair and at times brutal treatment of the underclass – the poor, women, Jews, blacks, Chinese, Irish et al were exploited as a workforce that enabled their employers to reap the benefits of their back breaking labour.

      The idea of a “multi-racial” society is basically an attempt by racists to make segregation seem acceptable – they don’t like the idea of Jamal, Ahmed and Eduardo living next-door to Mr and Mrs Smith, let alone the fantastical notion that they all might have something in common with one another. Conservative, reactionary Brits need to relax and take a breath – immigrants are not here to steal our benefits or our council housing. They are here because the quality of life is better in the UK than in other countries. There is more scope for mobility, both physically and economically. The fact that some are “cheats” makes them no worse than anybody else who makes fraudulent claims.

  2. “If you’ve got a good argument for voting yes, let’s hear it.”

    Here’s my attempt:

    For electing a parliament that is representative of the electorate as a whole, FPTP and AV are about as useless as each other.
    For electing individual representatives in seats where one candidate gets more votes than all the others combined FPTP and AV produce the same result.
    For electing individual representatives in all other seats, however, AV is more democratic than FPTP because with AV more voters will be represented by someone that they helped to elect.
    Both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party appear to agree, as neither of them use FPTP to elect their Party Leaders.
    That’s why I’ll be voting YES to AV.

  3. “If you’ve got a good argument for voting yes, let’s hear it.”

    This short video by Dan Snow makes the case very well.

    • Hi Charlie. Hmm, well I’m sorry to say that I don’t think Dan Snow makes a good case for AV at all, and neither, for me, do you.

      To take your points first:

      “For electing a parliament that is representative of the electorate as a whole, FPTP and AV are about as useless as each other.”

      There’s no requirement for the governing party within parliament to represent every domination of public opinion, this is why we have elections between competing schools of thought. Parliament already, broadly, represents the bulk of national political sympathy. Extremist and fringe parties, about 8% of the vote, are locked out, this is true, but as Caroline Lucas showed, they can gain parliamentary representation under FPTP if their agenda is successfully aligned to mainstream opinion and values.

      Coalition government, except in war time, isn’t a very successful formula for delivering change. It’s a great formula for stagnation. This government has tried to cover its opportunistic union with this cock about deficit reduction and the national interest. The deficit, in this instance, has become a proxy for national crisis, like war, but actually there’s no reason to think that the Liberal bolt on, which under a FPTP election is arguably undemocratic as it doesn’t reflect the manifest will of the electorate, whom, understanding the system they were voting under, essentially opted to put Labour in opposition, return the Tories and keep the Liberals in their box, makes any substantial difference. Plus, anything they do isn’t mandated by the electorate anyway, including this referendum. You’ll note that at the 2010 election, the two parties that went to the country proposing electoral reform were roundly defeated. The one that didn’t made 100 gains – the only main party to make ANY gains.

      I’m comfortable with a system that encourages plurality within debate, as opposed to one that encourages the softly softly approach to maximise preferential top ups on election night. I mean, it’s all in my post, basically.

      “For electing individual representatives in all other seats, AV is more democratic than FPTP because with AV more voters will be represented by someone that they helped to elect.”

      I think I deal with this quite comprehensively in my post. The ‘helps my vote to go further’ argument is an attractive one, the problem is that we may help someone to get elected, it just might not be the person we planned or hoped for. I don’t want my vote to become a parlour game and I don’t want some people having more votes and therefore, more impact on the final result, than I do. I’m talking here in the context of single member elections, not national vote share. No system bar PR can do anything about that disparity and if you institute that system you destroy direct representation, which is a sacrosanct principle as far as I’m concerned.

      I also believe that the principle that a party should build its own support and use it to win a seat outright, that is to say, by getting more votes than their opponents, is a perfectly robust one. There’s nothing inherently unfair about it at all. It may seem unfair if your tribe isn’t big enough to win through, but then that isn’t the system’s fault, it’s your party’s for failing to build broad appeal, failing to capture the electorate’s imagination and failing to convince those that would normally not bother voting, because they don’t feel represented by the MPs of those that do, to cast their ballot.

      As I asked in my post, what’s illegitimate about a contest between several candidates, in which the one with the largest number of votes wins? This 50% threshold that sounds good when you say it, in fact means nothing in the real world of political debate. If I’m a new MP, I’d like a majority of votes, of course I would, and in a third of constituencies I’d get it too, under the current system, but if I run against 9 others and get 45%, I’ll take that. I’ve still won and I’m still obliged to represent all the voters. Am I less of an MP than the my neighbour who won say, 52% against 7 opponents? You say yes, I say of course not.

      “Both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party appear to agree, as neither of them use FPTP to elect their Party Leaders.”

      Well, I’d be careful about holding that up as a reason for switching. AV allowed Ed Miliband to sneak a victory past both his party members and his MPs. In other words, he circumvented his runner up position in both those crucial camps, with a top up vote from those who wouldn’t be directly affected by his election – a negative vote if you like.

      Plus, his election, rather than reflecting the will of his mini-electorate, was heavily predicated on chance. If one less person had voted for Diane Abbot for example, and she hadn’t got on the ballot, then when you recalculate, you have a different leader. That’s the problem with AV. It’s not that it’s a complicated system – it isn’t, but it carves out a space between the elector and elected and fills it with fudge.

      Re: Dan Snow’s video, he doesn’t deal with what for me, in addition to the above, are the key points – the principle of direct representation, the plurality of debate, the democratic variation in terms of both votes cast and MPs returned and, last but not least, the additional power AV gives to voters from fringe and extremist parties. A good thing you’ll say but parties like UKIP and the BNP get the additional preferences without first having won greater support, and whatever you feel about FPTP it strangles that problem at birth.

      I’ll still be voting no.


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