Mark – my words

Monthly Archives: December 2010

Referendum on AV: the disinformation campaign begins

Image of Daniel Hannan

Daniel Hannan MEP

Oh dear. I am not sure I really want to raise my head above the parapet on a matter of politics, but I just read Daniel Hannan MEP‘s blog entry in the Daily Telegraph in which he advances “Ten reasons to vote No to AV“. OK these are not his points, but he’s published them in a very visible place and and they are comprehensively wrong, to the extent that I feel strongly enough to have to start my own blog and refute them.

Below are the ten points, and my reactions to them.  The article adds a couple of further points, but as they are really nothing to do with the debate about AV, I don’t see the point of addressing those here. Incidentally, Daniel is one of my MEPs, elected, as it happens, by proportional representation. There’s irony for you.

1. AV IS OBSCURE: Only three countries in the world use AV for their national elections: Fiji, Australia, and Papua New Guinea.

Nobody’s promoting AV because it’s popular or common. That it is neither of those doesn’t make it any less valid, or less superior to the miserable First Past The Post (FPTP) system we currently suffer, and which is widely acknowledged to be archaic, simplistic and unfair. AV nevertheless has some key characteristics which make it a reasonable and worthwhile first step for the UK to take towards a voting system which is not too radically different to the current system, but it is demonstrably fairer, as was pointed out by the Jenkins Commision in 1998 – more on that later.

2. AV IS UNFAIR: Supporters of fringe parties can end up having their vote counted five or six times – and potentially decide the outcome of the election – while people who backed the mainstream candidates only get one vote.

This is a spurious, nitpicky, semantic quibble dressed up to look like an exposé of unfairness. Under AV, nobody’s vote actually counts more than once, even if it may be counted (i.e. tallied) more than once. And even people whose first preference is for the eventual winner are able to express further choices on their ballot papers.

In truth AV is fairer, because every voter has a real chance that their vote is heard and can influence the election’s outcome. Furthermore, AV makes it impossible to elect a candidate who has less than a majority of all voters’ expressed preferences (whether first, second, third, or whatever).

Under AV, supporters of fringe parties can get their voices heard, because instead of their vote being discarded when their preferred candidate fails to secure more votes than any other, their second and successive preference candidates can “inherit” that vote, thus giving those candidates an increased chance of winning. The counting goes on until one candidate has a majority of all the votes cast. AV therefore is fairer, because it simply cannot lead to the all too common fault of FPTP where a candidate who is positively disliked by a sizeable majority of voters nevertheless gets elected as a result of the majority of votes being split between a number of other candidates.

3. AV IS UNEQUAL: AV treats someone’s fifth or sixth choice as having the same importance as someone’s else’s first preference – but there is a big difference between positively wanting one candidate to win and being able to ‘put up with’ another.

More nonsense. The prevalence of tactical voting under FPTP makes it clear that people quite often choose to vote for a candidate who is not their first choice, in order to try to deny victory to a candidate they positively disapprove of.  The tragedy of FPTP is that it gives voters who favour minority candidates an often impossible choice, because if they vote for their first preference candidate, they can be fairly sure that their vote will count for nothing. That’s truly unequal and unfair. See http://www.voterpower.org.uk to learn just how widely the value of a vote can vary under the current system. AV will not fix the problem that the votes of those who voted for candidates other than the eventual winner are ignored, but it does let voters simply and straight-forwardly express their real preferences without having to vote negatively or tactically. Surely that has to be better?

4. AV IS ‘EVEN LESS PROPORTIONAL’ THAN THE CURRENT SYSTEM: So concluded the independent Royal Commission chaired by the senior Liberal Democrat Roy Jenkins in 1998.

The Jenkins Report says that AV can be (not “is”) even less proportional than the current system, but only “under some circumstances,” which involved estimates of how voters might have cast their additional preference votes in the 1997 election under a putative AV system.  Jenkins makes no suggestion that AV is always less proportional than FPTP, because it manifestly isn’t. Indeed Jenkins has far more positive things to say about AV than Daniel Hannan would like you to believe. Read the report for yourself here: http://www.archive.official-documents.co.uk/document/cm40/4090/contents.htm.  Jenkins’ final recommendation was for a form of AV called AV Plus (which we are not currently being offered) but it would be entirely false to say that the potential non-proportionality of simple AV was a “conclusion” of the Jenkins Commission.

