Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Alternative Voting thoughts

Out of the blue Labour announce they want to start reforming the voting system. Twelve and a bit years into their government they've finally got round to having a think about making a change that heads off any possibility of proportional representation.

The Lib Dems described it as a "deathbed conversion" which I thought was a rather neat turn of phrase.

So there's a proposal on the table about having a referendum on Alternative Voting, where you place the candidates in an order of preference. Although it's slightly messier than this the intention is to ensure that everyone who is elected has the support of at least half the electorate in the constituency.

This referendum would not take place under the Labour government (unless they win the election, ho ho) and in fact might not take place at all which introduces the prospect of Labour painting the Tories as anti-reform before they've had a year in office for not instituting something Labour couldn't be bothered to do in more than twelve years.

Anyway, there are a number of advantages to this over our current system of first past the post.

Firstly it means that someone who is passionately loved and loathed is less likely to get in as the system seeks the candidate who is acceptable to most voters. I've no doubt that part of the calculation here is that it may keep out various fascists, communists, and eco-terrorists although in practice it may well work the other way.

The English Democrat Mayor of Donacaster won his election on the basis of second preference votes coming over from the BNP and Tory candidates and the experience of the London Mayoralty is that the second preferences for the Greens always far outweigh the first preferences, indicating that where Greens can get a head of steam they may reach a tipping point where AV would be very useful.

The second advantage is that it does allow for a more mature political debate should the parties choose to go down that route. Being able to advocate a second choice vote for Ken in the Mayorals two years ago was a real god send and, in effect, the Greens ended up mobilising extra voters against Boris without having to stand down - under the current system it's hardly sensible for a party to say, "Well, if you're not voting for us I'd recommend so and so from a rival party."

That's a shame.

However, it's still a winner takes all system. It may in fact have the effect of entrenching the established parties rather than allowing for more pluralism and the results would still not be proportional leaving literally millions having voted for parties that get either no MPs or a tiny, tiny handful.

If the referendum was in place and taking place today I'd vote for the AV system. If I were rewriting electoral reform myself though it wouldn't look like this. House of Lords? Gone. Monarch? Gone. FTPT? Gone. And proportion elections for local councils as well as Parliament.


Charlie Bolton said...

Labour seem to be coming up with a host of initiatives which all seem far too late.

Jim Jepps said...

They're panicking.

It's something that frustrates me about the 'class war' debate, some people seem to think that if the 'messaging' in the election capaign is geared one way it will alter what Labour is all about.

We know what they're like in government - new ideas now are just the attempts of the wife beater as he begs her not to leave him - 'I can change' he says.

I don't believe the spin frankly

Jennie said...

I'm with Mark Reckons on this: STV or bust.

Strategist said...

Jennie - nice sentiment, but with a very strong chance of a bust.

I think Jim has it exactly right. Crap proposal, joke timing, also utterly doomed, but still it's a positive development.

Legislation setting a date for an electoral reform referendum is good. The precise question put could still be amended in a post-May election hung parliament.

However. If Cameron wins a majority he will be able to bin this idea with absolutely no political comeback, given the lack of interest of the English public in fair votes.

(Which is why I would advocate changing the voting system, holding an election, and only then holding a referendum, asking people if they want to keep the new system or revert to the old one.)

ModernityBlog said...

The working classes more often than not, don't vote because of class and frustration with society, all you are doing is essentially voting for one of many middle-class candidates and that won't change under proportional representation.

It is the class nature of British society which is reflected in voter alienation, that is the real issue.

ModernityBlog said...

ops, missed a bit off:

The very idea, put forward by politicians that proportional representation will somehow invigorate voters and encourage them to feel that their votes actually matter is, of course, utter nonsense.

I suspect that if anyone's studied those who don't vote, or don't vote on a regular basis then the commonality would not be a desire for proportional representation, but rather a general disenfranchisement or alienation from society.

The working classes more often than not, don't vote because of class and frustration with society, all you are doing is essentially voting for one of many middle-class candidates and that won't change under proportional representation.

It is the class nature of British society which is reflected in voter alienation, that is the real issue.

Joe said...

And of course there's this little snippet from the Jenkins Report to consider

"Third, it would in the circumstances of the last election, which even if untypical is necessarily the one most vivid in the recollection of the public, and very likely in the circumstances of the next one too, be unacceptably unfair to the Conservatives."

Strategist said...

Modernity, you're addressing a totally different issue.

Voter alienation and not voting is one issue; fair votes for those casting their vote is another.

They are related, and in my view PR (or even crappy AV) would help a little bit with turnout, in that it would give smaller parties a better chance to challenge the duopoly, which would in turn ginger the large parties up a bit.

However, its main impact wouldn't be on reducing voter apathy and abstention, but then neither does it need to be. It stands as a good reform on its own merits - making votes that are cast, count.

What's interesting to me, is why defend the FPTP status quo? What merit does it have at all? It is quite simply out of date and does not work as an effective mechanism for the multi-party system we have now got. You might as well argue against the 1832 Reform Act.

ModernityBlog said...


