Subjective Objectivity – The Blog of The Reasonable Man

February 21, 2011

There is no “liberal” case against AV in May

Filed under: Uncategorized — mikeshotgun @ 1:48 pm

There are plenty of utterly wrong-headed reasons to oppose electoral reform. Read the Telegraph blogs if you want a rehearsal of them, apply logic and you should have an idea why they’re bunk. I can kind of get why you’d oppose it if you’re a die-hard partisan of the blue or red variety. Save for the last election, the First Past the Post system will deliver solid majorities for Your Side, so that they can Win. Why mess with that?

But more pernicious is a brand of so-called “liberal” opposition to the AV bill, putatively on the basis that it’s a compromise. To demonstrate this phenomenon, I’ll need a volunteer from the audience. How about David Allen Green of the New Statesman. Step right up and give us your two-cents:

There are two good reasons for any liberal to oppose the introduction of this proposed voting system.

For those unfamiliar, I agree with probably two-thirds of what Green says on any given day, and as a law blogger he’s usually excellent. Not the case here I’m afraid:

First, AV is not in fact a good form of proportional representation. Because it retains the single member constituencies, there is no inherent reason why the national shares of the vote would be reflected in Westminster. AV also does nothing to deal with the very safest seats – those where the winning candidate already gets more than 50% – and so, in such constituencies, the losing votes will be as “wasted” as before. And other seats will just be as “safe”, depending on whether the there is a natural Tory/Lib Dem or Labour/Lib Dem majority.

This is a shortcoming, I’ll admit. But is it any worse than the status quo? Nope. It doesn’t refelect the national share of votes at large, but I’ll let you into a little secret – a lot of people like the fact that local preferences are reflected in who gets to represent their area. Indeed, the retention of single member constituences is a function, not a defect, and the last time I checked, no one was callng it “proportional representation”. This is kind of like criticising an apple crumble because it’s not chocolate ice-cream.  It’s either no worse than, or beats, the current system, which is what I like to call “a net improvement”.

The appeal lies in the fact that a member of Parliament will have been elected to that position with 50% of the vote. At least that’s what I thought:

Second, the practical operation of AV is fundamentally undemocratic and offensive to the principle of equal treatment of voters. In the less safe seats where AV is triggered, the votes cast by those who favour the most popular candidate are not of equal value to the votes cast for less popular candidates. The second and third choices of the voters favouring the most popular candidate are just disregarded. If all second and third votes were given equal value then the overall result may well be different. The charge that AV means repeated bites at the cherry for some voters but not others is impossible to rebut.

Oy. “Fundamentally undemocratic and offensive to the principal of equal treatment of voters”? I’ll admit the use of this language is where he lost me, but let’s soldier on, shall we, and tackle the substantive argument here. The idea is that because my AV first choice is for the third choice candidate overall, I’ve been given the super-awesome opportunity to have my vote counted twice more. How about we strip it to its core. Here’s a helpful diagram, courtesy of Wikipedia that explains AV (or Instant Run-Off Voting as they call it, which is the same thing).

Seems reasonable to me. Of course the second and third choice of the voters are disregarded, because they got their first bloody choice to begin with. The person who gets his third choice may have had two more bites at the cherry, but he only got his third choice. Again, imperfect, but “fundamentally undemocratic”? Hardly, and still better than FPTP.

Indeed, no one really wants AV. It is a compromise. It may not even be a step towards proportional representation. AV retains many of the faults of the current “first past the post” system whilst treating the votes cast by voters in an unequal way. National shares of the vote may still have no national impact, and safe seats and wasted votes remain. AV is a rotten system, and so it should be opposed on 5 May.

Really? No one wants AV? Then I have no fucking clue what all those people from the “Yes To AV” are doing emailling me. Are they part of an audio-visual club? I guess their preferences don’t count. Maybe it’s because it’s their second or third choice. I’m not sure anymore. The point is, nobody ever wanted compromise in the history of anything.

Snark aside, so what if it’s a compromise? Green writes as if we’re choosing between AV and some other option for voting reform (Spoiler Alert: We are not). What Green doesn’t seem to realise is that there is lukewarm support for any type of voting reform in this country, and an actual system of proportional representation isn’t on the ballot for a reason. Aside from his weird “not all preference votes are equal” point, which I’m still not convinced stands up to logical scrutiny, his basic argument is that the liberal case for voting to retain the FPTP system is that the Alternative Vote isn’t proportional representation.

He’s right that it doesn’t necessarily lead to greater proportionality, but let’s be clear – if it is defeated, the spin will not be “the British public didn’t think it was a far enough move towards proportional representation” it will be “the British people stick by the good old traditional system of one-man-one-vote”. The opportunity voting reform will be gone for at least a decade (believe me, a Labour or Conservative majority government won’t pick up the issue again) if not more.

Perhaps I am being overly cynical when I wonder if some liberals, such as Green, would prefer an AV defeat for the effects it will have in destablising the current coalition government, which are potentially quite significant.  At the very least, they’re taking a very wrong-headed stance in terms of reform, and utterly miscalculating the prospect of actual proportional representation being on the books any time soon, as it’s only the peculiar dynamics of the coalition government that have even AV on the ballot this May.

Cross-posted at Something Quotable


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