Monday, 8 February 2010

Lib Dems need to embrace the Alternative Vote while they can.

There has been much pillorying of Gordon Brown's Alternative Vote proposals on the Lib Dem blogosphere of late. On some counts the detractors are pretty much spot on. Gordon Brown is probably doing this as a desperate attempt to win over some tactical voting Lib Dems at the next election. Yes, STV would be more proportional and yes, AV could create "Anyone but X" backlashes against an incumbent government that could bring about large swings of power. The argument that AV could bring about less proportional representation than First Past the Post isn't really valid though. As soon as voters are asked to rank candidates in order of preference you can't judge proportionality by the relationship between a parties 1st preference vote share and their seat share. One of AV's strengths is that is asks more than the FPTP question: "which of the candidates that have a realistic chance of winning would you rather represented you in parliament?" It asks "How would you honestly rank the candidates in order of preference if you knew that supporting your favourite candidate over your tolerated candidate will not benefit a candidate you emphatically do not wish to represent you?" An AV result might not more proportionally represent people's first preferences, but it will certainly more accurately represent their stated preferences.

Also, we need to ask how proportional the STV - the liberal's favoured system - would be and would we really want greater proportionality. STV is not a system of proportional representation. Electoral systems do become more proportional the greater the number of representatives there are representing each seat, but where would it be proper to stop? One representative per seat is on the same continuum as 10 representatives per seat. If we don't go far enough, people will complain about their views not being represented. If we go too far we risk opening parliament up to fascists, communists, anarchists, religious fundamentalists and - if we get it properly wrong - monster raving loonys and Melanie Phillips. Do we want a dozen or so BNP MPs in parliament? Is there a point in proportionally representative democracy where people's opinions become better represented than their best interests?

How would STV work for geographically remote constituencies? Would the Western Isles remain represented by one MP while areas of London get 10? How fair would it be for the people of the Shetlands to be not only competing for their MPs' time with people on the Orkney Islands, but people on the Mainland 200 miles away?

Also, what makes you so sure the people would vote for STV? Are you certain that the voters aren't rather fond of the constituency link? The last referendum on replacing FPTP with STV was in May last year in British Colombia and was voted down by 61.3% to 38.7%. If AV were to become a reality I suspect pushing STV would be even harder and AV would not be a stepping stone to STV, but an end in itself. I think all Liberal Democrats should be happy with that.

In those countries that actually have STV already there's certainly not a consensus that it is the best political system around. Last week Mick Fealty of the Slugger O'Toole blog was a guest on the House of Comments podcast discussing electoral reform with Mark Thompson (Mark Reckons): http://houseofcomments.com/ (Feb 3 about 30 minutes in). His contribution was really rather critical of STV in Ireland, stating that it "favours the interests of the parish over the state" and that STV had created a parliament of social workers rather than a parliament of legislators. Having multiple candidates from each party running for election from each constituency often means representatives have to be slavishly attentive to their constituents and especially their local party members if they wish to gain the necessary support to be re-elected. Do we want our MPs to be spending time fussing over an unsteady constituency wall or a badly written policing bill? Are safe seats actually a good thing for democracy? How much time do MPs in marginal seats spend seeking out and grinning at fairly meaningless photo opportunities?

So STV is far from perfect, but what of AV, the electoral system that is actually on offer? Firstly, I should explain that the polls you see in the media on voting intention aren't opinion polls. They are likely behaviour polls. Every election carried out under FPTP* does not encourage the public to vote honestly for the candidate they favour. AV would grant us the right to vote for the party whose policies we genuinely support without fear of "letting the wrong one in". I for one will support honest representation whenever it is offered to me and I ask all Lib Dem MPs to do the same.

If you see safe seats as bad for democracy then you can build mechanisms into the system to combat this. By way of example, compelling two-term incumbents with substantial majorities to to go up against an alternative candidate from within their party should keep them honest whilst not harming the chances of that party being represented.

Negative campaigning could damage a party's chances of gaining second preference votes from supporters of the candidate they have attacked. Might AV bring about positive, policy-focussed campaigning?

Perhaps the most striking and important example of how AV could have changed history can be found in the American presidential elections (From Wikipedia): "In the 2000 presidential election in Florida, George W. Bush defeated Al Gore by 537 votes. Ralph Nader received 97,421 votes, which led to claims that he was responsible for Gore's defeat. Nader, both in his book Crashing the Party and on his website, states: "In the year 2000, exit polls reported that 25% of my voters would have voted for Bush, 38% would have voted for Gore and the rest would not have voted at all." " Had Nader's supporters been able to express a second preference, it seems likely that George W. Bush would not have been President of the United States of America.

