Thursday, May 5, 2011

Why I'm AVing None Of It

The nation votes on Tomorrow to decide if it wants to switch to the Alternative Vote (AV) electoral system for choosing future governments. Our current First Past The Post system (FPTP) is definitely creaking under the strain of changing voting habits and many of our politicians look out of touch and, in extreme cases, downright corrupt. So a vote for change is a no-brainer, surely? I don't believe it is. This is a change that will fix none of the issues we face with our politics and could, potentially make some worse. 

The nation votes tomorrow. It votes across England to select local councillors, there's a by-election in Leicester South and mayoral elections in Leicester, Middlesbrough, Mansfield, Bedford and Torbay. It votes in Scotland in the Scottish Parliamentary elections. Scottish council elections had to be delayed there because of confusion caused the last time they combined parliament and local elections (and that is WITH voting machines in use!). In Wales, the National Assembly elections are taking place. And in Northern Ireland there's Assembly elections and local council elections.

Oh, and then there's the trifling matter of a proposal to change our electoral system to use the Alternative Vote system.

Anybody who has been following the Yes and No campaigns who didn't know where they stood before they kicked off will now be completely baffled, annoyed and turned off. As a result many won't vote, which is a shame because this is a very important decision. The last thing this country needs is to make a major constitutional change based on a small turnout. But that is a distinct possibility.

I will be voting and be voting No. My main reason for rejecting the proposal is that the case for change has not been made. Most of the claims made for AV by the Yes campaign have no solid evidence to back them up. They are based on poorly thought through theoretical arguments and are almost entirely focused on the election process for each individual MP. Notice how little Yes refer to the national effects of AV. When they do they make misleading statements about parties winning power with less than 50% of the national vote. This situation will not be resolved with AV in the slightest. If anything, AV can deliver even greater disproportionate results. Electing MPs with over 50% of the vote does not translate into Governments being elected with over 50% of MPs in parliament.

The Yes campaign has attempted to discredit its opponents by calling them liars, dinosaurs, idiots and, of course, Tories [queue Labour supporters suggesting the latter is just an amalgam of all the former!]. It's for others to decide whether I'm an idiot, a dinosaur or a liar but I can confirm I vote Conservative. AH! HA!.. banged to rights. Stop reading, my views are worthless now. Of course I'm against AV; it would be like a turkey voting for Christmas, wouldn't it? Well no. Actually it wouldn't. I don't subscribe to the Huhne/Mandleson doctrine that AV would be especially bad for the Tories. It would benefit the LibDems, certainly, in the short term as they would benefit from most peoples' 2nd preferences. But I actually think it will damage them in the long term as the two main parties move even closer together than they are now and completely dominate the centre ground that is the natural habitat of the LibDem. AV could lead to LibDems needing to enter into a permanent coalition agreement with one of the two parties to survive. Something that happened with the Liberal and National parties in Australia shortly after AV was introduced there. 

The most worrying aspect of the Yes campaign has been the unrealistic expectations it has set for AV in the public's mind, should they be successful.

AV will increase voter participation 
There's no evidence in other countries (well the three that have it) that this is the case. Part of the case made here is that AV reduces (or eliminates, as Yes campaigners often claim) the need for tactical voting. This is true (the reduction is true, not the elimination) with regard to the first, primary vote. However, AV allows you to state 2nd, 3rd and more preferences. This is where the tactical voting takes place. Tactical voting isn't eliminated it's formalised.  Huhne's (and other pro-AV campaigners') claims that AV is an anti-Tory system proves that point. They believe AV will encourage preferential anti-Tory voting (i.e. I like the LibDems so I'll vote for them, but they can't win here so I'll place the party most likely to beat the Tory as my 2nd preference etc). I don't believe the Tories will be the only victims of this kind of tactical voting, many left wing supporters of AV are deluding themselves if they believe they will not be victims when they are unpopular. However, under AV voters will be encouraged to vote tactically by parties, just as they are in Australia, who hand out voting advice cards that show them how to vote most effectively for their primary choice.

