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alternative vote, electoral reform, liberal democrats, politics, referendum

AV is not PR so WTF?


  It is now looking almost certain that next week’s referendum will lead to a defeat of the Alternative Vote.  Not many people will lose any sleep over this since not many people are interested in electoral reform, and even fewer are proponents of AV.  But I fear that this will be a disaster for those seeking to reform our political system.   We can say goodbye to fair voting for a generation at least. 

    The Conservative leader, David Cameron, played it brilliantly, seducing the LIberal Democrats into coalition by offering them a referendum on an electoral system that isn’t proportional representation, but would give the Liberal Democrats a few more seats. Now that the naive LibDems have been caught in the trap, they have turned nasty, behaving like bad losers, threatening court action against their detractors.  How ludicrous they look. How vain and petty.  It was their own intellectual dishonesty that got them into this mess.  


.   I feel genuinely angry about this – not just at the absurd claims made by the No campaign about “letting in the BNP” and other alarmist nonsense. But at the dishonesty at the heart of the Yes campaign led by the Liberal Democrats   As Nick Clegg said himself, in a quote that may become his political epitaph, AV is a “miserable little compromise”.  Indeed, and it’s miserable that the LibDems have accepted it, not because they believe in it, but because it will probably lead to more Liberal Democrat MPs being elected.
    But as Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University has pointed out, had the 1997 or 2001 elections been fought on AV, the result would if anything have been more disproportional.  In ‘97, Tony Blair won a 167 seat majority on 44% of the popular vote, a grotesque distortion of the true result.  If AV could actually lead to an even more unfair result, you wonder what point there is in voting for it.  The Yes campaign responds that, while it isn’t ideal, the Alternative Vote is at least proportional in single constituencies.  Voters rank the candidates from one to four,  or however many are standing, in terms of their preference.  If no candidate has a majority of the vote on the initial ballot, the bottom candidate is dumped and his or her second preference votes are distributed among the remaining candidates.   This goes on until one candidate emerges with 50% of the vote. This is arguably fairer than the present system where a candidate can win on a minority of the votes cast. 

   However, the problem arises when there are 650 seats.  Then the AV system fails to guarantee what, for my money, is the only purpose of electoral reform: to ensure that the parties’ representation in parliament broadly reflects the number of votes cast for them in the election.   Prime Ministers like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair used their unassailable majorities to pursue their own narrow-minded and destructive obsessions.  That gave us the industrial recessions of the 1980s, plus Mrs Thatcher’s poll tax,  and allowed Tony Blair to launch an illegal war in Iraq.  Had it not been for his inflated majority,  we would not have invaded Baghdad in 2003, because parliament would have voted against it,  and tens of thousands of lives would have been saved.  FPTP encourages  megalomania in Number Ten because it allows Prime Ministers to ignore parliament altogether if they want. 

   Only a system of fair votes can prevent this happening – a system such as the Additional Member System that elects MSPs to the Holyrood parliament.  AMS ensures that the composition of the parliament reflects the wishes of the voters.  But it also addresses one of the criticisms of other forms of PR, like the Single Transferrable Vote, that they break the link between the elected member and the geographical constituency.   AMS does this by having two votes: one in the 73 Scottish constituencies using FPTP, and another based on 8 regional lists of party candidates lists.  Using a mathematical formula called the “d’Hondt method”, the regional votes are redistributed in such as way as to supply additional members to each region to balance out the unfairnesses that arise from First Past The Post.  Simple. 

    Well, not really – but it is a creditable system that has served Scotland well.  It has prevented one party dominating Holyrood on the basis of a minority vote.  But more importantly, it has ensured that minority parties and independent candidates can gain representation. Now, some critics of PR say this is undesirable because it might allow nasty parties like the BNP to gain respectability. But this objection if fundamentally undemocratic. Better to expose these parties to the light of public scrutiny and political accountability, than let them fester in extra-parliamentary obscurity. 

   There is a kind of electoral Darwinism with PR which ensures that only relatively able politicians and parties survive. In 2003,  fed up with the big party monopoly, Scottish voters returned 7 Scottish Socialist and 6 Green MSS, as well as a senior citizens MSP and the redoubtable Margo Macdonald.  Unable to cope with the  exposure, the SSP collapsed into internal division and acrimony, its leader ending up in prison for perjury.  But the Greens are still in there fighting the good fight, as is Margo Macdonald, a national treasure and one of the most distinctive and influential voices in Scottish public life.  

