Monday, 30 May 2011


Paul Anderson writes:

I set up AV is Not PR as a straightforward contribution to the anti-AV campaign, but I was also trying out blogging and social media. My hunch was that straight 2003-style blogging was a waste of time these days but that you could get a bit of purchase by putting everything out on social networking sites too.

Which is what I did.

1. Lots of people looked at it and turned away.

2. Hardly anyone bothered to comment or engage dierectly on the blog, though they did on the linked social networking sites. Without Facebook and Twitter, blogging is dead.

3. I felt completely bonkers because I was going on about something no one gave a toss about, and Tweeting and FBing to all your contacts about something they don't care about is, ah, totally uncool.

But -- there is a but, honest -- a lot of the arguments I put forward were taken up by the commentariat. OK, they might have reached their own conclusions without any intervention from me, but they nicked stuff too. You know who you are.

What the hell. The point is that blogging on big national issues is, if not pointless, about as effective as a leaflet drop on a suburban street. Old-style stand-alone-site blogging is over unless you get it perfect. I didn't. Getting social network blogging right is a skill I need to acquire. I haven't done it.

It was worth the effort, but now forward to the next time. Er, and the arguments agaist the alternative vote still stand, just in case.

This blog is now on standstill.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011


Andy Roberts writes:

I just read your article in Tribune about the alternative vote referendum.

I voted "yes", and I think, as a PR supporter since forever and a day, that you are probably profoundly wrong, strategically, about this – I say probably because, at the end of the day, who really knows?

Of course, much of what you say is quite correct – not least that this was a vote for something which virtually no-one really supports (apart from Peter Hain – I still have a copy of his pamphlet Proportional Misrepresentation from the 1980s, with which I have always strongly disagreed). A "miserable little compromise" indeed …

I was initially doubtful about voting “yes”, given the polls then, on the grounds that if it was successful, it could stymie further progress towards PR.

However, I was convinced by the argument – made by David Lipsey, at a meeting of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform – that once one change was made, and the existing system was de-mystified and not seen as something eternal and existentially "British" (to quote John Reid), it would be easier to make future changes.

If you look at the election results, it does seem to bear this out. Those regions which have already had some experience of different electoral systems were more pro-change (though not massively so).

The “yes” vote (by percentage) for the UK regions was as follows:
Northern Ireland 43.6
London 39.5
Scotland 36.3
Wales 34.5
South West 31.5
Yorkshire and the Humber 31.2
North West 30.2
South East 29.6
Eastern 29.0
East Midlands 28.7
West Midlands 28.5
North East 28.0
(There was also a particularly strong pro-change trend in a number of inner London boroughs - the reasons for which I am not clear about – but it would be interesting to know why, for instance, there was a 10,000 majority in favour of AV in Hackney.)

Anyway, although we obviously now have to start from the argument, as you say, that PR was not even tested in the referendum, I am not sure that the majority of the electorate are going to see it that way. I fear that the argument that the referendum endorsed first past the post will win the day for many years to come. I can only hope that I am wrong on this.

Thursday, 12 May 2011


Peter Facey, director of Unlock Democracy, the successor organisation to Charter 88 and one of the pro-PR organisations that most enthusiastically embraced the "yes" campaign, has an interesting piece here:
Before the election, Unlock Democracy said that for any voting reform to find favour, the voters needed a sense of ownership of it. We suggested a Citizens Convention; what we got was a politician’s compromise. In the years that followed Tony Blair’s failure to deliver his promised referendum on the system proposed in the Jenkins report (alternative vote plus), AV was seen as the only game in town by the political elite and Westminster establishment ... Before the expenses crisis, Labour supporters of electoral reform were wary of proposing anything more radical.

Once Gordon Brown announced that Labour would hold a referendum on AV in 2009, the prospects of any other reform finding support in Westminster melted away. The irony was that AV was always sold to reformers as a system that could unite Labour behind reform. In the end, more than half of Labour MPs opposed it.

In the coalition negotiations AV became the maximum David Cameron would concede; ironic given the dire apocalyptic warnings he has been issuing about AV over the past few months. That decision was made by eight men (and there were no women) sitting in a boardroom in the Cabinet Office. Without an independent process it meant that it looked like the deal that was all about self interest rather than public interest. This is something NO2AV exploited. Combined with Nick Clegg’s unpopularity it became a toxic mix.

If we want to avoid this in future, then any proposed change must come out of a deliberative process which is independent of political parties, involves the public to as great an extent as possible, and which can demonstrate at least some measure of public demand for reform. Such a process would by definition be quite lengthy and its outcome unclear but it is crucial if we are to avoid making future referendums so partisan ...


It is going to be hard to be taken seriously on proportional representation for some time after the alternative vote referendum – and there will inevitably be some blood-letting in the PR camp over the extraordinarily stupid decision of most prominent PR backers to support the "yes" campaign on AV.

But the struggle continues. It was AV specifically that was rejected in the referendum, not electoral reform as such. The case for proportional representation for the House of Commons remains as strong as it ever was and was not tested by the referendum.

What next? These are my first thoughts:

  • Draw up a manifesto It should make the points that (a) it was only AV that was rejected on 5 May; (b) the case for PR remains as strong as ever; (c) the reasons we need PR have nothing to do with any party's self-interest.

    It is probably not a good idea to have Nick Clegg or Chris Huhne or any other Lib Dem fronting this initiative.

  • Make it a campaign for PR With AV out of the picture, the campaign for electoral reform must be explicitly in favour of proportional representation. It's not just  "change" – it's a particular change.
  • Purge the pro-PR organisations The electoral reform pressure groups, all of which are pro-PR, have been horribly compromised by their enthusiasm for AV in the referendum campaign. They need new personnel and a new political direction. With notable exceptions, the Charter 88 generation has let us down.
  • Back AMS not STV There are two PR systems that have significant support in the UK: the additional member system (used in German general elections and in the Scottish parliament, Welsh assembly and London assembly) and the single transferable vote (traditionally backed by the Liberal Democrats). AMS retains single-member constituencies but tops up the results regionally; STV uses multi-member constituencies. The constituency link is the key point here: drop it and you lose a key element of British democracy. AMS is also familiar to a large number of UK voters.

  • Use Germany as a campaigning example The Federal Republic of Germany has used the additional member system since its inception – and no one could claim that it has had extremist governments. But it has had alternation of left and right governments and has seen the emergence of new parties, most notably the Greens.

  • Focus on Labour After the AV referendum fiasco, it's clear that the only way we'll ever get PR is through a Labour government. It's a long shot, true, but there was serious support in the parliamentary Labour Party and among constituency Labour parties for AMS before the AV referendum, and it's probably still there.

OK, your thoughts please.


Tribune column, 13 May 2011

Last week's defeat for the “yes” campaign in the alternative vote referendum was richly deserved.

The “yes” campaign failed miserably to put across its case for changing the electoral system for the House of Commons from first past the post to preferential voting.

Its efforts were risible from the start, when its launch was fronted by a comic and an actor, and went downhill from there.

The “yes” campaign never managed to make better arguments for AV than that it “would make MPs work harder” (though it never explained how) and that it was somehow “fairer” than the status quo (ditto). Within a couple of weeks of its launch, it had been reduced to whining that the “no” campaign were nasty rough boys – and after that it became all-but-invisible for a while.

It got a few headlines when Ed Miliband belatedly gave it lukewarm support (though only after he made it clear that he would not appear on a pro-AV platform with Nick Clegg). It got a few more when increasingly desperate Liberal Democrats entered the fray to repeat the complaint that the “no” campaign were nasty rough boys.

But that was it. The Independent and to a lesser extent the Guardian filled in a few of the gaps in the “yes” campaign with coherent if hardly powerful leaders and opinion columns in favour of the principle of preferential voting, the New Statesman added its tuppence-ha'penny-worth in typically incompetent fashion – and then the great British public had their say.

Their verdict was decisive. Of those that voted (42 per cent, which in the circumstances wasn't bad), 69 per cent backed “no” and just 31 per cent “yes”. The alternative vote is now dead as an option for reform of the voting system.

It would be wrong, however, to claim that the incompetence of the “yes” campaign was the sole factor in the result. It was up against a much-better-funded “no” campaign that was brutally populist. And, Guardian and Independent apart, the media were indifferent when they were not hostile.

But the most important reason that the “yes” campaign lost was that it was trying to sell a prospectus it didn't really believe in itself – and voters smelt a rat.

There are a handful of people who genuinely believe that AV is the best possible system for electing a legislative assembly, among them the Labour MP Peter Hain, the journalist John Rentoul and the pollster Peter Kellner. (For all I know, Ed Miliband might be another, though I have my doubts.)

For most of the “yes” camp, however, AV was not what they really wanted.

Extraordinarily, even Nick Clegg, the man who made the referendum on AV a condition of Liberal Democrat participation in coalition with the Tories, didn't really want it. He memorably dismissed AV in an April 2010 interview as a “miserable little compromise”.

No, what Clegg and the overwhelming majority of the “yes” campaigners really wanted was proportional representation. They were pushing for AV only as a step towards PR.

