For and (mainly) against AV: a dialogue

A letter of mine opposing AV (the Alternative Vote electoral system) prompted an exchange with an AV fan which explores some of the arguments, good and (especially) bad, for and (especially) against.  This is my letter to the Guardian that started it all:

BB: There are cogent arguments against AV, but the main one being used by the luminaries of the No campaign, Lord [formerly John] Reid, William Hague, Margaret Beckett and Sir Malcolm Rifkind, among others, isn’t one of them.  Their claim that under AV some voters will have more votes than others is nonsense.  All the valid votes are counted again at every recount. Those giving their first preferences to the two candidates who come first and second, and who are therefore never eliminated from the next recount, don’t get their second and lower preferences redistributed and counted, but that’s not a disadvantage: their first preferences continue to count right to the last round.

The No to AV campaign needs to focus on the real objection to AV, i.e. the fallacy in the only serious claim for it, that AV, unlike First Past the Post, ensures that all MPs have the support of the majority of their voters.  But this is simply not so.  An MP whose majority depends on votes transferred from other candidates eliminated in early counts no more has the support of a majority of voters than an MP elected on a minority vote under FPTP:  in both cases, a majority of those voters preferred and voted for someone else.  This reflects the inescapable reality that nation-wide no one party has the support of a majority of the electorate (none has done so at a general  election since 1935, which was one of only two such results for the past 105 years).

There are also other unanswerable objections to AV.  By increasing the number of seats won by third party candidates, it would make hung parliaments much more frequent, and thus produce more coalitions or minority governments, which in turn undermines the convention of the party manifesto mandate and the public accountability which that entails.  Votes for mainly right-wing extremist or lunatic parties such as the BNP and the Monster Raving Lunatics, most of which are thankfully wasted under the present system, would tend to flow upwards, as each in turn is eliminated, through second and subsequent preferences to the more right-wing of the last two surviving candidates, often in sufficient numbers to give the seat to the candidate with fewer first preference votes than his or her main rival.  Candidates of the serious parties would be compelled to “reach out to” the lunatic or neo-fascist fringe to try to win their preferences by offering concessions to their generally reactionary demands.  The need to attract second and subsequent preferences across the political spectrum will favour the candidate who is all things to all men (and women), who avoids or blurs what should be stark policy choices, leaves doors open, sits on every available fence.   It’s frustrating that the noisiest opponents of AV ignore these genuine objections to it and concentrate instead on the one argument that is easily exposed as false.

This drew a number of comments from RS, an old colleague and friend.  Here they are, with my (now slightly edited) responses to each:

RS: I agree with you that the argument put forward by William Hague et al is nonsense.  But I don’t agree that the other objections to AV are unanswerable.  To take the last point first, I think that:

1) if you accept democracy and the principle of one person, one vote, you have to accept that the votes of people who vote for the BNP or the Monster Raving Loony Party are as valid as yours and mine.   I don’t much like that conclusion, but it seems to me to flow inescapably from the basic concept of democracy (incidentally, the BNP is urging its supporters to vote no to AV).  So if we get AV, yes, those people will have the same right as all other voters to indicate their second and subsequent preferences.

BB:  I am not questioning the right of (eg) BNP voters to have their votes given equal weight with others’,  not their right, under AV,  to indicate second and subsequent preferences.  I am simply saying that it’s generally undesirable for the health of our politics that votes cast by stupid or reactionary people (or both) for stupid or reactionary candidates (or both) should continue to be included in the counting process even after their first preference candidates have been defeated and eliminated, and that these votes should still end up actually influencing the outcome of the election.  In other words, I don’t like the idea that a (perhaps perfectly reputable) Conservative candidate could win a seat in the house of commons, and a say in which party is to enter No 10, on the backs of BNP voters and supporters.  Nor do I like the idea that the same candidate might feel obliged to bend over backwards to appease the BNP, or at best to avoid antagonising them, e.g. by adopting an illiberal position on immigration, in the hope of winning BNP voters’ preferences in the final count.  Under FPTP these characters vote for the BNP, the BNP is defeated, their votes disappear down a black hole, like the votes of everyone else whose favourite candidates lost the election, and the candidate who has won the most votes wins the seat – simple, fair and straightforward.

RS: …but —

2) by no means all the people who vote for smaller parties are on the right.  What about all the people who vote for the Green Party (which is in favour of AV)?  What about people who vote for left-wing extremist parties?  What about the situation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?  The electoral landscape is much more complex than you suggest.  I think it’s a very questionable argument to suggest that the introduction of AV would make candidates more inclined to look for votes from the “neo-fascist fringe” than some, including some Labour candidates, already are under the present system.

BB:  Of course I accept that there will sometimes be candidates of smaller parties whose second etc. preferences may well end up going to the Labour candidate (or, in a constituency where the front runners are, say, the Tory and the LibDem, to the LibDem).  But if you look down the list of the candidates and their parties at election time, I think you’ll generally find that the majority of the no-hoper parties and candidates, those who are certain to be eliminated early, are zanies or more sinister figures of the right , not the left-of-centre.  However, even where this is not the case, the directions in which the preferences travel on their way to one or other of the last two candidates left in the race after the final count, if not politically regressive, are liable to be almost random or whimsical.  Australian experience shows that a significant percentage of voters simply number their ballot papers in the order of the candidates shown on the ballot paper, or else put a ‘1’ opposite their favourite candidate and then number the rest in alphabetical order from 2 to 10, or however many there are (the so-called ‘donkey vote’).  I believe that in Britain, where if we move to AV it won’t be obligatory to put a number against every candidate listed, research suggests that under AV a sizeable majority of voters wouldn’t bother with second etc. preferences – they would just put a ‘1’ opposite the candidate they wanted to vote for and leave the other boxes blank.  If enough voters did that, we’d effectively be back to FPTP, although the few preferences actually entered, when redistributed after each count, would then have a wholly disproportionate – and random — impact on the result.  Of course the vagaries of varying turnouts can have a similarly randomising effect, but two such random effects are at least twice as bad as one.

As for Scotland and Wales, I’m not sure what conclusions can be drawn from their experience.  Six different electoral systems are used in the UK, and it’s almost impossible to guess how results have been affected by the variants between the systems.  In Wales and Scotland, where forms of PR are used, the current results are a minority government in Scotland, only able to pass legislation (including the budget)  that the opposition parties are prepared to let through, and a coalition in Wales in which neither coalition partner can do anything that the other partner objects to, with the threat of different permutations replacing the current Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition at any moment (“senior civil servants before the election were preparing for three possible coalition administrations: Labour/Liberal Democrat, Labour/Plaid Cymru or Plaid Cymru/Liberal Democrat/Conservative”[1]).  Northern Ireland, with compulsory power sharing, is sui generis.  Because the devolved executives have such limited powers, the fact that due to their electoral systems all three are hamstrung or vulnerable or both, is not fatal, just inconvenient and inimical to firm, clear, long-term policy-making.  Such defects and difficulties at Westminster would represent a threat to good government in the whole of the UK.

RS: I don’t think it’s right to imply that every election since the war would, if held under AV, have produced a hung parliament.  That implies that no voters would have given their second or subsequent preference to a Labour or Conservative candidate, which seems very unlikely.  I’m quite sure, for instance, that under AV, Labour would have won an overall majority in 1945, and the Conservatives would have done so in 1959.

