Thursday, May 05, 2011
To AV or not to AV
As part of the coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative Party agreed that there be a referendum on electoral reform in the UK. The Liberal Democrats as the UK’s long standing third party has always sought this in order that it get a more proportionate share of seats in the House of Commons. However, whilst it has always supported a form of proportional representation, the best it could get is a referendum on perhaps the smallest possible change to the electoral system – it is called the Alternative Vote or AV, and is similar to the Preferential Vote system in Australia.
Of course New Zealand went through electoral reform in the 1990s, because Jim Bolger was willing to hand it up on a plate for no good reason at all, in the midst of the economic reforms being continued by Ruth Richardson. New Zealand’s electoral reform process was complex, and was undertaken in a period of heightened anxiety about the economy and distrust of politicians (mainly because Jim Bolger lied in the 1990 election campaign, fully aware that the Nats had to backtrack on promises to abolish student fees and the superannuation surtax because of the massive deficit Labour left it with).
The electoral reform debate in New Zealand was ably driven by a coterie of leftwing politicians, celebrities, activists and a compliant media, all dissatisfied that both Labour and National had policies that today might only be seen with ACT. The left drove the Electoral Reform Coalition, and opponents to MMP only campaigned late in the day, with Peter Shirtcliffe (and later his daughter Janet) arguing largely on the basis on what was wrong with MMP. National and Labour both had no official view on the matter, whilst NZ First and the Alliance, with their pinups of Winston and Jim Anderton self-servingly advocating MMP (although the media rarely challenged that self interest).
In the UK it has been quite different. AV is NOT a proportional system. It simply means every MP would need a majority of preferences to get elected. Constituencies where the leading candidate gained less than half of the first preferences, would see the second preferences of those who voted for the bottom candidate get reallocated. This would continue until one candidate crosses the 50% threshold.
The real arguments for and against change are actually quite simple. A strong argument can be made that in a fully representative system an MP should have the support of the majority of voters in a constituency. That can either be done by having a runoff ballot (as in the French Presidential elections) or some sort of preferential based voting. If the highest value in an election is that majority counts, then AV can be supported.
The argument against is that people’s second or third preferences shouldn’t decide who gets elected. What AV would enable is for people to vote for whoever they like as a first preference, including any small party, safe in the knowledge that given the low probability that minor candidates could do well, second preferences could be given for the least offensive major candidate. It gives those with views not represented by major parties a better chance, which may be seen as benefiting those parties unfairly.
However, the debate has not been about that. The Pro-AV campaign has been claiming it will “change politics”, make MPs more accountable and should be supported because the Tories oppose it. It has been supported by the Liberal Democrats and some in Labour (including Ed Miliband), largely because they think a majority of UK voters are leftwing oriented.
The anti-AV campaign has been pushed by the Conservative Party based on a whole host of erroneous reasons. It is claimed AV is a lot more expensive, which it isn’t. It is argued that it is wrong to support a system only adopted by Australia, PNG and Fiji (with a quasi-neo-colonial/racist overtone that such countries are inferior). It is claimed first past the post is popular, yet the only developed countries that share it are Canada and the US. It is claimed AV is too complicated, yet somehow the Irish can get their heads around STV and continental Europeans all have far more complex systems. Most stupidly an analogy is drawn between an athletic race and the person who came third winning.
In other words, the argument has been infantile and insulting. It is presented either as a radical change that will make a big difference (which it wont), or as a complex, expensive system that only Australians use.
The Conservatives simply think they cannot get a majority of support and will lose if AV is put in place. The entire campaign for first past the post is based on retaining strong single party government (which outside the context of the Thatcher administration is hardly welcome).
So the question for me is what to do? Most of those who I have some broad political alignment with will say “no” to AV, because it will benefit the left. Yet, inherently any system based on representation should, at least, gain the endorsement in some way of a majority of voters in any constituency. Whilst AV may benefit the Liberal Democrats, the truth is that the party faces serious losses because it is in coalition with the Conservatives, so the future political map is difficult to predict. UKIP came third in the last by-election, comes second in the European Parliamentary elections and is a serious alternative for those who want less government.
So I am going to vote for AV. Primarily because, in principle, I want to be able to vote for a smaller party and for that vote not to be wasted by enabling me to choose a tolerable second best option. I think it may enable politics to be more diversified on the “right” by giving UKIP more of a voice. It will do the same for leftwing parties like the Greens and BNP (nationalist socialism), but I am NOT beholden to thinking that the Conservative Party really holds the monopoly on political sanity in the UK – it needs to be challenged. It is a rather inept and bumbling advocate for capitalism and a highly inconsistent supporter of freedom and less government.
However, I do so holding my nose – because as much as the left in the UK will take solace from an unlikely win for AV (polls are strongly against reform), I think it is a misguided measure of an electorate that is actually more conservative, more euro-sceptic and less keen on government than they may think.