I am addressing the issue as I see fit, and I'm going on some of the feeble arguments put forward in the media and radio 4.

and I suppose I'm trying to get through to suggest that it won't be the panacea that it is suggested.

surely the downside to any proportional representation system is obvious, in terms of unintended consequences?

Need I remind Greens that the BNP will also be a sizeable beneficiary from any change?

and that should be factored in?

Jim Jepps said...

It's difficult to know what effect PR would have on turnout (I doubt AV would increase it though) as different countries have very different voting cultures/laws anyway - although Britain has a very low turnout for a European country so we should look at why people don't engage here when they do in France, Italy, Germany, etc.

The chief problem of FPTP is disenfranchisement of millions of people who live in safe seats. The idea that your vote actually counts is important for a democratic country and PR is the best way to achieve that I think.

You can see from the breakdowns of Euro voting that towns that are, for example Lib Dem at the general will be Labour in the Euros because voting patterns have been so distorted by the political system (I'm thinking of Colchester with that example).

I think we need to assess any system on how democratic it is rather than what the result might be. I lost a lot of respect for John McD for example when he said a few years ago that he opposed PR because it would let the Tories in because more people voted Tory in England than Labour.

That sort of self interest over the will of the majority did him no credit. If we're not for democracy then we're against it.

Anyway, the BNP have won council seats because of FPTP winning areas that have been so safe that no party has bothered campaigning there for decades - making them soft targets.

Barking is one of these places where the Labour majority was enormous and the party took people for granted. People who lived there were ignored because their vote was not important. We change that and it helps combat the BNP by combatting the disenfranchisement they feed off.

ModernityBlog said...

On the contrary, I think it's fairly obvious that the BNP would benefit from proportional representation.

It is hard to see how they wouldn't. I suspect that many Tories will put them down as the second preference, ditto a minority of disenfranchised Labour voters.

I'm sure that the Greens will benefit from PR, and also the Far Right.

Jim Jepps said...

Mod, you're mixing up AV and PR.

The point of AV is that half the voters have to find the candidates acceptable. This means that if the BNP are supported by a hard core but the majority reject their politics they will not get in.

If most people are prepared to vote for them then no system will keep them out, not should it.

If you look at where the BNP have got their support it is safe seats where they have a complacent Labour Party that has not maintained a connection with local people. Under PR all the parties have an interest in getting votes from everywhere.

That means that the Tories and the Lib Dems will actually try to get votes in Barking (for example) rather than giving the impression to the people that none of the mainstream parties give a toss about them - even though it's true.

Incidentally I don't support PR because it's good for the greens but because I find the fact that millions of people have their views unrepresented in Parliament to be wrong.

Strategist said...

It's not obvious that they would benefit from AV by a long chalk.

They would most certainly benefit from PR at the moment. Depending on where you put the threshold (which might be 5% in a German-type top up system, around 8% in a London Assembly-type top-up system, possibly higher in a multi-member constituency STV system), if they could get enough votes to clear it, they would get representation.

A sophisticated argument would be to say that PR would free the Labour Party (or one wing of it) to do its proper job of representing the working class, and thereby drain away support for the BNP.

But I'm not going to make that, I'm simply going to ask - what's your point of principle here?

That all electoral systems, no matter how ridiculous, should be judged against the criterion of whether they keep the BNP from getting elected? Or that no matter how many votes they get, the BNP should never get an elected representative?

In that case, you should go down the path of trying to make them an illegal organisation. If they're good enough to be allowed to enter an election, they're entitled to be elected if they can garner enough votes.

Strategist said...

NB My post at 1.27pm above has crossed with Jim's

(who has made the sophisticated argument - and the simple argument of principle - beautifully, as ever).

ModernityBlog said...


If you seriously and sincerely believe that the BNP won't benefit from electoral changes, then I suggest writing yourself a little letter to that affect, sealing into an envelope and waiting until the changes have been bedded in.

I think you'll find that the Far Right bastards are a bit smarter than we give them credit for.

Remember the London assembly?

Strategist said...

"If you seriously and sincerely believe that the BNP won't benefit from electoral changes..."


Try reading my post, Modernity. (Clue: it says "They would most certainly benefit from PR at the moment")

Then you might also try to answer some of the questions I posed for you in it?

Jim Jepps said...

Strategist - if fairness to Mod unlike you I *am* saying that PR would undermine support for the BNP (over the long term).

However, I actually agree with you that we either ban them from standing in elections or accept they might get elected. The task of keeping the BNP down is not primarily about how to tinker with the electoral system.

I'm not saying that PR will abolish the far right, I am saying that it is areas without a thriving multi-party democracy that they have made their gains, PR (not AV) would abolish these party free zones.

London/Barking is instructive because its under FPTP that they made their big gains it's taken them far longer to get anything under the PR for the assembly and it is the FPTP parliamentary election that actually has any significance, unlike that rather sad lonely looking figure Barnbrook who has signally failed to make any headway what-so-ever.

In London at the Euros the BNP get eff-all, it's FPTP that is letting them in here not PR.

thehoatzin said...

A transferable vote?

there isn't one party I want to vote for, never mind a second choice.

I'm with Modernityblog