AV+??!! Eleven year old reheated Westminster leftovers will do nothing to restore trust in politics

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I’d like to take this opportunity to congratulate Nick Clegg on launching a terrific campaign today. I really do. He pulled a blinder. The 100 Days theme, combined with this populist stuff about ‘no summer holiday until this is sorted’ injects urgency and raises the stakes in a much needed way. The party can be seen to be leading the debate on democratic renewal for the first time in over a decade.

It is a genuine shame then that the line on electoral reform is so lame, simultaneously managing to be both less radical and less consensual than he could be at the same time. It’s doubly a shame because it forces us to discuss electoral systems at a time when we should be establishing broad principles. Yet, notwithstanding complaints about the dullness of the subject (of course, at least it isn’t paranoid, ranting libertarianism – the most boring subject on Earth bar none – not that you hear me complainig), it is a debate we must now have (apart from anything else, it now ensures that as a member of the Electoral Reform Society – and a candidate for their Council elections – I will now be bombarded by even more ranting letters and emails than I was steeling myself for over the next few weeks anyway – cheers, Nick).

So, let me now write the blog post I really didn’t want to write at this stage: why AV+ is such a bad idea.

To be honest, it never ceases to amaze me how this system keeps raising its ugly head. No country in the world uses it. It was devised by, and looks like it was devised by, a committee. There is no respectable academic research to back it up. No campaign organisation to promote it. An classic example of Westminster Fudge (and in particular, that now rare vintage of fudge which emerged during that unique period of time when we had a signally unprogressive and non-intellectual Prime Minister – Jenkins himself famously said he had a ‘third class’ mind – who had managed to get to power by making promises to do numerous progressive things), its objective was to produce a non-proportional voting system which satisfied the campaigners for a proportional voting system. To the surprise of nobody it flew like a lead balloon when it was first unveiled. If only that was the only thing wrong with it.

A fundamental problem with it is its complexity from ther voters’ perspective. PR systems are always attacked for being ‘too complicated’ by people who can’t count to five and somehow think that while the average uneducated person can cope fine with the complexities of the football league, an electoral system one tenth as complex will somehow flummox the average person. It is a bogus argument but nonetheless a very well rehearsed one that will get in the way of any call for reform (from what I’ve seen it is the main one that was used in the successful ‘no’ vote in British Columbia earlier this month). The problem with AV+ is that from this perspective it is the worst of all possible worlds.

Under AV+ you get two votes – one for constitutuency and the other for a ‘top up’ – like the AMS system. But you also get to number candidates – like STV. So in a referendum we will have to contend with all the arguments about the confusingness of AMS AND STV.

But at the same time, it isn’t actually proportional. The proposal is for a 15% ‘top up.’ That amounts to a scattering of minority party seats, the odd extra Tory MP in the North, the odd extra Labour MP in the South and the odd extra Lib Dem MP everywhere. But fundamentally, a party could still get a safe working majority with less than 40% of the vote.

Indeed, in certain circumstances, the AV constituency vote will cancel out the top up vote to leave us precisely where we started. Because AV can exaggerate swings by encouraging an ‘anyone but X’ vote (it almost certainly would have done in 1997 for instance), most top up MPs in such a situation will end up being from the parrty the swing was against. In that circumstance, the losing parties will just be minority parties. If you think PR and FPTP can lead to some anomalous results, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Another problem will be the scale of the task to actually introduce it, and the enormous scope for gerrymandering. When I was on the Lib Dems’ Better Governance Working Group a couple of years ago, one of the myths the anti-PR brigade was pushing was that it would take years and years to do a boundary review for STV. This is total nonsense. Drawing up STV constituencies based on the existing FPTP boundaries is childs play – you simply clump them together in groups (you could do it yourself with a list of constituencies and their population size, a calculator, a big electoral map of the UK, a marker pen, a free afternoon and a deep sadness at the pit of your soul). You could even account for a reduction in the number of MPs with little difficulty. If the Boundary Commission, at a push, couldn’t come up with a first draft within a week, there is something wrong with it – and it will have years.

But AV+ is a different prospect. Essentially, every seven constituencies would have to be changed to six distinct constituencies, to allow for the top up seats. And because it is unproportional and the top up is so small, gerrymandering will be a real worry (it isn’t a problem for multi-member constituencies where gerrymandering is extremely difficult to engineer) – especially if the process is rushed. To make matters worse, you will have to do the whole of the UK in one go. This is a formula for utter chaos.

In short, AV+ represents more pain than STV for much less gain. I would vote for it in a referendum – all things being equal it would be an improvement on FPTP – but it wouldn’t be a campaign I would look forward to fighting as the anti-PR campaigners will have their work cut out for them. They will be able to use all the classic anti-PR arguments while the ‘yes’ side won’t be able to make ANY of the pro-PR arguments. At the height of Blairite hysteria and the depth of the Tory nadir, we MIGHT have been able to pull it off. But can anyone tell me, with a straight face, that it could be won now?

