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 ...