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?

Friday, 11 February 2011


The Guardian has a spread on the alternative vote today, on which more over the weekend. For now, some choice quotes from shadow business secretary John Denham in an interview for the paper's website by Andrew Sparrow, also published today:
Denham suggested Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems should take a low profile in the alternative vote campaign to avoid damaging its chances.

"There is a real issue of judgment about whether some people's image is so bad it would actually damage the AV campaign," said Denham, a strong supporter of electoral reform.

"Too close an association between the AV campaign and one single political party, the Liberal Democrats, won't help the overall campaign," he said.

Thursday, 10 February 2011


The redoubtable Mark D'Arcy is keeping track as we sleep on the progress of the voting referendum bill through the House of Lords.

The bill – which includes controversial proposals for reducing the number of MPs in the House of Commons – must be passed next week if the referendum is to take place on time, so opposition peers are attempting to extract last-minute concessions. According to D'Arcy:
Labour's price for agreeing a timetable could well be further concessions. Perhaps on reviewing the number of MPs in the Commons, perhaps on the permissible variation in the size of constituencies – or perhaps on other matters, like cutting the number of ministers in proportion to the cut in the size of the Commons.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011


Antony Brown, Thomas Lundberg, John Cox and Brian Wilson have a pithy letter in today's Independent:

The alternative vote will not solve our democratic problems. Electoral reformers should vote against AV in the forthcoming referendum.

AV is not proportional and can exaggerate landslide elections. In 1997, for example, it is probable that Blair would have had a majority of over 200 with AV. It exaggerates the tendency of our current system to direct voters into a two-sided competition. Smaller parties, such as the Greens, are no more likely to be elected than today.

AV is likely to derail reform. If AV proves durable, another disproportional system will be entrenched for decades, as it has been in Australia. If it does not, then the next step is far more likely to be back to the familiarity of first past the post than forward to a proportional system. Where there's a cultural tradition of FPTP the political reflex is to gravitate back to it. Two western provinces of Canada re-implemented FPTP after using AV. To believe that AV must be supported to sustain the momentum of reform appears misguided.

AV gives minority parties greater electoral leverage but without democratic accountability. A minority party can barter with larger parties, urging its supporters to give the larger party their second preferences in return for policy concessions. Smaller parties should be heard, but transparently and after receiving a mandate.

Let's not fall foul of this referendum's false dilemma. The question on the ballot reads: should AV be used instead of FPTP Most reformers would say: "No, PR should."

Tuesday, 8 February 2011


The wrangling in Westminster over the government's bill for the referendum on the alternative vote is coming to the crunch over the next few days. Mark D'Arcy of the BBC has this on his excellent blog:
Charlie Falconer has succeeded in tying the coalition in knots. Again.

Last night's government defeat in the Lords, inserting a "threshold clause" into the bill for a referendum on the voting system would effectively wreck the bill as far as the Lib Dems are concerned. The requirement that 40 per cent of the electorate should turn out, before a vote to change the electoral system could be valid, looks unattainable.

There's solid polling data on this. A big ICM poll by the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign found that 49 per cent of respondents in areas due to hold elections in May were certain to vote. But only 36 per cent were certain to vote in the referendum – which the government wants to hold alongside those elections. If that was born out by events, the attempt to change the voting system would flounder then and there. Students of history will recall that a failure to meet a threshold was precisely what defeated the Callaghan government's proposals for Scottish devolution in March 1979 – and ultimately led to the fall of that government.

So if this vital part of the coalition agreement is to be implemented, the threshold has to be removed from the bill. I gather that it is at least technically possible to attempt this at the next stage of consideration – third reading. But it is more likely that the government will simply ask the House of Commons to remove it when it comes to consider the amendments made by their lordships, probably on Monday.

Monday, 7 February 2011


Campaigners for a "yes" vote in the 5 May plebiscite on changing the electoral system are demanding that the BBC withdraws advice to its journalists that they should avoid describing the alternative vote as "electoral reform".

"All we're asking for is a fair debate – the status quo vs reform," says Yes to Fairer Votes's Jonathan Bartley in an email circular sent out today. "That doesn't seem like too much to ask does it?"

Sorry, but it does. It's not a referendum on "the status quo vs reform" but one giving a choice between the status quo and one particular option for reform – the alternative vote – that is opposed by many electoral reformers, some of whom (this blog among them) are campaigning for a "no" vote on 5 May.

The BBC should resist any attempt to make it appear that the "yes" campaign is the voice of electoral reform. It is the voice of the alternative vote, and that's all.

Paul Anderson