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?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Rusedski urges GB to join the wildcard swap shop

Last night on Sky's coverage of the US Open, Greg Rusedski explained to a confused Annabelle Croft why French player Virginie Razzano had been granted a wildcard entry into the draw of America's Grand Slam. It turns out that three of the four countries that host Grand Slams (Britain is the exception) swap wildcards for their tournaments, so that middling French players can have a crack at the US Open, Aussies can get into the French Open, and so on. Rusedski emphasised that this is a 'GOOD THING' and urged Britain to join in, instead of hording the Wimbledon wildcards for mediocre British players. Of course, what he means is that it's a good thing from the entirely self-interested point of view of the countries lucky enough to have Grand Slams - given that players can often gain a substantial boost in the world rankings from a wildcard if they go on to win a match or two, I can't believe the rest of the world thinks it's that great a system. Indeed, the fact that France's inbuilt advantage even extends to a tournament beyond its shores simply underscores the unfairness.

Blair's greatest performance was in his own mind

It's often been observed that Tony Blair was more of an actor or a showman than an authentic politician, and in last night's BBC interview to promote his memoirs he seemed surprisingly relaxed about owning up to the tricks of his trade - at least in relation to the one area of his legacy for which he can expect nothing but plaudits, namely the Northern Ireland peace process. With almost carefree abandon, he talked of the 'moral dilemma' he had to grapple with in deliberately using creative ambiguity - sometimes stretching the truth to breaking-point - on the basis that he knew he was 'doing it in a good cause'. It doesn't appear to have occurred to him that, for many people, there is an obvious read-through here to another campaign of deception he hasn't yet come clean about - the one paving the way for the Iraq War. 'Creative ambiguities' and 'truths stretched to breaking-point' in the pursuance of a good cause would seem to sum up Blair's strategy in early 2003 rather well - except that, in this case, the good cause only ever existed in his own mind. I'm inclined to believe it still lives on there, albeit it takes ever more mental effort to maintain the comforting illusion. The greatest testament to Blair's acting ability is that he convinces himself so reliably.

In continuing to justify the war now, he tells us (and himself) : "There isn't a single part of the Middle East that hasn't been touched by the problem we see in Iraq and Afghanistan today." Well, if he's talking about terrorism inspired by Islamic extremism, I can remind him of at least one Middle Eastern country that was relatively untouched by the problem before the Iraq invasion - Iraq. It had every prospect of remaining so but for the military intervention. So Blair's alibi for the invasion is the need to tackle a problem that was created by...the invasion. That's brazen logic, even by his standards.

He goes on to plead that the carnage in Iraq was "more terrifying than anyone could have imagined". Now, that's not quite true, is it Tony? No less a figure than Jacques Chirac gave an astonishingly accurate forecast of the forces that were about to be unleashed to Blair in person, and begged him to reconsider the rush to war. I believe the Prime Minister's reaction was a self-satisfied chuckle, followed by what must surely rank as one of the most un-self-aware observations of recent political history : "God, Jacques really doesn't get it, does he?"

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Total Politics poll

Many thanks to everyone who voted this blog onto Total Politics' list of top Scottish blogs! Having failed to trouble the scorer last year, I'm really chuffed to finish as high as 23rd. Congratulations also to Munguin and Tris for the well-deserved success of Munguin's Republic in the poll.

There are no huge surprises in the top 10, although as Andrew Reeves has pointed out, it's puzzling that Subrosa at number 9 is an outright 'new entry'. It's also slightly disappointing to see SNP Tactical Voting slip from 2nd to 3rd. For me, it's the leading Scottish political blog by a country mile, and in spite of the name it's relatively ecumenical and non-partisan, so it ought to have a broad appeal. However, the format of the poll works against it - blogs with a UK-wide focus that happen to be penned by a Scot (eg. Tom Harris) have a considerable inbuilt advantage.

The Sun? Hypocritical? Perish the thought...