BB:  I didn’t say or even imply that under AV every election since the war would have produced a hung parliament – although clearly many more of them would have done so.  I pointed out that nationally no one party ever has the support of a majority of the electorate, and that no party has done so at a general  election since 1935, which was one of only two such results for the past 105 years.  This is the reason, obviously, for relatively few MPs winning 50%+1 of the votes under FPTP  (or for the few who would win 50%+1 of the first preferences under AV).  By pretending, nonsensically, that first and second and lower preference votes are all of equal value and therefore should all be given equal weight in the final count, AV purports to disguise the reality that overall, no single party in modern times ever wins an overall majority of the votes cast nationally. The opinion polls generally reflect this too.  We should stop fussing about some MPs being elected without an overall majority of votes cast:  it’s a function of the actual situation in the country.

I don’t know the basis for your confidence that under AV Labour would have won an overall majority in 1945 and the Tories in 1959.  Labour didn’t win an overall majority of the votes in 1945 (nor even in 1951 when they won more votes and a bigger share of the vote than in 1945, in both cases more than the Conservatives, yet lost the election to them); nor did the Tories win an overall majority of the votes cast in 1959.  Neither would have won an overall majority in either election under PR, and in general AV tends to produce results closer to PR than FPTP.   In 1959, although the Conservatives had a huge majority of 100 seats over all the other parties combined, and the Liberals won only 6 seats, Labour and the Liberals together won more votes than the Conservatives. Now a Tory-led government without either a mandate or an overall majority in parliament is able to dismantle the welfare state, thanks to the perverse distortions of a coalition government. So it seems uncertain that under a more proportional system the Conservatives would have had an overall majority of seats in either 1959 or 2010 – and absolutely certain that under a fully proportional system, they would not.  Of course these somewhat freakish results can be cited as proof of the ‘unfairness’ of FPTP, but actually they have delivered rough justice in swings and roundabouts terms and above all they have delivered reasonably decisive and durable government – much the most important objective of a general election, as the vast majority of voters will always confirm.  Almost everyone votes in the hope of producing a government of his or her chosen party with enough support to enable it to govern on its own;  very few indeed vote in the hope of producing either a coalition government or a house of commons arithmetically mirroring opinion in the country as a whole, which, in truth, would be largely pointless anyway.  A proportionally representative assembly would be fine for a debating or revising chamber such as the house of lords, but it’s clearly a dysfunctional way of electing an electoral college (the house of commons) responsible for producing a government.

RS: But yes, under AV hung parliaments would be more frequent.  Would that be a bad thing?  I am much less convinced than you that under the existing system, we get a clear picture from the manifestoes of what parties will actually do once in office.  None of the parties said clearly at the last election how they would actually tackle the deficit, which was by far the most important question.  You will search the 2001 Labour manifesto in vain for any indication of a plan to invade Iraq.  I don’t think any system is perfect, but I don’t see why coalitions are automatically worse than one-party governments.

BB:  I agree that manifestoes give only a partial picture of what a party will do if elected to government – not least because all sorts of issues will come up between elections that couldn’t have been foreseen and which are accordingly not mentioned in the manifestos at the previous election (Iraq, which you mention, being an obvious example;  Libya is another).  As to the deficit, all three of the serious parties did give a clear indication of how they would approach the deficit – halving it in four years, eliminating it in five, etc., the LibDems being much closer to Labour than to the Conservatives on this issue.  The hung parliament and the coalition enabled the LibDems to ignore their manifesto and other pre-election promises and go over shamelessly to the Tory position on the deficit.   You will remember St Vincent Cable explaining that the coalition agreement, negotiated secretly after the election, supersedes the two parties’ pre-election manifestos.   Parties do often include quite specific pledges in their manifestoes, if only as a precaution against having the draft legislation enacting them rejected in the house of lords, which has to respect the governing party’s manifesto commitments under the Salisbury Doctrine.  Some peers are already arguing that the Salisbury Doctrine is now dead, since manifesto commitments have been replaced by the coalition agreement, which enjoys no electoral mandate.  In other words, coalition governments can do what they like without any fear of being accused of breaking their election promises.  In future we can expect the more honest manifestoes to include a warning that if the party turns out to be a member of a coalition or minority government, all bets are off.  That won’t be a great help to the undecided voter.



BB:  Conclusions:

The ageing warriors of the No campaign (among whom I include young-old Mr Hague), with their unerring nose for the feeble and fallacious argument, also place great emphasis on the alleged cost to the Exchequer of any change in the electoral system, and the supposed difficulty that voters would experience in numbering the candidates in order of their preferences.  Both points insult the intelligence of those interested in serious debate, and indeed of ordinary voters.  The irony is that as the No-sayers flail aimlessly around with their rubber swords, they neglect the cold steel sabres that could win them a solid victory.  Perhaps they are all double agents working for that nice Mr Clegg and his Yes campaign.  Remember how once they all used to ‘agree with Nick’?


20 Responses

  1. Brian, one of your principal objections to AV – that it enables supporters of fringe parties to have a disproportionate (though not disproportional?) say in determining election results – seems to me largely the same as that of the official No camp: that AV supposedly gives multiple votes to some voters – the voters in question being supporters of fringe parties.
    In reality, this (both) argument(s) is / are a straw man. Under FPTP, those voters largely switch their votes to mainstream parties anyway, as they realise their preferred candidate has no chance of being elected. Look at the tiny shares of the vote won by the likes of the BNP, Greens, UKIP and English Democrats (which isn’t a far-right party, by the way) at the last election. AV would generate larger shares of first preferences for those parties because their supporters would be empowered to express their actual opinions before switching their vote again in their subsequent preferences.
    As AV will produce a similar end result to FPTP, in terms of vote switching, it’s also false to claim that the mainstream parties will chase the vote of fringe-party supporters more under AV than they do under the existing system. The parties already do try to appeal to such voters, because they realise that the over-inflated shares of the vote they win under FPTP – based on tactical voting – depend on them.
    You’re right to point out that AV is a form of trickery: engineering ‘majorities’ that are no more real than those under FPTP. If AV passes, this will be used to confer false legitimacy on any outright parliamentary majorities, by saying they are ‘majorities of majorities’, whereas they’ll be no such thing. You, however, do seem to think that parliamentary majorities based on pluralities (in terms of share of vote at both constituency and national level) do / can constitute legitimate and strong government.
    How you reconcile this inconsistency, I don’t know. It seems to me to be the arrogance of someone who supports one of the two main parties, who believe they have a natural right to govern, whereas – as you point out – neither of them have won a genuine majority mandate since 1935. You say the coalition government is dismantling the welfare state without a mandate. Yet the Conservatives won a larger (but still minority) share of the vote last time than did Labour in 2005, especially in England, where most of the specific cuts to public services directly decided upon by the UK government actually take effect.
    The truth of the matter is that both FPTP and AV stink, and are just mechanisms designed to prop up unaccountable, unrepresentative Westminster governance. In fact, AV is really just a variant of FPTP, which you could call ‘first past the final post’: it just moves the post further back towards a majority, without – as you say – guaranteeing that majority is even reached.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this eloquent comment. I accept and agree with most of it. Certainly neither FPTP nor AV is perfect, although I don’t agree that either of them ‘stinks’: no electoral system is perfect, and as so often in politics the choice that has to be made involves identifying the lesser or least of several evils. That in turn depends on what you think the system should primarily aim to achieve. Essentially, there’s a conflict between the demands of reasonably stable, durable, accountable government on the one hand, and a parliament (and government) which more or less faithfully reflects the distribution of political opinion in the country on the other. Personally I think that the former matters more to the nation’s political health than the latter and that the price which has to be paid for the latter is unacceptably high. Moreover, I don’t see much merit in pursuing the latter at all costs, since so long as a serious and democratic minority party enjoying substantial support somewhere in the country has some representation in the house of commons, it doesn’t really matter how many MPs it has in relation to the number of votes it won at the previous election, except on very rare occasions when a parliamentary vote is both free and nicely balanced. Caroline Lucas, as the sole Green party MP, is already making much more impact than two dozen Green MPs lacking her energy, commitment and chrisma would ever have. Quality is far more important than quantity.

