Monday, May 02, 2011

Guest Post: Why People In Favour of PR should vote YES

This is a guest post from Cory Hazelhurst who blogs at the rather excellent Paperback Rioter. He's trying to persuade me to be less ambivalent without realising that ambivalence... well, that's my thing. Good luck to him anyway.

No2AV Yes2PR was launched by David Owen some months ago. Originally the Yes campaign decided not to challenge their arguments at all. This was decided, as I understand it, for two reasons.Firstly, it seemed like a small irrelevance at the time. Secondly, launching this group undermined all the arguments that the No camp were making: that AV would lead to more coalitions, that we need to keep FPTP etc.

Ultimately not challenging this argument has been a mistake (one of many) from the Yes campaign. It's led to many people who want electoral reform either voting No or, like Jim, have been very ambivalent about AV because it's not a proportional system.

Jim has very generously allowed me to write a piece explaining why people in favour of PR should vote Yes on Thursday.

The main argument I've heard against voting Yes on Thursday is that a Yes vote would be a roadblock to further reform. If anything, the opposite is the case.

For evidence that AV could lead to more electoral reform, people need look no further than the Political Studies Association briefing paper on the Alternative Vote. It was compiled by Dr Alan Renwick with the help of many leading political scientists, including Professors John Curtice, Simon Hix and Pippa Norris.
This is what the PSA has to say on the subject:

“It is clear that changing the electoral system is easier where change has already recently happened: the idea of reform is no longer so radical; more people are familiar with the reform options; there are fewer interests vested in the status quo. Four established democracies – France, Italy, Japan, and New Zealand – have introduced major reforms to their national electoral systems in the last thirty years. Two of these – France and Italy have subsequently instituted further major reforms, while Japan passed a further smaller reform, and New Zealand will hold a referendum creating the possibility of another major reform later this year. (p21)”

After changing the voting system in 1991, Italy changed it again two years later and again in 2005. New Zealand held a referendum to change from First Past the Post in 1992, and is holding another referendum asking voters whether they want to change the system later this year.

To say, then, that AV would be a roadblock for reform is completely missing the point. It would actually be a small but significant step towards reform in the future, and make future reform much more likely than a No vote.

Another argument I've heard on the blogosphere is that AV would hold up reform because it makes it harder to change to a proportional system:

“Truly proportional systems such as that Mixed Member, Largest Remainder or D’hont system, simply ask people to express a party preference and then use centrally controlled party lists and / or second tear ‘top-up’ constituencies to allocate seats to parties on a proportional basis. By allowing voters to rank individual candidates AV is actually a step away from these kinds of system.”

This isn't quite right though. AV would be a small but logical step towards something like Single Transferable Vote. After all, AV is STV for single member constituencies. Another logical step would be to lead to something like AV+, as recommended by the Jenkins Commission. This would be a hybrid of a list top-up system and MPs elected by, you guessed it, the Alternative Vote. So AV would still be a step forward to getting any proportional system.

I'm of the view that people should vote Yes simply because AV is a better system. However, even if you would prefer a more radical change than AV, vote Yes on Thursday, because that's the only way you're going to get it.


Jim Jepps said...

Good post.

As far as my vote goes it is still all to play for, so persuade away!

To help I'll start off with a couple of your arguments that don't move me very much (although they might someone else).

AV being STV for single seat constituencies is perfectly true. The thing is I'm opposed to single seat constituencies much more than anything else about the electoral system. I don't really like STV much either frankly and much prefer the Scottish/London/Welsh systems which use D'Hondt in their PR 'bit'.

This may sound pedantic but it is key to my skepticism. With single seat constituencies you get winner takes all elections where significant political currents go unrepresented, which actually accounts for millions of people in the UK not just not having a government they choose (that's fair enough) but not being represented at all, or grossly under represented.

When people have over-sold AV they have tended to either say things that aren't true (make your mp work harder, get rid of expenses problems, it's more proportional) or they've said things I actively don't agree with (you have to have 50% of the vote to be elected).

Alex W said...