Not that I particularly want to give Simon Cowell praise for anything (even when it's due) but I'm very pleasantly surprised to see that X Factor contestant Chloe Mafia will not be axed from the show simply because of allegations that she worked as a "£160-an-hour escort" (is our knowledge of the exact price supposed to make it worse somehow?). I read the original article on The Sun website a couple of days ago, and it was utterly breathtaking to see that publication - of all publications - taking an implied judgemental stance on matters of sexual morality. I shouldn't have been surprised of course, because it's hardly the first time - tabloid journalists have a remarkable knack of seamlessly switching back and forth between 'laddish' mode and 'outraged evangelical preacher' mode. The most nauseating part of the article was the account of an undercover reporter who was "repeatedly invited" onto a double bed by Ms. Mafia, but instead "made his excuses and left". Well, how terribly noble of him. But does anyone doubt for a moment that The Sun would have been perfectly content for their reporter to go ahead and do the deed (on expenses, naturally) if they had calculated it would sell more papers? Of course, the main reason that couldn't happen was that it would have been incongruent with the pious subtext of the piece - namely that if the story could be substantiated, it was a complete no-brainer that Mafia's involvement in X Factor was untenable.

Now I may be missing something here, but as far as I'm aware what Mafia allegedly does for a living is perfectly legal in the UK (there may be some grey areas over the advertising of escort services on the internet, but as things stand the work itself is legal). So why should her participation in the show ever have been thought to be in jeopardy? Yes, she's done something that a certain portion of the population finds morally objectionable, but the same would apply to anyone who has ever had an abortion, eaten meat or had an affair - all also legal activities. Why is it taken as read that certain types of intolerance will always be pandered to, but not others? Regardless of personal moral values, it's always a good start to view every individual as first and foremost a human being, rather than as some kind of walking embodiment of one particular choice they've made in their life.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Can anyone spare a hoot (or two) for Thoroughly Modern Tavish?

For months now, Hamish Macdonnell seems to have been determined to promote the narrative that a Labour return to power is written in the stars, and his latest rather dubious astrological observation is based on a supposed hardening of the Lib Dems' opposition to a referendum on independence. His conclusion is that "the only logical powerbroking deal after next May's election looks like being between Labour and the Lib Dems".

Frankly, I'm struggling to think of a deal that looks less logical than that one just at the moment. I can certainly see the theoretical appeal to the Scottish Lib Dems of demonstrating their independence from the federal party by choosing a coalition with Labour (although that appeal may fade pretty fast when they start pondering the full implications), but for Labour it would be an incredibly difficult leap. They would effectively be sacrificing their capacity to launch full-blooded attacks on a Tory-led Westminster government whenever they feel like it, and my guess is that would be too high a price, even to secure the prize of a stable four-year term in office. Macdonnell is also overlooking two obvious possibilities - a) that the Lib Dem vote might collapse so far that a coalition with Labour isn't even arithmetically viable, and b) that the Tories may be more pro-active than before in trying to forge an alliance (whether a coalition or something short of that) to freeze Labour out.

More broadly, the quotes from Tavish Scott in the article are highly amusing. Apparently the Lib Dems used to be "concerned" about his negativity towards a referendum, but the "modern party" has "moved on" and "couldn't give two hoots about it". Hmmm. Given that, to the best of my recollection, those concerns reached their peak as recently as the last year or two, this "modern" incarnation of the party of which Tavish speaks must be almost as new as his last haircut. In which case, the SNP have every reason to keep the faith - at this rate of change, the Lib Dems will in all likelihood be embarking on a brave new postmodern era by Christmas.

As an aside, I'm somewhat dubious about Macdonnell's assertion that the SNP made a referendum a precondition of a coalition in 2007. They were certainly vocal about the policy's central importance, but the only party setting literal preconditions were the Lib Dems themselves - it was beneath their dignity to even enter discussions unless the SNP abandoned the referendum policy in advance.