    As to your first point, disputing “one of your principal objections to AV – that it enables supporters of fringe parties to have a disproportionate (though not disproportional?) say in determining election results”, I don’t think that’s an accurate account of my view. What I do object to is that under AV second, third etc. preference votes, when redistributed, are treated as being of equal value to first preference votes in determining the result, when they obviously should not be. The MP elected under AV is likely to be the candidate to whom the majority of the voters least object, rather than the candidate who wins more support than any other. This must favour the fence-sitter with flabby and ambiguous views, refusing to commit herself to anything in particular, against the firmly and explicitly committed candidate who is prepared to express an unambiguous view on current issues so that the voters can judge where she stands, and what to expect if she’s elected.

    We both agree that it’s a kind of trickery to claim that an MP elected under AV, and dependent for her victory on preferences transferred from other candidates, has the support of a majority of her voters, when clearly the majority actually preferred and voted for other candidates — just as an MP elected under FPTP on a minority of the votes cast can’t claim to have majority support, for exactly the same reason. But you go on to say:“You, however, do seem to think that parliamentary majorities based on pluralities (in terms of share of vote at both constituency and national level) do/can constitute legitimate and strong government. How you reconcile this inconsistency, I don’t know.” However, I don’t believe there’s any inconsistency in holding that an MP who has won by getting more votes than any other candidate has at least as much legitimacy as an MP elected under AV on the back of preferences transferred to her from other candidates: and even more legitimacy than a candidate elected under AV who didn’t even win more first preference votes than any other candidate. Coming top of the poll surely confers a degree of legitimacy, even if the combined votes of the losers exceed those of the winner. In the case of governments, similar considerations apply, with the additional point that it’s less important for the health of our democracy that our governments should be arithmetically representative of the spread of opinion in the country than that they should be (i) reasonably stable and durable (and therefore able to pursue reasonably long-term policies), (ii) not dependent for their functioning on the consent of a minority party which has won only a fraction of the votes won by the main opposition party, and (iii) accountable to the electorate for the fulfilment of the promises that they made during the preceding election. AV makes all those desirable features much more difficult to achieve; FPTP makes them easier. Vote No to AV!

  2. Pete Kercher says:

    There are many interesting things to discuss here, Brian, if only I had the time! They include the fact that I have serious reserves about your thesis of the purpose of elections, but they deserve far more than superficial five-minute comment.
    Just to keep things simmering, though, I wonder whether you had considered that, under the proposed AV system (whose merits we can dicuss another time) you would probably now be living under a Labour-Lib Dem rather than a Conservative-Lib Dem coaltion, because of all those transferred Labour votes that would have elected Lib Dems instead of Tories in the heartlands where Labour is the third party. Just a thought.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Pete. On the purpose of UK general elections to the house of commons (whose main purpose differs from that of many other elections), I recall that a poll at the time of Roy Jenkins’s report advocating full PR for commons elections confirmed the common-sense and intuitive view that in deciding how to cast their votes in a general election, a sizeable majority of people give priority to their wish to influence which party will form a government; their views on the respective qualitites of the various candidates in their own particular constituency come a poor second, and the wish to ensure that a particular party will be represented in the house of commons in proportion to its support in the country an even poorer third. Even Jenkins, a zealot for a perfectly proportionate house of commons regardless of its implications for the kind of government which that would produce, acknowledged that producing a government of a particular political persuasion was the main purpose of a general election for most voters. It may of course be true that people who vote for small parties with no prospect of forming a government on their own (such as single-issue or extremist parties) are concerned more to maximise that party’s representation in the house of commons than to influence the decision on which party leader goes into No. 10, and for those people AV or (even more) PR will help them to achieve their objective. In terms of the effect on the choice of government, however, such people’s votes are indeed ‘wasted’ in almost any circumstances, which is one of the charges against FPTP. But they are wasted purely by the choice of those who vote in that way. Like everyone else, they have the option of voting for a party which has a reasonable chance of forming a government, and if they choose not to exercise that option and thus sacrifice their opportunity to influence which party forms a government, that’s their affair, not a fault of the system.

    I agree with your interesting point that AV in 2010 might well have produced a Labour-LibDem coalition government instead of the monster that governs us now. I have two immediate comments on that: one of my purely partisan objections to AV (and even more to PR) is that it’s likely to deprive us of the opportunity ever again to have a Labour government with a working overall majority, which I see as a necessary — but far from sufficient! — condition for one day having a radical reforming government with a clear mandate to change society for the better; and, despite the present government’s infliction on us of the near-total wreckage of the liberal welfare state consensus that dominated our politics from 1945 until Thatcher, I have a guilty feeling that now may be rather a good time for Labour to be out of office, and accordingly not responsible for the painful process of clearing up the mess made by the financial institutions and the unrestrained excesses of the so-called free market. Admittedly any Labour-led coalition would have made a much better job of the clean-up than the present lot (indeed the previous Labour government had made an impressive start in doing precisely that), but in doing so it might well have incurred such odium as would have kept Labour out of office for the following decade or more, a period when opportunities for radical change may well open up once again.

  3. It is not the case that the preferences of the candidates who come first and second are never redistributed. I remember a case in Queensland where the candidate who was third on the first count collected sufficient preferences from lower placed candidates to overtake the second placed candidate in the penultimate count and then overtake the first placed with the preferences of the second placed to win. I don’t think this was an isolated case.

    To my mind the advantage of AV is that in first past the post many people vote for the candidate who they think is most likely to beat the candidate who they least want. With AV you can  vote first for the candidate you really want and then give your second preference to the lesser of two evils – as I am sure many Liberal Democrats will do in London’s mayoral election. I, incidentally, shall not express that preference and will not cast a second preference vote. 

  4. Brian says:

    @Derek: thanks for your comment.   I think we’re into semantics here.  It’s self evident that the preferences of the candidates who come first and second in the final round, when all the other candidates have been successively eliminated, will never be redistributed — at that stage there are no other candidates to redistribute them to.  My comment applied to situations where there are only two candidates in the list with a realistic chance of winning or coming second — in other words, a two-horse race.  In that situation, there’s no point in registering second or lower preferences if your first preference is for one of the two candidates who can safely be predicted to come first and second, even if you don’t know which will come first and which second.  An example is the last London Mayoral elections, in which it was clear from the start that one of either Boris Johnson or Ken Livingstone would win and the other would come second.  Those who gave their first preference to any other candidate (such as Brian Paddick, the LibDem) were making a meaningless gesture, although also a harmless one if it made them feel good.  What mattered in such a case was whether they gave their second preference to Johnson or Livingstone, which could have affected the outcome.  (But then they might just as well have given their first preference to either Johnson or Livingstone and be done with it.)   Similarly, those giving their first preference to either Johnson or Livingstone and their second preference to (say) Paddick or indeed to any other candidate were also wasting their time, since Johnson’s and Livingstone’s second preferences were obviously never going to be redistributed.  The same was true of the Labour Party leadership election, where it became obvious that the two Milibands would be the last two candidates left in the race, so that (a) a first preference vote for any other candidate would be wasted and only a first, second or lower preference vote for one of the Milibands would affect the outcome, and (b) those giving a first preference vote to a Miliband needn’t have bothered to give a second preference vote to anyone else — even the other Miliband.

