Thursday, 30 December 2010

Nick Cohen's "failure" to appreciate the complexities of reform

Nick Cohen has released a piece for the spectator that gloriously highlights the 2 dimensional style of argument that those in the "No" campaign for the upcoming AV referendum display. I have no idea if Nick Cohen supports Yes or No camps, but his piece might as well be written by the more short sighted and mischeviously misleading parts of the No side.

You can read the Nick Cohen piece here, though I'll be fisking it below...

Over on Coffee House my colleague Dan Hodges notes that a large chunk of the Parliamentary Labour Party has come out against AV, and speculates that their stand will help the “No” campaign.

A fair argument, given that it's clear that Labour voters/supporters are torn and don't yet understand the benefits the Left in this country can gain through a more preferential voting system due to the current standing of opinion in the UK.

So it may, but he is missing the true danger to the “Yes” campaign, which lies with its friends rather than its enemies. To be blunt, the supporters of “reform” are at best deluded and at worse rank hypocrites.

And so begins the start of a strawman argument based on only half a reality.

The alternative vote solves no problems and remedies no grievances.

Straight out of the blocks and in to a lie. The alternative vote, AV, remedies one extremely important grievance and problem...that of lack of surety over an MP being elected who is supported by their constituency. FPTP allows MPs to be voted with only 35% of the vote in some cases, and thus all we know is that at least 35% of the constituency support them. AV ensures we know the MP elected has the most support possible (with some caveats).

It is an unlovely and unloved electoral system, as the voters of New Zealand showed when their government gave them the chance to choose how they cast their votes. New Zealanders were interested in all kinds of reforms to first-past-the-post but dismissed AV with scorn.

New Zealand were offered two referendums to ensure an absolute clarity of decision. The first was whether to move away from FPTP, to which they voted overwhelmingly by 84.5% to 15.5%. They were then asked (ironically under a FPTP system) which type of system they would like. AV lost out, unsurprisingly, as it was the shortest move away from FPTP.

Does this mean anything to us? New Zealand, a country that legalizes brothels, is a very different country to our own politically...I'm always loathed to make comparisons between different countries as easily as Nick Cohen does, it doesn't offer any relevance to ourselves and our own unique situation.

Which is all AV deserves because no one in their hearts believes it is the best or fairest way to produce a government, least of all the constitutional reformers behind the “yes” campaign?

So back to the New Zealand issue here, they were offered several good systems and definitely didn't back the worst of those. This was after a referendum that simply asked if people wanted to move away from FPTP.

Have we been asked this? No. Our referendum is unfortunately two questions in one. Some can interpret it as "Do we want to move away from FPTP" and others "Do we want to move to AV". The question specifically asks the latter, but it is the former that will be in reformers minds.

People like myself, who would prefer more proportional representation in our parliament, know that reporters like Nick he has evidenced in this article...will spin from a "No" result. While he talks here about the AV question, it is the "Keep FPTP" answer that will be the headline.

Does AV deserve to be dismissed when compared only to other more proportional systems? Yes, absolutely. Does it deserve to be dismissed when put up against FPTP, a non-preferential and non-proportional system that is clearly worse than AV in every way other than in terms of absolute simplicity and logistics (two arguments that we should be EXTREMELY worried to be included in the debate about our democracy)?

No, it most certainly deserves to be heard...

They believe, as I believe, that the fault with first-past-the-post is that it produces governments with large majorities on a minority of the popular the vote.

This is part of what we believe.

AV does not solve that the problem because it is not proportional.

On a national level it is certainly not proportional. On a local level it is more proportional...or as more appropriately described, it contains a fuller level of opinion from constituents to form a more representative outcome than under FPTP. Indeed AV, on a single member constituency level, is almost the best system for ensuring representative democracy is accurate.

Indeed in some circumstances, it makes unrepresentative governments more powerful.

Now Nick here is mixing up terms. Notice how suddenly he uses the term unrepresentative governments, a term that is only accurate if using the FPTP form of the term? Previously it was about proportionality.

There is no denying proportionality is out of the window with both AV and FPTP, except by pure chance. But this is due to our system of one MP per one constituency. We are not voting for a proportional make up of the House of is impossible to guarantee or ensure such a thing with a simple one MP/one constituency system!

