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."
"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.