   The other criticism of PR is that it leads to coalition and government by compromise.  But sometimes compromise, or rather collective decision making, is the best way.  And coalition isn’t inevitable.  The SNP minority government in Holyrood has been more effective than its coalition predecessors. PR has forced MSS  not just to vote on party lines, but to engage in serious detailed negotiation over annual budgets.  All MSPs are important, and they all have to exercise their consciences on a regular basis.  First Past the Post does the opposite: it allows legions of timeserving MPs with safe seats to hang around parliament at the beck and call of their party whips. Prime Ministers in Westminster treat MPs with indifference or contempt because they are not afraid of them.  

   But of course, the AMS system is not on offer in the referendum.  We are stuck with lousy AV.  Perhaps it will be a “baby step” towards real PR, but I have my doubts.  If I do vote for it, it will be with thumb and forefinger fixed firmly to my nose. 

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


14 thoughts on “AV is not PR so WTF?

  1. Just write INDEPENDENCE on the slip Iain as Westminster will never shift unless it is kicked where it hurts. It's looking increasingly shaky for Tavish next week with a Fox rounding up his flock.

    Posted by cynicalHighlander | April 29, 2011, 6:39 pm
  2. Iainone of your very best pieces, summing up the feelings of many frustrated citizens. More reflective and sensible than anything I have yet seen in the press.

    Posted by Clamjamfrie | April 29, 2011, 6:45 pm
  3. Iain can you now understand now why so many of us have given up on the Westminster system and want Scotland to be Independent again

    Posted by Conway | April 29, 2011, 7:15 pm
  4. 'seducing the LIberal Democrats' who were very willing in the seductionall fur coat and no nickers.'I feel genuinely angry about this'Hmm! Iain exactly when did you express some fake anger?????

    Posted by Mr. Mxyzptlk | April 29, 2011, 7:29 pm
  5. While I do agree that PR is a much more worthwhile reform, having each individual better reflect the wishes of the voters in the constituency is also a positive move, as it removes the likelihood of vote-splits and makes tactical voting largely redundant (and practically very difficult).Is AV an ideal system? No.Is it better than what we have now? Most certainly.And given that you've spent a number of words praising the current Scottish Parliament (government and other parties alike) for negotiating and coming to workable consensus, a system that's a compromise is perhaps no bad thing.Incidentally, anyone supporting *any* electoral system because it gives any given party a greater or lesser chance of winning seats is surely missing the point, as it'll be only a short-term change.

    Posted by Martin | April 29, 2011, 8:21 pm
  6. We risked a thousand pound fine if we refused to fill in the recent census form.It should be the same for those who don't exercise the hard won right, by a previous generation, to vote in general elections.The AV is a small step – but even a small step, if it is thr right direction is worth taking.

    Posted by Anonymous | April 29, 2011, 9:20 pm
  7. The Scottish system also allows three parties to dominate one other or to put it another way, and why it was so set up, to perpetuate a permanent Lab-Lib administration until the unexpected happened in 2007.The really really unbelievable might well happen in a few days time and that excluded minority party could just take the majority of seats.I suppose it depends on the postal votes and who fills them in.We live in interesting times.

    Posted by Lord Snooty | April 30, 2011, 7:45 am
  8. If you want some form of PR for the House of Commons, AV+ was the option preferred by the Jenkins Commission: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternative_Vote_Plus_(AV%2B)It would be far easier to move from AV to AV+ than from FPTP to AV+.In fact if we vote to keep FPTP then that'll certainly be used as a powerful argument against any change and we'll be stuck with FPTP for at least a generation.Examples in other countries show that once the first step has been taken to change a long-established electoral system then subsequent steps become easier.

    Posted by Anonymous | April 30, 2011, 8:56 am
  9. "Now that the naive LibDems have been caught in the trap"The second best thing that looks as if it will come out of the Holyrood election is the elimination of a number of LibDems, as that party is now a third unionist party, when it was once a second home rule party.What useless negotiators they were with the Tories, and how ludicrous (and self defeating) it was that they refused even to talk to the SNP about a coalition unless the SNP dropped their plan to hold a referendum on independence.So to get power and a few more Westminster seats the LibDems agreed to an AV referendum which no-one wants, but they refused a referendum on Scottish independence which every poll has shown the majority of Scots want.I will hold my nose and vote "Yes" to AV as I see it as slightly better than FPTP most of the time, but the fewer LibDems that are returned to Holyrood the better for Scotland.

