A postscript to my last word on AV

PS:  Dear M***, I can’t resist quoting your succinct remarks on AV:  ‘I would vote for AV if we were only electing MPs. But we’re electing a govt and I want to be able to pick the government, and not just change the relative negotiating position of the parties.  So I shall be voting “no”.‘  My views exactly.  Thank you.

I’m afraid I can’t pay the same compliment to the pro-AV article in yesterday’s Observer under the names of John Denham (Labour — remember him?), Chris Huhne (LibDem minister in the coalition government, emerging as principal scourge of the prime minister) and, alas, the usually estimable Caroline Lucas, leader and sole representative in the Commons of the Greens.  Can they all have read it when they agreed to put their names to it?  In the very first paragraph, we read:

On only two occasions in that long century – 1900 and 1931 – have the Tories won a majority of the votes. Instead, they have divided and ruled. No wonder David Cameron says the current system “has served us well”

— which is pretty disingenuous, considering that in that ‘long century’ (much longer than any other?), as in this shorter one, no other party ever won a majority of the votes in any general election either.  The reason has nothing to do with the electoral system: it just reflects the fact that since the aberration in 1931 no one party has ever had the support of half of the electorate or more, whether measured by election results or opinion polls — and in recent years the proportion of the electorate supporting the two major parties has declined even further.  So the more accurately this distribution of party support is reflected in the house of commons by the electoral system, the more likely it is that we shall be faced with virtually permanent minority or coalition governments, with all the drawbacks that recent experience has demonstrated.  If the LibDems’ unpopularity, stemming from their marriage to an exceptionally reactionary Tory régime, leads to the final demise of their party as a force in British politics, AV (and any form of more proportional representation) will mean not only permanent coalitions but also coalitions of an incoherent temporary alliance or patchwork quilt of splinter parties, and death to any hope of coherent, durable, accountable government.  Look at Israel!

Reciting, as our three heroes do, the mantra that “two-thirds of MPs have more people voting against them than for them” ignores the fact that the same is true of the voting record of every party in every election since 1931 — and that it will remain true under AV in every constituency where the winning candidate has to rely on second and third preferences for his ‘majority’.   In every such case, more first preferences will have been cast against him than for him, and that reality can be reversed only by pretending that second, third, etc preferences are of equal value to first preferences — which, as a matter of plain, unvarnished fact, they are not.

Denham-Huhne-Lucas go on to suggest that under AV there will be a chance to challenge holders of what are now ‘safe seats’, whereas logic suggests otherwise — in most ‘safe seats’ the incumbent can expect to receive more than 50% of the first preferences, so second preferences will never be redistributed and AV won’t make the slightest difference.  So the three writers’ jibe about MPs in safe seats under first past the post (FPTP) earning almost twice as much in outside earnings as those in more marginal seats is neither here nor there.

The three musketeers complain that the disproportionate results delivered by AV are not “a recipe … for a parliament that holds up a mirror to the nation”, which is true: but why should the house of commons (which is what they mean by ‘parliament’) be such a mirror?  Someone recently quoted the now largely forgotten Harold Laski as writing in 1950 that “The first and most vital function of the electorate is to choose a House of Commons the membership of which makes possible the creation of a Government which can govern.”  Just so. The more proportional the voting system, the less likely is the creation of a government ‘which can govern’:  and AV, while often no more proportional than FPTP and sometimes actually less so, also makes effective government less, not more, likely, by increasing the votes and seats of third and other smaller parties at the expenseof the two major ones.  Demanding a mirror misses the point.

Never mind the three authors’ misattribution of the phrase “the mother of parliaments” to the parliament at Westminster (actually it refers to England):  there’s no excuse for their carefully worded suggestion that “no major democracy” apart from Britain uses first past the post when two of the biggest democracies in the world, the United States and India, use it and show no signs of wanting to change it.