But AV would make it as representative a parliament, and therefore government, as could be under this single member constituency environment. Each constituency will have guaranteed the MP they sent to parliament has their explicit support, that the MP definitely represents the type of politician that the constituents wish to have.

And let's not even get in to the idea of representative governments being tosh, I can only assume Nick here has mixed up his terms by accident, because unless a government is made up of all different parties elected in their proportion of the vote...most likely becoming paralysed in the process, then government itself will never be truly representative anyway!

To understand how imagine a popular party leader heading for a resounding victory. It is not just the people who vote for his party who quite like the look of him. Many of those voting for rival parties will have soaked up the mood of the times. They too will see his appeal and under AV will be able to give him their second preferences, and deliver more seats to his party.

And here's that "what are MPs elected for" problem highlighted again. This referendum only allows us to choose between two single member constituency systems...the idea of the make up of parliament being fair or proportional flew out of the window with that question being affirmed.

If a party leader sails to a resounding victory, picking up extra seats because of second preferences, it's because we're forced to keep to a system that means we're technically not electing a party to rule us, but an MP to represent us. If 600 constituencies under AV decide that they would prefer a Tory MP (after preferences) more than any other MP, that would be a massive majority of Tories in parliament. It's most likely not proportional (based on first preferences alone) but it is what each constituency has, by majority, decided they want for their parliament.

This is not unrepresentative, far from it, it is the country saying that based on initial opinion, and the prospect of other MPs that they don't like...these are the MPs each section of our country want to be in power.

This was precisely the position Tony Blair found himself in 1997. Lord Jenkins in his report on electoral reform in 1998 concluded that far from making the 1997 Parliament more representative, AV would have “swollen the already sizeable Labour majority”.

However, as Labour popularity waned that swell may have deflated much quicker than under FPTP, the people may have got a sooner chance to get rid of Labour. Alternatively it may be the case that at the 2010 election most of the population were still Left leaning (this is my belief) and that Labour wouldn't have lost power due to more people having a greater say over exactly which MP they prefer over the others, without votes being split unfairly due to simple geographical statistics.

‘A 'best guess' projection of the shape of the current Parliament under AV suggests on one highly reputable estimate the following outcome with the actual FPTP figures given in brackets after the projected figures: Labour 452 (419), Conservative 96 (165), Liberal Democrats 82 (46), others 29 (29). The overall Labour majority could thus have risen from 169 to 245. On another equally reputable estimate the figures are given as Labour 436, Conservatives 110, Liberal Democrats 84 and others 29, an overall majority this time of 213. On either basis an injustice to the Liberal Democrats would have been nearly two-thirds corrected (their strictly proportional entitlement was 111 seats) but at the price of a still greater injustice to the Conservatives.’

Injustice, how it can even be said to be injustice while comparing the purpose of single member constituency voting systems to proportional outcomes is laughable. There is no injustice is Tories being unpopular over-all in a constituency by constituency basis therefore being appropriately under-represented in parliament.

The injustice right now is that a Tory, Labour or Lib Dem MP can hold less than 50% support, meaning that over half the constituency actively LOATHE that MP, yet still get in to power....yet that this is being paraded as a virtue of our current system over AV.

Remember, this is about voter opinion forming a more representative outcome in their constituency...we have no option in this referendum to guarantee proportionality either way.

There were other problems too – Tories in Scotland and socialists in Surrey would still have wasted their votes under AV

An absolute lie here again. But then I guess it's how you define a "Tory" isn't it? To Nick it would appear that Tories are people that would only vote Tory, the Tory party members themselves. What about those voters who would prefer a Tory style MP in their constituency but currently know that their vote for a Tory would be lost under FPTP? Perhaps those Tory supporters still vote Tory, but in doing so they split the vote.

Take, for example, Stirling

It used to be Tory once upon a time, but is no longer. Labour won the vote, but without an absolute majority. Do the Tories there want Labour to win, or would they prefer the SNP? Under FPTP their opinion on what they prefer doesn't matter. Under AV, those Tories may want to give Labour a bloody nose and give their preference to the SNP who they'd prefer over Labour. If they did so (with some help also from the Lib Dems) the SNP could have taken the seat, further helping any chance of a national Tory majority.