First Past the Post prevents any minor party becoming a major party as in their infancy a vote in their favour will always be regarded as a wasted vote (Most dramatically demonstrated in the US). This is fundamentally undemocratic. It discourages those whose views are similar to an existing candidate's from standing as they might reduce that candidate's chances of victory. That is also fundamentally undemocratic. Should a single issue candidate wish to stand under AV they would be able to point to voters honestly voting for them as a true demonstration that the issue is important to the electorate. Under FPTP, even if people share their views, they will not be able to support them without "wasting" their vote and losing their say in the battle for first place. This is also fundamentally undemocratic.

I hope the amendment tabled by the Lib Dems to ensure that the next government is compelled to return to parliament should they wish the referendum to be shelved is passed. This bill may be the desperate act of a Prime Minister trying to cling to power, but that is no reason to vote against the greatest opportunity Britain has ever had for a better democracy.

Honest representation is essential for this country to move towards genuinely progressive politics and I will tactically vote Labour at the next election if this bill passes and I believe it will help eliminate the tactical vote from all the elections that follow. I will do the very thing I despise to hasten its demise.

We should not support this bill because it will benefit the Lib Dems, but I shall leave you with John Cleese and the thought that AV might free the voters who believe in Liberal Democrat policies to actually vote for Liberal Democrat candidates: http://bit.ly/c1o7M2


*A misnomer as their is no vote share "post" in each constituency which you need to pass. Theoretically the BNP could win a 5-way marginal with 21% of the vote. AV would be more fittingly called First Past the Post as the first person gaining more than 50% of the vote is elected.

5 comments:

Philip said...

Ok, you ask a few questions. Here’s some answers :)


Electoral systems do become more proportional the greater the number of representatives there are representing each seat, but where would it be proper to stop?


Wherever we judge it best to (in negotiation with each other), in order to make the balance between the constituency link and the representative nature of the assembly we’re electing.


Do we want a dozen or so BNP MPs in parliament?


I don’t, so I don’t vote for them. I’m a liberal and a democrat though, so I believe that if a fair number of people want to be represented by fascists, they should be. (And think they’d soon learn - q.v. the example of Burnley). I do think that numbers of people below a fair number (yes, and what is ‘fair’ is up for debate) don’t get to disrupt the polity, so thresholds are reasonable.


Is there a point in proportionally representative democracy where people's opinions become better represented than their best interests?


Yes. I’m in politics against the bankrupt interest group politics of Labour and the Tories and their idea that they know what peoples ‘best interests’ are. Our aim is a representative democracy. “Government by the people, for the people, of the people,” I heard once. To achieve that, the ideal is a democratically elected assembly which derives its legitimacy from the fact that it is a microcosm of the electorate. The only electoral system that could achieve that is STV held in a single, nationwide, constituency. Single member constituency systems ignore minorities, while PR list systems are a blunt instrument which only represent one facet (the party label) of the electorate’s views. Obviously it is impossible in practice to run STV in a constituency returning 600-odd representatives, constituencies mean the consequent introduction of a threshold, and there is public demand for MPs to be grounded in local areas - which all makes STV in smaller constituencies the most sensible solution.


Would the Western Isles remain represented by one MP while areas of London get 10?


It’s entirely fair that special geographical factors can influence constituency size. I personally think 10 is too many (I’d have a maximum constituency size of 6 - under half a million electors) for the electors to be reasonably be expected to compare all the candidates.

Philip said...


Also, what makes you so sure the people would vote for STV?


Irrelevant to a discussion on whether it is the right system.


The last referendum on replacing FPTP with STV was in May last year in British Colombia and was voted down by 61.3% to 38.7%


Which was a second referendum. In the first, 57.7% of the population supported STV but the establishment had fixed the rules for the proposition to require 60%. In Ireland, the two referendums to abolish STV and replace it with FPTP failed with 52% and 61% respectively.


Do we want our MPs to be spending time fussing over an unsteady constituency wall or a badly written policing bill?


I’d like them to be able to do more than one thing, and would hope we’ll resource them properly to deal with (to the best of their judgement) what my fellow constituents want of them at a particular time.


Are safe seats actually a good thing for democracy?


No. Next.


How much time do MPs in marginal seats spend seeking out and grinning at fairly meaningless photo opportunities?