Then finally: what’s the basis for the claim that “under AV, voters will no longer face the dilemma of voting ‘tactically’“?  AV is nothing but a formalised system of tactical voting which requires the voter, if she wants to make the most effective use of her preferences to influence the result rather than merely to make an ineffectual gesture, to try to guess which of the candidates is likeliest to be eliminated at the first and each successive recount and which of the front runners is likeliest to benefit from successive redistributions of preferences.  AV has been likened to the French Presidential electoral system in which if no candidate wins more than 50% of the votes on the first polling day, those who came first and second have a run-off election a week later, ensuring that one of them will score the magic 50%+1.  But in that system, the voters know in the second election which of the candidates are still in the race, and can cast their votes accordingly.  Under AV, you have to guess who’s going to be knocked out in the early rounds if you’re to make intelligent use of your preferences.  That’s ‘tactical voting’ par excellence.

Few commentators have remarked on the rushed and deeply unsatisfactory manner in which the electorate is being confronted with this option of a major change to our constitution. Such a change should have been analysed and debated at far greater length before a decision on it is taken. Where was the Speaker’s Conference or Royal Commission, representing all the major parties, academic experts and ordinary voters, tasked to analyse the experience of other countries, to consider and lay out the pros and cons of the options and to make an objective recommendation, free as far as possible from party bias, that could be properly put to a popular vote? As it is, the lion’s share of the (mostly inadequate and often misleading) discussion of the issues in the media has been directed to guesswork about which result will do the greater damage to either Mr Clegg or Mr Cameron. The general expectation is that fewer than half of the electorate will bother to vote in the referendum on Thursday. According to the polls, opinion varies widely in different parts of the UK, with at present a slim majority in favour of AV only in Scotland. This opens up the possibility that on a very low turnout (influenced mainly by which voters are also voting at the same time in local or national elections), the outcome could be determined almost at random by a narrow majority voting in Scotland. This is no way to amend our constitution. The whole thing is no more than a bargaining chip used by the Tories to seduce the LibDems into joining them in the coalition. If as a quasi-federation of the four UK nations we had a proper written federal constitution setting out the respective powers of the four nations and the federal centre, it would also necessarily set out special procedures for amending the key provisions of the constitution, making it impossible for such a thing to happen in this negligent, almost frivolous manner[1]. The Conservatives and LibDems responsible for it should be ashamed of themselves.

I’m uncomfortably aware, M***, of the unattractive company you and I will be in when we vote No on Thursday — Blunkett, Reid, Straw, Cameron, the BNP! — and even more uncomfortable at the thought of the rubbish arguments that some of them have been putting forward for rejecting AV when there is a perfectly sound case readily available instead.  Those of us who see FPTP, with all its imperfections, as the lesser evil, will indeed be in some nauseating and unscrupulous company, but that doesn’t make us wrong. I’m glad you’re going to vote No on Thursday: so am I.

[1] Please however now see the comment and my response to it at http://www.barder.com/3206#comment-100604.

