Friday, 25 February 2011

Is there an Alternative?

I haven't said much on the subject of the AV referendum, for one very simple reason; I'm really not sure what I think about it.

Of course, if I were a loyal member of the Conservative Party then my decision would be straightforward; vote "no" to AV because Dave says so.  However, there are very few things that I am loyal to when it comes to being told what to think, and I don't think any political parties are on that particular list.  So, as usual, I will insist on making my own mind up.  And therein lies the reason for my silence; I hadn't made my mind up until today.

To try and decide, I've looked at the last two election results for my constituency, Wycombe.  The 2010 polling was as follows:

ConservativeSteve Baker23,423
Liberal DemocratSteve Guy13,863
LabourAndrew Lomas8,326
UKIP John Wiseman2,123
IndependentMudassar Khokar228
IndependentDavid Fitton188

So under FPTP, Steve Baker won handsomely and is now apparently acquitting himself well as a new backbencher.  Under AV, the result would probably have been the same; we have no idea where the independent votes would have gone, but we can assume that the UKIPpers would have voted Conservative as their second preference.  That would have increased Steve Baker's vote to 25,546, over half the total cast and therefore an outright win.  We can't be certain - we might have had a UKIP win with lots putting Conservatives as their second preference, but given the complete vanishing act by the UKIP candidate for the whole campaign, I doubt it.  

What about 2005?  Then, the votes were a little different:

ConservativePaul Goodman20,331
LabourJulia Wassell13,280
Liberal DemocratJames Oates8,780
UKIPRobert Davis1,735
IndependentDavid Fitton301

Again, I have to ignore the Independent votes for the very persistent Mr Fitton, as I have no idea where they would go.  So UKIP would be the next to be eliminated, giving:

ConservativePaul Goodman22,066
LabourJulia Wassell13,280
Liberal DemocratJames Oates8,780

Still no-one has an overall majority.  So the Lib Dem is eliminated.  I'm guessing most or all of those votes would go to Labour; let's be honest, most Lib Dems are quite socialist in outlook.  So that gives:

ConservativePaul Goodman22,066
LabourJulia Wassell22,060

Ooops.  The 301 Independent votes will swing it either way, therefore.  Given that Wycombe is an historically Conservative seat, and that a protest vote against that "establishment" is a fairly non-Conservative thing to do, I reckon there is a good chance that most of them would put Labour second, handing what FPTP declared to be a safe conservative seat to Labour, reversing a 7,051 majority and giving the seat to someone who was the first preference of 30% of the voters.  

And there is, I think, my objection to AV.  Its supporters claim that it produces a winner who is supported by a majority of the voters.  I disagree; I see this as pure spin.  I think it yields a winner who was not objected to by a majority of the voters.  Think about it: psychologically, you will give your first vote to someone who you want to win.  Your second vote will go to someone who you don't mind winning - the compromise candidate.  Yet, as shown above, it is the second preference votes that will decide the result in many cases.

This will have a simple and predictable effect on the election process.  We will get the inoffensive candidates.  The one that no-one minds if they get in.  The ones that are dull.  The ones with no firm opinion of their own, and no likelihood of expressing a definite view.  The ones that will toe the party line..

Meanwhile, the principal thing that I think is wrong with our political system (and it heads a long list) is that we have a  dreary bunch of machine politicians, corporatist Statists who think they are there to help their party win elections and gain the right to manage the UK.  This is reflected in the oft-repeated jibe that the parties are all indistinguishable - they are just bland centrist men in grey suits who will maintain the status quo rather than fix it.  I want independent thinkers in Parliament, MPs who understand that they are there to represent the interests of their constituents, hold the executive to account and limit its freedom to act, and to scrutinise draft legislation (people like Steve Baker, in fact).

What we need is a breath of fresh air.  We need it to be easier to create a new party, widen the range of candidates, challenge the established order of the left, the right, and the other lot.  We need a situation where a party who falls seriously out of favour (like Labour in 2010 or the Tories in 1997) don't just lose power, they die.  Any company that let down or lost the faith of its customers in the way politicians of all colours have in our history would be bankrupt, would itself be history.

AV won't do that.  It will reinforce the drift towards bland politics, the politics of protecting the established order.  And we can see that in the referendum campaign.  Dizzy has found that the Yes campaign is funded by corporate self-interest, and the No campaign has resorted to peddling frankly pathetic and fallacious non-sequitors.  It is politics as usual from both sides, in other words.  We can do better than this.  We deserve better than this.  

I want RON, not AV as such.  RON, in case you don't know, is "Re-Open Nominations", an alternative on the ballot which, if it "wins", results in the election being re-run with new candidates standing.  This could be combined with AV, or STV, or whatever - it would allow people to say "I don't like any of these", or "This candidate, else none of them".  My preference would be for AV/STV, plus RON, plus compulsory voting.  Send the message that you must vote, but if you don't like any of them then you can vote for none of them.