5. AV IS ‘DISTURBINGLY UNPREDICTABLE’ – another warning from Roy Jenkins. Elections fought under AV would either wildly increase the majority of the winning party (e.g. Labour in 1997, the Tories in the 1980s) or create hung parliaments by giving the balance of power to the third party.

And who says unpredictability is bad? Only the supporters of the traditional major parties, who, let’s face it, have had things their own way far too easily and for far too long. Of course they would very much like things to continue cosily as before. But if elections were completely predictable, there would be no point in having them! Say what you like about hung parliaments, more often than not they reflect the collective view of the electorate. They give politicians the message that voters trust none of them sufficiently to grant them an absolute majority, and they would just like them to get on with running the country to everyone’s benefit by a process of consensus and compromise.

6. AV IS NOT WANTED – EVEN BY THE YES CAMPAIGN: Before the general election, Nick Clegg described AV as “a miserable little compromise” and the Electoral Reform Society said they did “not regard it as suitable for the election of a representative body, e.g. a parliament”.

Again, nobody’s putting AV forward as the absolute best system. However it’s a lot better than FPTP, and it’s the only option that we’re being given. To reject it on the grounds that it’s not perfect would be like a bronze or silver medal winner refusing to accept their award because it’s not gold. In fact the Electoral Reform Society endorses AV as an improvement over FPTP. See their website article, which states: As a membership organisation, we’ve asked our members whether we should offer our full support to winning the referendum on AV. The result was an emphatic YES!

7. AV IS NO-ONE’S FIRST CHOICE: AV was not in the manifestos of either the Conservative Party or the Liberal Democrats. Many people who want voting reform have spent years campaigning for proportional representation – which AV is not.

Agreed, but once more, we are where we are, and AV is still a better choice than FPTP. The truth is that Conservatives want to stick with FPTP because it is of immense electoral benefit to them, and of course they will campaign for a “No” vote in the referendum. The LibDems would rather have a properly proportional system such as STV, but they didn’t win the election, so they are not in any position to insist on that. Before the last election, Labour had promised AV in a clumsy attempt to curry favour and tactical votes from LibDems, and having failed to win the election and failed to secure a coalition with the LibDems, they are now backpedalling as fast as they can from AV, and they will also campaign against a “Yes” vote.  In the confusion of the coalition negotiations, it appears that the Conservatives offered the LibDems a referendum on AV in order to to equalise their attractiveness as partners. So the fact that we are being offered a second-best option is actually everyone’s fault but the LibDems. Fortunately that needn’t stop the referendum result being a resounding “Yes”, because this time the voters will get to choose.

8. AV IS COMPLEX: The Government will have to spend millions of pounds explaining to voters how AV works to prevent a fall in turnout at elections. In Australia, the only reason they have high turnout is because they made voting compulsory.

AV is not complicated. Most people will readily grasp the concept of ranking candidates in order of preference, and that’s really all they need to understand. AV can be explained very easily, the more so if the Conservative party and the Tory press would refrain from muddying the waters with disinformation like this article.

I’d also suggest that far from causing a fall in turnout, AV will improve it, because people will understand that (at last!) their votes can have an influence, so there will be some point in going out to exercise them.

9. AV IS EXPENSIVE: Under AV we won’t be able to count ballot papers by hand on election night if we want a quick, decisive election result. Local councils will have to purchase electronic counting machines that are very expensive and prone to malfunction.

Untrue. AV can readily be tallied by hand. In all but safe seats there will be additional rounds of counting, but we already manage to do recounts by hand, and the reallocation of second, and if necessary subsequent preference votes is essentially no different. No council will be forced to purchase counting machines, and indeed should they choose to do so, they would surely be irresponsible if the equipment they bought was less than accurate and reliable. Plus, do we really want a “quick, decisive election result” if it’s wrong, and gives power to a party which the majority of the electorate doesn’t support and didn’t vote for?

10. AV IS NOT THE REFORM WE NEED: There are lots of genuine reforms which would go some way to restoring people’s trust in politics – but changing our voting system to AV is not one of them. That’s why it’s a shame that we’re about to spend £90 million and five months debating a system that nobody really wants.

But we are where we are. It would be great to have a proper debate about a new voting system for UK parliament, but vested interests have seen to it that this will not happen. The sad truth is that a proper proportional system becomes a more remote prospect if the referendum turns out in favour of a switch to AV. However FPTP is frankly so bad, that the sooner we’re rid of it the better.

As you may have gathered, I am going to be campaigning for a “Yes” vote in the AV referendum, and if you would like to help, please visit the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign website and sign up!