(As regular readers will be aware, this column argued that the notion that AV was a step to PR was twaddle, and that supporters of PR should vote “no”. Very few other pro-PR people agreed, however, and most joined the “yes” campaign.)

Of course, they couldn't say that they saw AV merely as a means to a different end during the campaign. On one hand, it would have split the pro-AV camp, because one of the things true believers in AV find attractive about it is that it is not PR. On the other hand, it would have given the “no” campaign a golden opportunity to claim that AV was a Trojan horse for PR.

So we ended up with the grotesque spectacle of supporters of proportional representation running around the country trying to whip up enthusiasm for a change they saw not as an end in itself but as a first step towards something completely different, all the time denying that they were doing any such thing.

It's hardly surprising that voters saw through the ruse and gave the “yes” campaign the same treatment they'd give a dodgy insurance salesman.

The decision of so many supporters of PR to attach themselves to the “yes” campaign has done serious damage to the credibility of proportional representation from which it will undoubtedly take time to recover – and several prominent pro-PR people in the “yes” campaign should at very least be issuing public apologies for making a very bad call on the referendum.

Look on the bright side. The lost referendum was not on PR. Although the alternative vote now has no credibility, the case for a proportional lower house remains as strong as ever – and untested with the electorate.

Saturday, 7 May 2011


... Well, actually it wasn't, but the resounding "no" vote in the alternative vote referendum is welcome all the same. The British people have rejected a lousy electoral system, preferring the bad to the worse. They did so essentially because the "yes" campaign failed to marshall a single powerful argument in favour of changing to AV. The "no" campaign's shameless scare tactics undoubtedly had an effect, as did the desire to give Nick Clegg a deserved kicking, but they weren't the decisive factors.

What the result does not represent is a rejection of proportional representation, which was not on the ballot. It will no doubt be difficult for supporters of PR to be heard – let alone taken seriously – for a time. But this is to a large extent the fault of those supporters of PR who, opportunistically or stupidly, decided to throw in their lot with the pro-AV campaign even though they didn't want AV. You know who you are, and you should be ashamed of yourselves – or even better engage in some grovelling public self-criticism. You got the call 100 per cent wrong on this one, I'm afraid ...

More on this next week.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011


Has there ever been a less enlightening political campaign than the one on the alternative vote referendum? Charlie Brooker sums it up perfectly in the Guardian:
It's depressing to see the campaigns on both sides treating the public with such outright contempt. Political ads have rarely been subtle in the past, but this current slew could insult the intelligence of a silverfish. It's not so much that they think we're stupid, but that their attempts to appeal to that perceived stupidity are so stupid in themselves; they've created a sort of self-perpetuating stupidity whirlpool capable of engulfing any loose molecules of logic within a six-mile radius. They might as well replace every billboard with the words VOTE LIKE THIS, DUMMY in four-foot high Helvetica.

Sunday, 24 April 2011


That the New Statesman should decide to back the alternative vote, on the entirely spurious grounds that it would be  "a step towards" proportional representation, is no surprise given its political evolution in recent years, and it won't make a lot of difference.

But it's still almost shocking that the magazine that claims to be the leading British intellectual weekly – and was once in the forefront of the campaign to get proportional representation for the House of Commons (no ifs, no buts) – could come up with this in a leader:
The adoption of AV would enable the creation of a more pluralistic political culture, in which parties emphasise their similarities, rather than merely their differences.
Er – isn't pluralism supposed to be all about differences? Isn't a voting system that encourages everyone to agree about everything its enemy?

They're even thicker at the Statesman than the No to AV morons think the rest of us are.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011


We don’t know what the alternative vote would mean if Britain votes yes in the referendum, but there are several educated guesses on offer, and until we have an AV general election they’re all about the Liberal Democrats. What would happen under AV? Here are the best attempts at scenarios ...

1. The Liberal Democrats do rather better or hold up; otherwise business as usual

Why it might happen
Preferential voting means than voters’ second choices are crucially important in some seats – and because the Lib Dems would probably have been most Labour and Tory voters’ second choice last general election around, most of the pundits reckon that the Lib Dems would have won 20 or so more seats if the 2010 general election had taken place under AV. In other words, AV would benefit the Lib Dems.

Why it might not

However the Lib Dems did or might have done in 2010, we’re never going to re-run anything like the 2010 general election – not least because the Lib Dems entered coalition with the Tories in 2010. It is still plausible that under AV, in most constituencies, most voters for the two big parties would chose the dull centrist – the Lib Dem – as their second preference, but nobody really has a clue. “Imagine if …” opinion polls are dodgy.

The Lib Dems might have done better under AV in 2010, but they are a lot less popular right now. OK, there isn’t a general election any time soon as far as we know, let alone one under AV – though we could all be surprised – but many Labour voters are so antagonistic towards the Lib Dems that they wouldn’t even consider transferring even in a Lib Dem-Tory marginal: result, more Tory MPs. In Labour-Lib Dem marginals, the Lib Dems need second-preference Tories. Would they get them? Doubtful right now.

2. The Liberal Democrats do very badly; otherwise business as usual

Why it might happen
The Lib Dems are very, very unpopular, and they could just go into meltdown. In general elections under AV, if their first-preference support went through the floor and hardly anyone put them as second choice, they could find themselves eliminated or nearly eliminated from the House of Commons – back to their 1959 representation, a couple of patrician eccentrics from the far corners of Scotland – because in nearly every one of their currently held constituencies they would be beaten on second preferences (mostly by Tories but sometimes by Labour).

Why it might not

The Lib Dems could keep up their support regionally and in Scotland and Wales if they play their cards right. The English local elections and the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly votes next month are very important here. Scotland and Wales complicate any scenario big-time: the Lib Dems have openings to Labour if they do well enough in Scotland and Wales next month, which might just be enough to allow them to distance themselves from the Tories, at least among the Scots and Welsh, at best by joining Labour in national administrations. The problem, of course, is that all the crucial elections happen on the same day as the AV referendum.


The Lib Dems have wriggle room in an AV system if they do well enough to become coalition partners with Labour in Scotland and survive in Wales as a significant force next month. But if they do really badly in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections they are well and truly marooned even if Britain votes for AV. And that leads to …

3. The Lib Dems enter a semi-permanent coalition with the Tories

Why it might happen
If the Lib Dems are stuffed in Scotland and Wales and if their opinion poll ratings are in the doldrums coming up to the next general election, if the coalition is still alive, and if the Tories are also struggling ... OK, a lot of ifs, but entirely plausible … it would make sense under an AV system for the Tories and Lib Dems to sort out a formal preference pact in which both governing parties advocate second preference voting for the other to maintain the coalition government. After that, it would be difficult (if they won) not to keep together in government.

The Lib Dems would have to be in dire straits to accept it, but that certainly can’t be ruled out; and the ideological small-state free-market empathy is there between Clegg and Cameron. Such a deal also goes with AV historically. In Australia, voting is all about the two centre-right parties – which are in permanent coalition – Hoovering up each other’s second preferences on the basis of pre-electoral preference pacts, with Labour (after a long time in the political wilderness) playing the same game informally with greens, the far-left and dodgy populists.

Why it might not
Well, Scotland and Wales. If the Lib Dems do OK there, they wouldn’t need a pre-election preferences deal to survive at Westminster under AV – they’d be able to pick and choose – at least at the next election. But after that?

There’s a good case for thinking that a permanent coalition of the Lib Dems and Tories is a very plausible long-term scenario under AV – if a lot happens that might not. For Labour, there's a real danger of another 1931: complete marginalisation for a generation through the unification of its mainstream opponents into an anti-Labour bloc (and Labour is just as vulnerable as in 1931 to just such a marginalisation).

4. The Lib Dems enter a semi-permanent coalition with Labour

Why it might happen
If by some miracle the Lib Dems survive the coalition without formal Tory endorsement on second preferences under AV, and they’re in power with Labour in Holyrood, who knows?

Why it might not
This scenario seems rather implausible as long as the Lib Dems are in coalition nationally with the Tories and cutting spending with Friedmanite enthusiasm.

Not impossible but unlikely. Labour has every reason to exploit every internal difference within the Liberal Democrats for the foreseeable future, but no reason to expect a lot from it.

All right, this is guess-work. But that's what we'll be voting on in a fortnight.

Friday, 15 April 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 15 April 2011

There was a time, long ago, when referendums were anathema to us Brits.

Referendums were French – and we didn’t do French, at least at home. Referendums had a role in the colonies, but in Britain they had no place. We had a functioning representative democracy that had no need of vulgar plebiscites any more than it needed bidets or garlic.

That all changed in the 1970s. We discovered genital hygiene, Mediterranean cooking – and the delights of voting “yes” or “no” to a question put to us by the government.

There was a referendum in Northern Ireland in 1973 on whether the Six Counties should remain in the United Kingdom – “yes” won – and, more importantly, Labour won the 1974 general election promising a referendum on continued British membership of what was then called the Common Market. It took place in 1975, and “yes” swept the board. In 1979, there were referendums in Scotland and Wales on devolution. Scotland voted for devolution but not by a sufficient majority to have it implemented. Wales voted against.

