Friday, September 3, 2010

Why supporters of PR should probably hold their noses and campaign for a Yes to AV

Political Betting has begun a debate on the AV voting system, with two of the site's regular posters taking up each side of the argument. As I've mentioned before, I've gradually come round to the idea that I will probably vote Yes in the referendum, although if I do so it will be with absolutely no enthusiasm. And something may yet come along to change my mind - for instance, if I started to feel that there was a greater than 50% chance that a No would break the Con/Lib Dem coalition, that would give me considerable pause for thought. The democratic improvements offered by AV are so minor that they'd scarcely be worth passing up such a golden opportunity for. However, I don't find any of the arguments that 'Dyed in Some Wool' puts forward for a No vote at PB especially convincing. Perhaps that's because he merely focuses on trying to demolish the main reasons for thinking a Yes vote will make the voting system significantly better, and for the most part neglects to explain why a vote to retain first-past-the-post (which is exactly what a No vote will be) is in any way preferable. Let's take the points in turn :

"I want a more proportional system
AV is not proportional and will not lead to parliament reflecting the national vote..."

No, it won't. Nor will FPTP magically start to do so if we retain it by voting No in the referendum. As far as proportionality is concerned, neither FPTP or AV are even at the races - and honest Yes campaigners should be brave enough to admit that, and instead try to sell AV on the basis of its own modest virtues, not on a false prospectus of greater proportionality. But at the absolute most this is an argument for abstaining, not for actively voting to retain FPTP.

"Will democracy be better served by parties campaigning locally on ‘How To Ensure xxxx Does Not Get In?’"

But they already do exactly that. AV may not prevent Labour continuing to lie through their teeth in future about how 'only a vote for them can keep the Tories out', but what it will do is allow the long-suffering voter to point out to canvassers on the doorstep that the new voting system has at a stroke resolved all of those dilemmas - everyone will be free to vote honestly by giving their first preference to their favoured party, while still maximising the chances of keeping the Tories (or any other party) out by means of their lower preferences.

"My vote is a wasted vote
Under AV, anyone will have the ability to state secondary preferences, but if the party or candidate you wish to win does not secure 50% of the vote, then your vote is wasted in any case, if your secondary choice also fails to win then again your vote remains wasted."

This is all true, but the operative words are "does not secure 50%". Under FPTP, candidates often don't require anything like 50% to be elected, so by definition there will be significantly fewer wasted votes under AV than at present. It'll certainly fall far short of perfection on that score, but it's silly to pretend it doesn't represent an improvement.

"I hate the notion of the safe seat/I want to punish the individual MP
AV will not address this problem."

No, it won't. Neither will the retention of FPTP. Another argument for, at most, an abstention in the referendum. In fact, as far as punishing individual MPs is concerned, AV will at least increase the range of options available to the voters - as previously noted, they'll be able to simultaneously reward their favourite candidate and penalise their least favourite, whereas in many circumstances under FPTP they have to choose which is the greater priority.

"It is a step in the right direction
We should be wary here. If the referendum passes, the yes supporters will have nailed their colours to the mast and it is unlikely a further change to the system will be offered (and indeed should not be) until the electorate has seen and experienced AV for a few elections."

At last we get to the nub of the issue, and I have indeed been very concerned that AV will prove to be a cul-de-sac rather than a stepping-stone. The introduction of AV several decades ago certainly didn't pave the way for proportional representation in Australia - the system instead became utterly entrenched. However, we also have to look at this from the other way round - what will be the psychological impact of a No vote on the movement for any sort of electoral reform? Hard to say, but it could be a significant setback. So there are dangers for supporters of PR in either a Yes or a No vote, but ultimately we'll have to jump one way or the other (I presume nearly all of us would regard abstaining as a cop-out) without the assistance of a reliable crystal ball. I think the trick here is that reluctant supporters of AV in this referendum must push themselves to the forefront of the campaign, emphasise at every turn that they're campaigning for the least worst option on the ballot paper, and repeatedly make clear that they will regard a Yes vote as a mandate to seek further reform at the earliest opportunity.

The worst things of all that could happen are for PR supporters to absent themselves from the campaign altogether, or to participate in the campaign without emphasising the central importance of the ultimate aspiration of PR. Either course would allow supporters of majoritarian voting systems (whether AV or FPTP) to claim literally any outcome as a victory for their cause over PR. Indeed, I seem to recall certain unionist politicians (most notably Roy Hattersley) cynically trying to pull off exactly that trick after the 1997 devolution referendum. If a Yes vote was a "vote against independence", Roy, what exactly would a No vote have been?