    I understand and even have some sympathy for your point that AV enables the voter to cast a first preference vote for a candidate who has no realistic chance of being elected, and then to give a second preference vote to a candidate who has, even though the latter is not the voter’s first choice.  It’s claimed by some that this avoids one unsatisfactory feature of FPTP, namely the pressure to vote tactically rather than waste your vote on a candidate who is your first choice but who can’t win.  I’m not convinced by this argument, however.  AV is essentially a formalised system of tactical voting plus the opportunity to make a futile gesture: and anyway, there is nothing wrong with tactical voting if all it means is maximising the effectiveness of your vote by using it in a way that will actually influence the result instead of wasting it to make a pointless gesture.  The same options are available under both FPTP and AV.

    None of this, of course, applies in a three-horse race (or a four or five horse race, etc.) where it’s impossible, or even difficult, to predict which of the candidates will end up in first and second place.  In such circumstances, the way you register your preferences under AV may make a real difference to the result.  But the defects of AV as argued in my post above remain:  the attribution in the final distribution of equal value to first, second and lower preferences when plainly they are not really of equal value;  the increased likelihood of minority or coalition governments that are unlikely to be stable and durable;  the destruction of the principle of the manifesto mandate that allows governments to be held to account for their election promises;  the tendency to encourage a multiplicity and/or fragmentation of parties represented in parliament, leading eventually to patchwork quilt governments like those of Israel, permanently in hock to permutations of small extremist splinter groups; the possibility that the candidate who receives most first preference votes in the first round will ultimately be defeated by another candidate who won fewer first-round first preferences, which is manifestly unfair to the largest single group of voters; and the encouragement of the wishy-washy non-committal candidate who may attract more second preferences from all shades of opinion than the candidate with firm, explicit views and a commitment to  an identifiable set of political principles.  If AV wins in May, the old joke about the bland leading the bland will gradually seem less and less funny.

  5. John Miles says:

    If metaphysics is really all about finding bad reasons for what we know by instinct,  a lot of metaphysical thinking goes on about this topic.
    Bye amd large Tories and New Labour say No, the rest of us Yes.
    Is this just a meaningless coincidence?

    What then, you may ask, of Ed Miliband?
    Honourable exceptiom or just a bit of a nutter?

    My own instinct tells me that nothing is likely to be all that worse than what we’ve got now, so lets give it a go

    In the last election I actually found the only sensible course was to vote Tory.
    I hated myself for doing so, but how else to eliminate our odious New Labour member?
    Even so, it was touch and g0, by no more than about a hundred votes.

    “In future we can expect the more honest manifestoes to include a warning that if the party turns out to be a member of a coalition or minority government, all bets are off.” 

    Even as things are, manifestos aren’t actually famous for their honesty.

    Brian writes: Thanks. I’m not convinced by your opening generalisation: I have never been New Labour, still less a Tory, but I’m voting No on AV for the reasons in my post. I doubt if you’ll find dishonesty in party manifestoes: it’s the way politicians seek to evade their duty to carry out their manifesto promises that may sometimes, but by no means always, be dishonest. And a quick look round at all the governments around the world which are rendered impotent by hung parliaments produced by fancy variants of PR or by dependence on extremist minority members of coalitions or even by the impossibility of forming a government at all should make you think again about your suggestion that nothing could be worse than our present system of First Past the Post. Actually it has served us pretty well for a very long time indeed, and of all the millions of people of other democrtacies which also use it, I know of none that is even beginning to think of changing it. By contrast only Australia uses AV, and there only for certain of its numerous elections under different systems, and it only works tolerably well there because (a) it’s effectively a two-party state, with no sizeable independent third party in the wings as permanent would-be king-maker as in the UK, Germany and elsewhere; (b) voting is compulsory, and (c) voters are required to give a numbered preference to every candidate on the ballot paper. None of those factors will apply to the UK if we’re foolish enough to opt for AV next month.

  6. Mike Jayne says:

    Firstly, let me thank you for this discussion. I have been trying to find an objective, critical analysis of the merits of AV. This is the best I have come across, so far. On reflection, I think (post war) we have often been the victim of strong government and an electorate many of whom vote for a party name rather than their policies. (Am I alone in thinking New Labour often proved to be to the right of Heath’s Conservative government? ) Manifestos have been written as a marketing too and a wish list and then used  to bring into legislation, unpopular policies contained within them as “having received approval of the electorate.”
    One of the most exciting things about the last election was the way public interest was stimluated and it became acceptable to raise and discuss politics in the street. I, for one, found the resulting coalition an encouraging response to political realities and we can see the consequences in the changed political outcomes, irrespective of whether we agree with them.
    If AV can bring about proper discussion and debate of policies, ameliorate the effects of dyed in the wool voters, and encourage voter engagement then surely, from a democratic point of view, it can be no bad thing?

    Brian writes: Thank you for these generous words. I entirely agree that on many issues New Labour managed to position itself well to the right of (e.g.) the Macmillan and Heath Tory governments, and indeed in some ways arguably to the right of Cameron’s Conservative party. This is amply confirmed by seeing and hearing Lord (John) Reid, former authoritarian New Labour home secretary, sharing a platform against AV with Cameron and sounding far more right-wing than the prime minister. I don’t however agree with your dismissal of election manifestos, which seem to me an essential tool for accountability and a degree of rtransparency about the parties’ intentions. Of course very few individual voters bother to read them, but the media commentators and analysts certainly do and can be counted on to expose during the election campaign any attempt to slip in naughtiness in the way you suggest. (Please also see my comments about accountability here.) Nor, of course, do I share your liking for coalitions; and I suspect that AV, if adopted, will actually deter rather than encourage voter engagement and turnout (or else a sizeable number of voters will not bother to register any preferences other than their first, so that the result will be fatally skewed by those who do register second and lower preferences. But this really comes down in the end to questions of taste and opinion.

  7. John Miles says:

    ” I doubt if you’ll find dishonesty in party manifestoes: it’s the way politicians seek to evade their duty to carry out their manifesto promises that may sometimes, but by no means always, be dishonest. ”

    Count not his broken promises a crime –
    He meant them, how he meant them, at the time. 

  8. Neil Harding says:

    Pretty much all the faults of AV are shared by FPtP, but AV has one crucial advantage – it avoids the ‘spoiler effect’ so enables voters to show their real first choice without penalty. Check out C.G.P Grey on Youtube for an explanation, or my blog google ‘neil harding’. Good to see you still fighting the good old reactionary fight, Brian. Tribal politics will never die with your spirit to keep it going. It’s not that you are New Labour, it is that you are Neaderthal Labour to the exclusion of good sense.

    Brian writes: Thank you. I am replying, I hope in more civil terms than yours, in a separate comment.

  9. Brian says:

    @Neil Harding:  this is a reply to your comment (above).
    You referred us to a YouTube piece and to a post on your own blog, without providing links to either.  I have searched YouTube for the piece you recommend but without success.  Your own blog post is at
    and provides a much more persuasive case than your comment here, which makes a somewhat different and more questionable point.  In your blog post, to which you refer us, you recommend AV as a means of avoiding the dilemma facing an anti-Tory voter who can’t be sure, under First Past the Post, which of two main challengers to the Conservative candidate to vote for, because of the difficulty of predicting which of the two is likeliest to beat the Tory, and the danger that the anti-Tory vote will be split between the two challengers, thus letting the Tory in.

