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Saturday, April 02, 2011

Why the will of the people really counts

Some of the arguments being deployed against the Alternative Vote smack of desperation, none more so than the claim that it will help extremist parties. It is after all self-evident that if an MP needs to secure 50% of the vote or thereabouts to get elected then he or she has to build up a fairly broad base of support.

So far none of the extremist parties have demonstrated that they can come anywhere near to that threshold and I cannot see why that will change under a different system.

In this regard, Kriss Akabusi who labels himself as a Conservative voter, is absolutely right. He said: "First past the post worked in the 19th and 20th Century, but it doesn't work now."

"Never in a month of Sundays would the BNP get in."

"However... if in a fair and democratic election, 50 per cent of the people voted for the BNP, I'd be proud to be in that country. Because democracy also has to have unpalatables. You can't just have it the way you want it."

This is how AV works:

it's weird, some friends with higher degrees insist they don't understand it and think it's a political con. but how come the first past the post & PR ok in wales but not for parliament?
your quote sums up how I feel (this is fairer) but if it turns up someone I don't want at least I know quite a lot of people where I live have some kind of preference that way
I posted some criticism of AV on a previous post, yet it never got allowed.

I feel that a lot of what the pro-AV campaign is claiming is also false. First AV will not abolish safe seats, and in fact, could lead to the creation of brand new safe seats, with candidates getting votes because they are not Labour/Tory/LibDem/Plaid.
Also, the Western Mail reported that it could mean that Plaid get no MPs in Wales. To me, if that turned out to be the case, would be a lot less democratic then FPTP, in terms of having a nationalist voice in Westminster.

Moreover, some predictions and projections suggest that AV would be a lot less proportional then FPTP. A projection of what 1997 might have looked like under AV, would have seen Labour having a 200+ seat majority, and the Lib Dems as the official opposition. Even if that sounds like heaven, to some, and hell to others, it isn't really fair.

AV is not going to be a silver bullet that fixes the system; it won’t make MPs work harder. It will make parties move more to the middle ground, and become more bland and alike. And that would also be bad for democracy, in my opinion.
You are making assertions without proof. AV is not the most proportional of systems but then neither is the d'hondt top-up system used for the Welsh Assembly. AV will though reduce the number of safe seats. It will not create new ones because the reliance on transfers means that floating voters have more power, whilst tribal voters will see that they are able to exercise more influence by using their transfers intelligently.

The Western Mail as usual, is wrong. There is no reason why Plaid Cymru cannot win seats under AV. In any case why should they be exempt from the requirement to build a majority in a constituency. That is what democracry is all about.

I would not take any notice of predictions and projections. AV does tend to reinforce strong swings but it is impossible to predict how people would have used their preferences in past elections. These sorts of predictions and projections are the equivalent of sticking your finger in the air.

AV is no silver bullet but it will certainly make MPs work harder. It stands to reason that if they cannot rely on a core vote and need to woo floating voters then they will have to work for them.

As for blandness, that is a feature of our current political settlement. All parties are moving to the middle ground as they target a decreasing number of marginal seats in middle England. By increasing the number of marginal seats with AV it will make that sort of behaviour harder to sustain.
But Peter as Vernon Bogdanor points out in his new book the AV system proposed for the UK allows for 'plumping'. In other words you don't have to place a number next to each candidate. You can just vote for one candidate by placing number 1 against their name. In Australian national elections you have to rank all the candidates in order to ensure that your ballot paper is considered valid. This is not the case in some state elections. In Queensland, for example, the Labor party urged Labor voters to just use one vote for the Labor candidate. 63% did just that. I expect if AV becomes the system in the UK for both the major parties in future elections to urge their supporters to do exactly the same. It would definitely be the message to Labour voters in a number of constituencies in Wales.
The fact that voters do not have to use all their preferences does not invalidate the arguments for AV, Jeff. MPs will still need to work hard for preferences and voters will face pressure to use their preferences just as they will not to use them. Voters do not have to use all their preferences with STV either. This is a red herring.
For me the issue is simple. If you're going to make a major constitutional change, such as this, you do it because it's clearly better than what you're seeking to replace.

