Tuesday, April 26, 2011

No to AV

I've been meaning to write about this for a little while, but it seemed too trivial to occupy blog space in the run up to Easter.  But now the referendum draweth nigh, and we must all make a decision.

I will vote no.

I realise that this will come as no surprise to anyone.  As a Conservative, it was always likely that I'd be saying no.  And if I'm honest with myself, I recognise that one factor in the decision making process for me has been that deep instinct to resist change which lies in the heart of every Tory.  I hope, however, that this has not been the only or indeed the most weighty factor.  I hope I am not deciding on purely party lines - although I do recognise that the Tories arguably have the most to lose under AV.  I hope, as well, that I am not making my decision on the basis of so much of the campaigning from both sides, which has been thoroughly negative throughout.  Frankly, the No campaign has sickened me, and the Yes campaign has also left me faintly nauseous.

To be clear: I am not voting no because I think AV would benefit the BNP - it wouldn't; I am not voting no because I think AV would be too complicated to understand - it isn't (although it is more complicated if one wants to vote tactically, but one ought not to do so in my opinion); I am not voting no to spite Nick Clegg - I rather like him; I am not voting no because AV would cost too much - if it were really better, it would be worth spending the money.

I should also point out that I am a Tory in a seat where a Tory hasn't stood a chance of winning for 20 years - one of the 'safe seats' which the Yes campaign have been talking about.  It is frustrating for me.  But I just want to point out that it is absolutely not true that my vote 'doesn't count' because of this circumstance; it counts just as much as anyone else's.  It's just that not enough people agree with me to make a difference in the outcome.  If I was really that bothered, I should get out there and try to persuade them, not complain about the voting system.

And that brings us to the heart of it for me.  It's about what sort of politics you want.  The Yes people have been saying that AV would force MPs to work harder, to appeal to a broader range of people.  Doubtless that is to a certain extent true.  Except that it strikes me that very often the best way to appeal to a broad range of people is to be vague, bland, unexceptional.  I think AV favours that sort of MP.  It encourages non-ideological politics.  Now, you may think that is a good thing.  There would be more consensus.  But I think that politics is about having a vision of a better society and persuading people to get on board with it.  Political differences are not, after all, purely a product of circumstance - it is not that those less well off must support Labour, whilst the wealthy support the Tories, and the wealthy with a bad conscience support the Lib Dems.  These differences are about ideas - huge, significant ideas, about humanity and society and morality.  And ideas need arguments.  They need arguments to showcase their grandeur.

I think AV would stifle that.  To pick up second preference votes - and in many seats, that is what will matter - you're best off being the guy the others don't object to all that much.  I think it's a shoddy way to choose MPs.

But I invite you to show me why I'm wrong...


  1. thanks Dan, I've been appalled by the no campaign, not least the ad hominem arguments at Clegg, the massively misleading 'race' metaphor, and the misinformation about costs (most of the cost is taken up in the voting/reforendum process itself, and thus would be the same 'cost' if we kept the system as is - utterly irrelevant).

    AV seems reasonable, and personally I dont want PR, so the only reason so far I'd vote 'no' is the slippery slope argument, which is pretty weak. But you've raised something here that if right, would be reason for me to reconsider the 'no' vote. What surprised me however is I'd thought the same would happen but in reverse. So this isn't a disagreement, necessarily, it's laying out my thinking - perhaps to see if we're both missing the source of the 'stifling debate' problem - as indeed I may be doing (which would fuel my general feeling that this vote isn't actually that important). But it may be that I'm right and your wrong, somehow; or vice versa, in which case I'd appreciate your comments. So without further ado, my inclination was thought out thus:

    Thought: AV would encourage thoughtful, not tribal, voting.

    Thought Process: In current system, in 'safe seats', effectively all one needs to do is mobilise your voters/party faithful. It strikes me that most of the post-election discussion/comment that I can remember revolves around 'turnout' - but so-called 'Safe Seats' (let's say where 25-30% of the vote will secure a win) seems to disenfranchise people. (NB That doesn't mean necessarily 'not voting' - I know people who spoiled ballots to show they wanted to vote but weren't prepared to vote for any of the available candidates - eg where 'token' candidates were put up by a party to stand against 'unmoveable' MPs).

    Safe seats disenfranchises people/fosters low turnout because if all you need is the party faithful to turn out and vote for their party, then you just need to appeal to them as a tribe. That said, the current system would encourage high turnout & re-enfranchise voters would be in marginal seats - where nay-sayers/swing voters feel empowered that their vote actually counts. AV would mean that 'mobilising the voters' would not necessarily secure a win. Thus politics would have to be more about appealing to political thoughts rather than political tribes, and ironically, this would increase turnout across the country while 'turnout' itself would appear less and less (tiresomely) in the post-election rhetoric/discussion.

    ok that's a stream of consciousness there, but hey what are blogs for - that's how I saw it. Make sense?

