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.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Patel unwittingly makes a Priti good case for saying Yes to AV

Over at ConHome, the Tory MP Priti Patel has written a response to a rare supporter of electoral reform from her own party. To be fair to her, although virtually all the objections she raises to AV are hair-splitting technical points synthetically elevated to jumbo-sized significance, and indeed three are plain untruths (that AV would make coalitions "the norm", that it would cost £250 million, and that some voters would have more votes than others), she is at least engaging with the issue at hand, instead of making fatuous points about how electoral reform will DESTROY THE LIVES OF NEWBORN BABIES. All the same, there is one portion of her article that initially puzzled me, and it relates - rather obscurely - to the election of the mayor of the town of Burlington in the US state of Vermont in 2009. This is Patel's somewhat partial account of what happened -

"In fact, sometimes AV can even make staying at home tactically better than turning out to vote at all – the ‘no-show paradox.’ In the US, for example, Republicans in Burlington, Vermont would have been better off had some of them stayed home during the last mayoral election that they ran under AV (of course, they’ve since ditched it and returned to First Past the Post). Had some Republicans not voted for their candidate, the centrist Democrat – for whom most Republicans cast their second preferences – would have made it to the second round and beat the left-wing Progressive, who went on to win despite coming second in the first round."

Now, you might be forgiven for deducing from all this that the "centrist Democrat" is the candidate who, in Patel's terms, "should have won". But that can't possibly be the case - the very fact that the Democrat didn't make it to the second round of the AV count (or Instant Run-off Voting to use the far superior American name) indicates that he must have finished third - or lower - on first preferences, and thus wouldn't have won under the first-past-the-post system Patel supports. Moreover, the fact that Patel is telling us that Republican voters acted counter-productively by turning out to vote indicates that their candidate must have finished in the top two in the first round. And if the Progressive was second, that must mean...?

Yep, you've guessed it. A quick check of Wikipedia reveals that it was in fact the Republican candidate who was ahead on first preferences, and who thus would have prevailed under first-past-the-post. And yet the fact that a left-wing Progressive was able to beat him in a straight two-way final round conclusively demonstrates that there was an outright anti-Republican majority in that electorate, and that the hypothetical first-past-the-post result would have been an utter perversion of democracy.

I'm afraid No campaigners are going to have to come up with something better than examples of AV doing exactly the job it's supposed to.

(For the record, the return to first-past-the-post in Burlington that Patel refers to was decided by a 52%-48% vote in a referendum. I'm not sure such a wafer-thin margin quite justifies her complacent "of course".)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Whatever the outcome, 'No 2 AV' now deserves to lose

If you've had a wander round the political blogosphere over the last 24 hours or so, you can't really have missed the new in-your-face advert from the No campaign in the AV referendum. It consists of a picture of a crying newborn baby, followed by the words -

"She needs a maternity unit NOT an alternative voting system. Say NO to spending £250 million on AV."

Now, even if that £250 million figure hadn't been plucked out of thin air (and it was), the words "risible" and "desperate" wouldn't even begin to do this ad justice. For me, all it does is bring home that these people simply haven't got an argument, and are incapable of making a case for the current electoral system on its own merits - or indeed even of making a case against AV on its own shortcomings. But will others (ie. the undecideds) react to the ad in the same way? After the occasional success of previous cynical and misleading campaigns that were similarly born out of desperation - such as the Tories' "Tax Bombshell" ads in 1992 - it's hard to be entirely confident.

But on one point there can be no remaining doubt. If it carries on in this vein, the No campaign thoroughly deserves to be routed in this referendum.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

SNP storm back into the lead with Ipsos-Mori

Hot on the heels of Brian Souter's potentially game-changing donation to the SNP, tonight brings word of the Nationalists' best opinion poll showing since...well, it must be quite a while ago as I can't remember exactly when! Here are the full figures (or 'full' for the four largest parties) -

Constituency vote :

SNP 37% (+6)
Labour 36% (-5)
Conservatives 13% (-)
Liberal Democrats 10% (-1)

Regional list vote :

SNP 35% (+3)
Labour 33% (-3)
Conservatives 13% (+1)
Liberal Democrats 10% (+1)

Note : I'm not quite sure whether I've got the Tories and the Lib Dems the right way round on the list vote, as I've seen contradictory information (and of course I don't pay my Murdoch levy).