That would really set the cat amongst the pigeons, given our usual level of voter turnout.

So, the AV referendum is a missed opportunity, twisted by narrow political interests that only want it in order to preserve a system that suits them.  It will, I suspect, be the issue that stops me from voting Lib Dem for a very long time.   


  1. Interesting, it certainly shows how odd AV could be. As Cameron said, it's like giving the gold medal to the person who came second or third.

    I'm also interested in whether it will result in more hung parliaments - a situation in which not only do you not get the winner of the vote, but then he doesn't do what he said he would. Of course, the pro AV lobby are saying that Australia has had fewer hung parliaments, but the Electoral Reform Society's predictions show the last election would have been more hung.

    But perhaps the strongest argument against AV is that Caroline Lucas of the Green Party regards it as "liberating".

  2. I agree with this. I have been planning to write a "why I might vote yes" post but may have to revise the thinking. The pro-AV school say that it will give parliament a more proportional make-up, avoiding huge majorities on small swings. However that is by no means guaranteed. In Australia AV has produced results where swings are magnified rather than mitigated.

    I won't say anymore so as to keep my powder dry for my proper post!

  3. The problem with our current system is that, we have had successive Governments elected, who did not get a majority of the votes (in total). But unless we address the issue of unequal constituency sizes, surely AV will just perpetuate this problem, if not magnify it

  4. If only Libcon had the courage to ask the same question and risk an honest answer. Do you want AV Yes/No?
    Do you want FPTP Yes/No?
    I take an active interest in politics, and always vote. I value and my vote, but for the first time in my life I find the only logical option is to spoil the paper.
    The more this puppet government waste time and money on farce, like this referendum. The easier it becomes for voters to chose.
    Liblabcon can never be trusted to allow a fair referendum, leaving the choice of;
    Vote Liblabcon to be ruled by Europe.
    Vote UKIP to be ruled by the United Kingdom.

  5. AV is unlikely to make any difference here, just one junction up the motorway from you towards London!
    However don't be too sure that the UKIP voters will all support the Tories. I've been to a number of UKIP meetings and most of the early/older members really hate them, blaming Ted Heath for lying on the subject and the Tory party for not stopping him. UKIP HQ has advised members to support AV, but strangely at a recent meeting, most members were against it.
    What I don't understand is why the LibDems are supporting AV, but hate the idea of coalitions and even more the compromises required to make one work. As far as I can ascertain, there is no country which has any form of PR which does not have a coalition, so although the LibDems oppose coalitions, they are prepared to vote for for a system which will provide one on a permanent basis.

  6. The only spanner in your argument might be the 2005 election.
    Blair won, with a reduced majority, but still 60+ seats, despite 35% of the vote.

    If that election was rerun under AV wonder how it would have turned out?
    Labour would be unlikely to have got more sets. they had many marginals and a whole slew of super-marginals, hanging by a hundred or so votes.

  7. Bill,

    Labour would be unlikely to have got more sets.

    No it seems Labour would have got more seats, at least assuming this post is correct:

    See also:

    Labour has an over all majority of 88 seats on only 35% of the vote. Quite why anyone thinks that's fair is beyond me!

  8. Neither look convincing Albert. With all the Lib Dem votes going to Labour.
    But it might have made little difference.
    Blair saw the result almost as a defeat after his record landslides.
    Politics moves slowly in this country since 1979. Even the 'back stabbing poll taxing, liberal crushing' Tories beat Neil Kinnock.

  9. Patently,

    Now here is the rub.

    Any decision arising from a minority will feel unfair, Patently, but that is the way it has to be. Fair better that elections are closely fought in every constituency. Landslide victories on a continuous basis are monotonous and disenfranchise people, as the good people of Wycombe might feel, albeit they can gloat they are in a safe seat if they vote Conservative. At least it appears they have a sound, economical literate MP. It is far better that the public feels involved, matters are debated and electing those to rule us does not depend on a few marginals, who receive indirect disproportionate benefits from every ruling party as a result.

    So here is the problem as I see it. General Elections blur two key decisions:

    The first decision is to elect an individual to represent the interests of constituency. In my case, if the people of this borough vote to elect a Labour Member of Parliament that is fine. That is what they choose to do. I have no problem with that. That is democracy.

    The second decision is to elect the Executive. This is where I have angst as my vote, living in a Labour Borough, does not count towards who manages and controls Central Government and decisions of government directly affects me. This is grossly unfair.

