06 May 2011

The No vote's disingenuous referendum campaigning

So today is the national referendum on the Alternative Vote electoral system here in the UK, which is apparently only the second ever UK-wide referendum. (The other is the 1975 referendum on EC membership, which was approved by 67 percent of voters). I paused in the middle of my morning jog early this morning to pop into the local church hall to cast my vote in favour of the change. Certainly, AV isn't a great improvement over the existing First Past the Post (FPP) system, but it's better than nothing, and a Yes vote would show that reform of the political process is possible despite the innate small-c conservatism of the political establishment. However, on recent polling it seems the No campaign might emerge victorious.

This is a shame given the nature of their scare campaign against AV. There are a range of genuine complaints that can be made against AV, chief among which is that while it is still somewhat fairer than FPP elections, it still fails to produce proportional representation. The points made in the No to AV campaign brochures don't address points like that though. They are keener to focus on scurrilous and misleading rumours, coupled with a personal attack on the LibDem leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. This is hardly a case of 'play the ball, not the man'.

I received one of the No to AV campaign leaflets through my letterbox today. It was posted rather than hand-delivered, which begs the question how much did the No campaign have to spend on postage? Did every house-hold in the UK receive one of these? Every voter, even?

The cover is dominated by a picture of a furtive-looking Nick Clegg patting David Cameron's back. The strapline: 'AV would lead to more hung parliaments, backroom deals and broken promises'. While it's possible that AV would reduce the electoral penalty suffered by LibDem voters and thereby lead to more coalition governments, you'd have to have quite a cheek to suggest this when the UK's existing FPP system  delivered the exact same coalition result that they're dangling the prospect of. As for backroom deals and broken promises, those are buzzwords that can be thrown at politicians everywhere, no matter what electoral system they're elected under. It's clearly meant as an attack linking Clegg's decline in popularity since the formation of the coalition in 2010 with the AV vote.

No to AV leaflet, delivered 5 May.
Then on the reverse the leaflet outlines the six reasons the No campaign offers for voting against AV. I'll look at them one by one:

1. It will produce more coalitions. Under the AV system we would have coalitions most of the time, with Nick Clegg deciding who would be Prime Minister by cutting a deal behind closed doors after the election.

Sure, AV might lead to more coalitions. Why precisely would that be a bad thing? It's a bit rich to criticise coalitions, particularly given it's the only way the Conservatives, the leading opponents of AV, are currently in power. And the personalisation of the argument by pinning these 'evil' coalitions to Nick Clegg is clearly an attempt to tie the popularity of one politician to a far broader and unrelated constitutional issue. It is also disingenuous to suggest that AV coalition negotiations would be any less open than the current negotiations and deal-cutting that go on within the Conservatives or Labour before and after an election. 

2. It is used by only three other countries in the world - Fiji, Australia, and Papua New Guinea - and Australia wants to get rid of it.

There are two responses to this. First, so what? If AV is right for Britain, why not vote for it? And is the No campaign saying that a system used in Australia, a close ally of the UK and a nation with an enormous shared history, is by definition unsuitable for use in the UK? As Channel 4 has pointed out

...around half the democratic population [of the world] does use First Past The Post. What does seem worth noting however is that not one European country, apart from the UK, uses FPTP. Plus, the most popular voting system (by the number of countries in the world, rather than population) is List Proportional Representation or List PR. 
Secondly, 'Australia wants to get rid of it'?  Where's the evidence of that? Complete nonsense.

3. It allows the second or third-placed candidate to win. We would end up with third-best candidates becoming MPs.

That's one way of looking at it.  But FPP allows candidates with pluralities to win, like George Galloway in 2005 being elected MP with only 35.9 percent of the vote. AV ensures that winning candidates have to secure a majority of votes, and it does this by redistributing based on second preferences until a majority is attained. If this isn't sufficient, the count goes on to third preferences. AV simply allows more people to have a say in the outcome of an electorate contest, rather than restricting meaningful voting choice to those who support a candidate with a minimum of one vote more than their nearest opponent. And what does 'third-best' mean anyway? AV would reduce the problem of fragmented electorate contests in which the 'least worst' candidate emerges as the victor, despite achieving only a relatively small proportion of the overall votes.

4. It will cost the country £250 million, at a time when money is tight.

Money is tight, and £250 million is certainly a lot. It's also a change from the earlier No material, which stated that it would cost 'up to £250 million', which is rather different. Either way, the figure is completely made up.

5. It means that someone else's 5th preference is worth the same as your 1st preference.

This is an example of citing a hypothetically accurate worst-case scenario. This would mean that 5th preference vote would have had to go through four full distributions of preferences. This is extremely unlikely, but it also misses the point. Under AV everyone gets the opportunity to rank their voting preferences, but everyone also only gets one vote to count towards a candidate's total. The AV system would mean voters could cast their votes for the candidates or parties they actually want to win, rather than having to pretend they like a particular candidate for the sake of FPP tactical voting.

6. It will mean that supporters of the BNP and other fringe parties would decide who wins, because they will be eliminated first and then their votes could be counted again and again for other parties. That will encourage other candidates to pander to the likes of the BNP.

This is quite clever spin, although as usual it's thoroughly misleading. Every sensible person finds the BNP's policies repulsive, but supporting AV doesn't mean that somehow the toxic policies of that party or any other will somehow taint the electoral process. Parties like the BNP are fringe parties under FPP and will remain so under AV. BNP supporters would have one vote, just like everyone else, and they would need substantial support to achieve any impact on electoral outcomes - support they simply don't have. Thankfully.

Finally, the No pamphlet finishes off with a daft rallying cry:

Remember the core principle in our democracy: every person gets an equal vote and the candidate with the most votes wins. Defend equal votes by voting No on Thursday.

The traditional angle run by FPP supporters is that the system delivers strong, single-party government. Indeed, this was invoked in the leaflet's point 1 above. In shifting to the claim of equal votes, the No leaflet undermines its own argument. The basis of the 'strong government' argument is that it excuses FPP's under-representation of many political parties by citing the importance of a clear, single-party majority, even if that party lacks the support of a majority of voters. Clearly, a FPP election is far from fair. The most recent UK general election, in May 2010, showed that unfairness up front in the number of votes it took to elect each MP. It took over three times as many LibDem votes to elect an MP as it did to elect a Labour or Conservative MP, and Green votes only counted as less than an eighth of the value of those cast for the two biggest parties.

Neither side in the referendum debate have covered themselves with glory. The Yes campaign has also been guilty of misleading claims, particularly some that argue AV would revolutionise British politics and cure a huge range of perceived evils like 'safe seats'. This is also clearly not true. A step towards AV would actually be a fairly minor change, and could be accommodated easily by voters. After all, how hard is it to rank candidates in order of preference? And some seats would still be considered safe.

But if the result of today's referendum is a victory for the No campaign, it will have been won at the cost of a reasoned, informed debate, and will only serve to reinforce public perceptions that political elites are willing to manipulate and mislead public opinion to serve their own ends.

I would've thought that sticking with an out-dated and biased electoral system that rewards some parties and punishes others isn't something that British voters should be proud of. Perhaps instead they could take pride in recognising faults in the system and taking steps to fix them. AV's not perfect but it would be a step in the right direction.
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