05 May 2011

AV 6: AV again, a Personal Explanation


I had planned to do just one more AV post, but a friendly Troll has claimed that I haven't really tendered any arguments as to why AV is better than FPTP, or responded to any points on why it is flawed. I guess this means he hasn't been reading these posts, but still, in small words, here goes.

Firstly, in emulation of one of my friends, but at greater length, why have I become so convinced on the need for voting reform here?
March 2005
Back on my old blog I wrote in March 2005:
'... in this de facto two-party system, lots of people perceive votes for any party other than Labour and the Tories to be squandered.

It always strikes me as funny that in the supposed interests of "electoral reform", Labour have tinkered with the House of Lords. Surely a more honest interest in reform would involve changing the electoral system so that the composition of the Commons more accurately reflected the will of the people.
I mean seriously, think about it. In 2001, Labour got 40.7% of the popular vote, the Tories managed 31.7%, the Lid Dems earned 18.3%, and the rest garnered 9.3%. You might expect then that the Commons should break down, more or less, along the general lines of: Labour 268 seats, the Tories 209, the Lib Dems 120, and the others 61.
But no, despite only having 40.7% of the popular vote, thanks to the 'First Past the Post' system, Labour took 412 out 659 seats. That's 62.5%, a huge majority. In other words, the country is run according to the wishes of two-fifths of the country's voters. And 2001 was no fluke, in that regard. As a rule, all you need is around 40% of the vote and the right geographic spread to be guaranteed to rule the country despite three-fifths of the population having voted against you. Take a look at the previous few elections -
  • 1997 - Labour get 63.6% majority, with just 43.2% of the vote
  • 1992 - Tories get 51.6% mahority, with just 41.9% of the vote
  • 1987 - Tories get 57.9% majority, with just 42.2% of the vote
  • 1983 - Tories get 61.1% majority, with just 42.4% of the vote
  • 1979 - Tories get 53.4% majority, with just 43.9% of the vote
  • 1974 - Labour get 50.2% majority, with just 39.2% of the vote
Um, and earlier in 1974 Labour managed a minority government with 47.4% of seats, slightly more than the Tories, despite having wangled, at 37.1% of the vote, a smaller share of the vote than the Tories.
I'm not going to get into issues of turn-out, since with only 59.4% of eligible votes having cast their votes last time, you could argue that Labour are in government with the support of only 24% of the population. That argument has no ending, and if people don't show up when decisions are being made then they have to live with the consequences.
On the other hand, maybe if the U.K. adopted some kind of a Proportional Representation system, people might be more willing to vote. After all, there might be more of an incentive to vote if they thought their votes actually meant something.'
The whole thing bothered me. But what happened a couple of months later bothered me more.

May 2005
I voted Labour in the general election that year -- or rather, I voted for Gerald Kaufman, who I like, and who was most definitely no Blairite. He won comfortably in Manchester Gorton, getting 53.2% of the meagre vote there. However, as I blogged in the immediate aftermath of the election, I wasn't happy with the national picture.
'Well, it seems as though the election's gone according to predictions, with Labour's 35.2 per cent getting them 365 seats, the Tories' 32.3 per cent earning them 197 seats, and the Lib Dems' 22 per cent only fetching them a mere 62 seats. It's the best result they've had since the 1920s, but still, it's a bit naff really.
But then, that's what happens when you've single-seat constuencies and a first-past-the-post system. Labour's 35.2 per cent of the vote somehow translates into almost 57 per cent of parliamentary seats, the Tories' 32.3 per cent manifested itself as just over 30 per cent of seats, while the Lib Dems' healthy 22 per cent converted into less than 10 per cent of seats in the Commons. It's democracy, folks, Jim, But not as we know it.
Of course, I've talked about this before. I find it funny, looking at these figures, to think of all those pundits claiming that the British people have spoken to the effect that what they wanted was Labour to stay in power, but with a greatly reduced majority. Er, really? It does seem to me that only slightly more than a third of them actually wanted a Labour government enough to vote for Labour. After all, Blair has somehow manage to get a far healthier majority than John Major did in 1992, albeit with a much smaller share of the vote.'
I grimly decided that the only way I could vote in conscience after this was in favour of the Liberal Democrats. It wasn't that I was a Lib Dem: it was simply that I believe they were the only party that would deliver voting reform. I didn't care in the least about the purity of their motives. I just didn't want my team to win because the rules of the game were rigged in their favour.