Now, tell me again...which system out of FPTP or AV leaves a Tory voice wasted?

– but let us stay with Lord Jenkins’ objection and relish the hypocrisy of the “Yes” campaign.

Much as I have been relishing in the out and out lies and misrepresentation by Nick Cohen (shared by the No campaign)....

We now have supposed constitutional reformers lobbying for a change to the electoral system that can exacerbate the worst features of the old regime they claim to oppose.

The system is not proportional as it stands. If we remain with FPTP then geographical chance can lead to the same disproportionate results that Nick claims AV can result in. You cannot make an argument one way or another...either as a Yes or No campaigner...about proportionality while the question is what it is.

What we constitutional reformers can hope for is a greater voice for the electorate, with our wider opinions making a difference even if our first choice isn't popular. Is it really a hypocritical and ridiculous thing to wish for more power to the people?

They know this. They have read the Electoral Reform Society’s pamphlets and argued at meetings in draughty halls about the virtues and vices of various electoral changes. Yet they persist in recommending that the public vote “yes” for a system which Nick Clegg once described as “"a miserable little compromise”.

Because miserable little compromise or not, it's still a step towards a greater voice to us, the voters, in forging for ourselves a representative parliament that we each, individually as constituencies, can be happy with.

Eventually, even the nodding dogs of the BBC are going to have to ask them why they are abandoning principles they have supported for decades, and recommending that voters support a system they once opposed.

More two dimensional, overly black and white misrepresentation. Am I abandoning my principles? How can I abandon my principles when the only options I've been given are between two potentially disproportional systems? None of us in the Yes camp are saying "Well actually we now believe AV is the best system around", it's a complete fabrication and an insult for Nick to paint us in this image.

We have a question before us, we have an opinion on which is the best answer...and that answer is Yes. Our principles are still here, we want greater power to voters, AV delivers that, it doesn't abandon it.

I have heard only two honest answers, which both reek of desperation. The first is that any change is better than no change

It's desperation to make positive steps forwards? Perhaps we should tell that to homosexuals that have the right to civil partnerships, and the benefits that come along with that union, without still having (disgracefully) the right to marry? Is it desperation that we at least support this interim step?

even if it is a change for the worse.

...When looking at only ONE aspect of the change, and then assuming a whole scenario that may or may not change in the future. Isn't it funny that Nick can describe this as a change for the worse when a change in public opinion in 5, 10 or 15 years time could suddenly mean FPTP is the system delivering bloated majorities?

The second is that AV referendum was all Cameron would offer the wretched Clegg, and they are stuck with it.

Are we not stuck with the question we've got? Does being stuck with the question change our ability to objectively work out for ourselves what the best answer is?

Nick insults the Yes campaign here by misrepresenting our arguments, putting words in our mouths and then lying through absence of the complete picture.

The moment of danger for the “Yes” campaign will not come when old Labour MPs announce their support for the status quo, but when journalists start exposing the fraught and insincere arguments of the supporters of “reform”.

I can only hope that journalists leading up to May have more integrity to report the full facts about the referendum question and it's two systems, rather than the strawman laden hatchet job Nick Cohen has written here.


  1. This is excellent, really excellent. The only trouble is one I face with my own blog posts, which is anyone ready to read it and take in all the detail is intelligent enough to work it all out for themselves before hand.

    Still, it's a great piece!

  2. I've been seeing AV in a much more favourable light recently, but if as someone from the right of politics (nobody's perfect!) I'd dismissed it because of the advantages or benefits it gives to those on the left you'd have surely (and correctly) dismissed that as irrelevant?

  3. Thanks Ben, I think the core argument..that of AV being better for voter choice and an easier one to take to the doorsteps.

    Phil: Tough question to answer. I don't see the argument of redressing the balance of our power-giving as irrelevant. If AV gives more power to the left I believe it'll be because there are more left leaning people out there having their vote split in constituencies. But then I'd still support the system if the opposite was happening.

    I guess I'm a little bit "the ends justify the means", and therefore I can't begrudge Tory voters voting against AV for tribal reasons, if I'm going to tactically encourage Labour voters to consider their short term benefit from voting Yes. TBH though, in an ideal world I'd encourage both to vote yes solely on the realities of it's greater power driven from Westminster back to the people themselves.


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