    Hopefully, BQ might be able to back me up on with an example where Government has been formed unfairly arising from the number of seats achieved, rather than the number of votes. Now scholars can harp on about how such the system that divides the vote for local representation and the ruling party would be unworkable if the House of Commons was dominated by Labour and the Tories formed the Executive, or vice versa, but that is frankly dodging the issue. The Electoral Commission should address this all in a far more constructive manner.

    So, we have before us AV. I have not read anywhere that it is wholly satisfactory and in my mind the jury is still out. There is no doubt that it will lead politicians pandering to those reforms proposed by the smallest political parties.

    However, I believe it *may* a stepping stone towards a better system. If you vote FPTP, you vote for the status quo and given how slow change takes place, FPTP for the rest of our years. FPTP leads to inoffensive candidates towing the party line.

    AV will reinforce the drift towards bland politics, the politics of protecting the established order. What is wrong with this when significant change in policies is less desirable than it use to be? Things go wrong when moderation and balance are not the order of the day. I hope English Pensioner agrees with this. If we want to dilute party allegiance and allow candidates to speak out, this must be the way to go so we have to vote for AV to start the process of reform.

    The costs of RON would be ridiculous and it is far too complicated. Complication thwarts transparency. Why not consider my idea of two votes? One for your Member of Parliament (which counts FTPT in the constituency) and another separate one for who forms Government (which is counted FTPT on a national basis). Far simpler. Far cheaper. Far fairer.

  10. 2001 -
    Labour 40.7% -413 seats
    Con - 31.7% - 166 seats
    Lib -18.3% - 52 seats.

    {40% nets 413 seats. You'd expect 20% to net 200 ish. Yet 31.7% gets only 166. No wonder the Libs are so annoyed.}

    Lab - 35.2% - 355 seats
    Con - 32.4% - 198 seats
    Lib - 22% - 62 seats.

    Con - 36.1% - 306
    Lab - 29% - 258
    Lib- 23% - 57%

    Something seriously wrong with the seats to votes here. Con get more votes than Blair in 2005 yet 50 fewer seats.
    Labour should remember that when they go on about Tory led-coalitions. They should have been in that same place in 2005.
    Also explains why Tories want to keep FPTP.
    If they can peg Labour back to its proper boundaries like 1992 when a Labour of 34.4% got only 271.

  11. Thanks Bill.

    Seats you get for your buck (proportion of the vote) as a ratio:

    Seats / proportion of vote

    Labour 10.15
    Con 5.24
    Lib 2.84

    Lab 10.09
    Con 6.11
    Lib 2.81

    Con 8.48
    Lab 8.90
    Lib 2.48

    The situation has improved, but only marginally (no pun intended). Had the Conservatives had the Labour ratio of 8.89 last year, they should have been able to form a Government with 321 seats.

    As Bill points out, there is a problem and the more you look into it, the more complicated it gets. I still advocate my two vote system but this parliament is the LibDem’s lucky break and quite rightly they are trying to make the most of it. I fail to see how AV will solve the problem, but isn’t it a step (not necessarily in the right direction) towards reform?

  12. It seems that quite a few people agree with me, that voting reform is needed but not this reform....

    Gillig's idea of spoiling the ballot paper appeals - but presumably that "vote" would not count at all, so if the decision is close I may have let AV in by accident. I may look closely at the polling before doing that.

    EP's point about UKIP is good. I'm not sure where else they would go, though (and I had to make some assumptions).

    I'm tempted by Measured's suggestion. Essentially, that is a US-style system in which the legislature and the executive are split and each must obtain their own mandate. It reinforces the representative element of an MPs work, which is good, but might it lead to the pork-barrel politics that the US knows and loves?

    Thank you for the figures, Bill, and for the analysis, M. It is pretty clear that there is a pro-Labour bias in our system, and that is indefensible.

  13. You say that the inoffensive MPs will get voted in, the ones that toe the party line. I think we have that already with prospective parlimentary candidates having to get past the local party interview stage. Then you have the ones parachuted in because the national party wants them in who will return the favour by voting for the party come what may. Nothing will change on this point with any system.

    In 2010, Steve Baker would have one under FPTP, but it could be said that under FPTP the majority of the people didn't want Steve. Under AV you would at least have a candidate that the majority would accept as their MP. Under FPTP, unless the candidate has more than 50%, all you can say is that the majority didn't want the winner.

    measured has it with the two different aspects of the voting, one electing the representative the other electing the government.

    You could quite realistically vote for a Labour candidate as your local MP because he has a very good track record of handling his constituent's issues and working hard for local issues - whilst still wanting a Tory government because they would be better for the economy.

    And no compulsorary voting. If people don't want to vote, either because they don't like any of the candidates or they don't think their vote will count, or because they can't be bothered that would be their wish. It's not the role of the state to force people to vote against their wishes.