Monday, April 11, 2011

Voting reform: AV = First Past The Post

The above video is no longer available on Youtube but can be watched on the BBC's website here:

This evening I saw the political broadcast for the "No" vote and I think I've rarely seen anything so untrue and misleading.

First we got candidate Alan B'Stard promising everything to get in, then forming a coalition and welching on all the manifesto promises. Ans: No, that is what we got under the present system.

Then we saw a horse race where the third placed was declared the winner. Ans: No, under AV the victor IS ALWAYS the first one past the post, the "winning post" being 50% of all ballots cast, if necessary by taking into account second and third (etc.) preferences.

As opposed to the present system, where the last Labour government got a clear majority of 66 seats on the basis of a minority of the votes. In the 2005 General Election, out of 650 MPs, only 220 won 50% or more of the votes cast in their own constituency (see "Election results for Using and Applying statistics" here.) In over 66% of Parliamentary constituencies, all the horses failed to finish!

Working the figures the same way for the 2010 General Election, only 217 out of 650 MPs jockeyed their way past the post. That's almost exactly the same situation as in 2005; we have a coalition government only because of disillusioned and mistrustful voters switching between parties - using the current voting system.

In 2005, Labour got 35.7% (the largest proportion) of the total national vote; in 2010, the Conservatives got 36.5% (the largest proportion) of the total national vote. The mess we have is, I repeat, under the current voting system and is a result of political breakdown, not (directly) owing to a glitch in the psephological mechanism.

Some might say, why change the system, then?

I'd answer, the breakdown of the relationship between the representatives and the people is (to a significant degree) attributable to an unrepresentative system of voting, one which encourages a party political divide because MPs in "safe" seats needn't bother listening. For 20 years I had no member of any of the major political parties even ask for my vote, because however I voted, I was going to get the Labour stooge. When the constituency boundaries were altered for 2010, suddenly I had both Labour and LibDem candidates on my doorstep.

Needn't bother listening? Needn't bother working, either, in many cases: how is it possible for "hard-working" MPs to write novels, handle handfuls of directorships etc, if not for the cosy calculus of "pairing" and the lazy delegation of most of the constituency work to constituency workers? I am reminded of the eighteenth century Caribbean plantation owners who lived in London and left all the responsibility to their estate managers and overseers.

Oh, and all that guff we're hearing about how very complex AV is? Bollards. Fifty years ago, housewives were completing similar questionnaires in newspaper ads, to win washing machines - "Put these advantages in order of personal preference: price, speed, capacity..."

No-one can foresee exactly how voting will change when all votes count, or at least half of them, anyway. The LibDems needn't assume that it will benefit them most, for if it does, the other parties will adopt a raft of me-too policies. No bad thing, perhaps, to make politicians work for a consensus.

And maybe, just maybe, we'd start to examine the candidates more carefully, rather than simply glance at their rosettes. No wonder there's such resistance to change from the spoiled heirs of the present arrangement. Just who IS funding the "No" propaganda?

Ah, but without (so-called) first-past-the-post we wouldn't have had Thatcher, say the Conservatives. Well, I think a general retrospective reassessment of her achievements is in order, seeing as how we've nearly killed our industrial base and allowed the financial sector to come out in a massive, choking algal bloom. But while we're reviewing her with the crystal hindsight of history, we can look again at the miserable record of the Socialist governments, too. The vaunted advantage of a government enabled to take bold action on the back of a Parliamentary majority founded on a minority of votes, is not such a strong argument, in my view. *

And why should all be decided on red and green benches in the best clubs in London, anyway? We're long past the time when it took days to ride a horse to the capital and every provincial church told its own time; modern communications call into question the antiquated system of remote, unresponsive, not infrequently rather arrogant and sometimes downright corrupt representation.

When it really matters, the people can and will declare a clear opinion, even against the advice and guidance of their leaders, as witness Iceland's referendum on the bailout of the banks. More referendums, say I - provided the arguments to inform them aren't as lying and twisted as what I saw tonight.

*Update (November 28, 2017): Only twice since 1918 has any party garnered more than 50% of votes cast nationally in General Elections - the Conservatives both times, in 1931 and 1935 - see page 12 of "UK Election Statistics: 1918 - 2017" (pdf) on the House of Commons website here:


Mark Wadsworth said...

Yup. Personally I was mildly in favour of AV before but the more I hear from the pro-FPTP camp the more I think that AV must be a really good thing.

As to referenda - that is the beauty of the system, at a GE a determined single-issue campaign (legalise cannabis, get out of EU, join the Euro, bring back hanging, whatever*) can put up candidates knowing full well they won't win any seats, but a showing of 10% first votes for any of these will certainly put them on the map.

So in theory, each GE becomes a series of mini-referenda where you can rank your pet causes in order of importance.

* Clearly, I would vote for first two not second two. But if ten per cent vote to leave EU and ten per cent vote to join Euro, then we can shelve the whole issue and just muddle along, for example.

Sackerson said...

Thanks for the visit, Mark. Wonder what tomorrow's broadcast will look like?