Monday, April 25, 2011

Will AV Cost More Than FPTP? And Who's Worse - Woolas, Osborne or Huhne?

Flushed with their success at nailing lying Labour MP and Ed Miliband front bencher Phil Woolas, Chris Huhne and Simon Hughes are now threatening legal action over the No campaign's claim that AV will cost more than FPTP.

Before their success against Woolas, the Lib Dems had seen the successful prosecution of another Labour liar, Miranda Grell, who accused her Lib Dem opponent of being a paedophile and in doing so had won a council seat that was previously unwinnable for Labour. The Phil Woolas case was a landmark judgement as it was the first to overturn a constituency election result in a parliamentary election since 1911 and it reminded politicians of the boundaries they should be working within when making personal attacks on their opponents. Woolas and his Labour election team had suggested that his Lib Dem opponent wooed extremist elements of the Muslim community who were advocating violence in order to gain votes, that he was willing to condone threats of violence for personal advantage and finally, and least seriously, Woolas claimed he didn't live in the constituency, when he knew that he did.

To personally attack someone and suggest they are a paedophile or willing to soft peddle on violence or terrorism to attract votes is pretty serious stuff, Grell and Woolas got their just deserts in the end. However, some warned at the time of the Woolas judgement that it could lead to fatuous and politically motivated threats of legal action in the future and now we seem to be seeing just that.

Thankfully, no one is being accused of supporting violence or touching the kids. However, the truth is that both campaigns have made questionable claims. It's hard to judge who's been more misleading. As a confirmed No supporter I obviously am more sensitive to the misleading Yes claims. But I also recognise the No camp are making some dodgy claims themselves. But is "the AV will cost more than FPTP" one of them?

The No camp claim AV will cost £250 million to implement. This figure includes the cost of the referendum (fair enough I say, but I can see the point that that is a cost effectively already spent) and it includes the cost of buying counting machines. The issue here is that no detail has been specified in the parliamentary bill on how AV elections will be executed. So, no one knows if machines will be used or not. The Yes campaign point to Australia where they've run their AV elections without machines for 80 years. The No lot point a little closer to home, to Scotland, where machines are used in council and parliamentary elections. However, Scotland don't use AV but various other systems for their council and Scottish Parliamentary elections. The degree to which the counting of votes for these different systems in Scotland are more or less complex than counting AV votes is open to debate. However, clearly Australia don't need machines and even if they did, we don't have to, it will just take longer before the result is known - gone will be the "exciting" election night results so beloved of political junkies, like myself.

So, from the arguments I've heard being made publicly by the No campaign, the voting machine case is not made. It is a possibility if it is decided that speed is important but there is no definite requirement for them at this time. That reduces the £250m bill by £130m to £120m. The rest of the claim seems reasonable to me. So, yes it will cost more but perhaps not as much (in upfront costs anyway) as No claim. But, hold on, look underneath the claim, at the details and it's surprising that there's more to the the No case than they are managing to get out into the public conciousness.

There is a more convincing argument made by the No campaign in the detail of their claim but they rarely make it in public, presumably because it's quite technical and boring. However, I think it gives them more of a leg to stand on, if not a whole one.. That is that, unlike in Australia, there are already multiple different electoral systems in use in the UK, especially in Scotland and Wales where various forms of electoral system are used at UK national, Scottish parliament, Welsh assembly and local council elections. Scottish people would face up to five different systems, the Welsh four and English three. If all systems were used at once, No claim, it would be impossible to deliver the results as quickly or accurately as we are used to in this country without automation.

However, again, the worst case scenario of all systems being used at once i.e. English local council, General Election, Euro parliament, Scottish parliament, Welsh assembly, Scottish local councils etc. does not usually happen, although it is fair to say that they do double, triple or more up (as we've seen, controversially, with this AV referendum occurring at the same time as the Welsh assembly, Scottish parliament and English local elections). With multiple ballot papers being counted in completely different ways at the same time, it becomes impossible to manage counts effectively and automation would almost certainly be required - as they've found in Scotland already (they introduced automation for this very reason). This is a more compelling case for the use of voting machines. But again, there is a manual alternative. It just means very long waits for results, which we are not used to and may not want, or slightly longer waits but massive increases in man power at each and every count in the country - a big and ongoing cost.

But even if you ignore the multiple system count argument and the up front referendum/counting machine/voter education costs, what is not in doubt is that AV will cost more than FPTP in on-going running costs. The multi-round counting of preferences until someone gets "50%"* of the vote will inevitably take a lot longer, more man hours of effort in more places to achieve a reasonable turn around and acceptable accuracy. Given this fact alone, the No campaign is correct to say AV will cost more than FPTP. The £250m figure may be debatable (I suspect if running costs are taken into account it is a lot more than this) but that is the nature of political argument.

Threatening legal action and accusing the Chancellor of being a liar is unjustifiable and the action of a desperate campaign that is losing the argument with the public. If anything, such campaign tactics are more comparable to the Woolas style personal attacks on an individual's honesty and credibility than the No campaign making an argument (whether you agree with it or not) about the cost of an electoral system. Legal action is not on the cards either way, but it is hypocritical of Huhne, Hughes, Ashdown et al to accuse others of lying, then to dredge up the threat of Woolas style legal action, when it is they that are resorting to personal attacks and traducing their opponents.

I also suspect that figures on the left of the Lib Dems like Chris Huhne and Simon Hughes are deliberately targeting Tory individuals in the No campaign (remember it is a cross party platform that enjoys the support of many Labour and well as non-political people) in order to damage the coalition with a view to forcing an early bale out (and an early election). Huhne and Hughes would then be in strong positions to make a bid for leadership to "rescue" the Lib Dems following what would be a disastrous election result for Clegg (even under AV!). Or am I making an unjustifiable personal attack? Oh, just sue me, why don't you??

* Don't get me started on the "MPs will be elected with over 50% support" claim AV proponents make. That's a whole other post!

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