Mr Bigg's Blog A blog about politics, theology, education and the rest…

5May/112

Reflections on standing outside a polling station

Posted by Mike

This evening I stood for an hour or so outside my local polling station with a Yes to AV sign and a few fliers. The local campaign had asked me to do this to offer any unsure voters the chance to ask any questions still unresolved for them. The response I got was unexpected...

Whenever I caught someone's eye on their way into the polling station I smiled and politely asked if they still had any unresolved questions about the AV referendum. The majority of voters said, "No, thanks! I've already decided." Fine. A few added a cheeky, "Don't worry, I'll be voting Yes." A few added that they'd already decided to vote No. All fair enough.

However, a significant minority got a little huffy as if I'd said, "I hope you're voting Yes" or "Which way are you planning to vote?" One woman came out after voting and approached me. She said she'd voted Yes and was passionate about it, but was worried that the campaign was using Nazi-like tactics to hassle voters (yes, she used the N-word).

I guess I've learned today that people are extremely protective about their vote. They hold their right to vote dear. The Yes campaign needed to persuade people that AV will not diminish their vote but enhance it. We won't get another chance at this in my lifetime to make this change. I hope they have done enough.

3May/111

The shame and misinformation of the No to AV campaign

Posted by Mike

I was dismayed to come home today and find that the No to AV campaign have written to my house again. They've written to everyone in the house except me (what do they know about me and how?!)

Their flier was full of outrageous misinformation and poor argument so I thought I'd rebut some of it (again).

"Vote NO to the Altervative Vote on Thursday because..."

...it will produce more coalitions. Under the AV system, we would have coalitions most of the time, with Nick Clegg deciding who would be Prime Minister by cutting a deal behind closed doors after the election

Where to start with this? Firstly, there is little evidence that AV will produce more coalitions. We simply don't know how people would have allocated their second/third/fourth preferences had AV been in force in previous years so it's difficult to project backwards. My guess would be that Tony Blair's landslide in 1997 would still have happened under AV but we simply don't know. Anyway, are coalition governments by definition a bad thing? I don't think so.

The other major problem is the ad hominem argument against Nick Clegg. The campaign to change the voting system is NOT about the results of the next election, or the one after that. We are talking about a change that could last hundreds of years. It is simply not acceptable to argue against AV because we don't like Nick Clegg (just as the Yes to AV argument isn't made any stronger by saying "The BNP are voting against AV so we should vote for it"). The question is about how we can deliver an electoral system that most fairly and democratically represents the will of the people. The issue of which system will be most beneficial to the party one happens to like is neither here nor there.

...it is only used by three other countries in the world - Fiji, Australia and Papua New Guinea - and Australia want to get rid of it.

Oh, good Lord! Firstly, I am not aware of ANY other country in the world that uses our bizarre form of FPTP. The argument that hardly anyone uses the system is not a good one in favour of FPTP. Besides, what's wrong with doing things differently? We were one of the first countries to legislate against the slave trade. I'm sure plenty of people said, "No-one else is doing it so we shouldn't either". Does that make the slave trade a good thing? No.

Secondly, the No to AV campaign have greatly exaggerated the claim that the Australians want to get rid of AV. Antony Green, an Australian, despairs at this misinformation.

...it allows the second or third placed candidates to win. We could end up with third-best candidates becoming MPs.

Well, this really depends on your definition of "winning". If winning is a matter of rallying your core support in order to get to Westminster on 30-40% of your constituent's votes then FPTP is for you. If, on the other hand, you consider winning to mean reaching out to at least 50% of the voters in order to be an MP then AV your system. I'm not the only one who thinks the second definition of winning is preferable!

In reality, the only times in which the "third best" candidate could win is if there was a close three-way split between three candidates and the third candidate happened to garner significant support from those who put the fourth/fifth/sixth placed candidates first. If the top three candidates got 30%/29%/28% respectively and the third candidate then had significant numbers of votes from the remaining 13% of the electorate after redistribution then I'm not sure (s)he'd be considered "third best".

...it will cost the country £250 million, at a time when money is tight

How much longer will this lie go on? No-one is planning to buy voting machines. The only extra expense will be the extra pencil lead it takes to write "1, 2, 3" rather than a cross. The only technology required is a pencil and paper.

Sure, it'll take a little longer to count, but it will be worthwhile.

...it means that someone else's 5th preference is worth the same as your 1st

Nonsense! I've written about this here.

...it will mean that supporters of the BNP and other fringe parties would decide who wins... that will encourage candidates to pander to the likes of the BNP

Yes, it is true that (God willing) BNP candidates will be knocked out at an early stage and their votes will be redistributed. However, to suggest that this means that candidates are likely to pander to the BNP for votes in ludicrous. Do they seriously think that candidates will start saying: "I'm planning to kick out all the foreigners and withdraw from the EU" in order to attract far-right votes? As everyone knows this would lose candidates more votes than it would gain them. It does, however, mean that green issues might be taken more seriously when the minority of Green votes is to be redistributed.