Remember that referendum in the North East about having an elected assembly? The fundamental problem with that campaign was that by the time the politicians had finished fiddling with the assembly model in Westminster – stripping it of any power – there wasn’t anything left to campaign for; just a lot of pain and the forlorn hope that something better night come along eventually. An AV+ referendum campaign will be a rehash off that one. It might yet be something we have to live with, but for the life of me I can’t understand why we would want to encourage it.

But the daftest thing about all this is that it is a break from the well established consensus that has been built, with Lib Dem inside involvement, for the past six months. Getting Compass and Jon Cruddas to finally get off the fence a couple of months ago was a mini-Glastnost. Yes, some of the more institutionalised electoral reformers like Alan Johnson are banging on about AV+, but arguing that this makes it incumbant on the Lib Dems to stand behind them and vigourously agree like a pack of nodding dogs is like saying Thatcher and Reagan should have called for a gentler, kinder form of Communism just because Gorbachev said so.

The current malaise about politics is entirely a Westminster creation. I really did think that the last thing anyone thought was that the solution would lie in a Westminster report that has been gathering dust for eleven years.

There is another way. The alternative is for us to take the issue out of the hands of politicians entirely and let a grand jury of ordinary citizens make the decision for us. That decision can be ratified by a referendum (either at the beginning to establish the principle first, or at the end). We don’t have to rule anything in or out at this stage – we just need the politicians to recognise the need to back off. In this respect, at least, it meets the rhetoric coming from all three party leaders at the moment: it is one thing to oppose electoral reform; quite another to say that the public can’t even make their own mind up.

That principle is at the heart of both the Electoral Reform Society’s Referendum 2010 campaign and Unlock Democracy‘s Citizens Convention campaign – both of which launch properly in the next few days. Although the two campaigns differ in that the latter has a slightly broader remit and a slightly broader cross-party appeal than the former (this isn’t a boast by the way – it remains to be seen which one will fly), they are both fundamentally complimentary. Nick Clegg ought to be supporting that emerging consensus not challenging it.

The good news is that, for all the strengths of the Take Back Power campaign, it will go nowhere without wider cross-party support. It stakes out a marker and a strong challenge to the other parties but it can’t actually produce consensus where none exists. The Lib Dems will have to work within cross-party campaigns if they are serious about electoral reform and so will have to come back in line anyway. So it doesn’t particularly damage the wider movement for change. I just have to wonder why, when we are in such a position of strength, we are being seen backpedalling so enthusiasticly away from real reform. We shouldn’t merely be ‘going along’ with calls for more radical reform – we ought to be leading those calls.

23 thoughts on “AV+??!! Eleven year old reheated Westminster leftovers will do nothing to restore trust in politics

  1. Agree entirely – Clegg should say he supports STV, and plainly reject AV+ in simple terms that resonate – ‘another typical Labour fudge’, something like that. Point out that it isn’t used anywhere for national parliaments, etc., point out STV is simpler, avoids the need for open primaries and so forth.

    Basically, we’re unlikely to get to change the electoral system twice, at least not without a substantial period of time in between. It seems best to push for STV and reject anything less, on that basis.

  2. Much agreement from me. Is there anything we ought to be doing within the party on this, or is it just a matter of hoping the party falls in with the other campaigning groups, as you suggest?

  3. In this case I don’t think there is any scope in wasting time and energy campaigning to change Nick’s mind – far better to spend your time and energy supporting the cross-party campaigns positively.

  4. Am I sensing some back tracking on this from Clegg? From the article on Lib Dems dot org:

    And then there’s electoral reform. The ideal solution would be an Irish-style single transferable vote system in which voters elect the person, not the party. But even alternative vote plus – as first advocated by Roy Jenkins in 1998 and now backed by Alan Johnson – would ensure most MPs have a personal constituency link with their voters, as already occurs in Germany and Scotland.

    Is the comment about the ideal solution being STV new?

    As I posted about the other day James, I agree STV is the best and your prediction of how hard an AV+ referendum would be to win is very persuasive. It is almost playing into our opponents hands and if we lost it that would be PF off the table for at least 25 years.

  5. PF is my boss!

    To be fair on Clegg, the line about STV being a first preference is in both his Guardian article and the text of the Take Back Power document. The problem with what he has said is that he has effectively conceded that STV isn’t a real option and only AV+ is. He’s wrong.

  6. Is he wrong though? It comes down to whether or not you think it’s worth reforming to AV+ as a concession or not (I’m still on the fence) but ultimately is he wrong for accepting that if we want electoral reform decided by the end of the next election within a year that getting other parties to agree to anything other than a referendum including AV or AV+ is extremely unlikely?

