Wednesday, 27 April 2011

A Miserable Little Compromise

An important day in our national history approaches, and lots of people are getting very excited. No, I am not talking about the "how on earth is it considered appropriate 24 hour rolling news that someone is getting married and some barking old woman has camped out to watch it and dressed her dog up in a tiara and veil show?" Or the Royal Wedding as I believe it is more normally referred to.

No, whilst I'm very happy for the bride- and groom-to-be and think both the engagement and the actual wedding day of such a prominent royal are indeed newsworthy, I am hopefully not alone in tiring of hearing about the niff naff and trivia associated with it day in, day out. I hope it doesn't ruin it for you if I let the cat out of the bag. She's going to wear a white(ish) wedding dress and look pretty. I wonder if I can still get odds on that.

No, I am in fact talking about an event a week later - the national referendum on the voting system. To get it out of the way early, I'll let you know I shall be voting 'no' to AV. And here's why…

Our voting system is not all about being 100% representative of how the nation feels. It is not. The  voting system that people might think would be 100% representative of how the nation feels is proportional representation (PR). Except it isn't. It only divides up their votes and allocates exactly that percentage of 'seats' to the 'parties' they voted for. It isn't representative of how they feel, it's a compromise, where people vote for the representative they think best represents their feelings, but they will not mirror everyone's every wish. And PR is rubbish. You get Nazis in Parliament and the nation would go down the plug hole as true PR for voting-in MPs should also mean PR Government. How adept at dealing with Labour's economic cock-up would a Tory, Labour, Lib Dem, BNP, DUP, Green, you get the idea, Coalition Government be? Simple, we'd be Portugal. Nearly as sunny at the moment though, I guess.

As I have written before, democracy is the compromise we have for two reasons. Firstly, because Parliament isn't big enough to fit in 61 million people, and more importantly, because we wouldn't get anything done with 61 million votes on everything - quot homines tot sententiae (so many men, as many opinions). That's what democracy is - the best compromise between having a say in all the decisions that affect you, and there being a chance of some decisions actually being taken. You pick the candidate or party you like the best and hopefully they pushes for all those things they said they'd do which you agreed with.

So what is our electoral system there for? It is there to fairly balance the feelings of the people, their 'will' if you will, and the need for effective Government. It is there to interpret the votes of the people and produce an effective Government that best represents them whilst standing a chance of strong Government, and we should make no apologies for that.

Therefore we need to look at what system fulfils that compromise, that balance, best. First past the post (FPTP), our current system, is not perfect, but it is far better than the alternative on offer - or indeed any other alternative I would argue. It asks the people what they want and based on which party got the most votes says "right then, a higher number of you voted for this lot than voted for anyone else, so this lot win and can have a crack at governing". It is fair and representative without allowing vicious minority groups a platform, or without condemning every Government to the infighting and inaction that plagues Governments in constant coalition.

There are three main problems with the alternative vote (AV). Firstly, it is a very negative system. It is as much about making sure someone doesn't get your vote as deciding who does. That is no way to decide who should run the country - it breeds totally the wrong idea as to what your vote means to you. That is, it is not about what you feel, what you believe in, but a negative sense of what you don't like. Whilst some might say this already exists under FPTP with tactical voting, it is vastly increased under AV. Every vote under AV bar the ones for the top 2 candidates (or occasionally more) is tactical.

Secondly, AV politics would be far more about not alienating your 2nd, 3rd and 4th choice voters than about attracting 1st choice voters. This means you will not see political parties coming out with what they actually want to say, but pandering far more towards other parties' voters. It means in the great political spectrum analogy which I like to call my ice cream seller theory, the parties become less representative of what they represent but move towards their opposition to steal their voters or at least make themselves appear a valid 2nd choice.

The theory goes thus: ice cream sellers of equal merit position themselves along a stretch of beach. Customers go to the nearest vendor. The ice cream sellers at the extreme ends realise this and move inwards. As they move in, providing they are still the furthest left and right, they are guaranteed all that custom between them and the beach edge, but can start to take customers away from their next nearest rival, those who started nearer the middle (this was what Blair did with Labour, taking the centre ground whilst keeping all the left as there was no option left of them, and undoubtedly what Cameron realised as he moved the Tories more central, though UKIP, BNP etc can cause genuine harm in some hard-fought areas, but it is beside the point).

The problem with this moving is that it encourages the wrong type of politics; not a principled one based on what your beliefs are, but one which is rather quiet about what your beliefs are, hoping your core vote stays with you, whilst you pander to other people's voters. UK residents may recognise this as the politics of the last 14 years with Labour and then the Conservatives supposedly gravitating towards the middle to win the vital middle ground that decides elections. It is a dishonest politics if you ask me, and not something we should further encourage with our electoral system. It also means you do not get strong Government as everyone is afraid of upsetting someone they might need as a 4th choice vote - and you need strong Government.

My final big problem with AV is the weighting of the votes. They say that everyone's votes count equally in AV, some people simply vote many times for the same person, some jump from bed to bed like Premiership footballers and BBC political correspondents. Whilst I'm not truly comfortable with this explanation, I can accept it because there is a deeper set flaw.

Proponents of AV say it is better than FPTP because it is is more representative. Not only have we looked at why that isn't exactly the point but we can also look at why it isn't even exactly right. Imagine there are 10 candidates (A-J) and they get the following breakdowns of the 100 strong voter turnout: A-48, B-10, C-10, D-10, E-10, F-5, G-5, H-3, I-1, J-1. Next round A gets up to 49, but still not over the magical 50%. As they run through the many rounds within AV, the candidates fall out from J backwards until we are left with A-49, B-26, C-25. When C is eliminated, A wins 51-49.

AV says that is a fair representation, 51% want A, 49% want B. Yet 48% actually voted for A 1st time and only 10% for B. How is that even close to being representative of the will of the people. Imagine if C's votes were redistributed so B won 51-49. Apparently now a candidate who is only 1st choice of 10% of voters should beat the one who had 48% approval as 1st choice. FPTP is simple here - you get more people to say you should win, and you win.

The miscarriage here is that whilst all men are equal and get one vote, that is on the premise of voting once. You cannot think it fair that a vote for someone as 9th preference (as B could have been for over half its votes in the case where it wins) should carry as much weight as a vote for someone as 1st preference. It doesn't ring true to me. In terms of how representative it is, surely when the first round had A and B at 48% and 10%, calling a win under FPTP there is far more 'representative' of who they want to win than the last round 51% for A and 49% for B? AV not only flatters B, but with a slightly different distribution of C's votes, could even have B winning when clearly lacking genuine popular support. And all because of hanging their hat on 50% - you can't be elected until at least 50% of the people who bothered to turn up to vote hate you less than the other people still in the contest. Pro-AV campaigners claim you need to have "the support" of 50 % of voters. I don't call rating someone 9th out of 10 "support", I call rating someone 1st "support", but maybe that's just me.

So there you go - a pretty long and perhaps at times hard to follow argument I don't doubt. What I'd like you to take away though is that not only is AV not more representative and genuinely calls into question the weighting of all votes as equal, but that being representative is not the only function of our electoral system. It is there to interpret how we vote and deliver accordingly as strong and decisive a Government as it can in line with our wishes. Not only is FPTP simple, but its simplicity gives it its validity and transparency. AV on the other hand is unrepresentative, shady and negative. In fact I think it flatters to deceive that it could even be "a miserable little compromise".

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