01 April 2011

AV 1: AV and the Silent People

The AV Referendum's more than a month away, and I'm already tired of it.

I'm tired of the lies, and the misinformation, and the hypocrisy. I'm tired of the ignorance, and the stupidity, and the confusion. I'm tired of people masking vested interests beneath a veneer of principle, and of good people standing shoulder-to-shoulder with liars and making liars of themselves.

I'm sure that the British people -- or whatever fragment of them bothers to vote next month -- are going to reject voting reform. I'm certain of it. But why? What would a no vote mean?

Would it mean that if Nick Clegg wants Alternative Voting then you don't?
Great. Cut your electoral noses off to spite your Lib Dem faces, why don't you? Presumably you've already stopped eating Spanish food and Hob Nob biscuits, because, y'know, Clegg likes them.

Would it mean that you're rejecting AV because it's not PR and that's what you most want? You know, the David Owen approach?
Wonderful. Make the perfect the enemy of the good, why don't you? You know full well that your 'no' to AV will be read as a 'yes' for the status quo. You don't think the government are planning on doing a survey, like in Ireland after Lisbon I, to find out why people voted against the government's proposal, do you? No, they'll interpret it to suit their own purposes.

Would it mean that you think people should only ever be allowed vote once?
Come on, surely you're not thick enough to fall for that. As the pro-AV crowd keep saying, the thinking behind AV is simple: it's the same thinking that says, 'If you're going to the shops, I'll have a ginger beer, but if they've none, I'll have an orange juice'. In AV systems, every individual's vote only counts once at the the sole decisive stage. That's why political parties are happy to use run-off systems when selecting candidates and leaders. Nobody claims that William Hague only became Conservative party leader ahead of Ken Clarke back in 1997 because Michael Howard supporters were allowed to vote three times!

Would it mean that you think the country's in dire straits and can't afford £250 million to be spent on AV?
That's what the No2AV crowd are saying, after all, that around £130 million will be needed to pay for vote-counting machines, and that over £100 million will be spent on the referendum  and educating people about AV. Well, the referendum money's spent anyway, and the Conservatives who are backing the dishonest No2AV campaign agreed last year that they were going to spend that. As for the voting machines, well, aside from the fact there aren't any plans to buy such machines...Australia doesn't use counting machines, and neither does Ireland, with a more complex system, so do you think the British are uniquely dim and incapable of counting? Is that your problem? That you think the British are too stupid for any system more grown-up than the current one?

Would it mean that you think AV is a discredited system, used only in three countries in the world?
Why would you think that? Is it because the No2AV people keep telling you this? They keep saying only Australia, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea use AV, but India elects its President with AV, and I've voted twice in AV elections in Ireland. They're lying to you. Again. And here's the thing: all British political parties elect their leaders along AV lines. They select their candidates the same way. If it's good enough for them, why isn't it good enough for you?

Would it mean that you're convinced AV is a recipe for chaos, whereas First Past the Post guarantees stability?
Have you done any research into this at all, or have you just listened to the No campaign's lies? I don't think Australia's doing too badly, is it? It's certainly had no more hung parliaments over the last century or so than Britain has. Meanwhile Canada, with its First Past the Post system, has had three hung parliaments in a row.

Would it mean that you want to stop minority parties like the BNP from getting into parliament?
Assuming you think it's okay to rig the system to block those whose views you dislike from having a say in how their country is run, this makes sense, I suppose. I'm not even sure how we define parties as fringe or minority parties, though. In a quarter of UK constituencies, the Conservatives are at best a third party; should their voters be thought of as the kind of extremists who should be made to keep their mouths shut? All else aside, though, it seems odd for the BNP to be opposed to AV if AV would help them gain power. Maybe they think it's not British...

Would it mean that you believe First Past the Post is a British system and part of your cherished heritage?
Well, ignoring the fact that none of your political parties use First Past the Post when choosing leaders or candidates, I suppose this makes a kind of sense. After all, of the nearly forty democracies in Europe, only Britain is still hanging on to this way of doing things, which I suppose is a good thing: somebody needs to stand up for how things were done in the nineteenth century. Of course, a Royal Commission recommended as long ago as 1910 that you should ditch First Past the Post in favour of AV, recognising that First Past the Post doesn't really work when there are more than two parties, but maybe the time's still not quite right...

Would it mean that you like the current system because it means that your favourite political party sometimes gets to rule as though it has a national mandate even when scarcely one in three voters have backed them?
This, at least, would be honest. I'm pretty sure this is why most Tory and Labour MPs who oppose reform are taking the approach they're taking. Turkeys rarely vote for Christmas, after all. It just leaves me wondering why they don't insist on this system being used within their parties too.

I can't see AV getting passed. I think that through a mixture of laziness, hypocrisy, and stupidity, the British people are going to vote to keep the current system. You know, that current wonderful system which a Royal Commissions as long ago as 1910 found outdated and inadequate, and where since then...
  • No party has won a popular majority since 1931, when some people could vote more than once.
  • In 1951, the Conservatives won more seats than Labour despite getting fewer votes.
  • In 1974, Labour won more seats than the Conservatives despite getting fewer votes.
  • In 2005, Labour won a big parliamentary majority with hardly more than a third of the vote.
  • In 2010, more people didn't vote than voted for losing candidates, and more people voted for losing candidates than for winning ones.
I don't believe the current system is either sacrosanct or fit for purpose anymore, and I don't believe the de facto disenfranchisement of most of the British population is a good thing, so I think reform is needed.

Sure, I don’t think AV is the best possible voting system, but I think it's a far better one than First Past the Post.  I've elected representatives under four voting systems, including both Alternative Vote and First Past the Post, and have never felt voting so pointless as in the First Past the Post elections. It's the system where I've felt least empowered.

I think we should be wary of making the perfect an enemy of the good. While not perfect, I believe AV to be more likely to return a more representative parliament than the current British system, and I also believe that changing the system, even in so mild a way, could help change mindsets, so that people might be more willing to countenance other changes without fearing the apocalypse.

That won't happen, though. They say people get the politicians they deserve, and it looks as though they're determined to keep the electoral system they deserve too. Chesterton once wrote of the English as a silent people, who have not spoken yet. I fear that in a month's time they'll vote to continue their silence.

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