Electoral Reform in Britain
One of the things that fascinated me was how new the current British system, where each voter has only one vote and is linked to just one MP, really only dates back to 1948. Sure, the guts of the system had been in place since 1884, but even so, plural voting -- where people linked with universities or owning property could vote in more than one constituency -- was only abolished in 1948, and not once since then had any government been elected with the support of a majority of voters. Indeed, there'd been a few weird results, like 1951 when more people voted Labour than voted Conservative and yet the Conservatives won more seats, or February 1974 when more people voted Conservative than voted Labour yet Labour won more seats, or 1983 when Labour and the Liberals got 53% of the vote and little more than 35% of the seats... It really looked as though 2005 was no anomaly.

Indeed, it seemed you had to go back to 1931 to see an occasion when any single party had received a majority of the votes cast. The Conservatives that year received 55% of the votes and were thus awarded a whopping 76.4% of the seats.

Perhaps not surprisingly, they took advantage of the situation and killed a bill that had been working its way through Parliament. In February 1931, the Commons had voted by 295 to 230 to replace the FPTP voting system with a system of transferable preferential voting, called Alternate Voting, or AV. A Royal Commission carried out a couple of decades earlier had recognised that FPTP was not fit for purpose in a system where there was more than two political parties, and had recommended that AV be introduced instead. Of course, these things take time, but eventually the 1931 bill had got bogged down in the Lords, but had looked set to become law when the government fell. Of course, knowing it might harm them, and determined to maintain their position in charge of Britain, the Conservatives knocked that bill on the head.

This was, of course, the context of Churchill's oft-quoted line about AV being a system determined by
"the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates".
This was back in the inter-war period when he was in favour of machine-gunning striking workers, gassing rebellious Arabs, and admiring Hitler's patriotic achievements. Not the greatest phase in his life, the inter-war period. For all that, though, back when the Royal Commission was doing its work, Churchill had openly recognised the failings of FPTP, saying,
"the present system has clearly broken down. The results produced are not fair to any party, nor to any section of the community . . . All they secure is fluke representation, freak representation, capricious representation."
Perhaps the most telling point was that he recognised that the problem was that the system as it stood was not fair to any section of the community. That was the issue. Parties have no standing in the British constitution, but the British people do. We shouldn't care in the least about what's fair for Labour, the Conservatives, the Lib Dems, the Greens, or whoever. But we should care about what's fair for British people, because they all have to live with the consequences of whatever their elected representatives decide.

Once in government in 1997, Labour commissioned the Jenkins Report into electoral reform, which recognised -- as had the Plant Report of a decade or so earlier and as had the Royal Commission of 1910 -- just how unrepresentative the current system was. Whereas the Royal Commission and the Plant Report had both recommended the relatively minor change to an AV system, Jenkins advocated a change to AV+, which would have entailed most MPs being elected by AV, with some -- perhaps a hundred or so -- being elected from a single national constituency on a proportional basis. The Liberal fantasy of a fully proportional system was dismissed as impractical if the constituency link between citizens and representatives was to be maintained.

A Technical Problem
Democracy is a lot of things, but one of them is, at least in theory, a political system where the people have power. Not a few people, not the best people, not the worst people, not the richest people, not the cleverest people, and not one person. The people.

Our polities being as large as they are, it's just not practical for us to legislate directly, so our democracy is an indirect one, of a sort that might be more accurately termed a representative oligarchy. So be it. The challenge for us is how best to choose our representatives. There's no right system, and no wrong one, but that doesn't mean that some might be better or worse than others.

General elections allow us to choose our representative assemblies, and it is, I think, reasonable to assume that these assemblies be as representative as possible. In this respect, the current British system is spectacularly unsuccessful, as it regularly allows minorities to rule the majority.

