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Wednesday, April 13, 2011 

No alternative.

Three weeks away from the alternative vote referendum, and to hazard an extremely unscientific guess, I'd imagine that a majority of those shortly to get their cards through the door probably don't have the first idea that it's even happening, or what the alternative vote is and why we're having a referendum on it. This is hardly surprising, as many of those who do know about it, myself included, are fairly mystified on the latter score as well.

The alternative vote is a decent electoral system, let's be clear, but only when it comes to voting for an individual rather than for the representative of a constituency on a party basis. This was after all why the Jenkins commission recommended the alternative vote plus, which would have kept single-member constituencies while introducing a regional list system, similar but not identical to that used in elections to the European parliament. Even then it seems like, to borrow a phrase, a miserable little compromise: is the constituency link that essential and important that it necessitates keeping a system which is not proportional only to put in place one that is but which only 20% will be elected through? It seems like a stop-gap towards the full implementation of the single transferable vote, creating a second-class of MPs in the bargain.

AV+ would still have been vastly preferable to simple AV, and why the Liberal Democrats didn't push harder towards a referendum on that instead is a question which both hasn't been asked and which they would almost certainly have great difficulty answering. To be fair, this is probably more the fault of the novelty of a hung parliament being thrust upon us, much predicted as it was: both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats would now probably agree that far longer should have been spent hammering out the deal which created the coalition. Instead, it was a rush job, not helped by the right-wing press screaming at Brown to get out of Downing Street immediately despite constitutional precedent suggesting he had every right to stay there until there was no longer any hope of a deal being reached with the Lib Dems and other minor parties, while the Tories made mischief by claiming that without a strong government immediately in place the markets would take fright. Belgium has now gone over three hundred days without a government
, and somehow hasn't had to call for a bailout from the EU, or bring in the IMF.

We then have a sad situation in which we have a referendum on a voting system that no one really wants, except those trying too hard by claiming they've been for AV all along, like the Election Reform Society. AV is, as Vernon Bogdanor has convincingly argued, a tiny change. It would make the voting system slightly fairer, but not anything even approaching proportional. It would mostly ensure that those elected have the backing of 50% of those that bothered to vote, an improvement on the third that currently do. That however is about as far as it's possible to go in listing its advantages over FPTP. Indeed, in some circumstances, due to the vagaries of our parliamentary system, AV would in fact further exaggerate large swings to one party: New Labour's crushing majority in 1997 would almost certainly have been even bigger, as would the Tories' in 1979.

As however befits a political culture in which shouting the loudest and making the most lurid claims nets you the most attention, such a slight reform has inspired a debate where opponents and supporters alike have made laughable arguments their key ones. While as could have been expected the no campaign has been the most disreputable, bringing the lives of children into it, those in favour have also had to scurry around for just why, as they put it, we should vote for a "small change that will make a big difference". Their site says it all: the why vote yes page has three main reasons, two of which are essentially the same point, while the page tackling the "myths" explodes, err, eleven. While AV would indeed mean some MPs would have to work harder around election time to win second and third preferences, it would make no difference whatsoever to what they do in between, while the vast majority of those that currently have safe seats would still have them. Scotland will remain an all but Tory free zone, while the south east of England will still be permanently blue, essentially disenfranchising the hundreds of thousands of voters in each region that are stuck with MPs free to ignore their views with impunity.

It's also utter rot that AV would give more influence to extremists. While Baroness Warsi's argument was slightly misleadingly reported, as she wasn't suggesting that it would mean the BNP would actually win seats, just as dubious was her claim that it would lead to more inflammatory campaigns and more extremist policies. As we saw with Phil Woolas, we already have scurrilous, lying, desperate politicians working under FPTP, prepared to smear their opponents. This won't alter a jot under AV. It's true as some party hacks responding to Warsi have said that the BNP opposes AV, although they haven't made clear that the party supports STV, for the obvious reason that under such a system they would win a handful of seats. And what's more, why shouldn't they? As their showing last year made clear, they have far more support than the Greens, and even the SNP; as loathsome as they are, having a bunch of incompetent knuckledraggers at Westminster exposed for all to see would be to the benefit of everyone. Under AV though it's difficult to see who their voters will give their second preferences to: UKIP perhaps? While those putting Green first will happily go for either the Lib Dems or Labour, are any of the main parties extreme enough for BNP voters? Excepting those who vote BNP at the moment purely as a protest who probably won't want to see their votes entirely wasted, the few remaining true believers aren't going to compromise, leaving the chances of politicians attempting to appeal for second preferences limited to say the least.

Those of us then who want a more proportional electoral system are faced with voting for something which can only sometimes be called an improvement over what we currently have. It is nonetheless an improvement, and those who are calling for a no vote on the grounds either that it will set the genuine reform movement back for a generation or alternatively for a change in the local voting system are missing the point that it will settle the argument for a generation whichever side wins. We can complain as much as we like that the Lib Dems should have demanded either AV+ or an open referendum, giving voters a choice of systems, but what we have is what we have. It is also in line with our history of incremental voting reform, beginning in 1832 and which continued right the way up to 1969. Alternatively (groan), we could take the advice of Simon Munnery and take up the AV cause completely, by voting both yes and no.

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"it will settle the argument for a generation whichever side wins. ... It is also in line with our history of incremental voting reform"

One of these things is not like the other.

I'm pro-PR and anti-AV, partly because it's just not that great a system but mainly because a Yes vote would be a huge win for the Lib Dems, and Clegg in particular. In terms of the stability of the coalition, that's the last thing we want.

Just to add contrast I'm anti-PR. I don't want to vote for a Party I want to vote for an individual. I don't care if they're Conservative, Labour, or Liberal Democrat etc. my (selfish) reasoning is which candidate is best for my constituency.

A second problem to me is that theoretically regional PR lists mean that each elected MP is accountable to a larger group; which conversely means they're held to less account.

Much as I hate to mention that No2AV advert one very small nugget of truth leaked out in that it's always possible to blame the other side. "Oh I'd like to help you in your constituency, but it's all the others stopping me" or "I can't be seen to play favourites" are excuses that can be used for each area in a region.

These MPs would really be even more inclined to just listening to those who shout the loudest.

The fairness or rightness of PR and its siblings is predicated on the notion that people only want to vote for Parties. If that's the case why bother to have individuals stand at all; why not just give us a list of the various Parties and have the winning Central Offices' assign us our MP from their favourites' list?

PR is a removal of a whole level of choice from the general public; why would anyone want that?

Phil: It is such a small change that while I'll be disappointed if the referendum fails, I'm not going to go to any great lengths condemning those taking such an attitude. A victory for the yes vote will however also affect the Tories and could destabilise the coalition just as much as a no.

Flip: That was why the Jenkins commission recommended open lists for the top up part, allowing you to vote both for the party and the individual you wanted from the list.

Even with open lists is still doesn't eliminate the question of who each MP is held accountable by. Although a closed list take my current roster of MEPs.

For the West Midlands they're all based on the Eastern most side following the pattern of highest population. They're divorced from the goings on for the entire middle and Western side of the constituency.

Chances are that even with an open list it's going to be dominated along the high-population areas. At least with FPTP or AV we get someone who at least is expected to show some interest in our area.

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