All these 1970s referendums were the product of shameless political opportunism – those on Europe and devolution came about because Labour needed a way out of its deep divisions on both issues – and none of them solved anything.

The Northern Ireland sovereignty ballot was little more than a farce because it was boycotted by nationalists (surprise, surprise). And the main effect of the 1979 devolution referendums, held as the Labour government went through its death throes, was to spur proponents of devolution to redouble their efforts.

Even the overwhelming “yes” to Europe in 1975 was less decisive than it seemed. The “yes” campaign had the support of every single national newspaper, the Tories, the Liberals and most members of the Labour cabinet, and it was lavishly funded by big business. The “no” campaign had Tribune and the Morning Star, Michael Foot and Enoch Powell, and a tiny budget. The resentment of the anti-European Tory right about the way their party was manoeuvred into the “yes” camp came to dominate Tory politics in the late 1980s and still remains poisonous.

The 1970s experience put a lot of politicians off referendums – but not Tony Blair or Gordon Brown (who first made his mark as organiser of Labour’s “yes” campaign on devolution in 1979). Under their leadership, Labour went into the 1997 election promising referendums galore – on devolution to Scotland, Wales and the English regions, on changing the electoral system for the House of Commons, on British membership of the single European currency.

Those on Scotland and Wales took place – both countries voted in favour of devolution in 1997 – and there was one (utterly farcical) ballot on creating an English region in the north-east, in 2004. Otherwise, however, Labour did not keep its referendum promises. Blair pencilled in the euro referendum several times, but Brown got out his eraser for each, and Labour did nothing serious on the electoral reform referendum until Brown desperately made it part of the party’s 2010 general election pitch.

And of course, that promise ended up as government policy – but not of a Labour government. One of the concessions Nick Clegg wrought from David Cameron last year as the price for coalition was a referendum on electoral reform. Which is what we’ve got coming up in three weeks.

I’m not going to get into the arguments about the alternative vote again here. It suffices to say that Clegg’s deal with Cameron to introduce an AV versus first past the post referendum was one of the lousiest opportunist Realpolitik sell-outs in living memory in Britain. His party stood for proportional representation, and the least he should have demanded last May was a multi-choice referendum on the electoral system in which PR was an option. I think he could have got it, but there is no evidence that he even asked.

Whatever, we’ve got AV versus FPTP next month, and who gives a toss outside the political class? The referendum campaigns are run by idiots, and both “yes” and “no” have adopted the most cretinous strategies. “The alternative vote kills babies!” “Sexy celebs want change!” None of the key arguments, for or against AV, has had any purchase. The “no” campaign has been bankrolled by hardline Tory millionaires. The “yes” mob has had liberal charitable foundations dishing out cash that could be better used elsewhere.

But this is what plebiscitary democracy is like. Referendums are always useless. They solve nothing, and they’re demeaning. They reduce politics to the lowest common denominator, and when anything important is at stake they give big media the whip hand. They are OK for small local things – should you allow the pub to stay open after 11pm? – but that’s about it. Ed Miliband take note: please, no referendum promises.

Friday, 1 April 2011


Martin Kettle has an utterly barmy piece in the Guardian today claiming that the example of Germany shows that the alternative vote would lead to greater representation of the Greens in the UK parliament. Has he not noticed that the German electoral system, under which the Greens are currently doing very well, is not the alternative vote but the proportional additional member system? I only ask.


It might be hard to accept, but the Daily Mail hits the pro-AV politicians where it hurts here. The sidebar is the best bit:

I am not going to settle for a miserable little compromise thrashed out by the Labour Party.
Nick Clegg, Deputy PM, April 2010

AV is slanted in favour of the bigger parties. We need a simple, fair system, not a fake reform that covers its embarrassment with jargon.
Caroline Lucas, February 2010

[AV would] be an ill-fitting corset attempting to squeeze diverse strands of opinion into an inappropriate, deeply uncomfortable shape.
Chris Huhne, February 2010

If we want reform to rebuild public trust and confidence in politics, make MPs more accountable, give more power to people and establish a political and parliamentary system that more reflects the will of the public, then AV doesn’t deliver that.
Ben Bradshaw, director of Labour Yes to AV, November 2009

Wednesday, 30 March 2011


The Independent splashed on its support for the alternative vote today but it can't be counted as massively enthusiastic. Its leader states, correctly, that AV
... is not a proportional system. And under certain circumstances it might mean even bigger landslides. AV would erode, but not eliminate, the problem of "safe" seats.

All good reasons to vote "no". So why back AV?
The democratic contract between MPs and constituents would be strengthened since politicians would only be returned to Westminster if they enjoyed the support of a majority of their constituents. And the curse of the first-past-the-post system – the argument that a vote for a smaller party is "wasted" – would be eliminated at a stroke, because the second preference votes of lower-placed candidates would be reallocated if the first count failed to produce a clear winner. The public will be able to vote for the person they want to represent them (as their first preference) without having to agonise about whether they are effectively disenfranchising themselves if they choose a candidate representing a smaller party.
Sorry, this is pathetic. We change the voting system so voters don't have to "agonise" about their voting choices? Leave it out.

Monday, 21 March 2011


Monica Threlfall, reader in European politics at London Metropolitan University, argues on Open Democracy that the alternative vote is precisely what Britain doesn't need:

Alone in the world, Papua New Guinea and Australia use it for their national parliaments. It has worked well in Papua because in polities that are highly fragmented along ethnic and tribal lines, AV prevents candidates from behaving in an overly partisan way, making them seek support beyond their own communal base in order to gain the 2nd preference votes and get elected with an overall majority. But this is the very opposite of Britain's situation, where three nationwide parties stand accused of becoming increasingly similar, and a worrying number of potential voters abstain from deciding between them. AV is said by specialists to be the best system for promoting centrist politics, just what reformers in Britain wish to avoid.

By now we all know that those little diagrams on websites are a misleading simplification of the AV count. Do we all get our second and subsequent preferences counted towards the outcome? No. Do all preferences even get counted? No. Will Labour and Conservative voters be able to transfer their second choice to the Lib Dems, so as to prevent each other's rivals from winning? Not usually – only if the Lib Dems have already beaten them by coming top or runner-up. In sum, a large majority of voters will never have their second choices counted.

If the reason for reform is to increase competition between the old parties and help new ones, AV does the opposite. Whichever party comes third-place in a constituency is the only mainstream option whose ballots will have their second and subsequent preferences counted along with those of the small and fringe parties. What the Lib Dems are probably hoping for is that, as their candidates frequently end up in third position, their voters will have the casting vote using their 2nd preferences to determine the winner, with this pattern repeating itself in numerous constituencies.

But if third-placed Lib Dems become kingmakers with their second preferences, both Labour and Conservatives will want to develop alliances with them, whether voiced or whispered, and policy differences will blur even further. Instead of going all out to persuade voters to back them on the grounds of their difference from other parties, candidates would have to make broadly-based appeals to attract more second preferences, rather than focusing on narrower issues...

In fact, choosing between so many poorly defined candidates confuses people so much that Australian parties issue voter guides telling their supporters who to vote for in their 2nd and subsequent preferences – this shows how AV pushes parties into constituency alliances that may actually be undesirable at national level...

As to opening up parliament to more parties, AV does the opposite: it concentrates the vote on the two main parties, since the winner needs a bigger majority than under FPTP. In Australia, the two leading parties got 82 per cent of the votes on 1st preferences alone, while the Green's second preferences got transferred mainly to Labor, leaving the Greens with only one MP...

As to electoral reformers' desire to increase proportionality, AV does not offer this, as it remains a majoritarian single-winner system. It does not offer strong majorities either. In the recent Australian election Labor got 37% and the Liberal Coalition got 44% of the vote on 1st preferences but ended up with the same number of seats each. Adding in the extra preferences, they came neck-and-neck, but with no change of seats and Labor had to reach for independents to form a government with a razor-thin majority. This means AV neither gives a significant increase in seats to the leading party (desirable for government stability), nor produces a more proportional outcome (as under PR). Instead, it entrenches the two-party system...

Thursday, 17 March 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 18 March 2011

The week before last, Tribune published a letter from Terry Ashton, one-time general secretary of the London Labour Party, arguing that my last column had not substantiated my claim that the alternative vote is worse than first past the post for parliamentary elections. I know it’s not done for columnists to abuse their privileged position to take issue with letters to the editor, but what the hell – this one needs to be thrashed out.

My starting point is that the main problem with first past the post is that it is not proportional. It is based entirely on single-member constituencies and has no mechanism to ensure that the share of parliamentary seats won by parties reflects their overall level of support.