    There are two problems with that argument.  One is that you have chosen as your illustration a ward in the Brighton Pavilion constituency (now, as you say, represented in parliament by the admirable Caroline Lucas, the sole Green party MP) where the Greens have gathered greatly increased support recently, at least in part because of Ms Lucas’s abilities and charisma, and where in the ward that you have selected the top Labour and Conservative candidates in the 2007 local council elections won exactly equal proportions of the vote (32% each) with the Green third on 15%.  Your perfectly tenable argument is that a voter in this ward next month would need to try to predict, under FPTP, whether Green support has increased so much since 2007 that the most effective way to keep the Tory out might be to vote Green rather than Labour.  Under AV it would be possible to give a first preference to the Green and the second to Labour (or vice versa), thus reducing the danger that the anti-Tory vote will be split more or less equally between the Green and Labour, allowing the Tory to win.  So far so reasonably good:  but you have selected a quite exceptional example for your argument, using the only constituency in the whole of the UK where increased Green support has actually produced a Green MP, and a ward in that constituency where Labour and Tory proportions of the vote were exactly equal in 2007.  It would be rash to extrapolate from this doubly untypical example lessons applicable to the whole country.   The dilemma (and the AV ‘solution’ to it) arise only in constituencies where there are three (or, rarely, more) candidates with a real chance of winning and where it’s extremely difficult, even with the assistance of local opinion polls and one’s own judgement of the merits of the three candidates, to guess which of the two non-Tory candidates has the better chance of beating the Tory.  Such constituencies (and wards) do of course exist, usually in the past where both the LibDem and the Labour candidates seemed to have an almost equal chance of beating the Tory, making it difficult for the anti-Tory voter to decide which of those two to vote for. 

    At next month’s local elections, and possibly also at the next general election (probably in 2015 but perhaps earlier), this calculation will be further complicated, or perhaps made easier, by the current collapse of the LibDem vote and by the close association in many voters’ minds of the LibDems with the Tories, because of their partnership in the coalition government and consequent LibDem shared responsibility for unpopular government policies.  The difficulty for local LibDem candidates of convincingly disowning and attacking policies which LibDem ministers at Westminster have endorsed and helped to carry out should in many cases resolve the difficulty by making it obvious that the only candidate with a serious prospect of beating the Tory will be the Labour candidate.  Local opinion polls and the local press should in most cases either confirm this or cast doubt on it.  There may be a few other constituencies or wards where a spectacular rise in Green support might replicate or resemble the example in your (Neil’s) post and make it hard to decide whether a really good Green candidate might actually have a better chance than a poor Labour candidate of beating the Tory in a close-run seat.  But these will surely be the exception rather than the rule.  It’s wrong to base your argument for AV as against FPTP on such an untypical and unrepresentative voting situation.

    The second problem with your case is the risk involved in giving your first preference (under AV) to your “real first choice” (to quote your comment here) and only your second preference to the candidate with a real chance of winning and whom you dislike least among the front runners (not of course the same thing as ‘support’).  You say that AV allows you to do this “without penalty”, but that’s not necessarily so.  If your first preference candidate (say the Green), although unlikely to win in the end, nevertheless survives the first few eliminations, transfers of preferences and recounts, it’s possible that (for example) the Tory may pick up enough second etc preferences, redistributed to her from other candidates who have been successively eliminated, to put the Tory over the 50% mark before your second preference vote has been transferred to your second preference (e.g. the Labour candidate).  Thus your second preference vote, never redistributed to Labour, has been ineffective, and your first preference (a gesture of support for the Green) has been wasted.  So there is indeed a possible penalty for acting as you suggest, under AV.  There’s also the necessity of trying to guess which of the non-Tory serious contenders to vote for (under FPTP) or to give your second preference to (under AV).  Under either system you have to make that guess, and under either system, if you guess wrong, you may either waste your vote or even unintentionally help the Tory (assuming that your aim, as in your example, is to keep the Tory out).  Neither is at least potentially “without penalty”.

    Most political choices are necessarily between two evils (or if not evils, options each of which has significant defects and drawbacks).  At election time, in almost all circumstances the choice boils down to a choice between only two distinct sets of values, conveniently if crudely labelled ‘left’ and ‘right’.  One focuses on (for example) minimising inequality, protecting the underdogs in society, minimising privilege, valuing reform and welfare through collective action (including through the public sector) as more effective than private individual action, prioritising rehabilitation over punishment, curbing private sector exploitation of the weak and vulnerable, stressing the importance of the rule of law, human rights, and the role of the UN in validating the use of force in international affairs.  The other focuses more on (for example) individualism, initiative, competition, minimal restriction of the freedom of the market, minimal role for the public sector, suspicion of ‘reform’ for its own sake, respect for hierarchy, tradition and discipline, prioritising punishment over rehabilitation, and acceptance of inequality as a necessary feature of a competitive economy that incentivises and rewards the successful.  Of course no one party or candidate will conform precisely to either stereotype, and no single voter will ever support every single one of the principles or objectives of either group, or reject every single one of the other.  Nor is either group of values ‘right’ or ‘wrong’: each boils down to personal judgement and preference. But in the end, the reality of politics means that at a general election, whose principal purpose is always to determine which of the two main parties is to form a government, you have to choose between the two.  By and large, and despite many backslidings and defaults, the Labour party represents the first set of values, and the Conservative party (despite other inconsistencies) the second.  Support for any other party is, in the end, an attempt to evade the choice that has to be made, or, if you prefer, a decision to make an ineffectual gesture rather than seeking to make your vote affect the outcome.  AV for elections to the house of commons is a system that tries to disguise the necessity for that fundamental choice.  It’s a sop to the basically non-political voter who doesn’t much care for either Labour or the Tories and is kidded into believing that having a handful of preferences available allows her to pick and choose between candidates of parties with no prospect of forming a government while still having an influence on the eventual outcome.  The trouble is that by withholding your first preference from the party which has a real chance of winning, and which you prefer on balance to the other parties with a prospect of winning, you may indeed influence the outcome — but not necessarily in the way you wanted. First Past the Post doesn’t encourage any such evasion. Since the reality is that no one party in the UK commands the support of anything like 50%+1 of the electorate, the fairest and simplest system is that which ensures that the candidate who wins more votes than any other, wins. Treating second and third preferences as if they were of equal value to first preferences is a fundamentally dishonest way of pretending that the candidate elected has had the ‘support’ of more than 50% of the voters.

    Finally, I venture to suggest that attacking someone with whom you disagree about AV as “reactionary”, “tribal”, “Neanderthal” (whether or not so spelled), and devoid of “good sense”, is a poor substitute for addressing the specific arguments with which you disagree.  I have paid you the compliment of trying to deal with the argument you have advanced for AV in your comment on my blog, without seeking to discredit you personally by attaching tatty old political labels to you.  The least you can do, I suggest, is to set out your case without using such schoolboy language as “First-Past-The-Post Stinks!”  (the subheading to your entire blog), and without badmouthing those who disagree with you.  Some of your blog’s assertions in support of AV, such as that AV “Ensures MP has 50% support”, and that there will no longer be ‘safe seats’ under AV, are demonstrably wrong and are shown to be wrong in my own and many other blog posts and MSM articles.  You might usefully concentrate on trying to rebut those challenges, and let those who read your posts and comments decide for themselves where on the political spectrum to place both you and those who disagree with you.  I wish you luck in doing that.