Best wishes,

4 Responses

  1. Pete Kercher says:

    You raise some interesting points, Brian.
    I agee with you that it is rather strange that such a major change take place without the benefit of the traditional path of the Royal Commission, which, I suspect, would not have recommended AV, but a multi-constituency PR, as used by the UK for the European elections. Quite how the decision was reached to go for AV – and by whom – looks somewhat murky, raising suspicions that it is indeed a squallid trade-off on Cameron’s part (he being aware, of course, that of all the PR systems available, AV is the one least likely to curry support).
    I’m pleased to see you call for a sensible federal constitution, to lay some clear ground rules for the relations between the four nations. I think it is only a question of time before a degree of legislative tidying up will have to be done in this respect, although I doubt whether it will go so far as to generate a fully-fledged constitution. Not, at least, as long as the Queen lives. Things may well change after that, in more ways than one, but that would be pure speculation at present.
    Where I think I disagree is with your statement about this being a “major change to (your) constitution”. The fact is that electoral systems are rarely, if ever, enshrined in national constitutions. Important they may be, but of the same stature as constitutional principles, such as the inviolability of human rights and democratic representation, no: there I disagree with you. A constitution would typically state that “fair and democractic elections will be held at regular intervals to select the members of the federal Parliament, the regional assemblies and local administrations, using a system to be determined by a law to be enacted by the constituent assembly” or some such phrasing. This would leave that system open to amendment without any particular hurdles, as indeed is the case in many countries.
    I’m curious about your statement that a yes vote in Scotland may swing the result, even with a relatively small turnout. This tends to imply that there is no quorum for the referendum. Is that the case? Here in Italy, the constitution has set an almost absurdly high quorum: 50% + 1 of all those entitled to vote (notably higher than the system of “those who are registered to vote” used in the US or the UK). Nevertheless, it was by referendum that Italy abolished the prohibition on divorce and abortion (in the seventies) and abolished the nuclear energy programme (in the eighties). And it is because Berlusconi is afraid that the referendum to abolish his claim to “legitimate impediment” (i.e. to “inform” the criminal courts, which must comply, when his government agenda precludes his attending his own criminal trials, thus pushing those trials towards the artfully-created early statute of limitations) would pass and reach the quorum on the coat-tails of the simultaneous referendum to confirm the abolition of the nuclear programme that he has suspended that programme, brazenly stating that he has only done so to “avoid the referendum”: he doesn’t even pretend!
    As we have discussed the pros and cons of more representative government vis-à-vis the perception of more stable government on previous occasions, I shall not raise that one again, except to point out that, were we to have FPTP in Italy, we would be stuck with Berlusconi until he dies. But with PR we have a fighting chance of achieving change. Now if THAT isn’t an argument in favour of PR, I don’t know what is!
    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Pete. I have taken a solemn vow not to respond to comments on this subject, having already added a PS to a ‘last word’, but I’m bound to say that I’m convinced by what you say about the electoral system: I agree, on reflection, that this would not be entrenched in a written federal constitution. Nevertheless, it would represent a pretty significant change in our political system (or so its advocates keep telling us!) and I think we’re agreed that forcing a decision on us at short notice like this, without a vestige of adequate prior analysis and consultation, is totally unacceptable.

    As to the desirability of a proper federal constitution, I don’t think this will appear on the national radar until the federal project is completed by the creation of a separate government and parliament for England, the logical conclusion of devolution: and I don’t see that happening in my or my children’s lifetimes, although I think that it will gradually come to be seen as inevitable, desirable and the only way to resolve a host of problems and anomalies. But there’s plenty of material on this subject on this blog and elsewhere and it’s only indirectly relevant to AV.

    I hope that other contributors of comments on this post will forgive me if I abstain from any further responses to their comments, departing in this case from my usual practice. I think the whole subject is in danger of being beaten to death before we have even got to the polling stations to vote on it on Thursday, and I have said everything I have to say about it. I will however look into the problem of HTML in comments: this is not straightforward for me because as the blog administrator I may have more formatting tools available to me than others.

  2. amk says:

    Brian, you are correct that no single-winner electoral system is immune to tactical voting. However, it is not the case that different systems are equally vulnerable. AV/STV is more resistant than most: see this paper, linked from Wikipedia (which has some quite good, if not very concise, articles on election methods).

  3. amk says:

    … and I’m struggling not to be rude about blogging software that doesn’t allow one to hand write HTML.
    Oh, and Pete: AV is not PR.

    Brian writes: If I try to write my own hyperlink, like this:
    here, and if I’m not logged in as the administrator, the software automatically converts the URL in the HTML into a link. But why not simply highlight the words to be converted into a link and then press the link button to insert the URL? A hyperlink button is available, but it’s greyed out until text is selected.

  4. Pete Kercher says:

    Yes, amk, I was aware of that and was using the simile as (arguably) acceptable shorthand. More’s the pity, perhaps, as AV is certainly a rather strange animal (no offence to animals). But then the Brits do have a penchant for esoteric systems that would not cross most other people’s mind, FPTP being an even better example than AV.

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