  1. Food for thought James

    Even the prize of bringing down this misbegotten coalition is not worth a ‘No’ vote. After all, what on Earth would they be replaced by? A broken Labour Party still engaged in internecine feuding or a stronger Conservative government gratified and strengthened by a vote for them, as opposed to against Labour, and thus set free from any constraints to wreak havoc on our society? Not, I suppose, that the Liberals have thus far offered any constraints.

    I am deeply concerned that a vote AGAINST AV will tell the Tories what they want to hear; that Britain wants the “strong government” that FPTP can bring, free from the shackles of negotiating legislation in parliament, free to follow direction from Washington in foreign policy; without having the problem of opposition, free to whip to get its way.

    On the other hand a vote FOR AV will tell them that we are happy to be palmed off with a system which is so marginally better as to be not worth the while to introduce. The lifelong seats will still be there. The lazy MPs who know that all they have to do to have a job for life is turn up at a few garden parties or bingo sessions, and keep the local constituency ladies happy. (I’m not sure that came out quite the way I meant it to!)

    It’s a dilemma. Either option is a pat on the back for Mr Cameron. He has been spared PR.

    I’m furious with Nick Clegg for giving in to this. He could and should have held out for PR. A minority government trying to get through the changes that the Tories want to get through would have been facing defeat at every turn. Clegg is the last in a line of Liberal leaders that squandered the chance they have had to form a proper opposition since Tony Blair turned labour into the Red Tories.

    However, I digress. It is indeed a dilemma.

    I will never abstain. That’s copping out from making a decision on how the country is run. We can’t do that.

    How would a spoiled paper sit from a moral point of view? Spoilt papers are protest papers.

    “Neither of the above. I vote for PR”, repeated over the country in vast numbers might send the right message.

  2. That's a bit wordy Tris. Suggest a campaign to get people to write "PR" over the ballot paper. It might even make it as the most popular option!

  3. Tris, the only thing that worries me about that idea is that I struggle to think of a 'spoil your ballot' campaign that has ever really worked in this country - it's almost impossibly difficult to persuade people to 'think outside the box' in sufficient numbers. And to make a serious impact, the numbers would have to be huge.

    I think it would be better for PR supporters to focus on winning the crucial battle for interpreting what a particular outcome would mean - before the referendum takes place. To give an example, the big mistake the Yes campaigners made in the 1979 devolution referendum was to use the 40% rule to browbeat people into turning out to vote - ie. "if you stay at home, you are voting No". When more people voted Yes than No, but the 40% threshold wasn't met, it was difficult for them to then say "Scotland voted yes", even though that was evidently the case. It's vitally important that the narrative isn't allowed to take root that a vote for AV is some kind of settled judgement, or that the new system would at least have to be 'given a chance' for a good few elections. Yes campaigners must emphasise again and again that they see this only as a very small first step.

  4. LOL @ Eric. I take your point.

    Yes James, I see what you are saying too.

    It is unlikely that enough people would actually “spoil” their papers to make the point.

    It could even be seen as another victory for the Tories if the numbers were particularly small.

    But I find it hard to believe that no matter how much the Yes campaigners stress the “first small step” position, the prime minister is likely to take that on board.

    It seems like a lose lose situation, and I am deeply disappointed in Clegg. He promised so much more.

  5. I haven't posted anything on a political blog before, and I confess the "PR" spoiled paper was a quick not entirely serious kind of reaction. BUT

    I'm not convinced something like this couldn't be a runner. OK "PR" is vague. Is it STV we basically want? Then lets campaign for supporters of proper PR to write "STV" on the ballot paper. It could get a huge response.

    Across Britain there are surely more supporters of PR who prefer STV to AV. If there was a co-ordinated campaign isn't there a good chance that "STV" wouldn't challenge if not actually beat "AV"? In Scotland wouldn't SNP voters prefer to write "STV"? What about disgruntled Liberals, Greens and others who simply follow the logic of proper PR?

    Can you imagine Paxman inviting Clegg to condemn the "STV" option, reminding him of his previous comments on AV?

    I actually believe that have the potential here to torpedo the miserable choice on offer. If we want STV and don't want to be fobbed off with some pathetic compromise then let's say so - they may set the question but surely it's up to us to provide an effective answer.

  6. If people could be motivated to do it...real Liberals for example.. then it culd be a runner.

    I certanly want neither of the two on offer.

    Why Clegg didn't hold out for what he wanted I really can't imagine....

    ...or can I? I bet it's nice to be called Deputy Prime Minister wherever you go.