Sunday, April 17, 2011


Changing the Voting System

A Briefing on the AV Referendum 5th May 2011.

Professor Bill Jones, University of Liverpool Hope

‘The time for change is when it can be no longer resisted’? Duke Cambridge

Why has the Referendum been called?
The vote originates with the agreement to form the Coalition government in May 2010 in the wake of an election which denied any party an overall majority. Labour had already floated the idea of a referendum on the Alternative Vote as bait for Lib Dem voters’ support but following the inconclusive election result, any Labour-Lib-Dem collaboration would have left a gap which could only be made into a majority by unreliable smaller parties like the nationalists. So Nick Clegg’s party looked to the Conservatives to whose 305 seats, their added number of 57 made a very workable majority- assuming they could agree a deal.

Voting Reform: Like their predecessors the Liberal Party, the Lib Democrats railed against a voting system which gave scant reward to a party with thin national support; in 1983 the Liberal-Social Democrat Alliance won 26% of the vote but barely 4% of the seats. Reform of the voting system was therefore the Holy Grail sought by the third party and Cameron was forced to equal Labour’s offer to tempt Nick Clegg to enter the Conservative embrace. For Liberal Democrats, winning the AV referendum is a very big deal. For over half of Labour MPs however, and probably an equal number of Conservative ones, First Past the Post(FPTP) is still their preferred choice. The debate between the ‘No’ and the ‘Yes’ campaigns will escalate until 5th may when the vote will resolve it- at least for the time being. This briefing outlines the arguments for and against FPTP and the mooted Alternative Vote (AV).

The Two Systems
First past the Post (FPTP): employs a simple plurality: the candidate receiving the most votes- made by an X alongside the candidate’s name on the ballot paper- wins.

Alternative Vote (AV) entails use of numbers to list preferences among candidates. Any candidate polling over 50% first choices is elected. If no candidate gets 50% then lowest scoring one is eliminated and their second preferences are distributed as if they were ‘first’ choices. This continues until someone crosses the 50% line.

FPTP Ballot Paper:

AV Ballot Paper:

The ‘Yes’ Case

First Past the Post System Considered

A System for a Bygone Age?

‘March of Democracy’ Argument: A thousand years ago Britain was ruled by and
absolute monarch who controlled the making, implementation and interpretation of
the law. An embryonic parliament gradually acquired influence and power until it
challenged and overthrew the monarchy in the 17th century Civil War, after which
parliament exercised the upper hand over a fading monarchy. In 1832 came the Great
Reform Act, its preamble stating its objective was to ‘take effectual measures for
correcting the diverse abuses that have long prevailed in the choice of members to
serve in the Commons House of Parliament.’. The Act made voting less corrupt and
the right to vote was extended gradually until all citizens over 21 became owners of
the vote, including women after 1928. Some argue that this historic advance of
democracy still has some way to go, given the shortcomings of our present voting
system, and that further reform is necessary. The Guardian newspaper, champion of
left of centre opinion has argued that the conditions which made FPTP
democratically appropriate, have now passed.

“When every voter was either Labour or Conservative, the first-past
the-post (FPTP) system of election caused few serious injustices. With only two main parties to choose from, and with most loyalties seemingly immutable, a swing in the national mood was easily – and reasonably fairly – replicated on the opposing benches of the House of Commons. For most of the 19th century, and for several decades in the middle of the 20th, British politics was a two-horse race. If the Tories were up, Labour was down. If Labour soared, the Tories sank. Those times are over. Those circumstances no longer exist. The old Britain has fragmented and its politics have fragmented with it. Voting is more shaped by things like education, gender, age, ethnicity and cultural identity, and less by class and locality alone.” (Guardian editorial 4th April 2011)

Focus of both systems: while AV is focuses on fairness within a constituency, FPTP is concerned with overall fairness and effectiveness for the UK as a whole.