  10. Neil Harding says:

    Brian, I apologise for my rude comment, like a creationist argument to an evolutionist, you uniquely have this ability to make my blood boil, once again sorry, you are absolutely correct I shouldn’t have descended into insults. I appreciate your measured (very long) response. I will try a concise and polite reply. Where to start!
    If you google ‘C.G.P Grey’ you will get his blog, he has a video on AV and one on FPtP prominently shown. I didn’t link because some comments sections reject your comment and anyway I thought it would be easy to find –
    If you can show me where I have claimed that AV eliminates safe seats I would appreciate it. As far as I know I have only claimed that it REDUCES the number of safe seats. Which indeed it does. AV does ensure that an MP gets 50% of those who express a preference i.e. a majority. You may argue that someone who CHOOSES not to rank a candidate has a wasted vote, but there is a big difference between having to waste your vote to show your true support (FPtP) and choosing to waste your vote (AV). In my mind people who choose not to rank a candidate are in the same bracket as those who do not turn out to vote, under AV in that round of voting they have abstained – it is a subtle difference but an important one.
    I can give you plenty of examples in Brighton and Hove alone that are similar to Moulsecoomb & Bevendean, look at Preston Park, Central Hove, and Goldsmid wards to name but a few – all of these will potentially let Tories in on a minority of the vote because the anti-Tory vote is split. In the past there were more, Regency and Queens Park are 2 recent examples before they became Green seats. In fact I would argue that most marginal seats suffer from the spoiler effect, and since marginal seats are the only ones that potentially change hands, they are the only ones that matter – even if they are few in terms of the total number of seats.
    I also take issue with your assumption that a 2nd preference or even 3rd preference is not likely to be a show of support for a candidate. It is difficult to judge these things, but we must get away from this black and white assumption that a vote for someone under FPtP is a total show of support, it is rarely anything of the sort. Things are shades of grey, there are plenty of people who like more than one party fairly equally, or dislike most parties fairly equally. AV can represent these views more accurately than FPtP.
    We obviously are going to disagree on this one – I really cannot agree with your assertion that everything boils down to two ideologies and that only Labour and Tory represent these ideologies honestly and that it is a cop-out to avoid choosing one of these parties. I think most would agree that we need a more nuanced (less black and white) view of the world. Regards, Neil

  11. John Miles says:

    An important question, to which I’d like to know your answer, is “Which system is fairer to the ordinary voter, and why?” 
    Or am I wrong to think it really matters?

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I had thought that I had already made it obvious what I think about fairness to the voter. FPTP usually results in single-party government which can be held to account for its fulfilment of its pre-election promises. AV will more often produce hung parliaments which mean either coalitions that formulate new policies worked out in interparty horsetrading after the election, or minority governments which can do only what the (more numerous) opposition parties will allow it to do or which also emerge from horse-trading and bargaining behind closed doors. In both cases there is no accountability because either way the policies adopted by the government have been determined after the election and need not bear any relation to pre-election promises. What’s more, a coalition government is a government for which no-one at all has voted — not even a minority of the electorate. How anyone can think that’s fairer to the voter than FPTP is beyond me.

  12. Pete Kercher says:

    I was quite surprised to see that question from John Miles, since I think it must be obvious to us all that it depends on how one defines what is “fair” to the ordinary voter. Brian clearly defines that in terms of what he considers to be answerability, so gave a perfectly predictable answer.
    I happen to disagree with Brian’s definition of what constitutes fairness to voters, as I think, reading between the lines, does JM. But that does not change the predictability of Brian’s answer. The concept of fairness to voters quite possibly has as many definitions as there are voters, so we can expect Brian (and others) to respond in his own terms.
    Where I shall take issue with Brian’s response is on the next stage: that there is somehow some form of answerablity in a complex modern democracy. I’m afraid that is quite hypothetical and rather unrealistic. While you may have the occasional case of an unpopular Minister being thrown out at the next election, that really only acts as a sop to save the system’s face. In practice, in the UK, (s)he will get booted (promoted for being a failure?) upstairs to the Lords and continue unperturbed as a Minister in some future government, flying blatantly in the face of the popular will of the electorate.
    But even that is only a minor issue compared to the beautiful hypothesis of answerability, built on the fulfilment of election promises, which Brain has constructed here for us. Realpolitik has it otherwise, as we all know only too well. If your manifesto promises a set of policies that would be quite reasonable under one set of circumstances, it may easily become cloud-cuckoo land as world situations change. We all know that and to pretend otherwise is to be an idealist trying to tackle reality.
    We also know, as Brian has pointed out on many occasions, that any party and its manifesto are elected on the basis of a consenus between different groups, tendencies and ideals. So exactly how to go about questioning the real-world process of challenging the manifetso’s partial infulfilment, in which preference will have been given to some aspects rather than others, is iself a major challenge. The voter is always left wondering: was that partial infulfilment for ideological reasons or for Realpolitik? Is the wool of excuses being pulled over my eyes? As the world i somplex, the chances are that the answer is yes and that both alternatives apply to different degrees.
    Brian, your case of manifesto compliance and answerablity depends on rather too large a dose of straightforward idealism for today’s complex, ever-changing world. Whether you like it or not (and I suspect you do not), every government has to perform a constant balancing act of *coalition* between its own original aims, others that have matured in society since its election, the very real and unavoidable forces of world events and, not least, the burgeoning egos of party leaders and their personal ambitions, of which your own party gave Britain a rather log and shabby example until just recently. You know, stones and glass houses make Labour criticism even of today’s pretty poor government look rather hypocritical.
    Under those circumstances of constructive (in the legal sense) everyday coalition, I really don’t see why any of those elements, such as (and I would argue in particular) those burgeoning egos that prefer not to have anyone cross the paths of their careers, shouldbe considered to be more important than that of another major secton of society as expressed by the vote given to a smaller party. In actual fact, I believe that many of the ills of modern society derive directly from the atmosphere of football-field antagonism that is maintained by the two-party system, with its extremes (in theory), rather than the much-needed atmosphere of collaboration in society that could derive from a mature collaboration in government. Perhaps such a sense of collaboration is actually a little too socialist in its nature to suit Labour politicians?
    As for FPTP or AV, that’s a red herring when your real discussion is about the pros and cons of coalition government.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Pete. On the central question of accountability under FPTP, please now see my response to ‘Eurocentric’ at

  13. Pete Kercher says:

    For another interesing perspective on this discussion, from a Northern Ireland voter accustomed to switching from FPTP to AV and back, I think you may be interested to look at this post on the European Citizen blog:
    I have of course asked for and obtained the author’s permission to refer you to his blogpost.

  14. Brian Barder says:

    I have posted the following comment on the interesting post by European Citizen referred to in his preceding comment by Pete Kercher:

    I’m grateful to Pete for pointing me at this very interesting post — and for generously recommending my own blog post on the subject at
    I have to admit, though, that I don’t find Eurocentric’s case for AV convincing, for reasons most of which are set out in my blog post ([link] above), although I can well understand that someone whose politics have been shaped in part by the obviously desirable concept (in Northern Ireland specifically) of power-sharing among intrinsically hostile parties will look with favour on a system that’s likelier to produce hung parliaments and multi-party governments than FPTP.  But what is plainly needed in NI isn’t necessarily good for the UK as a whole.
    In the end I think there has to be a trade-off for UK elections to the house of commons (although not necessarily in other elections) between (a) a house of commons more accurately reflecting the spread of political opinion in the country but more likely to produce multi-party governments and programmes for which no-one has voted, and (b) a less arithmetically representative house of commons that’s more likely to produce single-party governments which can be held to account for their pre-election promises (not only in their manifestos) and which can pursue clear-cut policies without the need for compromises to buy off junior coalition partners or other small parties.  Personally I think (b) is more important and more conducive to the good government of the country than (a), but it’s perfectly legitimate to prefer (a).
    I do wish though that advocates of AV would stop claiming that under AV all MPs would have had the support of more than 50% of their electorates.  In most constituencies this can be made to seem true only by pretending that second and third preferences are of equal value to first preferences as indicators of ‘support’, which is obviously not the case.  An MP whose majority depends on second or lower preferences transferred from other candidates is as much in the situation that the majority of the voters didn’t vote for him (with their first preferences) as an MP under First Past the Post elected on a minority vote.  Neither can claim that the majority of voters supported him.  Since no UK political party has ever won the support of more than 50% of the electorate since the 1930s, it stands to reason that no one party’s candidates in most UK constituencies will be able to win more than 50% of his or her constituency’s votes.  AV can’t change this reality and it’s sophistry to pretend otherwise.
    Equally flawed arguments are being advanced by the No camp, though.  In general the level of the debate so far seems to me pitifully low, with both sides missing the most powerful arguments available to them and relying instead on arguments that are easily rebutted.  One needs to read the blogs to get a better idea of the real cases for and against!