  2. *by "actually counts" I know it counts, but I'm referring to the 'Voter Power' index, where in Camberwell & Peckham

  3. My thought was more along Chris' lines, though you made me think, Dan (thanks). I grew up with AV in NI, and I assure you, it didn't make for bland, non-ideological politics. It did give us the hope of a coalition gov't, which indeed, was the only hope we had of having any gov't. I can see the argument that they'll try to appeal to a broader range of people, but to be honest, I don't see that any of the main parties currently try to be that ideological and narrow! Rather, it could lead to those in each party taking a stronger ideological line, as there's room for a greater number of parties. 6 parties can campaign more ideologically than can 2.5 ;)

    Of course, perhaps I just appreciated AV because it helped tactically. I've never seen the problem with 'tactical voting'. Principal 1 - I don't want a terrorist in power.
    Now, under first past the post, to hold to that, in certain parts of Belfast I would certainly have 'had' to vote for someone whose policies I didn't particularly like, simply so that a war-mongering murderer didn't get in. But with AV, I didn't have to - I could vote first for someone I most agreed with, then next, and so on, leaving the murderers out, knowing that my vote would count as an expression of my intent, and also could count along with a host of second preference votes, because the moderates of either stripe all put the same few candidates as their first few preferences - in whichever order.

  4. Interesting comments.

    Chris: it could work out that way, and I'm not as bothered about it as some seem to be. Perhaps AV would lead to prospective MPs working harder to persuade. I suppose the most likely outcome is that some would go the route I suspect, and some would choose your happier path. But I do think it's harder to argue than to be inoffensive, which is why I perhaps have more fear than hope for elections under AV. But I appreciate your greater optimism!

    There are perhaps a couple of other differences in our approach/viewpoint which sway things. I don't think a 'safe seat' disenfranchises anyone - your vote counts just as much as anyone else. It is only true to say that you have 'less voting power' in a 'safe seat' if you assume that there are large blocks of people who cannot be swayed one way or another - their political identity is set in stone. I don't think that's true. I think I have just as much power, considered as a single person, in Oxford East as anyone else - and that is a major part of the No campaign which I haven't touched on here, but do agree with: one person, one vote seems a sound principle to me.

    Rosemary: I think NI is a unique case for all sorts of reasons. I can see why AV might be welcome in that circumstance. But the rest of the UK doesn't share that circumstance. Still, it is possible that over time we would get more parties, representing narrower blocks of opinion - that might be okay. In the short-term, I would guess the Lib Dems would benefit massively from being the second choice party for many (although this may no longer be the case in a Lab/Lib contest, which would throw all my thinking off a bit).

    Perhaps to a certain extent, given the huge uncertainties about what would happen, it does boil down to a divide between the optimists and the pessimists!

  5. I'm voting no. My face is on the national 'no' leaflet - without me giving permission, either.

    The campaigns on both sides have been poor, but I am voting on the principal that every voter should have one vote of the same weight.

    I am also, as a supporter of electoral reform, voting on the principle that AV is a miserable, shoddy, compromise which achieves very little.

    I remain hopeful that a proportion of the future House of Lords will be elected by PR, thus providing a serious check on the government of the day by reflecting the true views of the electorate. If that means we have a couple of BNP lords, then so be it. Democracy is democracy.

    There are so many systems better than AV that I have no idea why it had to be put forward.

  6. I just did something I HATE. I wrote 'principal' instead of 'principle'. Ugh. Time for bed.

  7. Dan, you are voting "no" for similar reasons to me.

    Both campaigns went negative early, as neither system has many merits to sing about - I'd argue that FPTP has slightly fewer problems. As such, few understand what is actually at stake wrt to the race and it's become 'do you hate Clegg or Cameron more?' rather than which of two pretty similar voting systems to use.

    What is interesting is the way that both sides have performed 'reducto ad BNP', where they say that the other side is better for the BNP. (I'm with the yes camp here that AV is best at stifling minority opinion - as BNP second preference votes will be for Labour come-what-may, then there's no point in trying to win those people over to vote for you as first preference - only place it would matter is Green voters in LibDem/Lab marginals). Of course, such arguments apply to all small parties, which may or may not include parties as big as the Lib Dems, so this disenfranchisement isn't really the merit, or victory for democracy, that both sides are suggesting it is.

    I find Roy Jenkins' 1997 report into AV fascinating - they used polling data from the election in 1997, and ran it again under AV to discover that the Lib Dems would be the second biggest party in the Commons with an enlarged Labour majority (that was already pretty big). As Roy Jenkins is a Lib Dem, you'd think he'd be delighted with AV, but he says 'no' to AV, because, while it would serve him well, the Tories getting less than half the seats a proportional share based on first preferences would have given them means that AV is less fair (with the politics of those days, it would have been against Labour in 2010) than FPTP, and Roy Jenkins couldn't in good conscience recommend it. Move forward 14 years and you have a referendum all about punishing Cameron/Clegg by voting for the system that is predicted to be the most biased against their party.

    As for coalition governments - no one's entirely sure about what AV will do - it will probably create stronger majorities when landslide changes of Government happen (as people vote against the incumbent Government, rather than for any one party) and would possibly give the LibDems more seats every election, which would reduce majorities in other times.