FPTP disenfranchises large numbers of voters

Those thinking that FPTP disenfranchises large numbers of voters and causes widespread tactical voting to compensate, should note that only 16% of people voted tactically in the last election. The idea that a vote for a losing party is a wasted vote is nonsensical. People look at the parties/candidates on offer and choose the party/candidate that most reflects their own values and opinions. Some (a very small number) choose to vote negatively, if their preferred party is unelectable in their constituency, to block a party they've taken a particular dislike to. That's fair enough. But AV doesn't stop that behaviour. And just because your political opinions aren't shared by many people in your constituency doesn't mean you have been disenfranchised or that the system should allow you to change your vote if your candidate is knocked out so that you can switch from your positive choice to a tactical 2nd/3rd preference.

Switching to AV is about fairness and not an attempt to stitch elections up for one faction or another

Huhne's talk of AV being about beating the Tories seems to be a big mistake as the Yes poll rating have collapsed since. The idea that a system will benefit the left or "progressive alliance" as he likes to call it against the right is not an attractive reason for people to vote for the change. They've gone public with their deluded belief now and the cat is out of the bag.

Talking of cats. This is the best pro-AV video I've seen. Not least due to its Goebbelesque effectiveness in getting the message across using cute little kitties as metaphors and avoiding hard facts, and any political talk that so turns off the general public. It even alludes to the Huhme delusion that the left would have been in power if only it wasn't split by multiple parties up against one united right wing party - Note the Dog sporting a top hat vs a number of cute kitties. Again, AV does nothing to stop this even if it was true but it can't hurt to entice some more lefties to vote Yes, can it?!

AV will make MPs work harder and be more honest because it eliminates/reduces safe seats.
This is utter nonsense (in the words of Professor John Curtice, expert in Electoral Reform and Elections at Strathclyde University). AV will make some marginal seats a bit more marginal, and may even make some seats (especially Lib Dem seats, even safer due to the "middle party 2nd preference effect"). So some close seats will change hands but most will remain as they are. Also, analysis of expenses that had to be paid back by MPs shows that there was no correlation between the safeness of a seat and the abuse of expenses that went on in 2009. So even if you choose to believe the claim that AV significantly reduces the number of safe seats, it would make no difference to MPs behaviour whatsoever. I believe there are real reforms that could be implement that would make our government and parliament more effective and responsive - but AV wouldn't play any part in them. 

MPs are elected with more than 50% of the Vote
Firstly there's the technical fact that this won't necessarily always be the case as not all voters will rank all available candidates and so many will be "disenfranchised" because their vote won't count when their candidate/s are knocked out. But what worth is a candidate with over 50% if that threshold was crossed thanks to non-primary votes? Any candidate that finished 2nd or 3rd on primary votes but ends up winning because they received more 2nd/3rd preference votes would be seen as a 2nd choice MP, less legitimate than parliamentary colleagues who win on primary votes alone.

If AV is good enough to elect the party leaders, it's good enough for the people to elect a government.
The Liberal Democrats and Labour do use AV but the Conservatives don't. The Conservatives have a similar system in that involves multi-round voting but they get a chance to vote again after each round. This allows the electorate to compare the remaining candidates and make ever more focused decisions until a winner is found. It's better than AV but completely impracticable for national elections. AV isn't a bad system for electing individuals, but isn't suited for parliamentary elections electing whole governments due to the unpredictable results and it's potential to accentuate landslide results even more than FPTP does currently.

The worst thing about this referendum is that there are serious problems with our democracy: Lack of public engagement in politics; out of touch parliamentarians (as evidenced by the expenses scandal) and an over powerful executive that can ride roughshod over parliament and make major policy mistakes with little effective scrutiny. AV is the solution to precisely none of these problems. It isn't even part of the solution. The tragedy is that so much energy is being burned up debating this irrelevant proposal, that the real issues are out of sight and, regardless of the result, will probably not come into focus again for another generation.

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