Thursday, 3 March 2011

AV weakening the vote? A response to Spiked

I've already made it clear on this blog that the people that irk me the most are those that are pro-reform but wish to stand against AV. I think it's immature, senseless...but at least in the case of Spiked they have given some actual reasoning to this stance. As with most of these types of things though, no chance to reply other than via letters to the editor, so I'm going to just make my response here.

Spiked's main assertion is this...

moving towards an AV system would make British politics even less democratic and open than it is.

And it's one that I stand very much against. Their first mistake comes when describing the functionality of the system, stating the process the system goes through to pick a winner, ending with...

someone eventually wins, even if many of ‘his’ votes were cast very half-heartedly for him.

It's that age old problem with perspective, in that those who are against AV seem to have a false perspective on what is happening with AV. They get confused and thrown by the presence of preferences and decide they have the omnipotence to decide that they know everyone using preferences only "half" cares about those they are voting for after their first preference.

I invite, again, people that say this to bring forward any proof that the same situation isn't happening right now under FPTP, and that it wouldn't happen under any other single member constituency, single vote system. I invite them because it is impossible for anyone to judge or second guess how much people care about their candidates in such systems, and especially impossible to judge how much one person's "heart" is in it when they vote compared to another.

What system best encourages the creation of popular, properly representative assemblies? It categorically is not AV.

Absolutely true. But as per my previous post on how "childish" this argument is...sometimes we don't get offered the best. Sometimes we get offered "better". To do this kind of "toys out of the pram" and "side with the enemy" action because of that is immaturity at best.

Probably the best electoral system for Britain, in place of the First Past The Post system we currently have, would be some variant of proportional representation.

Spiked here now show their narrow scope on this debate. Ignoring, as many do, the forthcoming debates on Lords reform, they assume that the only answer for our WHOLE democratic system is for PR to apply to the House of Commons. Except there is one problem with this... it is clear that the one thing people don't like when it comes to electing an executive is coalitions.

Now I don't mind coalitions, I like their safety in the current system we have, but people do very much seem to want to have a clear single party government. PR systems do not achieve this under Britain's political landscape, they would produce coalitions each and every time. As I say, not a problem for me, is a problem for many other people. The idea that we're going to get a robust representative system if all we do is harp on about the House of Commons as if it's the be all and end all is self defeating.

There are strong reasons to say that the best electoral system for the House of Commons in Britain is AV. It ensures local people get an MP that is most in tune with their politics, and in turn ensures that the national government is a true popular executive. Combined with PR and a fully elected house of Lords we move the onus on representation and balanced legislature to a different house...a house that is able to act solely as a barrier between over-zealous government and us as people not being listened to fairly.

Spiked show their limitations here by simply pinning PR in the House of Commons as a panacea to our woes.

However, introducing AV in Britain would unquestionably be a change for the worse. It would make things less democratic, in two important ways:

Oh pray tell, how?

firstly through its impact on the act of voting, which would turn from being an impassioned statement into a watered-down listing of candidates you like, kind of like and dislike

Again, here's the assumption that right now people aren't forced to make a "watered-down" choice under FPTP. It's a flawed premise to start from. It is just as likely that AV will lead to more people being able to make true impassioned statements, indeed with a certain percentage already making a tactical vote under FPTP, it seems bizarre to think that AV would lessen the amount of "impassioned statements" people make.

and secondly through its impact on the act of deciding, which would more and more become a post-election, closed-off process of sifting through people’s preferences to try to decipher which candidate sort of represents the electorate’s desires.

What beautiful use of language. I could apply the exact same language to every system, and certainly more so to any PR system that Spiked would rather have. I'm absolutely at a loss as to how this is even an argument against anything other than the process of counting the votes when you could just make an educated guess instead.

AV would weaken the vote by implicitly inviting people, not to stamp their ballot paper with a heartfelt X for their party, but to scribble numbers next to various candidates, regardless of whether they feel very much for them. Voting would become less a declaration of belief and more a hedging of political bets.

If they don't feel very much for them they can always not vote for them, no-one is forced to put down a number against every candidate. Furthermore, FPTP already makes people do this kind of preferential determination, but instead of having the safety of potentially making an impact with their real first choice, as AV allows, they have to abandon it with FPTP in order to help keep a candidate they dislike out.

And let's not get this wrong...if a voter wishes to have a candidate that is someone they "half like" because they *hate* another candidate that might win, that is an entirely fair and reasonable decision for them to make in a single member constituency system. AV at least let's people vote first for their passionately loved candidate and then for a candidate that keeps a terrible one out of office, instead of forcing people to choose.

How this is a "weakened" vote I simply cannot fathom.

In keeping with our era of ideology-lite, where strong political convictions are seen as weird, voters will be tempted away from their so-called ‘tribal allegiances’ towards the expression of a more relativistic sentiment.

This statement is so ridiculous it's like it's here for comedy value. Rather than people having to come to a "best guess" consensus to abandon their political convictions, AV provides people the opportunity to really put their political convictions on show. Letting people show their full opinion isn't about limiting your expression, it's about letting your full expression flourish.

How exactly do tribal allegiances lessen under a system where you can always put your flag in the ground and let that allegiance fly, compared to a system where sometimes you have to abandon it to save yourself from a worse situation?