If they’re fairly meaningless, they wouldn’t do it. They only do because that’s what their constituents want of them. Of course, the reductio ad absurdum of the implication of the last two questions is that we abolish democratically elected politicians and replace them with benign technocrats.


Are you certain that the voters aren't rather fond of the constituency link?


I think they are, which is one reason (as I said earlier) that I’m happy to retain constituencies under STV. You’re trying to have your cake and eat it here though: you can’t use this as an argument in one breath and complain about the parochialism of ‘unsteady constituency walls’, using Mick Fealty’s comments in the next.


Might AV bring about positive, policy-focussed campaigning?


You never know, it might. It’s highly unlikely that it would - check out Australia.

Oh, and here’s something which wasn’t a question, but I can’t just let go.


An AV result might not more proportionally represent people's first preferences, but it will certainly more accurately represent their stated preferences.


Not necessarily.

declineofthelogos said...

Not wanting to be rude, but this is such a blogger thing to write. Specifically your references to'Is there a point in proportionally representative democracy where people's opinions become better represented than their best interests?' and 'Do we want our MPs to be spending time fussing over an unsteady constituency wall or a badly written policing bill?'.

In these statements, you purposely denigrate the British public, and assume that their best interests are something that you, rather than they, are better placed to judge. This is not a liberal position you're holding, rather a social democratic position, and as such I'm not surprised you'd be willing to tactically vote Labour.

It's also typical of much of the blogosphere, inasmuch as it dismisses local concerns as irrelevant when compared to more exciting national policymaking. Compare this with, for example, Charlotte Gore, who clearly believes local campaigning to be beneath her, however she rationalises it. If you're not willing to engage with the concerns of the public, you'll never effect social change.

Norman Fraser said...

Ewan, I think there are a lot of highly debatable points and some downright errors in this post. One clear error is that you have not described the Cleese video correctly and have not linked to the correct address. Cleese is recommending STV and can be accessed here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NSUKMa1cYHk&feature=related

Ewan Hoyle said...

"It’s entirely fair that special geographical factors can influence constituency size. I personally think 10 is too many (I’d have a maximum constituency size of 6 - under half a million electors) for the electors to be reasonably be expected to compare all the candidates."

I was listening to David Howarth in the AV debate the other day and he suggested STV for urban seats and AV for large rurals seats. If this is the best STV solution the Lib Dems have come up with then they clearly need to get back to the drawing board. This is the most brazen anti-Labour Gerrymandering and should never have been presented as a possible solution to our electoral system issues. You can't have Labour losing half their urban seats through STV while they don't get a look in in the rural seats because they are constituencies with only 1or 2 representatives.

I do think the likely acceptance of STV is an important thing to consider when many Lib Dems are calling for the AV proposals to be rejected. It's not too bright to hold out for something which is much less achievable than to accept something which is a step in the right direction and entirely achievable.

"In Ireland, the two referendums to abolish STV and replace it with FPTP failed with 52% and 61% respectively"

That's an alarmingly high proportion of people wanting to adopt FPTP, which I hope you'll agree is a shockingly poor political system. This rather suggests the Irish regard STV as a fairly poor political system too.

My position on all this is not as someone who is massively anti-STV. I just think adherents to the Lib Dem's party line have not been sceptical enough about what STV might entail or whether it might get public support. I also don't think these people have examined the implications of AV sufficiently to realise the benefits it would bring. Each electoral system has its merits, but we have to realise we are operating in a political reality and that AV represents a great stride in the right direction, is being offered by the party in power, and would likely be supported by the voters if they understand what it represents.

Mr Decline. I believe that an MP's time should be spent more in tasks that would bring about benefits to millions rather than to one. I do believe surgeries are very important in finding out what problems people are encountering in their everyday lives and informing legislative action, but I don't believe MPs should be so desperate to please their constituents that local populism trumps the best interests of the country as a whole.

There are many people in this country who want things that are bad for them: alcohol, drugs, another tube of Pringles, the death penalty, a BNP representative in parliament. I believe that political representation should be about finding out what people need, not what they want, and acting accordingly. It doesn't take much intelligence to receive a shopping list of requests from your constituents and pass it on. A good MP should seek to identify the genuine faults in the system that create hardship and suffering and seek to fix them for the benefit of all the people of this country and beyond. Good communication with their constituents is a valuable means of gathering information with which to formulate these solutions.

Norman, I did not make an error in posting that particular John Cleese clip. I genuinely believe AV could allow closet Lib Dems to vote honestly for us and might elevate our first preference vote share to somewhere between 35 and 50%. If there are any factual errors in my post I would appreciate your drawing them to my attention.