Indeed, in most general elections of the past 80 years, FPTP has yielded spectacularly disproportionate results, the beneficiaries being the Conservative and Labour parties and the losers the Liberals (and their successors) and other smaller parties. At the last general election, the Conservative Party won 36 per cent of the vote but 47 per cent of Commons seats, Labour won 29 per cent of the vote but 40 per cent of seats and the Lib Dems won 23 per cent of the vote and only 9 per cent of seats. In five out of the last eight general elections – 1979, 1983, 1987, 1997 and 2001 – parties have won landslide Commons majorities on much less than half the vote.

Now, proportionality is not the only criterion by which electoral systems can be judged – and supporters of first past the post argue that its main strengths are precisely a function of its disproportionality, that it usually delivers clear victories for either Labour or the Tories and that it tends to prevent extremists from gaining a foothold in parliament. Post-election haggling over coalition arrangements is the exception rather than the norm under FPTP, they say, and the disproportionality of the Lib Dems’ representation excludes them from undue influence as perpetual king-makers.

As it happens, I believe that the benefits of proportionality – both in giving legitimacy to the electoral system and in allowing relatively easy development of new parties – would out-weigh the supposed disadvantages. But this is irrelevant in the context of the May 5 referendum.

The referendum gives us a straight choice between AV and FPTP; and, despite the claims of some of its proponents, AV is neither a proportional system, nor a “more” proportional system than FPTP, nor a step towards a more proportional system. AV is simply preferential voting in single-member constituencies. Voters mark their ballots “1, 2, 3, 4 …” instead of “X”; if no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of first preferences, the second preferences of the last placed candidate are distributed, and so on until one candidate reaches 50 per cent.

So what makes AV worse than FPTP? Advocates of AV say that it has the advantage of ensuring that every MP is elected with 50 per cent or more of the vote – but it also turns electioneering into a desperate battle for the second, third and fourth preferences of fringe candidates. It eliminates tactical voting in the sense that it makes it unnecessary for voters to make considered choices between voting for someone they want and voting for someone with a chance of winning – but it does so only by allowing some voters more than one bite of the cherry.

The worst problem with AV, however, is that it in the long term it would probably be even less proportional and even less conducive to pluralism than FPTP. No one can know precisely what its effects would be in Britain – and guesswork based on recent general elections has been rendered obsolete by the Lib Dems’ entry into government with the Tories.

But the 90-year experience of Australia suggests that AV has even more of a tendency than FPTP to force politics into a de facto two-party mode.

In Australia, elections for the lower house of parliament, the House of Representatives, are a stand-off between the centre-left Labor Party and a permanent conservative coalition of the Liberal and National parties (as they are now known). One reason the conservative coalition became permanent is a function of AV: each right-wing party needs the second preferences of supporters of the other to win seats – so each formally recommends that its supporters give their second preferences to the other to keep Labor out.

Parties outside these two blocs are more effectively excluded from the Australian House of Representatives than they are from the House of Commons. Partly because of this, landslide parliamentary majorities on minorities of first-preference votes are more common in Australia even than landslides for minority-supported parties under FPTP in Britain.

Of course, the disproportional effects of AV could be mitigated if it were used in conjunction with regional top-up seats, as recommended by Roy Jenkins’s Independent Commission on the Voting System in 1998. But “AV-plus” isn’t on offer on May 6 or at any time afterwards. Nor is what Australia has that Britain has not – an elected upper chamber with a quasi-proportional electoral system under which smaller parties have repeatedly won representation.

If we vote yes, we get AV pure and simple, without an elected second chamber, and we get it for keeps. And, even though it puts me in the same camp as the dreadful David Owen on an important issue for the first time in 40 years, that’s why I’m voting “No to AV, Yes to PR”.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011


Former David Owen groupie and Tory strategist Danny Finkelstein has an excellent piece in the Times today – no link because of paywall – arguing for a "no" vote in the referendum:
I've been thinking why the arguments in the referendum campaign have been so poor. The first reason, I've concluded, is that no one really wants AV. Even the "yes" campaign. What they actually wanted was a proper proportional system, but they couldn't get MPs to agree to a referendum on it. So we have a referendum on AV (a constituency system, quite like the one we have, but with everyone using preferences rather than a single cross), with everyone making arguments about PR.

Most of the arguments being used in the campaign the new system would be fairer, for instance, or would produce too many hung parliaments – are great ones for the PR referendum we aren't having. But they are not arguments either in favour or against AV.

A related point is that everyone is desperate to tell voters what will happen to government under the new system, but no one can be sure. In some circumstances AV will produce bigger majorities, and in some cases smaller ones.

It's not even obvious what the party advantage is. A system that lets Liberal Democrats cast a second preference could easily help the Tories, now that most Labour-inclined Lib Dems are already intending to vote, well, Labour. And all this assumes that parties make the same appeal to voters under AV that they do now. Which, of course, they won't. So both sides of the campaign have to make up a story about the outcome under AV since they can only guess at the truth.

The other reason why the arguments are poor is that campaigners are painfully aware that voters couldn't care less about the whole thing. They are not interested in AV. So both sides want to make the referendum about something else. The "no" lot want it to be a vote against Nick Clegg and against politicians having a stupid referendum in the first place. The "yes" people want it to be about MPs' expenses. The referendum has nothing to do with either. A "no" vote won't stop Nick Clegg and a "yes" vote won't stop bad politicians.

Which all brings me to the reason why I intend to vote "no". The alternative vote will not reduce the number of safe seats. In seats where the winning candidates have more than 50 per cent of the vote under the present system, or are more than 20 per cent ahead of their nearest rival, the MPs that win under first-past-the-post will win under AV. So AV is about determining how marginal seats are allocated.

And it has a big advantage. As well as expressing my opinion on the candidate that I really want, I can express my opinion about all the other candidates too. I rank them in preference order and my ranking is taken into account. I tell them who I like but also who I don't like. My vote is more eloquent. And I don't agree with the "no" campaigners that I am voting more than once. Everyone gets the same right to express their other preferences.

But there is a serious — in my view, fatal — objection to this eloquence. The system gives my fourth preference the same weight as someone else's first preference. And it shouldn't.

Let's say you wanted Diane Abbott to be leader of the Labour Party but she ended up coming fifth and was eliminated. The counters look at your second preference – say Ed Balls – and add the vote, the whole of it, to his total. When he eventually goes out, your vote bounces on again, still at full value, this time to your third or fourth preference. And it's worth as much to them as a first-preference vote.

I think that there's an advantage in other preferences being listened to, but this is too much. Labour's AV leadership election didn't just allow Diane Abbott's voters to add a small fraction of their original vote to Ed Miliband's total, they were able to add their entire vote to it.

So AV swaps some of the disadvantages and unfairnesses of the current system for one that I think is even worse. It'll be a "no" from me.

Monday, 14 March 2011


Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg’s speech at his party’s spring conference yesterday came over as dire on the television news – which focused on his revival of his buttock-clenchingly awful soundbite about “alarm clock Britain” – but it’s worth a look for the rubbish he talks about the alternative vote:
AV is a small change that makes a big difference. It keeps what people like about the current system, like constituency MPs. It simply puts people, rather than politicians, in charge. Makes MPs work harder for your vote. And helps end the scandal of safe seats for life…

It’s simple. If you want more duck houses: vote no. If you want more democracy: vote yes.

In seven weeks, the British people can sound the last post for first past the post. So we have seven weeks to get our message across:

If you want MPs to work harder for your vote, vote yes. If you want politicians to listen to whole country, not just swing voters in marginal seats: vote yes. If you want an end to jobs for life in safe seats, vote yes. If you want a new politics, vote yes.
It is difficult to take any of this airhead banality seriously. Nearly every one of Clegg's claims for AV is untrue. AV would do little or nothing to reduce the number of safe seats, and swing voters in marginal seats (or rather swing second-preference voters in marginal seats) would be just as important as they are now. The system would do nothing to make MPs work harder or indeed to encourage them not to abuse the parliamentary expenses system.

New politics? Pull the other one. It’s hardly surprising that Ed Miliband has refused to share a Yes to Fairer Votes platform with Clegg. As Miliband says, the deputy prime minister is the yes campaign’s biggest liability.


Blur drummer David Goodwin lays a solid rhythm down on AV at the Guardian's Comment is Free:
It's crazy to think that the alternative vote is an improvement to what we have now. It deals with hardly any of the faults in our electoral system, introduces a whole range of new ones, and, depending on who you believe, will cost up to £250m to implement.

Now I am absolutely in favour of reform, but not just any reform. I want to see proportional representation. If a party wins 40% of the vote it should get 40% of seats in the Commons. If a party gets 20% of votes it should get 20% of seats. It isn't a hard concept to understand, and there are systems in place in countless other countries that produce this sort of result.

But AV is not proportional representation. It doesn't stop majority governments being elected on a minority of votes, it doesn't stop landslide results and it doesn't do anything to ensure minority parties get even one seat in the Commons.

It isn't popular anywhere. Only Australia, Papua New Guinea, and Fiji use it and six out of 10 of Australians want to get rid of it.

Now I don't want to descend into a morass of statistics, nor do I want to try to address every claim made for AV, but I do want to examine a couple of the wilder ones.