    Posted by JPJ2 | April 30, 2011, 11:10 am
  10. Mr McWhirter you wrote:""This goes on until one candidate emerges with 50% of the vote. This is arguably fairer than the present system where a candidate can win on a minority of the votes cast.""A candidate will only get 50% of the vote or more IF every voter indicates their preferences against each candidate. If a lot of voters just vote for one person then a candidate can end up being elected with less than 50% of the vote. Just like now.I believe it is the case in Australia, which uses AV, that not only is it compulsory to vote it is compulsory to use all your preferences. AS far as I am concerned when I vote for someone I vote for someone and I would not be at all happy with a system where my votes could be taken and given to someone else for whom I would probably NOT vote for even if you threatened me with root-canal treatment without the benefit of an anaesthetic!

    Posted by CWH | April 30, 2011, 1:01 pm
  11. In Australia the variant of AV used to elect members of the federal House of Representatives is "compulsory preferential voting", where you have to rank all the candidates on the ballot paper.However for their state elections Queensland and New South Wales use the "optional preferential voting" variant to elect the lower house, where you can rank just one candidate or more as you choose.Under the first variant no ballot papers are taken out of the counting process as "exhausted" and so the winner will end up with at least 50% of the ballot papers in his pile, whether that's taken to be 50% of the total ballot papers or 50% of the ballot papers still in the process when it comes to its conclusion.Under the second variant, which is the one would have here, it will be 50% of the ballot papers still in the process when it comes to its conclusion, which may well mean less than 50% of the total ballot papers at the start of the process.For example in this Irish parliamentary by-election held under AV:http://electionsireland.org/counts.cfm?election=2007B&cons=85&refthe winner had 57% of the ballot papers still in the process at the end, but only 48% of the original total. If the by-election had been held under FPTP, and if the candidates had received the same number of X's as they got 1's under AV, then the same person would have won but with just 27% of the votes. However of course that second "if" is a very big "if", because many of the voters would have behaved differently if the election had been held under FPTP.No elector's ballot paper is ever transferred except according to the directions he himself has given through his ranking of the candidates, and if he definitely would not want his ballot paper to end up with a certain candidate then the answer is simply to give that candidate no ranking at all.

    Posted by Anonymous | April 30, 2011, 2:17 pm
  12. Many interesting points, and despite agreeing with most of what you say I will be voting 'yes' to AV. I entirely understand that when only one candidate is to be selected, exactly which method you use to do it will have negligible effect on the overall (national) result. But I think we must prevent Cleggeron saying that we were offered electoral reform and declined. I'd only quarrel with you on STV/AMS. The Scottish AMS system means that the majority of our MSPs are people who have never been presented to the electorate – 'list' MSPs are simply party appointees. While proportionality is achieved, and I accept that this has been valuable in lifting Labour's foot from our necks, it is otherwise an ugly and dangerous system. By contrast STV allows voters not only to choose the party, but to choose the candidate, undermining the party machine. We should be very proud of our STV for municipal elections (thanks, Lib Dems). Let's move to make it the system for Holyrood too.

    Posted by Vronsky | April 30, 2011, 3:07 pm
  13. IainYou are right that AV is not PR, which many of us want. But AV is a useful step, albeit a small one. It will rid us of the minority members – more than two-thirds of current MPs. Anyone who wants reform should vote YES in the AV referendum.But you are completely wrong to suggest AMS for electing the Westminster Parliament. Instead of recommending AMS you should be campaigning to get rid of it for Scottish Parliament elections. To see why, take a look at this evidence submitted to the Arbuthnott Commission and Calman Commission:http://www.fairsharevoting.org/Fairshare%20Submission%20Arbuthnott%20Commission%2022%20Mar%2005.pdfand athttp://www.commissiononscottishdevolution.org.uk/uploads/2008-12-02-fairshare.pdf

    Posted by Edinburgh | April 30, 2011, 5:06 pm
  14. I too am an advocate for the AMS system, Iain, because I believe it's the furthest you can go towards PR before you dilute utterly the effectiveness of your parliament. There's a balance to be struck between powerful government and representative government, which I believe AMS does really well.In contrast, FPTP produces very strong governments that most people didn't vote for while PR – and to a slightly lesser extent, STV – produces governments everyone voted for but who can't get a majority and rely unstable coalition agreements (at least in some European nations; the unflappable Germans appear to have it mastered).

    Posted by Craig Gallagher | April 30, 2011, 9:30 pm

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