  15. Eurocentric says:

    I thought I should reproduce my reply here, even though it mostly contains irrelevant arguments on why I prefer proportional representation and coalition government. Still, that might shed some light on why I (and people from areas with PR systems) aren’t swayed by the accountability and stability arguments, and, by extension, why we might be more inclined to vote for AV in the face of those more contextual arguments:

    Thank you very much for the reply. My views may have been shaped partly by the history of gerrymandered FPTP districts in NI before the 1970s (NI dropped STV and switched to FPTP, ensuring UUP government for 50 years), but I primarily base my preference for coalition government from the Republic, Germany and other European countries.

    Regarding you preference for less representative, but more accountable government, I would question the true accountability of the current Westminster system. As it consists of 2 1/2 options for government, there is a very narrow form of competition between the parties for votes, and the high levels of tactical voting mean that it’s hard to tell if voters really endorse the parties as they are. A swing between 2 manifestos/platforms based on perhaps one or two key issues is a very narrow form of accountability, and considering the diminishing level of support the single-party governments have, the legitimacy of implementing the programmes wholesale becomes increasingly questionable.

    FPTP tends to produce sharp swings (except for the last election, and it is too early to see if hung parliaments might become a trend over the next few elections if the LibDem recover), but these are between very broad churches. By contrast, in PR elections, such as in Ireland, parties have clearer policy platforms and the strength of the support for these shapes the parliament and the resulting government. Realistically, there will always be a tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum aspect to politics, but I think that PR and coalition benefits the operation of government. To me it is more accountable as I, and other voters, can more clearly support and strengthen policy positions within the parliament and ultimately in government if the party I elect (and prospective coalition partners I might also give preferences to) gets into government. Nobody is matched perfectly by a party, and I feel this system gives me much more choice and control over politics than the FPTP system. How much old or new Labour would the electorate have wanted in the last Labour government?

    In Ireland I hear a lot more about issues and policy implementation (and I’m starting to hear more of it in the UK now), and the quality of legislation is simply better as there is more scrutiny within the government. I’m a supporter of the parliamentary system because I too prefer the executive and the legislature to be linnked sufficiently so that policy can be implemented and be accountable. Having a coalition government prevents (or reduces) the downsides rushed and ill-thought-through legislation.

    In NI the situation is very different, but it is a special case as it’s a consociational system. When I support coalition government, It is not about forcing parties that hate each other into coalition. A multi-party democracy would generate a different structure, and there are generally prefered coalition partners and political dividing lines, but it is up to the electorate to lend its support to the prospective coalitions in the weight it chooses.

    Getting back to AV, I agree that it’s not a simple 50% support that each MP gets, but under AV, MPs would enjoy a wider range of support than under FPTP. Going back to my argument above, my main reason for supporting it is that it would open up more party competition in safe seats, etc. It will probably have much the same result as FPTP, just with minor improvements. I don’t claim that these are anything other than gradual and dependent on the voter, but the choice is between AV and FPTP, and AV seems better to me as a voter.

    Brian writes: Many thanks. I am responding in a new separate comment.

  16. Eurocentric says:

    (P.S. Sorry for the emphasis on PR – I don’t want to drive the debate off course from the relevant AV argument).

  17. John Miles says:

    “What’s more, a coalition government is a government for which no-one at all has voted — not even a minority of the electorate. How anyone can think that’s fairer to the voter than FPTP is beyond me.”

    Some of us find coalitions less obnoxious than you do, though of course we  could be just plain dumb stupid..
    One of the reasons I didn’t vote for a coalition in the recent election is that it simply wasn’t possible to do so.
    As things are, I’m much happier with the current coalition – for all its faults – than I would be if either  New Labour or the Tories ruled the roost.
    Am I really in a minority of one?

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. You correctly note that “One of the reasons I didn’t vote for a coalition in the recent election is that it simply wasn’t possible to do so.” Exactly. Hence my observation that AV will result more often than FPTP in coalitions for which not a single voter will (or could) have voted. Of course it would be poossible to vote for a specific two-party alliance seeking an electoral mandate to form a kind of coalition government if, but only if, two parties such as the Conservatives and the LibDems agreed to put up a single candidate in each constituency and not to have Tory and LibDem candidates fighting each other. But that would come very close indeed to a merger between the two parties, or — more accurately — the Tory party swallowing the LibDems.

  18. Brian says:

    @Eurocentric: Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Just a few reactions:

    (1) I doubt if the experience of coalitions in Ireland, Germany and other European countries is necessarily a reliable guide for the UK. There is much less consensual overlap between the two major parties in the UK than in the European countries and our political tradition, like our judicial tradition, is much more sharply adversarial than theirs. I’m not convinced that coalitions in Ireland have produced noticeably good or accountable government. In Germany PR and consequent need for coalitions have often led to damaging delays in forming a government at times of crisis, and periodically — as indeed now — they force the country into a Grand Coalition between the two main parties of the left and right, equating to a Conservative-Labour coalition here. That can be made to work, after a fashion, in Germany; it seems to me almost inconceivable, and even if it were to be conceived, extremely undesirable here (it would give us an even more powerful executive and an enfeebled opposition to hold it to account, quite apart from the near-incompatibility of the two main UK parties’ fundamental ideologies). The inevitable result will be that it will be the leader of the third party, winning perhaps 20% of the total vote, and not the electorate, who decides which of the other two parties gets the keys to No. 10 Downing Street, perhaps for five years.

    (2) I understand your preference for the splintering of parties under PR (and perhaps under AV) so that there are more and smaller parties, each with clear policy platforms, rather than two or two-and-a-fifth big parties each of which is itself a broad church coalition covering a wide spectrum of ideologies — because in the former situation you can pick and choose among the various single-ideology parties, number them in order of your detailed personal preferences and according to their likely coalition partners, instead of having to hold your nose and plump for a single big party with many of whose policies you don’t actually agree. I would argue however that this apparent freedom to pick and choose is an illusion. Voting for a specific coalition of your own choice is not an option under any electoral system: coalitions can only be formed after an election in the light of each of several parties’ parliamentary numbers, so the kind of government you get and its compromise policies are determined by the party leaders behind closed doors, not by the electorate. It would be nice to be able to tiptoe fastidiously around half a dozen or more party platforms and carefully number them according to how close each one approaches your own private views on multiple issues, but in real life no system allows you to do that. In the end, as I have argued elsewhere, you’re either a conservative traditionalist and disciplinarian or you’re a radical reformer and libertarian, and you just have to decide which — and then vote accordingly, however much you would like to pick’n’mix from within both of only two basic value systems.