Critique of FPTP according to the ‘Yes’ campaign:
i) FPTP enables candidates to be elected on a minority-less than 50%- of the votes. Two thirds of MPs were elected in this way in May 2010, arguably ‘wasting’ the votes of each majority and rubbishing the notion of FPTP’s supposed glory: the ‘constituency-MP link’.
ii) It doesn’t eliminate coalition governments: as numbers of smaller parties grow in number and size big parties cannot gain overall majorities. Coalitions are now much more likely even under FPTP because smaller parties now regularly win around 85 seats and to govern alone a party is much less likely to win the required landslide. .
iii) FPTP means smaller parties gain only a few seats e.g. the SDP-Alliance won 26% votes in 1983 but only 4% of the seats. This means large numbers of voters who support, say, Greens, do not have MPs in the legislature, a highly undemocratic outcome.
iv) Under FPTP barely 1% of the electorate in a handful of marginal contests, decide who forms the government, while millions of voters in safe seats see their votes count for nothing. This means this small number of voters exercise disproportionate power and influence.
v) FPTP has made half seats in UK ‘safe seats for life’ unlikely to change hands.
vi) FPTP doesn’t necessarily ‘kick out’ unpopular governments; only one government with a working majority has been so dealt with in the last 100 years.
vii) It is not necessarily a barrier against extremism as BNP councillors have been elected all over the UK.

AV’s Alleged Advantages
i) Would ensure elected candidate represented the majority view of voters.
ii) Under AV every vote of every voter counts in a contest, even in safe seats.
iii) Because other preferences can be crucial candidates are obliged to reach out to other voters.
iv) However, voters do not have to list preferences for all candidates.
v) Because of the above, candidates are less likely to engage in negative campaigning.
vi) Because voters can actually vote for their second preferences, tactical voting is pre-empted.
vii) AV would not assist extremist parties as they rarely attract 2nd preferences and their small numbers of 1st choices would not win them seats.
viii) As evidence of vi) above, the BNP oppose AV.
ix) Under AV parties ‘will not be able to ignore a large number of people that they ignore at the moment’ (John Denham, Labour MP)
x) AV will encourage a convergence of views; as Denham argues further, parties: ‘will need to appeal beyond their base, politicians will be forced to look for consensus, to be more open-minded, less tribal, not so slavishly loyal to party whips.’
xi) AV does not give some voters two votes, as argued by No2AV and even Douglas Hurd. Lib Dem Jo Swinson put it his way: ‘If I ask you to buy me a mars bar but a mars is not available and I suggest you buy a Twix instead, I will not receive two bars of chocolate. A transferred vote is not a multiple vote.’
xii) AV would not cost an extra £250m as claimed by No2AV. Pencils on ballot paper would be the system not expensive voting machines from Australia.
xiii) Listing preferences is not complex; Irish voters have no difficulty in understanding their much more complex Single Transferable Vote (STV) system.
xiv) It is not an ‘alien’ system: ‘AV offers an incremental, moderate improvement and that is a terribly British way of reforming our constitution.’ ( Andrew Rawnsley, Observer, 3rd April 2011.
xv) This is the system used in clubs and societies all over the country as well as the Speaker and chairs of Select committees..
xvi) Political parties also use it widely, including the Conservative party which elected David Cameron in this way. If his election had been run via FPTP then David Davis, receiving 31% of the first vote, would now be leader and presumably prime minister!

The ‘No’ to AV Case
Alleged strengths of FPTP
i) FPTP creates strong government with coalitions uncommon.
ii) It is clearly based on ‘one person one vote’.
iii) It is simple both to understand and implement.
iv) It makes it very difficult for extremist parties to succeed.
v) It is the most widely used system in world-50 countries, including USA, Canada and India, use it.