Which political party will risk standing a hardcore individual – a deep-blue Tory or a workerist Labourite – when it knows that if its candidate fails to secure 50 per cent of the vote in the first count then the views of other parties’ voters may become key?

Parties that understand the electorate, and that understand that under AV you need a strong initial following to have any chance of being elected. AV doesn't make politicians more middle ground, unlike FPTP which saw every politician failing to answer the question on where the defecit would be cut, all of them agreeing roughly on what would be cut, and none of them committing one way or another to issues like tax rises.

To me it's a non argument, politicians that stand out will draw votes, those that polarise will rightly not gain majorities. This is not a problem with having fair representation on a local level.

AV would implicitly encourage the homogenisation of political life.

It's hard to get more homogenised than we are now, yet interestingly AV allows these candidates of many a colour to stand against each other without harming the result.

Personally I don't see homogonisation, I see a situation like we saw in London for the first Mayoral election. Faced with the new AV-lite Supplementary Vote system, Labour wanted a safe bet to get the position and dropped their support for Ken Livingstone. He ran as an independent. His much more left wing views went well with the public, and the supporters of Frank Dobson and others placed their second preferences for Ken knowing that they'd prefer him to a Tory mayor.

This is a working example of how preferential voting allows stand out candidates to really stand out. Homogonisation? Nah, I see many more independents standing because they haven't got the official support of their party, and forcing the debate to focus on local and key national issues that would otherwise get swept up in the three-party consensus of what is acceptable to say to the electorate.

Under AV, the emphasis will inevitably shift from politicians appealing directly to the public for their outright political support and towards candidates cosying up to each other, striking deals, saying ‘get your people to give me their second-preference votes, and I’ll get mine to give them yours…’ AV has a built-in tendency towards oligarchical relationship-building over direct, passionate, people-oriented electioneering.

So let me get this straight. Electioneering will move AWAY from appealing directly to the public by politicians trying to strike deals on preference transfers and encouraging, DIRECTLY, the public to follow their wishes. Excuse me if I think this is a logical failure on behalf of the writer.

Clearly, if the parties are trying to organise preference swaps they need to also convince the electorate of this. And with this, at the end of the day, it's still the public who decide who they want to put in each preference...they have the final say. Sorry, but this idea of politicians not having to concentrate very much on the electorate, when the percentage of swing voters changes from 5% to 25%, is rubbish.

Finally, AV would transform the traditional act of counting votes into a political form of tea-leaf-reading.

Nothing like a nice bit of hyperbole in the morning.

The people’s will would become something that is not so much clearly expressed in the election itself, in the act of voting, but rather something that is worked out after the election by officials and experts.

No, it is worked out by the mathematical construct clearly defined and re-creatable by anyone that has access to the data. The process of counting is absolutely no different to counting for FPTP, except that "mini-ballots" are taken after each round of counting to redistribute the votes for the least popular candidate.

Indeed AV is simply a round by round series of FPTP elections, where if there is no clear winner the weakest candidate is eliminated, leaving the popular candidates in, and re-testing who the most popular is. Read more on why AV is a simple and fair system here.

Politics would become less open, less forged in the public realm, and more an act of elite deciphering of what ‘the people’ seemingly prefer rather than want. We could easily end up with representatives that no one truly, passionately, wants.

Absolute bollocks.

If there are four candidates... Bob, Wendy, Jim and Carol, and under FPTP we find that Bob is the winner and Carol is the absolute loser...this to Spiked would be an "impassioned expression" for Bob. Yet we don't know that those that voted for Carol wouldn't have voted for someone else if Carol wasn't there. AV pretends Carol wasn't there, and the second round is another FPTP election between Bob, Wendy and Jim. Now, with Carol gone and people having to think about who they'd vote for without her there, Wendy wins.

If this were a FPTP result it would be "impassioned", it wouldn't be "closed" or "less forged in the public realm". These kind of descriptions are scare tactics to try and distract from the simple fact that AV, in terms of how it's working out who the winner is, is not more than a stones throw from FPTP. It's process is one that always picks the MP people truly and passionately want more than the main competition on the table, when compared head to picks the most popular MP out of the most popular MPs.

And even if we did end up with an MP that no-one did passionately want, is this a worse situation than an MP that most people passionately dislike?


I'm glad someone wrote up their thoughts on this from a pro-PR but "voting No"'s just a shame that so much of the argument is clearly subjective hyperbole that also applies to FPTP, with subjective opinion that isn't based on real life examples like the London mayoral election of 2000, and while seemingly wishing to ignore that it is always more representative, and locally fairer, for an MP to be mostly liked in their constituency than mostly hated.

Combined with a narrow view on what reform is necessary and sustainable, the whole article reads like a stance against any reform that isn't PR for the House of Commons...and as I said at the top of this article, that's simply childish.


  1. Excellent article Lee. Some great points there; bringing up the idea of a PR election for the upper chamber (it wouldn't then be a "House of Lords", would it?) might help to sway some of the No2AV-because-Yes2PR camp to see sense!

  2. Hah, I guess not House of Lords no...but House of Representatives feels a little too international! :)


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