01 February 2011

Conservative Dishonesty?

I know, 'dishonesty' may be too strong a word. Maybe 'stupidity' is the right one, though given how certain things work in their favour...

I'm talking about AV, of course. The Conservatives, in the main, don't want it. They are willing, under pressure, to seek the people's opinion on the matter, but they're not inclined to encourage them to vote for it. They must like systems where they might potentially get to govern despite not having received a majority of the popular vote since 1931.

The thing is, they know that First Past The Post is rubbish. How can we tell? Well, consider how they pick their leaders: sure, they give the members a straight choice between two candidates, but how do they pick those candidates when more than two people want the leadership? They ask the MPs, of course, and the MPs don't vote in a First Past The Post system. No, they use a slightly clunkier version of AV.

The candidates stand and the parliamentary party votes, and the least popular candidate is eliminated, and then the remaining candidates stand and the MPs vote again, and the weakest of these is eliminated, and so on, until they reach a point where there are only two candidates left. And only then, at the point where First Past The Post actually works, do they ask the ordinary party members to choose between the last two candidates.

Which, of course, is what happens in an AV system, except more quickly. It's an instant run-off, a streamlined version of the Conservative Party's own system for picking leaders. And this does matter.

Take 1997, for instance, where on the first count, Ken Clarke got 29.9% of the vote, making him the most popular candidate, but as we all know, this meant that the vast majority of members of the Parliamentary party voted for somebody else, so Michael Howard, the least popular candidate, was eliminated and Peter Lilley withdrew. On the second count, then, after transfers, Clarke was still the leading candidate, with 39% of the vote, but the fact was that more people had still voted for somebody else than voted for Clarke, and so a third count was needed. That headbanger Redwood was eliminated, then, and it wound up as a straight contest between Clarke and William Hague, and this time, although Clarke increased his share of the vote to 44.2%, Hague outstripped him and got 55.2%, so that he became leader.


Leaving aside how that went, what we can say is that if this had been a straight First Past The Post count, then Clarke would have been leader, rather than Hague. I don't think there's any value in claiming that people would have voted differently had the system been First Past The Post: I think we have to assume that people's votes actually mean what they're meant to mean, which is that you give your vote to the person you think best fitted to the job, transferring to the person you regard as next best if your ideal candidate is ruled out, all the way down in order of preference.

The Tories changed their system in 1998, to allow ordinary members to choose at the final stage, once the MPs had used this runoff system to winnow the candidates down to two. In other words, it was still a runoff system, albeit with the final stage being based on a much larger pool of voters.

Along comes 2001, then, with the new system being deployed. Michael Portillo was leader in the first count, with 30.1% of the vote, though he was eliminated on the next count, in which Ken Clarke took the lead, with 35.5%. With the candidate pool winnowed down to two, again, it became a straight vote between Clarke and Iain Duncan Smith, which Duncan Smith won.

So, yet again we see that if the Conservatives used First Past The Post in their own internal elections, they'd have picked Michael Portillo as leader in 2001. But they don't. Because they know it's unrepresentative and results in people getting elected by a minority of voters.

Michael Howard, he of the least support in 1997, was anointed as leader in 2003, without any opposition, and then things get interesting again in 2005. With 31.3%, David Davis got more votes than any other candidate in the first round, though the elimination the least popular candidate, Ken Clarke, shook things up in the second round, as the MPs who had voted for Clarke in the main decided that if Clarke couldn't be leader, then they could accept David Cameron, so he became the frontrunner for the final face-off, with the whole party voting. He won in that round, of course, by a long way, but the fact remains that based on the initial vote, David Davis got more votes than him.

Ultimately, this is effectively the same system used in selecting individual candidates at constituency level. It's a run-off system, not a crude First Past The Post charade, where there isn't even a post to pass. Basically, the Conservatives obviously like run-off voting systems, as that's what they use for all their own elections, but when they have to compete for votes against people who have slightly different viewpoints, well, then things change, and unrepresentative crudeness becomes regarded as a virtue:
The fact is, FPTP is simple to understand and gives a clear result most of the time, which is true. As indeed does picking a name from a hat. Or throwing a dart at a dartboard. In fact, if you put names in a hat in direct proportion to the votes people got, picking the name from the hat would in all probability be fairer than FPTP.
It's sad, really. Look, I don't think AV is a great solution. I think AV+, as recommended by Parliamentary Commissions, would be far better. And I actually think the system we use in Ireland would work far better in the UK than it does at home, as every polity has its vices and our system nurtures ours. But still, I think AV would be a far fairer system than what the UK has currently got, where only a third of MPs are elected with the support of most of their voting constituents, where more people vote for defeated candidates than victorious ones, and where the Conservatives can get 47% of the seats with just 36% of the vote. 

And then complain that the system is set up against them.

1 comment:

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