I agree with what you are saying generally (especially that single seat constituencies are not good, especially in this day and age of instant communications and easy travel).

I disagree about STV, I think it's a good system and dislike lists of any kind as it puts a bit more power in to Party hands.

One thing that I should clear up, I know a lot of people have said that it would require 50% of the vote to win, and that this isn't true, and it is an exaggeration.. although it does make MP's likely to be elected with either 50% or closer to it than under FPTP (a quick look at figures suggests that even if 50% of people express no second preference the minimum that would be required to win would be mid 40%). The official line however has always been that it would require MP's to 'aim' for 50% of the voters support. Which I believe is a fair comment as they could not know how people will vote and how many Ballots may get exhausted.

I agree strongly with Cory (or rather the PSA report) that breaking the vested interest in a current and long standing system is significant in opening the way for further reform.

But another argument I'd make in favour of AV in providing further reform is this: being able to rank preferences and the need for parties to actually court second preferences from other voters does, in my mind, mean that people will start to think in terms of how parties can be aligned, how they can actually have similar policies and how other parties could also further your personal concerns and not just your favoured party. It also makes it more likely that party's will suggest the other party's they see themselves aligned with prior to elections rather than before, as this would help them gain second preferences.

In short I think it could eventually lead to less partisan thinking (we've already seen that break down to some extent, but to date it's expressed itself more as a disaffection with all parties). I think this is a key change in societies approach and thinking towards politics that is necessary for any PR system to be seen as attractive (because it would nearly always require some form of coalition and party agreements).

My last argument would be that the NO campaign seems to have deliberately set about to attack PR as well in this referendum. A NO vote based on their campaign against coalitions (which makes no real sense when talking about AV) seems designed to allow them to argue that people do not want, or like, coalitions, and thus PR should be off the cards as well. I think this will be a hard point to argue against. It also has a slight ring of truth... people do at the moment distrust coalitions, we need AV to introduce slowly the idea of parties having similar interests, and not being wholly unique and alien entities.

Cory Hazlehurst said...

Thanks for your response Jim, and thanks again for letting me write this guest post.

I hope I'm not over-selling AV - it's a very small step in the right direction. As this post argues, I think it's the only way we'll rectify any of the problems that we talk about. And if you want a Scottish or Welsh style system, you have to vote Yes.

Quite why we couldn't do what they did in New Zealand, and have a 2-part referendum saying "Do you want the system changing?" and "What system do you want it changing to?" I'm not quite sure. I'm going to blame that on Nick Clegg's rubbishness.

The "Make your MP work harder" think is an odd one. Obviously many MPs work many long hours - it's just about making them work better. Too many only have to rely on a core vote of 30-35% of them to win, so can ignore many of their constituency views. As you're a Green voter, your MP (whichever of the 3 main parties it is) isn't going to bother talking to you, or voicing your concerns in Parliament, because they know you'll never vote for them under the current system. Whereas under AV that same MP couldn't just ignore you, and would have to win your 2nd/3rd preference to get elected. That's the logic anyway.

That said, the Yes campaign has been pretty woeful, and has not explained clearly enough why our present system is broken (and which you do very eloquently in this response).

As I say, the only way to change that broken system is to vote Yes. If anything, it eradicates much of the tactical voting that we see under the present system. To actually vote 1st choice for a party you actually want to vote for, rather than voting merely to "keep the evil people out" is the best thing about AV from the pov of the voters.

Alex W said...

I personally disagree with the 'make MP's work harder' and this seems to be echoed on the streets.

My main concern is not so much MPs working harder, but party's who know the majority of their MPs will be elected with a mix of core supporters and almost enforced tactical voting.

I personally think this leads them to be less considerate of people when formulating their policies, and makes it easier for the party whips to enforce the party line.

I also hate the way they (party's) can campaign and go in to elections knowing that they can just say "vote for me to keep out them" I think this damages the usefulness of election campaigns to provide information to the voters. I've been told this is lazy campaigning, but to be honest it's just the most effective way or them to shore up their vote, and I blame the system for allowing it to continue to be so.