As ever, there is a health warning - there's always the danger that one poll in isolation might be a rogue, and in any case Ipsos-Mori seemed to overstate the SNP in the run-up to last year's general election. But as with the Souter donation, the real value of this poll could be its impact on the media narrative. Nick Pearce's complacent suggestion earlier today that the result of the election was bound to be a minority Labour administration or a Lib-Lab coalition unless Alex Salmond could produce "something dramatic out of the hat" is a fine example of the narrative that's just (for the time being, at any rate) been completely blown away.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Will someone please tell Norman Lamont that AV does not stand for Proportional Representation?

Don't worry, I haven't lost my marbles and paid the Murdoch Levy, but courtesy of ConHome I've been reading a little snippet of the former Tory Chancellor's bizarre rant in the Times about AV. Or at least, he seems to earnestly believe it's about AV...

"Under AV we would have permanent coalitions and institutionalised breaking of election promises. Politicians, not voters, would decide which parties were to form the government. In Britain, we don’t have to demonstrate in public squares. People vote and the government is out. AV would make it more difficult for voters to summon up the removal van and kick the government out. AV would change the nature of elections, which would become high on rhetoric, low on policies. Party manifestos would become meaningless, full of “aspirations”"

Memo to Lord Lamont and the Tory party : if you really want to spend the next two-and-a-half months going off on one about what a God-awful idea proportional representation is, it might have been an idea to actually hold a referendum on proportional representation. Not a single one of those gripes has the slightest relevance to AV, which is a majoritarian voting system every bit as much as the current one is. To be sure, it's a somewhat better majoritarian system, in that it empowers the voter more and doesn't produce such perverse results in individual constituencies, but it's a majoritarian system nonetheless. It doesn't particularly make coalitions more likely, and the idea that it would produce perpetual coalition is in the realms of fantasy. More's the pity, in a lot of ways, but there it is.

Which leaves only one question to be answered. Are we witnessing delusion, or pretence?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Souter's donation is no dilemma

Brian Souter posed me a dilemma just over a decade ago. I normally believe in exercising the right to vote at every possible opportunity I get, so it was difficult to resist the temptation to take part in something as unique as a privately-organised nationwide referendum. However, the opponents of Section 28 were adamant that the best way of defeating Souter's agenda was to abstain, so I heeded that advice and stuffed the ballot forms in a dusty drawer, where they probably still reside (albeit hopefully accompanied by a different generation of dust). In fact, my only regret is that it didn't occur to me to do what apparently quite a few other people did, which was to simply return the envelope without a ballot paper inside, ie. to needlessly cost Souter the postage.

So, to put it mildly, I wasn't on the same page as the Stagecoach tycoon in relation to Section 28. But the problem for those who criticise the SNP's decision to accept his latest large donation is that it's not remotely clear how that issue is actually relevant. Has the cause of equality for gay people taken a backward step as a result of a Souter-funded SNP winning power four years ago? I'd suggest the answer is fairly obviously no, so any 'fears' about what the repercussions might be this time seem very synthetic.

Meanwhile, the best thing about the donation is the way it's completely transformed the media narrative about the election. Whether that's temporary or long-lasting remains to be seen, but the powerful message many newspaper readers will have received this weekend is that the SNP are very much back in the game.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

What do the Mail and Staines do when caught lying? Repeat the lie, naturally.

They're at it again. After last weekend's bungled attempt to convince us that a "smoking gun" had turned up that proved the SNP were willing to free Megrahi in exchange for concessions from London, the Mail and their increasingly ludicrous cheerleader Paul Staines have brazenly repeated that lie and tried to back it up with 'something Jack Straw has told them'. Mysteriously, though, it's a full nine paragraphs into the Mail piece before a direct quote from Straw appears, so it's rather a long time before we get to find out whether the claims that -

"Mr Straw said that Mr Salmond and Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill both told him personally that they would be prepared to let Abdelbaset Al Megrahi go home to Libya in return for political concessions from Westminster"

- have any basis whatsoever. And do they? I'll give you three guesses. Here is what Straw actually says...

"What he's forgotten is that when I went to him in late 2007, asking him [Salmond] to agree to a PTA that would not exclude Megrahi, he indicated that he could be more accommodating if I could offer him two concessions"

So, whether we believe Straw or not (and Kevin Pringle on behalf of the Scottish government hotly refutes the allegation), he is talking once again about the narrow issue of whether the SNP government would consider dropping their public opposition to a PTA with Libya that didn't specifically exclude Megrahi, and not about a proposed deal to release Megrahi - an outcome which at that point London wasn't even seeking.

Put simply, the Mail are lying, and they know they are. If it wasn't unthinkable for a government to do this, it's getting to the point where the SNP would be well within their rights to ponder legal action.