First, that it delivers MPs with the support of more than 50% of the electorate. How can it? Unless a candidate is elected with more than half of the vote in the first round, then more than half of the electorate would prefer someone else. In fact there is no system that can guarantee support of more than half of the electorate, other than the "limiting-the-number-of-candidates-to-two" system, which I don't think anyone is proposing.

Second, that AV is the antidote to negative campaigning. Well, let's look at the record. Since 1993, nearly two-thirds of Australian political ads have been negative – almost double the rate in Britain. One report said that a trademark of Australian campaigning was that it relied "heavily on extensive and overwhelmingly negative television advertising".

In the words of prominent Australian commentator Tim Colebatch, Australia's 2010 election was: "A negative campaign, where the leaders stood for less than ever before, and insulted voters' intelligence more than ever before. Both sides asked us to vote against their opponent, rather than giving us reasons to vote for them."

Of course, I didn't have all these facts at my fingertips in 2009 [when Gordon Brown promised a referendum on AV and Goodwin was addressing a fringe meeting on electoral reform at Labour conference]. I was at a loss for what to say about a switch to AV. The best I could manage was "I suppose it's better than nothing".

But actually it isn't. Don't vote for it.

Sunday, 13 March 2011


Like him or loath him, David Owen is right on the money in an opinion piece in the Independent on Sunday today:
This referendum will not set Britain down the path of real electoral reform; it will replace a bad system with a worse one, and risks putting off the prospect of real reform for generations.

* Gordon Brown had offered the Liberal Democrats a three-way referendum in the coalition negotiations: first past the post, the alternative vote and proportional representation. That is the option Nick Clegg and David Cameron should have put to us in the referendum. Refusing to put proportional reform on the agenda and give the public a real choice is a serious mistake by the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats.

* AV is no more than the "miserable little compromise" Nick Clegg described it as. AV does not address the unfairness of the present system. It won't end safe seats, tactical voting or wasted votes. It is a system that none of our partners in the EU use, and it has been rejected by inquiries into electoral reform.

None of these inquiries favoured a system where the second preferences of the least popular candidates have the most influence. Because the first candidate to get eliminated under AV – typically a fringe or extremist candidate – gets their votes redistributed first, they have the best chance of determining the final result. Also, AV can make election results even more disproportional. The Electoral Reform Society described AV as "not suitable for the election of a representative body, eg, a parliament". At the same time, AV does little to make it easier for smaller parties to get into Parliament.

As to the argument that a Yes vote in May will open the door to proportional representation in the future, this is wishful thinking. If AV is installed even on a low vote, it will have to be tested for a substantial period of time since rapid constitutional change destabilises our political system.

* There are two scenarios after a Yes vote. If AV proves popular, there won't be demand for further change. And if it proves unpopular, voters will demand a return to first past the post – as they did in the three Canadian provinces that tried AV then went back to first past the post. Either way, implementing AV would end the reform process.

* I have great sympathy with those who fear a No vote will end the possibility of electoral reform. Obviously, the defeat of AV will not immediately trigger a referendum on PR, but a principled "No to AV, Yes to PR" can keep the door open for real reform. Popular demand for PR won't go away after a No vote; the present fragmentation of support for the major political parties will not end simply because of a No vote.

If AV is opposed only by those who want the status quo and the referendum is defeated, then proportional representation will die, too...

Saturday, 12 March 2011


The Times carried a letter yesterday signed by a list of eminent historians – no link because of paywall – arguing for a "no" vote in the alternative vote referendum:
Our nation's history is deeply rooted in our parliamentary democracy, a democracy in which, over centuries, men and women have fought for the right to vote.

That long fight for suffrage established the principle of one man or woman, one vote. The principle that each person's vote is equal, regardless of wealth, gender, race, or creed, is a principle to which generations of reformers have dedicated their lives. It is a principle upon which reform of our parliamentary democracy still stands.

The referendum on 5th May which threatens to introduce a system of 'Alternative Voting' — a voting system which will allow MPs to be elected to Parliament even if they do not win the majority of constituents' first preference votes — also threatens to break this principle.

For the first time since 1928 and the granting of universal suffrage, we face the possibility that one person's casting ballot will be given greater weight than another. For the first time in centuries, we face the unfair idea that one citizen's vote might be worth six times that of another. It will be a tragic consequence if those votes belong to supporters of extremist and non-serious parties.

Twice in our past, the nation has rejected any threat to the principle of one citizen, one vote. The last time, in 1931, Winston Churchill stood against the introduction of an Alternative Vote system. As he argued, AV would mean that elections would be determined by "the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates". He understood that it was simply too great a risk to take.

The cause of reform, so long fought for, cannot afford to have the fundamentally fair and historic principle of majority voting cast aside; nor should we sacrifice the principle which generations of men and women have sought: that each being equal, every member of our society should cast an equal vote.

For these reasons, we urge the British people to vote "No" on May 5

Professor David Abulafia, Dr. John Adamson, Professor Antony Beevor, Professor Lord Bew of Donegore, Professor Jeremy Black, Professor Michael Burleigh, Professor John Charmley, Professor Jonathan Clark, Dr Robert Crowcroft, Professor Richard J Evans, David Faber, Professor Niall Ferguson, Orlando Figes, Dr. Amanda Foreman, Dr. John Guy, Robert Lacey, Dr. Sheila Lawlor, Lord Lexden, Simon Sebag Montefiore, Professor Lord Norton of Louth, Dr. Richard Rex, Dr. Andrew Roberts, Professor Richard Shannon, Chris Skidmore MP, Dr David Starkey, Professor Norman Stone, D.R. Thorpe, Alison Weir, Philip Ziegler

All good knockabout stuff – except that it's very poor history. The alternative vote was not rejected by the nation in 1931: the legislation to introduce it fell because the Labour government collapsed that summer. And although Winston Churchill was one of many MPs who spoke out against the alternative vote, the idea that his opinion was somehow decisive on the matter is laughable. The great man was at the lowest point of his political career, a Tory backbencher whose time as a political heavyweight seemed to nearly all his contemporaries to have passed. What killed off AV in 1931 was the massive landslide victory of the Tory-dominated National Government coalition in the general election of that year, which rendered any discussion of electoral reform completely academic.

Friday, 11 March 2011


It's questionable whether the support of David Alton and David Owen is much help for any cause, but what the hell. This ghoulish pair, along with the Bishop of Blackburn, Nicholas Trench and Robert Skidelsky have a letter in the Guardian making some salient points:
We attempted in the House of Lords to have a third choice of proportional representation put in front of the British people in the forthcoming referendum on electoral reform. We failed because of the refusal of the two political forces that now totally dominate parliament, the coalition government and the Labour party.

Yet we know that there exists within the British electorate a high percentage of voters who do not accept, on a major constitutional issue that seeks to test public opinion on electoral reform, that the referendum should deliberately exclude the option of a proportional voting system. This is particularly so since proportional representation has been at the core of election campaigns over at least 30 years by the Liberal party, the SDP, the Green party and, up to late 2009, the Liberal Democrats.

We recognise that some of those strongly committed to proportional representation genuinely believe that the alternative vote is an incremental step to the fairer system of proportional representation. But we do not accept that the electoral voting system can be subject to repeated reform. Once changed, a new voting system has to be tested over a substantial period of time – otherwise it will destabilise our political system and encourage cynical attempts to change the system for reasons of partisan advantage.

In the light of that conclusion, based on the fundamental need for stability in constitutional reform, we will reluctantly vote no to the alternative vote, while continuing to campaign for the principles behind proportional representation under the slogan "No to AV, Yes to PR".

Tuesday, 8 March 2011


Terry Ashton, onetime general secretary of the Greater London Labour Party, has a letter in Tribune this week responding to Paul Anderson's last column in the magazine:
Paul Anderson (Tribune, February 18) argues against the alternative vote, but fails to make his case that it would be an even worse system than first past the post.

The Electoral Reform Society is backing a "Yes" vote in May's referendum because it shakes up British complacency about the quality of our democracy. Britain has never recommend first past the post as the system of choice when advising emerging democracies.

A "yes" would vote begin the process of freshening up our democracy and making everyone's vote worthwhile, not just the minority of a minority in the marginal seats. No party could form a government on just 34 per cent of the vote.

The democratic way to respond to those who have the temerity not to vote Labour is not to try and give them a stark choice between Labour and Tory (or a Tory-led coalition) but to engage with the reasons why they don't consider supporting Labour in the first instance.

The publication of first choices in voting would indicate someone's number one preference and could be instructive. Why are we just not responding sufficiently robustly to environmentalist concerns? Why are "anti-cuts" candidates standing? Don't they realise that Labour has resisted as strongly as is possible in a democracy and that they could split the vote and let in the real villains?

Being in power has its responsibilities, as the Liberal Democrats are finding out. Suggesting there are easy answers is irresponsible in a 21st century democracy. So vote "Yes" for one step forward. After all, AV is only first past the post-plus.

There will be a response on all this here very soon.