However, even the strongest supporters of AV only claim that it's marginally better than FPTP. As you say yourself:

"I would not take any notice of predictions and projections. AV does tend to reinforce strong swings but it is impossible to predict how people would have used their preferences in past elections. These sorts of predictions and projections are the equivalent of sticking your finger in the air."

So we're asked to make a major constitutional change, on the thinnest of evidence about its consequences and possible results, that even its proponents admit is almost as flawed as the current system.

Sorry Peter, better the devil you know!
To be honest Jon, that is a bit of a circular argument. You know that constitutional change only comes through gradual improvement. There are very few examples of big bang changes other than through bloody revolution. AV will be more than a marginal improvement. It will fundamentally change the culture of British politics and the way that parties approach elections.

Of course outcomes cannot be predicted because that is up to the voters, but what we can predict is that MPs will have to work harder to attract floating voters and there will be fewer safe seats.

More importantly, even a gradual change like this is a step to more far-reaching reform whereas a vote for the status quo would leave things as they are for a generation and no prospect of further reform.

Taking the safe option now is to vote for institutional corruption, and political stagnation.
Nice video, Peter. I've followed your lead and put it up too.

To Jeff, I can't see what's wrong with "plumping". It's right that people should only express a choice for candidates they prefer over the others. It's surely a huge advantage that if people want to vote in the way they always have—i.e. for just one candidate and no-one else—they still can.
Here's an alternative statement of the case for voting 'No' to AV:

Under the First Past The Post system, the constituency candidate who achieves the largest number of votes wins the election, by a 'simple majority' over the candidate who achieves the second-largest number of votes.

However, in constituencies where there are more than two candidates, it is possible for a candidate to win even though the total number of votes cast for the other candidates was greater.

This means that the wishes of the majority of voters in the constituency are not represented in Parliament. That is the situation in most UK constituencies under the First Past The Post system.

It also means that smaller parties always win a lower proportion of seats in parliament than the total number of votes cast for them across the country should entitle them to.

A system of Proportional Representation (PR) for elections would ensure that a larger proportion of voters had their views represented by the Members elected for their constituencies, and in the country as a whole.

In true PR systems, a country is divided into larger parliamentary constituencies, and each one is represented by several elected Members. Thus representatives of more than one political party are elected in the constituency, in proportion to the numbers of votes cast for them.

Campaigners for a 'Yes' vote on May 5 believe that AV is a system of Proportional Representation, because electors can vote for more than one candidate in order of preference. In reality, however, the AV system is not truly proportional.

AV is based upon single-member constituencies, just like First Past The Post. Consequently, if there were a 'Yes' majority in the referendum on May 5, the representation of each Westminster constituency would still be decided on a 'winner takes all' basis, as at present.

But whereas a candidate under First Past The Post wins by a simple majority, AV redistributes the alternative choices made by the voters who voted for the least successful candidates, until one of the more successful candidates has achieved more than 50% of the total votes cast — an 'absolute majority' over all the other candidates.

On the face of it, that may seem fairer. But because of the way voters' alternative choices are redistributed, AV artificially inflates the numerical support given to the most successful candidates.

This was was shown, for example, in elections to the Australian House of Representatives last August. Under the AV system that has been in force in that country for 90 years, the two largest parties won far more seats than was justified by their respective shares of the total votes cast.

Under AV (and contrary to what some 'No' campaigners believe), political parties which gain less than 20% of first-preference votes in a constituency have little or no chance of winning the constituency, even after voters' alternative preferences have been redistributed. Consequently, it is more difficult for smaller parties or new parties to gain a foothold in parliament.

In short, adopting AV would strengthen, not reduce, the stranglehold of the two largest political parties over the UK parliamentary system.

Thus the choice voters will be making on May 5 between First Past The Post and AV is a choice between a poor system and an even poorer one. Though neither system gives UK voters truly fair representation, staying with the present First Past The Post system, by voting 'No', is the less unfair option of the two.
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