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.
Wednesday, 16 March 2011
WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE ... 4
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: