Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Against AV

My friends who express a view are campaigning for a Yes vote on the referendum question:
At present, the UK uses the “first past the post” system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the “alternative vote” system be used instead?
(or, if you're Welsh:
Ar hyn o bryd, mae’r DU yn defnyddio’r system “y cyntaf i’r felin” i ethol ASau i Dŷ’r Cyffredin. A ddylid defnyddio’r system “pleidlais amgen” yn lle hynny?)
I plan to vote no.

Before I say why, a note on nomenclature.  The current system is widely known as "First-past-the-post" ("FPTP").  This name is illogical - what post?  The name would apply better to multi-member STV where there really is a threshold of votes to pass.  But I've had a debate with myself and decided to use the initialism anyway, under protest.  Moving on...

The arguments (in italics) for AV, in descending order of persuasiveness, are:
  1. The Conservatives are almost unanimously against.
    Good point.  I may not be able to stomach agreeing with them after all.
  2. Minority candidates can run without damaging the prospects of other candidates they somewhat agree with.
    True.  But the electorate has got used to voting tactically under FPTP
  3. AV will eliminate the need for tactical voting - first choice preferences will tell us what people really think.
    True.  If we want to know the real level of support for minority parties like the Greens and the BNP, this is a way to find out.  I think this is a minor consideration.
  4. AV is more proportional than FPTP.
    Yes, in allocating seats that is likely to be true.  But not in allocating power - hung parliaments greatly increase the influence of any party in a position to choose the government.
  5. AV is fairer than FPTP.
    Is it?  Why is it fairer to elect the least unpopular candidate who manages to avoid elimination along the way (AV) rather than the most popular candidate?
  6. Even if you don't like AV, this is your one chance to move towards a system you do like.
    Which is more likely - a vote against AV and a subsequent opportunity to adopt a better system, or a vote for AV with further reform later?  I think the former: if AV gets the LibDems in they won't want to change it.  But if we get another hung parliament in the future under FPTP they'll want to try something else.
My view is that whereas FPTP encourages electors to lie about what they want (i.e. to vote tactically), AV encourages politicians to lie about what they want, because their aim is to avoid offending anyone.  Do we want blander, more devious politicians?

The clinching argument against AV is that no one is genuinely in favour of it.  The LibDem 2010 manifesto said (pp87-88) they wanted to:
Change politics and abolish safe seats by introducing a fair, more proportional voting system for MPs. Our preferred Single Transferable Vote system gives people the choice between candidates as well as parties.
This is a policy I support.  In this system candidates can say what they really think, and voters can vote for whom they really want.  Multi-member constituencies give more people the chance to be represented by an MP they want.

In contrast, Nick Clegg said of AV in an interview during the 2010 campaign: "I'm not going to settle for a miserable little compromise thrashed out by the Labour Party".  He went on to argue for "AV-plus", a system proposed by the Jenkins Commission in 1998

What's going on here?  Why did Clegg propose STV in his manifesto, argue for AV-plus in an interview, then accept this miserable little compromise thrashed out by the Conservative Party?  My guess is that the manifesto simply followed long-standing LibDem policy - STV is what any reasonable person would come up with if not troubled by complexity and if unconcerned about party political advantage.  But Clegg's motivations are different: AV-plus is the system that in many electoral scenarios would most favour the LibDems, and hence the system least likely to be acceptable to a coalition partner.  This last point gave Clegg another reason to demand it - Brown was bound to refuse it even as a question for a referendum, and Clegg loathed the thought of a coalition with Brown.  Cameron refused it too, of course, but Clegg likes making compromises with the Tories.

This is all too shabby for me.  I disagree with Nick.