    (3) You say “my main reason for supporting it [AV] is that it would open up more party competition in safe seats, etc. It will probably have much the same result as FPTP, just with minor improvements.” I think the first part of that is fallacious and the second part probably accurate. As Bogdanor has pointed out, in genuinely ‘safe seats’ under AV the incumbent would be very likely to receive more than 50% of the first preference votes and would therefore win outright. AV would not have made any difference. In cases where (for example) a substantial number of voters would have preferred a LibDem to the incumbent Labour MP but dare not vote LibDem for fear of letting the Tory in, exactly the same calculation would apply under AV in deciding which of Labour and the LibDem to give your first preference to. If you vote 1. LibDem and 2. Labour, you risk letting the Tory win through the transfer of second preferences from minor party candidates (such as the BNP, Raving Monster Loony, FlatEarthers, etc.) who will be eliminated long before the LibDem. As with FPTP, the only sure way to avoid letting the Tory in is to give your first preference to the party with the best chance of beating the Tory, even if that isn’t the one you would have preferred in an ideal world. Tactical voting in either system is not a betrayal of principle: it’s a recognition of political reality. In politics choices are very rarely between black and white.

    (4) Of course FPTP doesn’t ensure perfectly accountable government by the (usually) single-party winner; no system can do so 100%. Parties make pre-election promises, or commit themselves to specific policies that they intend to pursue if elected, but after the election circumstances suddenly or gradually change (“events, dear boy, events”) and those pre-election promises and policy commitments become irrelevant or counter-productive. Nevertheless, the extent of accountability of a single-party government elected by FPTP is not to be sneered at or discounted. An obvious example is the Salisbury Convention under which the house of lords is committed to refraining from blocking or substantially amending a measure that was included in the governing party’s election manifesto — a vital safeguard against frustration of the wishes of the largest single section of the electorate by the unelected upper house. The media and the parliamentary opposition constantly point out with relish where a single-party government fails to keep its promises or acts in a way that contradicts them — and this applies to numerous commitments over and above the holy writ of the manifesto. By contrast, AV (by much increasing the representation of the third party at the expense of the two bigger parties) will much more often necessitate coalitions than FPTP, whether or not coalitions are about to become more frequent even under FPTP; and the Salisbury Convention can’t apply to coalition policies negotiated after the election, which (as St Vince has clearly stated) supersede the individual party manifestos and their other pre-election commitments. FPTP accountability may be imperfect, but even partial accountability is clearly better than none at all. I frankly don’t follow your argument that a multi-party coalition of parties which have abandoned their manifesto pledges in favour of a post-election compromise mongrel coalition policy will somehow be more accountable to the electorate than under a single-party government produced by FPTP.

  19. I’m afraid I don’t have the stamina to read this, but others might.

    Brian writes: Thanks, Barrie. Neither do I, especially as from a quick reading of the first 100 pages or so it seems to be a classic case of assuming what it sets out to prove, aka begging the question. Others with greater stamina may disagree.

  20. Eurocentric says:

    @ Brian B
    Thanks for your reply. I’m sorry for my late response; things have been pretty busy over the last few days.
    (1)    I think that there are a few cultural assumptions at the base of your first point that I disagree with (but correct me if I’m wrong on the assumptions). I think the assumption of the degree of cultural separation between the UK and other European countries exaggerates the differences. For one, Ireland shares the adversarial legal culture (and as a side point, Germany doesn’t have a Grand coalition but a right wing conservative-free market liberal one since the 2009 election). There are plenty of political battles in multiparty democracies; indeed the battles are more varied since support has to be gained from several constituencies rather than just from floating voters. I am far from convinced on the charge of damaging delays in forming governments: the British media freaked out over the idea that the normal storyboard wouldn’t be followed, but the threat of the markets was never that great. In the vast majority of multiparty democracies forming coalition governments runs quite smoothly, and to be fair, as the biggest European economy, it doesn’t seem to have done Germany that much harm. The second assumption is that Britain is really that culturally different deep down that it wouldn’t work in the UK. To me this seems to be a very strange argument because if that is what people really wanted and bought into, then there should be nothing to fear from more proportional systems as the British electorate would continue to elect a system dominated by 2 parties. [As a note, this year the state of Hamburg returned a majority SPD government, so if people really want a single party government, they will elect one].
    A much wider point is the assumption that the system as it is carries with it the same cultural support that it once did. Just because the political structure and the media is geared towards a 2 ½ party system does not mean that the people are as fundamentally wedded as to prevent a shift that would then be reflected in politics and the media. Indeed, with an uncodified constitution and parliamentary sovereignty, the British political system relies almost totally on a certain social and political culture to sustain it, but this has been degrading over the last few decades. With the rise of human rights and rights-based language, devolution, developments in European politics and law, etc., people are beginning to understand the state in a more continental sense of popular sovereignty rather than parliamentary sovereignty, even though this developing side is expressing itself in a confused way through the language of parliamentary sovereignty. This is a much, much bigger debate, but the clearest example is the Sovereignty Bill debate – this is a law that tries to defend and entrench British parliamentary sovereignty legally, while expressing it in aspects of the modern terms of popular sovereignty, referendums. Essentially, I would argue that there is a lot changing beneath the surface in British political culture that probably still have to form a coherent voice of its own. It might not get anywhere soon (though I hope it wins through and establishes a codified constitution with entrenched rights), but it does mean I’m not convinced by assertions of the exceptional nature of British political culture that there isn’t and cannot be change.
    (2)    We’re probably reaching the point of agreeing to disagree since it depends a lot on your perspective. Coalitions of interests govern the country whatever way you look at it – whether through coalition governments or very broad church single-party government as in the UK. As a committed centre-left voter, in the British system I am forced to hold my nose as you said – which means that I effectively hold less weight as a voter since there is little incentive for the Labour party to listen to me; it’s the floating voters in a few key marginals that matter, so Labour (and the Conservatives) just chase these voters. The lack of choice itself breeds less accountability since the party blocs are mainly interested in select policies to attract a small slice of the electorate. In February there were 5 policy platforms in the Irish election, and there was debate from different angles. There is a loss of power through coalition agreements, but I think this is made up by the clearer choices, the broader and more detailed debates, and ability to influence the weights of the support for policy platforms in Parliament. As for the conservative traditionalist/radical reformer divide, that is simply too black and white; the spectrum on both left and right is very broad and can be very creative. Coalitions tend towards left or right wing, but even on the values there can be larger differences than you seem to recognise.
    Both of these sets of arguments come with the disclaimer that AV won’t shift UK politics towards multiparty democracy to any great extent.
    (3)    There is a proportion of seats that are genuinely safe, but it will open up more competition in more seats than is currently the case. Those cases that you outline can occur, but mostly if there is enough support for those smaller parties to send another over the finishing post without higher-up candidates being eliminated; it is probably the case that the two next biggest votes wouldn’t overcome the plurality winner. I wouldn’t condemn all tactical voting (in Ireland there is a lot more discussion about tactical voting for lower preferences, etc. – essentially how to influence the final coalition government in the best way possible). However, I disagree that it will still remain so rigid.

    (4)    There’s a big discussion to be had here about the structure of the bicameral system and its purpose. I’ll just state my position: I’m pro-parliamentarianism because I think it more effectively translates votes into policy; however, I appreciate check and balances. A (much smaller) elected upper house (whether indirectly elected or by some other form with some expert appointees ) would be good to debate and amend legislation and delay legislation it’s against (and perhaps have the power to block it in some cases). So I’d be for more independence for the upper chamber, even though I wouldn’t want to have the power to block the majority of legislation from the lower house. I’m not entirely sure how this accountability argument of yours (direct transposition of manifestos) ties in with your earlier conservative traditionalist/radical reformer – the greater such distinctions can be drawn, surely the less genuine support for manifesto pledges can be assumed in a 2-party system? I believe that manifestos generally carry more weight in a multi-party system.
    Again, AV won’t bring multiparty democracy, but it will make some small improvements.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *