Tuesday, 2 February 2010

An Alternative Way of Voting

So Gordon is going to announce today an intention to introduce the "Alternative Vote" to UK elections. Hmmm.

Let's get the surprising bit of this post out of the way quickly. I agree with him. Yes, you did read that correctly; I agree with something Gordon Brown is saying.

The "First past the post" system, i.e. just electing the candidate who has the most votes, has the huge advantage of seeming simple and straightforward. It is easy to explain. It is easy to understand. However, it stifles change. Let's say, for example, that I were to suggest creating a new political party; one that was generally centre-right albeit distinct from the Tories. Let's say, hypothetically, that I did it after a Spring General Election this year had produced a hung Parliament and hints of a fresh poll were in the air in the hope that a clear mandate would be given to one party or the other.

Doing so would be suicidal, frankly. My new party would, at best, suck votes from the Tories and help Labour back in. So it would be the absolute worst time to do it.

Yet such circumstances are the precise time when new parties are needed. When politics is in a state of flux, when people are reconsidering their attachment to the established parties, when there has just been a massive collapse in the people's respect for the political system, that is the time when people are both motivated to create a new party and willing to give one a chance. Yet our voting system means that the risk is too high. Better to settle for David than risk getting Gordon.

Or, to put it differently, if I realised after the event that my honest effort to improve British politics had had the effect of returning Gordon to power, I could never forgive myself.

Alternative vote is different, though. For those not au fait with the idea, it allows voters to provide a second preference vote. They might, for example, vote first for the Patently Party, and second for the Tories. Then, if my candidate did not get an overall majority, s/he would be eliminated and the second preference votes transferred to the Tory. So if the centre-right vote was 60%, split as 40% for the Tories and 20% for me, we would still keep Labour out.

In short, people could risk trying a new party. The atrophied rigidity of British politicss that I objected to previously could be broken - if people wanted to.

So I'm in favour of the AV system, in principle.

As for Gordon's announcement, I'm less impressed. A Prime Minister facing a likely defeat in a General Election that is weeks or months away, who has never faced the electorate or obtained any form of democratic mandate, suddenly wants to change the electoral system. Something that has not been a priority for 12 years (and was not a priority when the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill was published) is going to be rushed through with a vote next week. Oh really.

More seriously, this is a major change to an important part of our constitution. Even though I am of the view that the change is right, I don't think it should be introduced now. There will be many people who will need to think carefully about this idea; there are many potential pitfalls that we need to consider before intorducing it. Although I think it is a good idea, until I have heard from these people and heard the potential counter-arguments I don't know it's a good idea. Yet Gordon apparently wants the idea to be rushed through by attaching it to an existing Bill. Let's just consider that for a moment - he wants to change the entire basis on which MPs are elcted by way of a minor amendment to a pre-existing Bill?

It's the right idea, introduced at the wrong time, in the wrong way, by the wrong man.


  1. i agree. It's not a stupid idea, but it goes against every principle to introduce major constitutional reform as a party political gimmick.

  2. Gordon Brown is rushing through various laws solely for the purpose of embarrassing the Tories. Look how he passed a law telling the government how and when they have to reduce the deficit. No doubt they will try to force through their equality laws, although this could be a two edged sword in view of today's pronouncement by the Pope which cold loose him Catholic votes.

  3. Edmund Burke, in Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790:

    "What ought to be the heads, the hearts, the dispositions that are qualified or that dare, not only to make laws under a fixed constitution, but at one heat to strike out a totally new constitution for a great kingdom, and in every part of it, from the monarch on the throne to the vestry of a parish? But — "fools rush in where angels fear to tread".

    There must be a hidden agenda here, as you quite rightly point out it hasn't been on the horizon for the last 12 years. Gordon will implement electoral reform, but not the expenses of MPs. Bizarre. Perhaps they want to be able to say for the next five years we should be in power if the votes from so & so were ..... Labour have played a very good ruthless game over the last year in my opinion. I am amazed AV does not require a new committee to be appointed, consultations to be undertaken and reports to be prepared.

    The Patently [] Party: Isn't there a middle word missing? 'Obvious' would be a good choice, if only to rub the noses of those who can't see beyond theirs. ;-)

    {Albert, may I say I am very pleased for you that the Holy Father is visiting our shores. You must be excited. I hope you are enjoying reading all the comments over equality: if there are areas that are better left as unwritten underlying fundamental principles, rather than codified, I am sure this would qualify as one.}

  4. So, in short, we all agree; constitutional reform is an important subject which deserves more consideration that merely "will this help me win next time?"...

  5. It's the right idea, introduced at the wrong time, in the wrong way, by the wrong man.

    If you change the third word to wrong, you've written Gordon's epitaph.

  6. Brown doesn't keep his word on referendums.

  7. BQ - Me? Write Gordon's epitaph .... I'd love to, but I doubt they'll let me :-D

    HG - Good point. Dave should make something of that. Mind you, today's quip: 13 years into Govt, 90 days before a general election, what first attracted the PM to the idea of changing the voting system? did cause much rofflement here.