Monday, 7 March 2011


Week three of the campaign in the run-up to the referendum on the alternative vote has been an almost complete non-event. Ken Clarke made a boiler-plate defence of first past the post at the Tories' spring conference; and the official No to AV campaign made a massive hoo-hah about one of the few Tories in the "yes" camp who happens to have rather old-fashioned views about women and gays and thinks the Israelis are akin to Nazis. Thin gruel indeed ...

Sunday, 27 February 2011


Has there ever been anything quite as dispiritingly unmotivating as the current AV referendum campaign? I wasn't expecting a great deal from it, but week two has been so dead even I've barely noticed it.

No to AV has continued its idiotic Taxpayers' Alliance bollocks about how much a change in the voting system would cost. And Yes to Fairer Votes has moaned about how bad No to AV's campaign has been. It's embarrassingly moronic, and heads should roll in both campaigns –  though I suspect they won't because there isn't a lot of time to recruit new staff and devise less ineffectual pitches.

Both official campaign websites are execrably static and unresponsive – I'm managing to update this blog more regularly than either of them without any staff or resources and with quite a lot of day-job work to do. And neither campaign seems to be doing much more offline than running public meetings on a scale rather less impressive than, say, the Polish Solidarity Campaign on a not particularly busy week in the 1980s.

At this rate, I'd be surprised if turnout is 30 per cent.

Saturday, 26 February 2011


Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg famously described the alternative vote as "a miserable little compromise" in the 2010 general election campaign – just days before insisting upon a referendum on it as the price for coalition with the Conservative Party.

The extent of his vile treachery to the proportional representation cause is breathtaking. Here is what his party has said about the electoral system for the House of Commons in its manifestos in the past 35 years:
Liberal manifesto 1979
"Liberals demand proportional representation at all levels of government."

Liberal-SDP Alliance manifesto 1983
"The introduction of proportional representation is the linchpin of our entire programme of radical reform. Alone of the political parties the Liberal Party and the SDP recognise that our economic crisis is rooted in our political system."

Liberal-SDP Alliance manifesto 1987
"The Alliance will introduce community proportional representation, using the well-tried single transferable vote system with constituencies based on local communities."

Liberal Democrat manifesto 1992
"We will introduce proportional representation for all elections at local, national and European levels. We propose the single transferable vote, by which electors cast their votes in multi-member constituencies based on natural communities."

Liberal Democrat manifesto 1997
"We will introduce proportional representation for all elections, to put more power in the hands of voters and make government more representative."

Liberal Democrat manifesto 2001
"For Westminster, we support the system of AV-plus as proposed by the Jenkins Commission as a first step. We will therefore put the Jenkins Commission's recommendations before the British people in a referendum at the earliest possible opportunity. Ultimately, we wish to see the single transferable vote (STV) used for Westminster elections."

Liberal Democrat manifesto 2005
"Liberal Democrats in Scotland are already bringing in the single transferable vote (STV) system for local elections ... We will extend this fair voting system to al local elections in Britian and to the House of Commons, the Scottish Parliament and Notional Assembly of Wales."

Liberal Democrat manifesto 2010
"Our preferred single transferable vote system gives people the choice between candidates as well as parties."
Well, there’s some movement there, but nothing like the principle-free opportunism of Clegg on AV after the 2010 general election. He has sold the pass. What a slimy little creep he is.

Thursday, 24 February 2011


The Labour Party uses the alternative vote for key internal elections – most importantly for leader and deputy leader, most recently contested in 2010 and 2007 respectively.

The system is straight AV within a three-part electoral college that gives one third of the vote each to:
  • ordinary members; 
  • members of affiliated organisations (mainly trade unions); and
  • MPs and MEPs. 
In each section voters vote preferentially and may choose to list as many or as few candidates as they wish.

The system as been in place since 1993 and was first used in the election to choose the successor to John Smith as Labour leader in 1994.

In practice
The first Labour leadership and deputy leadership elections under the current system took place in 1994. Tony Blair won the leadership with 57 per cent of first preferences and John Prescott won the deputy leadership with 57 per cent of first preferences.

There were no contested leadership or deputy leadership elections until Blair and Prescott resigned in 2007. Gordon Brown was then elected unopposed as leader – but there was a contest for deputy leader, in which Harriet Harman won from a field of six candidates.

Harman won less than 19 per cent of first preference votes, behind John Cruddas, but won sufficient second, third, fourth and fifth preference votes to beat Alan Johnson in the final round by a whisker.

In 2010, after the resignation of Brown, there was a contested Labour leadership election, which was won by Ed Miliband from a field of five candidates.

Ed Miliband came second to his brother David on first preferences – 34 to 39 per cent – but beat him 51-49 after distribution of preferences.

Internal party elections and general elections are very different beasts. Labour members know how AV works from their experience of it in internal party elections but it is difficult to see how any of this relates to the proposed introduction of AV for general elections.

There was a lot of grumbling last year from supporters of David Miliband who felt their man had been somehow cheated of the leadership by the use of AV, but it is impossible to tell how  Labour members would have voted tactically in an FPTP contest – so the grumbling is best seen as a mixture of sour grapes and wishful thinking by backers of David Miliband (on which, it has to be said, the man himself has kept a dignified silence).

The main faults with the Labour system for leadership and deputy leadership elections have less to do with AV than with the electoral college, which:
  • gives multiple votes to many voters
  • weights the votes of MPs/MEPs, ordinary members and trade union members radically differently
  • allows affiliated organisations to be partial in their distribution of candidates' election materials.
Although the Labour leadership election system will now doubt crop up during the campaign on the AV referendum, it really isn't very relevant.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011


The venerable constitutional politics academic Vernon Bogdanor makes some good points in the Guardian:
Democracy is government by the people. The referendum is an instrument, infrequently used in Britain, by which the people are consulted. The electoral system can determine the fact of parties. So it ought to be chosen by the people in a referendum, not by the politicians.

But the options – first past the post (FPTP) or the alternative vote (AV) – have already been decided by the government. Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, has called it "little more than a Hobson's choice". The people, if asked, would almost certainly seek a wider choice. In September 2010, a YouGov poll commissioned by the Constitution Society showed that only 14% believed that parliament should set the alternatives; 40% wanted a wider choice than the government was offering. Among supporters of AV, no fewer than 59% wanted a wider choice. The implication is that advocates of change favour not AV but a proportional system. The coalition, however, is not allowing them to express that choice.

That is a striking contrast with the experience of another Westminster system, New Zealand, where, in 1992 and 1993, there was a two-stage multi-choice referendum which gave voters a wide range of options...

In October 2010 Caroline Lucas, in an amendment to the parliamentary voting systems and constituencies bill, proposed a multi-option referendum allowing voters to express a preference for proportional systems. It was defeated by 346 votes to 17. The Liberal Democrats had declared in their election manifesto that they favoured "a fair, more proportional voting system for MPs. Our preferred single transferable vote system gives people the choice between candidates as well as parties". Yet 54 of the 57 Lib Dem MPs voted against the amendment and one acted as a teller for the noes. Three Conservatives, but no Lib Dems, voted for the amendment.

Last year, during the failed post-election negotiations with Labour, the Lib Dems were apparently offered a referendum on PR. A coalition of the left, therefore, would have given the voters the choice they sought. The coalition with the Conservatives means the people are being offered a choice they do not want by two parties who do not believe in it – a referendum on an electoral system which both the coalition partners opposed during the election campaign.

The last government to propose AV was Ramsay MacDonald's ill-fated second Labour administration in 1931. During the parliamentary debates, a leading Tory reminded MPs of Oscar Wilde's quip that the artist Whistler had no enemies, but was thoroughly disliked by all his friends. The same, the MP said, was true of AV. Little seems to have changed in the intervening years.


It is hardly surprising that the polls are all over the place on the AV referendum: for the latest, see the ever-excellent UK Polling Report website here, showing a big advantage for the "no" campaign for the first time.

It could be a freak: previous polls have suggested a clear "yes". It's more likely that the vote is simply up for grabs because voters haven't yet made up their minds. So far, the issue has not engaged any but a handful of people – and in so far as it has my hunch is that the official "no" campaign's brutal right-wing populist bullshit about how much a change of electoral system would cost has probably made a rather bigger impact than the vague appeals of the "yes" campaign.

For a totally different take on the battle so far, see my good friend and colleague James Anslow here: he thinks that the "yes" crew won the first week of the campaign because, with its clear anti-politician message, it told a more convincing story about the issue than the "no" lot, which mixed up what it was trying to say by talking about the wonders of the existing voting system at the same time as whinging about its results.

This one will run and ... well, stop. It's been going for a week and there are only another 10 to go, and the arguments on both sides are being tried out with very little testing in  focus groups or opinion polls. Largely because of the almost unbeleivably tedious parliamentary wrangling over the legislation for the referendum, the issue has gone live very late, and the political class is playing rabbits-in-the-headlights on it. (On this, more anon ...) Both "yes" and "no" campaigns are poorly resourced and run by idiots.