Critique of AV according to No2AV
i) By contrast to v) above, only three countries use AV: Australia (and only for its House of Representatives), Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
ii) AV will cost an additional £250m- money which could be better spent on public services.
iii) AV is complex to understand.
iv) AV is not proportional as many people insist in believing.
v) AV is unfair in that the candidate who comes second can go on to win.
vi) AV will lead to more hung parliaments with their attendant backroom deals between politicians and not involving voters.
vii) Most voters in Australia do not list any preferences meaning that many MPs win without 50% of the votes. Rallings and Thrasher say, ‘more than 4 out of ten MPs would still be elected with the endorsement of less than half the voters.’
viii) AV would not reduce the nearly 300 ‘safe seats’ where MPs have more than 50% of the vote.
ix) AV won’t stop elections being won by swing voters in a few constituencies.
x) Silly to say votes ‘wasted’ when one’s candidate is defeated; taking part in an election always carries such a risk.
xi) AV would, if anything, accentuate ‘tactical voting’ in that 2nd and 3rd preferences would be wooed.
xii) AV would not end negative campaigning

Celebrity Backing
As in USA celebrity backing for a cause is influential. So far celebs are as follows:

For AV include: Colin Firth, Joanna Lumley, John Cleese, Helena Bonham Carter,
Stephen Fry, Billy Bragg, Edddie Izzard, Tony Robinson, Richard Wilson, Art Malik,
Kris Akabussi

Against AV and for FPTP include: Peter Stringfellow, Julian Fellowes, Darren Gough, David Gower, Tony Hadley, Michael Howard, Margaret Beckett, John Prescott

‘Winning’ if first- ‘losing’ if anything else? Several more sporting celebrities oppose AV as they think, as Cameron has argued, it denies victory to the ‘winner’, i.e. the person gaining the most 1st choices. A letter to The Times(15/4/11) denied a ‘race’ was the appropriate metaphor for an election; rather, ‘more accurately the electorate should be seen as an outsize selection panel given the task of appointing someone to work for all of us’.

Political Aspects
Oddly, this is the referendum few really want. Liberal Democrats ideally want a form of Proportional Representation, like STV or AV Plus as recommended by the 1998 Jenkins Commission or as installed for the devolved UK assemblies. Nick Clegg called it, before the election, ‘a baby step in the right direction’ and also a ‘miserable little compromise’. Conservatives oppose it as they fear a near permanent alliance between Labour and the closer soul-mates, the Lib Dems, which might lock them out of power indefinitely. Labour too fear the loss of a system whereby their power had always been gained; conservatives traditionalists on the one hand and left-wingers on the other who hope one day to capture the party and lead it in a radical direction. Some, like Austin Mitchell and David Owen, advise a vote against AV on the grounds it will delay achievement of the ‘real’ objective of proper PR.

Professsor Vernon Bogdanor in The Guardian, 12h April, however, pointed out that
even if passed and implemented, AV would ‘make little difference in most general elections’. David Sanders at Essex University ran a simulation suggesting that in May 2010 AV would have resulted only in 32 extra seats for the Liberal Democrats: 22 at the expense of the Conservatives and 10 from Labour. This is not to say that the outcome of the referendum will not have far reaching consequences Lord Rees-Mogg wrote that the Conservatives are under the most pressure on the referendum: they vcan accept council losses but ‘AV would be forever.

Andrew Rawnsley tended to agree in The Observer, 10th April:

“The outcome of the referendum on voting reform is potentially explosive for one of them whichever way it goes. A No vote will cause tremors under Nick Clegg. A Yes vote will see members of his own party accusing Mr Cameron of making a catastrophic mistake when he conceded the referendum in the first place. My guess is that a win for AV will cause more trouble for Mr Cameron than defeat would mean for Mr Clegg.”

Voting in the referendum will definitely be a worthwhile activity for people who care about their governance. At present the polls are not giving clear indications as both camps have had periods in the lead. The Times’ recent Populus poll showed a drop in ‘yes’ voters from 41% in February to 33% first week April. But on 16th April The Guardian declared the ’Nos’ to be in front.

Bill Jones April 2011

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