Yes, I realise that British system doesn't work around a single national constituency, instead being based on hundreds of constituencies, to such an extent that a general election is really just lots of simultaneous local elections. It works that way in Ireland too, so that by this stage I've voted eleven times in Parliamentary elections, using four different systems to send representatives to Dublin, London, and Brussels-Strasbourg.

So the British system allows minorities to rule as though they have a popular mandate, and to do so despite sometimes having nothing of the sort. Indeed, the British system is such that most people in Britain vote for a candidate who loses. This wasn't the way back in the 1950s, when pretty much everybody voted Conservative or Labour, and it wasn't the way back in the 1880s, when Ireland aside pretty much everybody voted Conservative or Liberal.
But it's the way things have been for the last thirty years, just as it was between 1918 and 1931. More people vote for candidates who lose than for candidates who win. Most people don't vote for the people who represent them.

This, I would think all fair-minded people should agree, is not a good situation. Elections aren't about winners and losers: they're about choosing parliaments, those parliaments being representative of the nation. There should only be one winner in a general election, that being the people as a whole, and the people only win if their voice is accurately represented.

As things stand, huge numbers of British voters go unheard. Lots more don't even bother to vote, and given the way things are, I don't blame them. The game is rigged; why should they play?

May 2010
Obviously, I voted Lib Dem in the last election. Not because I am a Lib Dem, despite my housemate's teasing, but just because I believed they were the only party really willing to reform the system. I was convinced the system was utterly bankrupt. I'd voted in elections under four different systems -- FPTP, PR-STV, AV, and PR-D'Hondt -- and never once felt as disempowered as under First Past The Post. In 2005 there wasn't much point in voting, as I was rightly confident the Labour candidate I supported would be elected, and in 2010 there wasn't much point in voting as I was rightly confident the Conservative candidate I most definitely didn't support would be elected; given that in both occasions the incumbents had had majorities of more than 11,000 votes in the previous election, you can probably grasp my thinking.

The 2010 election led to the kind of result one would expect: a parliament in which no one party had a majority, which was at least reflective of the popular will, but the Conservatives and Labour getting a rather higher share of the Parliamentary seats than they had received of the national vote, and the Liberals, despite getting their highest share of the vote in decades, actually losing seats. The system, of course, didn't work, and so the haggling began.

The Lib Dems' price for coalition with either of the bigger parties was obviously going to be voting reform, and they wanted PR. I think we can confidently assume they said this in whatever negotiations they engaged in. Labour, which was hardly in a position to lead a rainbow coalition government anyway, offered a referendum on replacing FPTP with AV. As this was already in Labour's manifesto, and didn't reflect any movement on the part of Labour, this was dismissed by the Lib Dems as a miserable little compromise; only movement to the halfway house of AV+ would have been a real compromise. The Conservatives offered a similar referendum to the Lib Dems, and recognising this as an apparently genuine compromise, a movement from their previous position of FPTP, the Lib Dems accepted this.

I was happy enough with that myself at the time. The Conservatives would vote for the Referendum in Parliament, but when the referendum came around they'd be free to campaign on an individual basis against any change. Such, at least, was the impression we were given. There was no suggestion that the Conservative party would campaign, as a party, against the very referendum it had agreed to legislate for.

Of course, this was before the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Foreign Secretary all publicly condemned the proposals, of course. This was before the Lib Dem leader's comment on Labour's negotiating stance was publicly misconstrued as being his opinion of AV. This was before local branch after local branch of the Conservative Party across the land began campaigning against change. This was before the Conservative Party's homepage would feature in pride of place huge banners saying that AV was un-British and should be rejected. This was before a host of Conservative Party donors, keen to keep their party in power, poured money into the NO2AV Campaign, to an extent where everyone with a brain in his or her head can see that it is no more than a Conservative front, bolstered by a few old Blairites and the BNP.

An Imperfect Solution?
I don't think AV is perfect. I'd like to see a PR-STV system here, but I think Jenkins was right; it'd probably be unwieldy. Given that, then, I'd most like to see AV+ introduced, but as that may be a while off, I'd be happy with AV. It'd be a huge improvement.