It's going to be be extraordinarily unedifying, and I remain an opponent in principle both of AV and of plebiscitary democracy, but it could be spectacular and most enjoyable: with any luck, it is set to give us some very tasty political roadkill.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011


Over at his New Statesman blog, David Allen Green puts a pro-PR case against the alternative vote:
There are certainly some bad reasons for opposing the introduction of AV. Some complain of the cost: but that surely is a second-order problem... Others say that it may help re-elect party X or "let in" party Y. However, one really should not support a constitutional reform simply to advantage one party or disadvantage another. (That said, most constitutional reforms, from the 1832 and 1867 franchise extensions onwards, have actually been for party advantage.)

And not all those who oppose AV do so for vested interests. As someone who broadly supports the Liberal Democrats, and certainly welcomes the effect they have on an otherwise brutal Conservative government, my opposition to AV cannot be written off as political self-interest.

There are two good reasons for any liberal to oppose the introduction of this proposed voting system.

First, AV is not in fact a good form of proportional representation. Because it retains the single member constituencies, there is no inherent reason why the national shares of the vote would be reflected in Westminster. AV also does nothing to deal with the very safest seats - those where the winning candidate already gets more than 50% - and so, in such constituencies, the losing votes will be as "wasted" as before. And other seats will just be as "safe", depending on whether the there is a natural Tory/Lib Dem or Labour/Lib Dem majority.

Second, the practical operation of AV is fundamentally undemocratic and offensive to the principle of equal treatment of voters. In the less safe seats where AV is triggered, the votes cast by those who favour the most popular candidate are not of equal value to the votes cast for less popular candidates. The second and third choices of the voters favouring the most popular candidate are just disregarded. If all second and third votes were given equal value then the overall result may well be different. The charge that AV means repeated bites at the cherry for some voters but not others is impossible to rebut.
I'd cavill at one point – the problem with AV isn't that it's not a "good" form of PR but that it's not PR at all – but otherwise he's got it in a nutshell.

Monday, 21 February 2011


The most important election in the UK conducted using a version of the alternative vote is the London mayoral contest.

An elected London mayor was one of the promises on which the Labour Party won the 1997 general election, and the promise was made good by the 1999 Greater London Authority Act.

There have since been three London mayor elections – the first in 2000, when Ken Livingstone won as an independent, the second in 2004 when he retained his position as official Labour candidate, and the third in 2008, when the Tory Boris Johnson won. The next London mayor election is in 2012, and Livingstone will again be the Labour candidate.

It's subtly different from what's proposed for the Commons
The version of AV used for London mayoral elections is the supplementary vote, under which voters can choose only first and second preferences. If one candidate does not win more than 50 per cent of first preferences, second preferences are counted for the top two candidates and added to their first-preference tally.

How it has worked in practice
In the first mayoral election in 2000, Livingstone won 39 per cent of first preferences and the Tory Steve Norris won 27 per cent. The second-preferences for Livingstone and Norris were then counted, giving Livingstone a 58 per cent to 42 per cent victory.

In 2004, Livingstone won 36 per cent of first preferences to Norris’s 28 per cent, winning after second preferences were distributed by 55 per cent to 45 per cent.

In 2008, Johnson took 43 per cent of first preferences to Livingstone’s 36 per cent, winning by 53 per cent to 47 per cent after second preferences were distributed.

Very few relevant lessons
It is difficult to draw conclusions from London’s mayoral elections on the possible use of AV for Westminster elections. The position of London mayor is by definition a one-off: there really isn’t a proportional system for electing a single representative.

Moreover, the version of AV proposed for House of Commons is not the supplementary vote but one in which voters can rank all candidates: it would be possible for candidates placed third or even fourth on first preferences under the proposed AV system for the Commons to win seats, which can’t happen with a supplementary vote system.

And, more important, the London mayoral election of 2000 was a freak. Livingstone stood as an independent after being carved out of the official Labour selection process. The official Labour candidate, Frank Dobson, came a poor third, and most of his first-preference supporters gave Livingstone their second preferences.

So – few relevant lessons here. The system we use to elect a London mayor and the one we use for parliament are two separate issues.

Sunday, 20 February 2011


Andrew Rawnsley makes some good points in the Observer about how the official No to AV campaign has adopted the most idiotic possible core message in its efforts so far. He takes as his starting point the speech made by David Cameron against AV last week:
The worst argument advanced in the prime minister's speech was that AV is too complicated. He said: "I don't think we should replace a system that everyone gets with one that's only understood by a handful of elites."

Well, let us accept that numbering candidates 1, 2, 3 does require a slightly more advanced level of numeracy than simply making a cross. I think Britain will cope. Many Britons already use AV when electing representatives for charities, churches, companies, trade unions, societies and voluntary organisations. Labour and the Lib Dems both elect their leaders by AV...

Australians have managed to master AV. The prime minister is surely not suggesting that the fine people of Britain have a lower collective IQ than our friends in the Antipodes?

While his speech did not muster any fresh arguments in favour of first past the post, it did draw attention to the general attitude of the anti-reformers. Their propaganda puts most weight on this contention that AV is just too taxing for the poor old British voter to get his or her head around.

The no campaign will probably not put it so indelicately themselves, but they are calculating that their best hope of preserving first past the post is to mobilise what you could crudely call the Thicko Vote. This explains a very revealing switch in their tactics.

A few weeks ago, you may recall, the antis were loudly complaining that it was wrong to hold the referendum on the same day as the elections for local councils and the devolved governments in Wales and Scotland. It was monstrous, they cried. It was damn near unconstitutional, they yelled. The no men in Parliament attempted to amend the legislation to separate the referendum from the May elections.

Have you heard them making that argument recently? No, you haven't. Not a peep from them. Here's why. They've now had a look at what type of person is more likely to agree with each proposition. The polling suggests that AB voters, the more affluent and generally better-educated segment of the population, are more inclined to support reform. DE voters, by contrast, are more likely to be persuaded that we should stick with the status quo. If the turn-out is low, the DEs will be the ones staying at home. So the no campaign now believe it suits their cause that the referendum will be on the same day as the May elections because that ought to boost turn-out...
Well, believe it or not, I agree with nearly all of that – and I'm a "no" on AV. What Rawnsley doesn't say, of course, is that the "yes" camp has adopted an equally idiotic populist message – that "yes" is all about nice cuddly things like "change" and "fairness" and "progress" when actually it's all about a boring old electoral system that has been used in Australia for nearly a century and wouldn't make a lot of difference.

Still, going for the thicko vote is what happens with referendums: plebiscitary democracy is a recipe for populist cretinism. But that's another story...

Saturday, 19 February 2011


The largest country that uses the alternative vote for general elections is Australia. It replaced first past the post with AV in 1918 at the initiative of a conservative Nationalist Party government that wanted to make it as difficult as possible for the Australian Labor Party to win power again. (Australian Labor was one of the most successful social democratic parties of the early years of the 20th century, winning national office in 1910 and again in 1914.)

AV – known as preferential voting in Australia – did the job for the conservatives for more than 50 years: it meant that Labor, though consistently polling more first-preference votes than any other party, was kept out of federal government by a conservative coalition for all but two years until 1941, formed the government between 1941 and 1949, and was then kept out again by a conservative coalition from 1949 until 1972.

Since then, however, governments in Australia have alternated between Labor and conservative coalitions – and Labor has found that the preferential voting system works to its advantage when support for alternative left and green parties is high. Labor has been in government 1972-75, 1983-96 and 2007-present.

The electoral system is not currently a major political issue, although opinion polls suggest that there is low-key majority support for a change back to FPTP.

The most important effect of AV on Australian politics has been its embedding a de facto two-party system, with Labor contesting national power with a permanent conservative coalition (currently of the Liberal and National parties). Preferential voting ensures that anyone outside these two blocs wins lower-house representation only in extraordinary circumstances. Australia's lower house is more closed to outsider parties than even the House of Commons, but the exclusion is mitigated by the quasi-proportional electoral system in operation for the upper house (see below).

Differences between here and there
The AV system used in Australia is different from that proposed for the UK in several respects.
  • Voting is compulsory in Australia (and has been since 1924).
  • Australian voters have to rank all candidates standing in a constituency for their ballot papers to be valid: they cannot simply place a “1” next to the name of one candidate as they would be able to under the version of AV proposed for UK general elections.
  • In a general election Australians vote for both upper and lower houses of parliament. Only the lower house, the House of Representatives, is elected by AV. The upper house, the Senate, is elected by a complex quasi-proportional list system. In Britain, the upper house, the House of Lords, is not elected.

Upper and lower house
The last of these differences between the Australian system and the one proposed for the House of Commons is probably the most significant.

The fact that Australia has an elected second chamber – and one elected by a quasi-proportional system – means that the effects of AV are tempered. Small parties can and do win representation in the Australian Senate, and their representation there can act as an important check on the House of Representatives.

Nothing like this exists in the UK: the Lords is unelected. If introduction of AV in the UK for Commons elections had been incorporated in an overall reform to the political system, including democratic election of a second chamber to replace the Lords, perhaps on a proportional representation model, AV for the Commons would be a lot less controversial.