No candidate is going to become schizophrenic because of AV. Candidates will still have to have clear policies upon which they hope to be elected. Any candidate that says one thing to one voter and something else to another will soon find themselves with no votes at all, and rightly so.

Conclusion

Is there anyone to whom I can complain? Points 2 and 4 in particular contain downright lies. I will be appalled if this referendum is voted down because of this shameful campaign.

Yes to AV!

23Apr/113

Why I will be voting “Yes to AV”

Posted by Mike

A lot has been said and written about the forthcoming referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) system. As many have commented the level of debate has often been poor and come down to shameful ad hominem arguments or simply criticising the other campaign. There are many good articles already out there on this issue (I recommend Gower on AV in particular, LibDem Voice has some good ideas too) but I thought I'd set out a simple post outlining the positive reasons why I plan to vote yes to AV. It is not intended to criticise the "No" campaign; this is a plea for AV as a positive step for our democracy. Here goes:

AV is FPTP

My first argument is that AV provides a genuine first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. The current system doesn't actually have a fixed "post". The current race is not set up with a target other than to beat the other candidates and one vote is enough to do this. This can (and does) mean that in some constituencies the winner can have 30% of the vote as long as the other 70% is suitably split between between the other candidates.

AV is quite different. The "post" is set at 50% and the winner is the first person past this fixed target and guarantees that whoever wins has a democratic mandate from a majority of the (voting) constituents. No longer can candidates rely on a "core" vote safe in the knowledge that most of the time 40% of the vote will suffice. Candidates are compelled to reach out to a broader range of voters because even those who don't put them as first preference may be important.

AV preserves and enhances the principle of "one voter, one vote"

A dearly cherished principle of parliamentary democracy is that every voter is equally important. AV preserves this principle and, I believe, develops it. As a recent letter to the Times observed AV is, in essence, a highly efficient way of holding a series of elections in which candidates are knocked out one by one until a candidate has the democratic mandate of getting to the 50% "post". In each round of voting each voter gets one vote and the (reasonable) assumption is made that if your first preference candidate is still in the running at any stage then they will still be your first choice. If your first choice has been eliminated then your second/third/fourth choice gets your vote.

This seems highly reasonable to me, much akin to presidential "run-off" votes that other countries have when there are more than two candidates. However, instead of the costly and time-consuming process of having separate votes, it is done through the simple process of ranking candidates in order of preference.

By doing this we enhance the "one person, one vote" principle by ensuring that no vote is "wasted".

AV reduces the potential for "tactical voting"

Although there is clearly some scope for "tactical voting" under AV it is greatly limited. Where the current system can lend itself to voting for a candidate one doesn't really want in order to avoid getting an MP that one definitely doesn't want, the AV system encourages us to vote for people we DO want, safe in the knowledge that we can still express dislike for other candidates through our other preferences. Our voice is heard in the first round of voting (even if we don't expect the candidate to win) but we can still express a preference for a candidate we think is likely to be in with a chance. Surely this is a good thing.

Consensual politics is good politics

Much has been made of the idea that AV is likely to lead to more hung parliaments and coalition governments. Am I the only one who doesn't think this would be a bad thing? Many people argue that clear majorities produce "strong" governments who can get through significant change. My perception is that large majorites produce governments that can steamroll policies through Westminster with little consultation. This can be done even without clear democratic mandate in terms of vote percentage (have a look here for a few examples).

Under coalitions or small majorities government is forced to seek consensus and a "middle way". Is this a bad thing? I am glad that we have a Lib-Con coalition in that I am glad that the Lib Dems have the power to put in place safeguards which I suspect would not be in place if the Tories were governing alone. Under this government we have seen a significant increase in the personal income tax allowance and many packages to support poorer students who will be put off by larger tuition fees (and I am cross that not more has been made of these). This comes as a direct result of forced negotiation and discussion as a result of a hung parliament. Good. Hung parliaments are not a bad thing by definition.

(On a separate note, it is rather difficult to "model" the results of previous elects had AV been in force given that we do not know what other preferences would have been expressed. It is hard to predict whether AV would in fact lead to more hung parliaments).

AV preserves a constituency link

One reason I prefer AV over proportional representation (PR) is that it preserves a clear link between the voter and their parliamentary representative. I am lucky enough to have an excellent MP (Julian Huppert, who makes excellent use of new technology to keep constituents informed - good man) and I do think it's important that an MP represents a particular group of people and is accountable to them. AV ensures that an MP will represent their constituents and that a majority will have expressed a preference for the person elected.

There are many reasons to vote AV and the main ones for me have been outlined above. I sincerely hope that people will engage in honest debate on this issue and seek arguments rather than sling mud. If electoral reform does not go ahead on May 5th then I fear it will not do so in my lifetime. Now is the time! Yes to AV!

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