Saturday, February 19, 2011

"Fact" or assertion?

Welcome along to a third successive post about the referendum on electoral reform, as I continue with my determined quest to drive the audience of this blog down to zero.

Channel 4 are in principle to be congratulated for turning their "Fact-Check" attention to the claims and counter-claims about AV, because the astounding ignorance about the nature of the proposed new voting system has provided fertile ground for the sprouting up of a number of...well, for want of a better word, lies. In practice, however, this rather limited attempt to "set the record straight" ought to raise a few eyebrows itself -

"Was Mr Cameron right to say Gordon Brown could still be Prime Minister if the last election had been fought under AV?...

Labour and the Lib Dems would have had 337 seats between them, giving them an overall majority, and in theory allowing Mr Brown to remain Prime Minister in a coalition government. But the Conservatives would have been the largest party, on 283 seats (35 more than Labour), and there would have been constitutional uproar if Mr Brown had stayed at No 10."

It might have caused 'uproar' in some quarters, but there certainly wouldn't have been anything 'constitutional' about that. If no single party wins over 50% of seats, the objective is to form a government which can command a parliamentary majority. In countries with PR where hung parliaments and coalitions are the norm (which categorically would not be the case under AV) there's nothing remotely unusual or 'unconstitutional' about the government which emerges being one which excludes the largest party. Perhaps Channel 4's assumption is that there's something peculiarly 'British' about the conviction that the largest party has an automatic mandate to govern regardless of how far short they fall of a majority. If so, wrong again. In 1924, Ramsay MacDonald's Labour party took office with the support of the Liberals - in spite of the fact that the Conservatives had won the most votes and the most seats in the general election.

My own view about last year, for what it's worth, is that there would indeed have been a somewhat greater chance of a 'progressive alliance' had Labour and the Lib Dems enjoyed an outright Commons majority between them, if only because the Lib Dem grandees were so sympathetic to the idea, and because it would have been harder for the right-wing party leadership of Clegg and Laws to go in the opposite direction if they hadn't had the ready-made (albeit bogus) excuse that "the numbers simply aren't there". There probably would have been somewhat less fatalism on the Labour benches as well. Such an outcome would, for the avoidance of doubt, have been a good thing. While we in Scotland require no reminders about the shortcomings of Lib-Lab rule, if it had been a straight choice between that and the current monstrosity of a coalition at Westminster, I know which I would have regarded (and did regard) as the lesser of two evils. And of course a progressive coalition would have commanded the combined support of more than 50% of the electorate in exactly the same way as the Con-Lib alliance does, so concerns about democratic legitimacy are a red herring.

Nevertheless, it's overwhelmingly likely that the Lib Dems would have demanded - as they did anyway - that Gordon Brown as an individual fall on his sword as the price of any deal, so in that very technical sense Channel 4 have a point. But pretty much everything else they say on the subject (clearly implying that no government excluding the Tories would have been a runner) falls into the category of speculation, and of the rather implausible variety at that. What it's doing in a "Fact-Check" feature is a bit of a mystery.


  1. Your determination to reduce your readers to zero require more effort James. There are a few of us who just won't go away. :)

  2. I'm not sure whether using recent elections is necessarily a good tactic for Mr Cameron since in the previous election, Labour was elected with a 55 seat majority on 35.2% of the votes and a 61.3% turnout - hardly a grand advertisement for the present voting system.

  3. I don’t think that you will drive the readership to zero on this issue, James. It is important and it is immediate. Whether we like it or not, the voting public in the UK are going to be faced with this choice that is hardly a choice, very soon.

    Yesterday I watched the two staunch allies, reading from very different hymn sheets to the point where, when you forgot that this was real life and imagined it as satire it was amusing; then when you remembered that these people were respectively prime minister and deputy prime minister of the country, it became humiliating.

    Neither system is in the least fair and whilst I accept that AV is marginally fairer than FPTP I still feel no affection for it, and I can’t say that I could go out and vote FOR it as a positive move.

    So, as so often in this country, you have to vote for other reasons. If I vote for FPTP, because I think that by voting for AV I’m giving the government an indication that that is what I want, then they will take it that I am satisfied with the status quo, which I am not. If I vote for AV, then they WILL think that I am enamoured of it, which I’m not. What to do? Whatever the outcome we shall not have another opportunity to make any further changes for a very long time.

    Why, I wonder, can’t we have a proper choice? Why can they not put a question on the ballot paper to say that neither of these meets with approval? Clearly it is because that is not what they want to hear. It’s the ballot box equivalent of putting bread rolls in your ears and singing loudly, while banging on a drum and tap dancing!

    So, how to vote. As I was watching them yesterday I made up my mind. I saw Nick Clegg lying through his teeth about what a good system AV is. I know he is lying because I read what he said about it when he was in opposition. The word ‘nasty’ that appeared in that article had mysteriously disappeared by yesterday. As I watched him my lip curled in disgust.

    Then I watched his partner talk down to us about why AV was a bad system, and how it might leave us with “second choice government” (imagine that fellow Scots!). I hardly knew what to do, but a rush to the bathroom was on the list of choices. But at least then I knew exactly how I would vote.

    It comes down to this. One of these buddy boys is going to be humiliated and have his life made hell by revolting backbenchers. I’d just, by a thin margin, prefer that it to Cameron.

  4. I totally believe in referenda - the AV one should merely be the start.
    There should be one on Europe while we're in the UK, one on Scottish and Welsh Independence, then one on Europe when we're an independent nation.
    But really, these are all simply appetisers - the most important referendum should be on the right to bear arms, with a subsiduary question of which is better, the Desrt Eagle in .50 calibre or the Glock 17 9mm (the only hand-gun guaranteed to fire under water).


  5. Ah, Conan - the weapon beloved of Jack O'Neill.
    But surely it is an assault carbine (designed originally for tank crews) and not a hand-gun?
    Anyway, I only mentioned guns to see if James would bite (we all know he goes weak at the knees if someone says the word 'pistol').


  6. Dear me, JJ, I don't believe we've even been acquainted, and yet already you're trying to wind me up. As it happens, there are a few things in this world that make me go weak at the knees (discretion forbids me and all that), but vague references to inanimate objects aren't amongst them.

    That said, I wouldn't have any great objection to a referendum on maintaining strict gun control in this country. It would be nice to be overwhelmingly confident of being on the winning side for a change!

  7. James, I've been a long-time reader of your blog and I find it very, ah, enlightening.
    More (fire)power to you.
    James Johnstone.