But that isn’t the deal: the plebiscite on 5 May is about AV for the Commons only, and Lords reform is a distant prospect that might as well not exist.

Otherwise, the differences between the UK government's AV proposals and the existing system in Australia are down to the rules about compulsory voting – but we won’t actually know what they would mean in pratice unless the UK votes “yes” on 5 May.
  • There is a slim possibility that, in the absence of compulsory voting, voters could be put off voting in the proposed UK AV system by the perceived complexity of AV. Compulsion was introduced in Australia because of the low turnout in its second AV general election. No one knows whether British voters would abstain as enthusiastically.
  • It’s quite likely that quite a lot of voters in the proposed UK AV system would not choose to list every candidate in order of preference. (I know I’d never put a number next to the names of candidates for the BNP or religious parties, for example, and only in exceptional circumstances would I not leave the spaces blank next to the names of the Tory and the Lib Dem.) Again, no one has a clue how widespread such practices would be or what would be their effects.

AV was introduced in Australia as a cynical conservative political fix to do over the Australian Labor Party as a national political force. It has nevertheless developed into a system that delivers, for the most part, an alternating two-party system of federal government very similar to those normal under first past the post systems. It cannot be described as a system of proportional repreresentation. Only the Labor Party and conservative coalitions have won lower-house seats in most general elections, and only Labor and conservative coalitions have ever formed governments. But the upper house of parliament, the Senate, provides a crucial check on lower-house elections – and unlke in the UK, it is elected.

Thursday, 17 February 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 18 February 2011

Something tells me that the campaign in the run-up to the referendum on the voting system on 5 May is going to be rather less than riveting.

It’s not just that the issue itself – whether or not to drop the first past the post system for Westminster elections and replace it with the alternative vote – is technical and not at the front of most voters’ minds. Even campaigners for the “yes” and “no” camps appear to lack all conviction.

Last week, the “yes” camp plumbed the depths of desperation when one of its official spokespeople tried to appropriate the forthcoming royal wedding for the AV cause. “We will put all the arguments, but around the wedding it will be a coming-into-summer, more optimistic, more of a yes mood,” a “campaign source” told the Guardian (which for some reason thought this risible banality warranted a front-page story).

This week, the “no” camp sank even deeper, with an official launch at which its key argument (picked up by the Sun) seemed to be that AV would cost a shocking £250 million, mainly because councils would have to buy expensive vote-counting machines. The press conference subsequently degenerated into a catty exchange about whether “yes” or “no” had the hotter celebrity endorsements.

The real problem is that very few people even among the campaigners for “yes” and “no” are for or against the alternative vote as a matter of principle.

There are a few in the “yes” camp, among them the journalist John Rentoul and the Labour MP Peter Hain, who think that AV is a good thing in itself because it would ensure that every MP received more than 50 per cent of the vote. (AV retains single-member constituencies from first past the post but voters mark their ballot papers "1, 2, 3, 4 ..." in order of preference instead of placing an “X” next to the name of their favoured candidate. If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of first preferences, the second preferences of supporters of the last-placed candidate are distributed, and so on until one candidate has more than 50 per cent of votes.)

But most supporters of the “yes” campaign are there either for reasons of political self-interest – most analysts believe that the Liberal Democrats would win more seats under AV than under FPTP – or because they see AV as a step towards a more proportional system of representation.

AV itself is not PR. Indeed, it could, and probably would, yield results even more disproportionate than first past the post – and no serious supporter of PR argues otherwise. But AV can be used, in conjunction with regional top-up seats, in a PR system, which is what the late Lord Jenkins advocated – he called it “AV-plus”— in the report of his Independent Commission on the Voting System in 1998. Many in the “yes” campaign, among them the constitutional campaigner Anthony Barnett and the Guardian newspaper, think that a vote to change to AV would open the door to further changes.

I really don’t buy this argument: I can’t see any reason whatsoever to expect that we won’t be stuck with AV for the long term if we vote for it in the referendum – and so, as a supporter of PR who thinks that AV is in many respects even worse than first past the post, I’m going to be voting “no” on 5 May.

Not that I’m happy with my bedfellows. The “no” camp is dominated by self-interested Tory and Labour big-wigs who back first past the post on the grounds that they believe AV would damage their parties’ prospects and that a “no” vote on 5 May will damage Nick Clegg. Hardly anyone in the official No to AV campaign is prepared to make the best principled argument against AV – that it is not proportional – for the simple reason that hardly anyone in No to AV supports PR.

Hence the hogwash at the No to AV launch about how expensive AV would be – which will no doubt be followed by groaning about how complicated AV is, how it would spoil the fun of election night and sundry other irrelevancies.

All of which is a crying shame, because how we vote in elections actually matters – and the referendum will determine whether we are saddled with a system even worse than the one we’ve got now. I'm hoping that the cretinous exchanges of the past week will prove an aberration. But I'm not putting money on it.

Cross-posted from Gauche.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011


The House of Commons has thrown out all the Lords' amendments to the bill on the AV referendum, so it looks like 5 May is a date for the diary. My thoughts on yesterday's official launch of the No to AV campaign to come here shortly.

UPDATE WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON The Lords has now reinstated the clause to make it necessary for a "yes" vote in the referendum to win 40 per cent of voters to succeed. A similar threshhold scuppered devolution to Scotland and Wales in 1979 ... so this could be serious if the to-ing and fro-ing between the upper and lower houses isn't successfully resolved in the next 24 hours.

UPDATE THURSDAY MORNING Oh well, so much for all that. We're now back on track for a 5 May referendum.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011


Nick Cohen is suitably withering about the launch of the pro-AV campaign on the Spectator blog:
I once vowed never again to mock celebrities who endorse political campaigns as if they were advertising two-for-the-price-of-one offers in supermarkets. But today’s announcement that the Yes to AV campaign has recruited Helena Bonham Carter and Colin Firth is testing my resolve.

It is not that I believe that celebrities should keep away from politics. They have as much right as journalists to express an opinion – indeed, when they argue for artistic freedom or libel reform they are more committed and more knowledgeable than most reporters are. But the Yes campaigners decision to propel Bonham Carter and Firth forward, along with Tony Robinson, Richard Wilson, Eddie Izzard, Stephen Fry, Joanna Lumley, John Cleese, Billy Bragg and Martin Bell is not an attempt to use thought-thorough expertise for a good cause, but a transparent manoeuvre to avoid debate.
The first calculation is that the public are fools. Glamour sways the plebs' minds and determines their votes. Let us hope they are wrong on that.

The second calculation is that when presented with a star, most journalist will go weak at the knees and forget to ask hard questions. If you doubt that I am right on that, try to imagine John Humprhys demanding to know of Stephen Fry or Joanna Lumley why they thought that AV would deliver “fair votes” when Lord Jenkins’ commission on electoral reform found that AV could lead to even more unrepresentative parliaments than we have now. Or Jeremy Paxman pounding Colin Firth to a pulp as he asks again and again why voters should trust him, when he all but apologised for urging them to vote Liberal Democrat at the last election?

The worst of it is that the Yes campaigners are offering us actors because they dare not present Nick Clegg to the electorate. AV is what the Deputy Prime Minister wants. The referendum is the great concession he received from David Cameron to justify his misbegotten alliance with the Conservatives. But he has become so unpopular as a result of that alliance, he will not appear in plain view and argue for his beliefs like an honest man.

Sunday, 13 February 2011


It was hardly a surprise that the Guardian came out for the alternative vote on Friday
The alternative vote is only a small and, arguably, imperfect advance … but it is also a development of huge political significance that is indispensable if the creaking and tainted system of Westminster politics is to be reinvigorated. It offers the chance of change to voters who are crying out for it…
– it has made pretty much the same point before (just as unconvincingly) several times over the past few months.

Rather more surprising was the way it reported the latest on the referendum campaign. On one hand, its second story on its front page was the pro-AV campaign’s frankly asinine attempt to portray the referendum as somehow connected to the royal wedding:
"We will put all the arguments, but around the wedding it will be a coming-into-summer, more optimistic, more of a yes mood," a campaign source said.
You what?

On the other hand, on the inside spread devoted to the campaign it repeated just about every bit of hype the “yes” campaign has been trying to spread about itself while portraying the opponents of AV as old-fashioned, reactionary stick-in-the-mud squares.

Thus the “yes” campaign’s operation was described as
“’Anarcho syndicalist’ – it is fissiparous and proud that, just as it has few politicians as its public faces, it has 17 regional offices, 50 phone banks and 150,000-odd activists, it says, and will be closer to the electorate than the establishment. It is thought to have around £2m in funds which has enabled it to hire digital campaigning experts … and a marketing agency.”

By contrast, the “no” campaign was portrayed as
“based in London with a core team of 20 full-time staff and then more regional organisers … They are not as resourced as the yes campaign , nor will they have so many celebrities, and you can expect green campaigners to focus on their chair, Rodney Leach, who … is a climate change sceptic.”

OK, this tosh was only in the sidebar to the main piece (and doesn’t appear to be online) – but surely the Guardian can do better than this?