Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Five reasons why Hamish Macdonnell has made my eyes roll to the heavens - again

I've just caught up with Hamish Macdonnell's Caledonian Mercury article from a couple of weeks ago, entitled 'Five reasons why the AV system should be voted out'. I of course wholeheartedly agree with his opening sentiment that the No campaign should be moving on to substantive points about the subject in hand, and away from their ludicrous and offensive "electoral reform kills babies and soldiers" claims. But as for the five suggested reasons themselves...oooh, where to start. Let's take them in turn -

1. "The current system works...whether it is the most fair system or not, it works. FPTP has, generally, delivered the outcome the country wanted to see."

I beg pardon? A clear majority of the electorate voted for centrist or left-of-centre parties in 1979, 1983 and 1987, and yet unalloyed Thatcherism was the outcome "the country" wanted to see? The only possible way of reaching that conclusion is via a kind of circular logic - it must have been the outcome they wanted because they voted for it. How do we know they voted for it? Oh, because that was the outcome the electoral system delivered. If we'd had PR during the eighties, there may well have been a more moderate centre-right coalition government (and quite possibly even a centre-left coalition), and we'd now have a journalist in Macdonnell's position looking back and sagely noting that what we got was, after all, exactly what the public voted for. The difference is that he would have been right.

"Far better, it would seem, to have a system which reflects the mood of those key swing voters who carry with them the mood of the nation, than to hand it those candidates who come third, fourth or fifth."

Yes, I think I can see where Hamish is going astray here. He believes the "mood of the nation" is not determined by the majority of the whole electorate, but rather by a majority of the 65-70% of the electorate who happen to vote for one of the two largest parties - a 'majority' that worked out as just 35% of the vote for the Labour government in 2005.

2. "FPTP usually delivers strong government."

For strong government read "elective dictatorship". Remember the poll tax, Hamish? Its implementation entirely against the public will may have been a sign of governmental 'strength', but how that was in any sense a good thing is a bit of a mystery.

3. "AV is not actually backed by any major political party in Britain."

But there are many, many parties and individual politicians who regard it as clearly preferable to first-past-the-post. In an imperfect choice between two systems, should they really be voting for the system they prefer less?

4. "The real argument here is between FPTP and single transferable vote (STV). The Lib Dems want STV, not AV. If that is what they want, then we should have a real and proper debate about the merits of a fair system of proportional representation and the current winner-takes-all system. That is the real argument."

Say what you like about the Lib Dems (and I generally do), but if the Tories had been democratic enough to offer a vote on the full range of options for electoral reform, it seems rather unlikely that offer would have been rejected. It is those opposed to electoral reform who have moved heaven and earth to prevent Hamish's "real argument" from taking place, not the Yes campaigners. Mysteriously, Hamish fails to clarify how voting No will actually take us any closer to having that real argument, rather than - as it surely will - move us much further away.

5. "There is no reason to change the system if it’s not broken."

See above.

"I worked at Westminster during the dying days of the John Major government, which had such a narrow majority it risked defeat on every vote. The precarious nature of that administration reflected the public mood and worked at keeping the government from doing anything too outrageous."

Well, do you want an electoral system that delivers "strong government" or don't you, Hamish? If you do, that clearly wasn't what we had during the Major years, was it? And are you now suddenly saying you want an electoral system that prevents a government from doing anything "too outrageous" against the public will? In that case, why do you support the system that gave us unalloyed Thatcherism on 42% of the vote?

Taking the five points together, the thrust of Hamish's argument is as clear as mud. He seems to concede that PR would be fairer than the current system and a referendum on that would be worth having - and yet two of his points are really arguments against PR and in favour of majoritarian systems in general, of which (more's the pity) AV is one.

He finishes by going off on a rather random tangent to inform us that not only does first-past-the-post 'work', but the old system of hereditary peers making laws for the rest of us mere mortals also worked "really, really well". At least that helpfully puts in a better perspective where he's coming from. Yes, of course the Lords 'worked', if your main political concerns were protecting privilege, preserving discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and permitting animal cruelty in the name of sport - and doing it all against the democratic will of the electorate, naturally.


  1. I have never fully understood the obsession with strong government espoused by opponents of any change to the voting system. The present FPTP has produced governments with an overwhelming parliamentary majority on 40 or so per cent of the vote which have then gone ahead and ridden rough shod over the majority of voters who did not endorse them. The last Labour governemnt had a majority of 60 or so MPs on 36% of the vote on about a 61% turnout. Hardly a mandate and yet good enough for those opposing AV.

  2. Agreed, Richard. Your point about the Labour government is another good example of the nonsense at the heart of MacDonnell's argument. He claims that both the tight arithmetic in the Major years and the comfortable majority Labour enjoyed reflected the public's wishes. Well, let's compare the relevant figures (GB only) -


    Conservative 43%
    Labour 35%


    Labour 36%
    Conservative 33%

    How can he credibly claim that Labour's far more comfortable majority in 2005 than the Tories had in 1992 was an accurate reflection of the popular will?

  3. It’s amazing the nonsense people spout in their efforts to keep Britain preserved in aspic.

    It seems to me that, despite our going around the world espousing democracy (and bombing it into people), we are not, at present, a very democratic country.

    We have an hereditary head of state; we have an unelected house of parliament comprising hereditary member, clerics of the state religion (of the biggest of our constituent countries), of which the monarch is also head, in some weird “dictator like” way... (even Gaddafi and Sadam haven’t tried to run their own religion), and peers appointed by political parties, many of whom are failed MPs who have been rejected by the public. Finally we have a house of parliament elected on a FPTP system where, as you point out, a majority can be secured with as little 36% of the vote, the majority of seats rarely change parties, and which has a vote whipping system, the adherence to which will affect members’ careers (and sometimes families).

    How in the name of hell can that be considered democratic?

    A prime minister elected on 33% of the vote, with a majority of 40 seats can, with ease, get legislation through the lower house (the strong government so dearly loved by so many). At worst the upper house of non elected members can only delay it, and the monarch has no choice but to append “Elizabeth II” (an insult to Scotland and Ireland) to it. Bob’s your’s law, on 33% of the vote. An elected dictatorship.

    Pfffff! Democracy my butt.

  4. "clerics of the state religion"

    Yes, Tris, and I gather the CoE bishops are likely to stay even after Lords reform (it it ever happens), which seems bizarre.