May 2011

To AV or AV not?

I’d intended writing something about the Osama bin Laden assassination, but figured I’d wait until the US government get their story straight. The lovely Citizen S seems to think that these daily revisions of what happened are all about sowing confusion and deliberately creating a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theories. I don’t see what Obama’s administration gains from that strategy, but I must admit that I can’t come up with a better explanation for their inability to stick to a single version for more than a few hours.

So I’ve decided to hold off on that issue until things get a bit clearer (which may never happen of course). Instead let me take a few moments to urge my UK readers to consider voting “Yes” in the referendum on the Alternative Voting (AV) system. Those of you who were paying attention in the run up to the last UK general election will recall that I advised voting for the Liberal Democrats on the single issue of electoral reform. Given how disastrous they’ve been in government, I can only apologise for that. In fact, they’ve been so disastrous that I’ve heard people seriously argue for a “No” vote on the grounds that it would punish Nick Clegg. While I completely understand the level of betrayal that many feel (remember, I voted Green in the 2007 Irish election!) “punishing Nick Clegg” is an absurd rationale for rejecting electoral reform.

Don’t get me wrong, if after careful consideration you decide that First Past The Post (FPTP) is a fairer and more democratic system than AV, then by all means vote “No” in the referendum. Frankly I consider that a mystifying position to take (you can pretty much prove on an etch-a-sketch that while AV is far from a perfect voting system, it’s definitely better than FPTP if fairness and democracy are your chief concerns) but we’re all entitled to our opinion, however ridiculous.

Thus far I’ve heard the following arguments in favour of a “No” vote…

Punish the Lib Dems

Yes, the Liberal Democrats have betrayed those who elected them. The notion that they were anything other than a bunch of free market capitalists was always deluded. That they embraced conservative economic policies and propped up a right wing government shouldn’t surprise anyone who cast an informed vote in their direction last year. So if you voted for them because you thought they were “of the left” (as many people apparently did) then you’ve not been betrayed. You were simply ill-informed. However, that the Lib Dems have so cravenly backtracked on unambiguous promises, without putting up a fight or making any sustained public objection, is a clear betrayal. And they deserve to be hung out to dry as a result.

Nonetheless, it would be utterly insane to “punish” the Liberal Democrats for breaking promises by turning your back on the one promise they kept. They secured a (desperately watered-down) referendum on electoral reform. It’s the single good thing to have emerged from this coalition of the craven. Be a shame to waste it really. After all, if you want to punish Clegg because he’s accepted a role as Cameron’s lackey, then it implies it’s Cameron you have the bigger problem with. Right? So why not punish him instead? He wants you to vote “No”.

Besides, this referendum – the first direct say you’ve had in national policy since 1974 – isn’t about Nick Clegg, or about any single political party. It’s about the political system itself. It’s about making it fairer and more representative. Allowing personality or party politics to influence your decision on this is surely defeating the whole point of a referendum. This is a free vote. No party whips. It transcends the petty grievances of today and its effects will be felt long after Nick Clegg has been consigned to an historical footnote in a dull book.

FPTP is better at producing strong, stable government

Well, let’s break that down shall we? It was the current, FPTP system that gave Britain this rather unsavoury coalition of arseholes. If you look at Cameron, Osbourne and Clegg and the words “strong and stable” are the first to come to mind then may I suggest you get yourself a more expansive vocabulary. But that’s not really the point. See, while I dispute the fact that FPTP tends to produce strength and stability, let’s assume for a moment it’s true. It begs the two word question… so what?

See, there’s no doubt that having a strong and stable government is a bonus. But it’s very much a secondary concern for those who want their democratic elections to be… well… democratic. Isn’t it obvious that the first concern should be electing a government that’s actually vaguely representative of what the people voted for? If “strength and stability” are your primary concerns, then fascist dictatorship wins that particular race every time. Seriously, if you see the production of strength and stability as being the function of an election, then why not check out Saddam Hussein’s version of democracy. It’s the same one they use in North Korea. Every few years the population shows up at the polling booth and votes for the one name on the ballot paper. Pretty much guarantees you won’t end up with a coalition.

So if you like the idea of narrowing choice and reducing representation, then it makes sense to follow the advice of the BNP and vote “No” tomorrow. Strength and stability before proportionality. It’s a fine, if slightly unwieldy slogan I guess.

AV is too complex

Perhaps the most bizarre claim of all. The “No” campaign is apparently insisting that British people are too thick to list things in order of preference. Now, I lived in the UK for a fairly long time and while I met my share of thick people there, I wouldn’t say it was more than I met anywhere else. No doubt there are people in Britain who, when asked to list their top five albums of all time, don’t agonise over whether The White Album is better than Astral Weeks but instead agonise over what the word “list” means. But there can’t be that many of them surely. Certainly not enough to warrant making them the central demographic for a national political campaign.

Here in Ireland we’ve got a semi-proportional Single Transferable Vote system with multi-member constituencies. That’s waaay more complicated than AV. But except for the people who stare at their ballot paper wondering what number comes after “1”, we all pretty much grasp it. So when someone tells you that AV is too complicated for you, they are lying to you and they are insulting you. Which means it’s unlikely they have your best interests at heart.

AV is more expensive

Nope. It’s really not. Leastways, it doesn’t need to be. Yes, the referendum itself is going to cost money, but that money’s being spent whatever way it turns out. It’s not like the treasury gets a refund if the nation votes “No”. And the notion that voting by AV will require expensive voting machines, or expensive counting machines, is complete nonsense. Sure, you can invest in those things if you want, but they’re not a prerequisite for an election under the AV system. Here in Ireland, with our even more complicated system, we manage perfectly well voting with a pencil and counting by hand. Sure, we still elect terrible governments, but sadly no voting system can stop that happening. That’s down to the quality of the candidates and the willingness of the electorate to believe any old bullshit.

Bullshit like how expensive, complex and unstable AV is.

It’s not Full Proportional Representation

No, it’s not. AV should produce a more proportional result than FPTP because it will reduce tactical voting and increase the number of “swing seats”. But it’s far from fully proportional. It won’t eliminate tactical voting completely, and there’ll still be safe seats and swing seats. But rejecting a better system because it’s not the best system doesn’t make much sense. Especially since there’s no evidence that sticking with FPTP will increase the likelihood of full PR. In reality the opposite is probably true. Rejecting AV will allow those in favour of FPTP to insist that the British people don’t want change. And some of those in favour of electoral reform will decide it’s a vote loser.

A vote for AV will strengthen the position of those who claim that Britain wants a fairer system. A vote against AV will weaken that position.

Ultimately though, it’s in your hands Britain. You have it in your power to make your democracy marginally more representative. Alternatively, you can voice your support for ‘politics as usual’. How’s that working out for you?

Posted in: Opinion