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