It might not change the overall results. It might not make MPs work harder. I might not get rid of safe seats. It might not destroy the traditional binary dominance of the Tories and Labour. But it might do these things.

It'd do more than that, though.

It would force candidates to reach out to gain the support of the majority of the people they'd represent. As things stand, there are constituencies where MPs are elected with the support of fewer than a third of voters. This is hardly surprising when there are constituencies with four credible candidates. Frankly, a quarter of the vote would do the trick. What would happen if there were more than that? If there were ten credible candidates, it'd be easy to imagine a candidate elected with a tenth of the vote. FPTP allows that to happen. AV doesn't. In AV a candidate isn't deemed elected unless he or she has the support of half or more voters in the final decisive count.

(It's basically like a Conservative leadership election in that regard: there are several counts with everybody's vote being counted each time, the weakest candidates are elected in sequence so that their supporters are given an opportunity of shifting their support to another candidate, and the candidates who gets the most first-preference votes isn't necessarily the winner, as noted here. And yet they argue it's too complex to understand. I wonder why.)

In short, it'd mean that most people would have voted for winning candidates than for losing ones. This'd be a huge improvement. And yes, I know that plenty of candidates would have depended on people's second choices and maybe even some third choices to get elected, but do you really think that's any different to now? After all, plenty of people nowadays would like to vote for a candidate that they know doesn't have a hope, and, rather than cast a Quixotic vote, instead vote for their second-choice candidate. Or their third-choice one. Very few people, after all, treat political parties like football teams, to be cheered on at all times, with all other parties being equally scorned. Most people recognise a spectrum of political options.

AV would allow people to vote honestly and openly, without feeling obliged to second-guess the outcome and instead to vote for somebody they don't support most. It would allow Eurosceptic Conservatives to express a primary preference for UKIP candidates in the confidence that their vote would return, unwasted, into the Tory fold. It would allow Scottish Conservatives to have a meaningful say in Scottish elections, so that they could express their Conservativism and then do whatever was necessary to stop the candidate or party they most deeply opposed. It would allow Liberal voters to vote Lib Dem without fearing they'd be splitting the progressive vote and letting a reactionary candidate in. It would allow all manner of people to express a preference for the Greens, to show the bigger parties that environmental issues need to be accounted for.

With voting being more meaningful than under the charade FPTP has become, it might encourage people to vote who have basically given up on the system as it stands.

Finally, the introduction of AV could lead to a decommissioning of mindsets, so that people realise that voting systems aren't sancrosancy, and can be adjusted and fine-tuned, depending on what end we have in mind. If people liked it, they could keep it. If they liked it and felt it could be improved, they could introduce AV+ or PR-STV. If people didn't like it, they could always go back to FPTP. This isn't a bed we make and have to lie in. This is a bed we can make as often as we like.

Five Key Reasons
There you go, so. Five reasons, in the end, in declining order of importance:
  1. AV would ensure elected representatives represent most of the people they represent.
  2. AV would allow people to vote honestly and transparently, without wasting their votes.
  3. AV might boost voting turnout, thereby giving new life to a moribund system.
  4. AV might lead to fresh thinking in how people approach politics.
  5. AV might perhaps lead MPs to work harder, get rid of safe seats, and break the traditional duopoly of power.
It's a simple system, really, one that I learned in one English class in school when I was fifteen. Most Irish elections are held under a PR-STV system, but whenever there's just one position at stake -- a single parliamentary seat, say, or the national Presidency -- then we use AV. It's very simple. Our second preferences are meaningful, and our third ones are too, and if we're really bloody-minded about things, we know how to use our votes to utterly gut parties we dislike a lot. We did it to Fianna Fail a couple of months ago. If you wanted, in Britain, you could keep the BNP down for as long as you wanted. No wonder they're opposed to AV -- they're basically the definition of transfer-repellant.

After I've voted, I shall grumble about how the referendum's almost certainly been vitiated by the conduct of the No campaigners. But that's for tomorrow.
For now, if you still think it all sounds complicated, let Dan Snow explain it:

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