    To me it’s a simple question, do we want electoral reform now or are we willing to wait and hope that there is any appetite for electoral reform in 5 years time? Lib Dem statement or not, if we get a referendum now without another review it will be done on the basis of an AV or AV+ versus FPTP discussion.

  7. I quite liked Millennium’s suggestion – use AV+ because it’s already been approved by the Jenkins Committee, but then add in the Tories’ wishes for primaries, which would be used to choose the order of the party lists. It looks bipartisan and friendly, and would end up having the same effect as STV, though in a much more roundabout way. But it could get through…

  8. I quite like the fact that AV+ has just been waiting in a mountain for the right moment; on the 100 days timeline it is a helpful “here’s one Westminster made earlier”.

    What the past few weeks have highlighted is the desire to vote for individuals rather than parties and the desire to express a minority party first preference without splitting the not-BNP vote. I came to the conclusion a long time ago that a local MP that the majority are happy with is actually more important than proportional party representation in the Commons.

    Frankly I’d rather see constituencies stay as planned, and implement just AV and not the +! The single-member STV element would give more control to people, and it shouldn’t even need a referendum. I’d save proportional representation for the Lords, where the local link is not of great importance.

    So from my perspective, AV+ is acceptable and preferable to multi-member STV.

    There are plenty of examples of imperfect schemes being dusted off and reanimated just because they’re ready, so AV+ isn’t impossible.

    “Reheated leftovers” will resolve the hunger for change; where the metaphor fails is that by the time a new dish is devised and prepared the public may no longer be hungry. AV+ is a shrewd choice.

  9. One of the arguments for FPTP is that it’s “simple”.

    It is not.

    Try explaining to someone why just because a party has the majority of seats in Parliament it doesn’t mean it gained an absolute majority of votes. Or how it can be the case that the party with the most votes doesn’t win the most seats. Or why it is that though county A has all its ten MPs Tories, it doesn’t mean that every person in county X is a Tory, and the non-Tory voters in county X are shamefully denied a representative of their views and location.

    They will glaze over – ONE part of the mechanics is simple, but the end result most certainly is not.

  10. Lee,

    I covered a lot of that in the main article but at the risk of repeating myself:

    1) I don’t dispute that, all things being equal, it would probably be easier to get a referendum on AV+ – what I DO, strongly, dispute is that winning a referendum on AV+ is a viable prospect.

    2) I would rather wait a bit longer and win a referendum than go for AV+ now and lose – the opportunity wouldn’t then arise for at least another 20 years.

    3) All I’d like Nick and the Lib Dems to do is endorse the principle of deciding which electoral system should be adopted/put to a referendum via a Grand Jury/Citizens Assembly. This is the position that’s been adopted by ERS, Unlock Democracy, Compass and over 50 different people in a letter published in the Observer last weekend.

  11. Timing is of the essence in any referendum on STV. They had one in British Columbi in 2005, on the back of some crazy FPTP results in the provincial elections before. It passed with 58% supprt, but the threshold for acceptance was 60%.

    There was an outcry about the injustice of that so they held another referendum this year…and STV was voted down 60-40.

  12. No country in the world uses it.” Isn’t AV+ the system Scotland and Wales use in their Parliament and Assembly respectively? Because they are countries…

    This doesn’t detract from your views on AV+. The last Scottish elections were farcical and I had personal experience of the overly complex voting papers which I managed to ruin twice.

  13. I have been a teller for the Liberal Democrats in all the Welsh Assembly elections and so I have had plenty of opportunities to find out what the voters in Wales think of the AV system. I can honestly say the system is neither liked or understood. On several occassions I have been asked by would be voters how the AV voting system works and been glad that I was expected to tell them to ask the clerks who would give them their ballot papers. Many of the voters were unhappy when a candidate who they had rejected as a constituency member ended up in the assembly because he was also standing under the list system. It is also a fact that the AV system has not led to a flush of Lib Dem seats in the Assembly.

  14. Patrick, no, Scotland and Wales use AMS, not AV+ – you could call their systems FPTP+ if you wanted.

    Germany also uses AMS, but there are some technical differences that make the German system better than the Scotland/Wales system.

  15. As Richard says, the system used in Scotland and Wales (and the London Assembly) is different to AV+.

  16. Andy Hinton: “Is there anything we ought to be doing within the party?”

    Perhaps a motion reminding Federal Conference of its longstanding support for STV and calling for cooperation with the ERS and Unlock Democracy campaigns? I’m a Conf Rep and I’d sign it.

  17. AV+ is the best system so-far devised, and is better than STV, and I’ll tell you why. In STV, a candidate doesn’t have to secure a majority preference from voters to become an MP, unlike AV+. This discourages rigorous debate and having to “win a majority of people over” or as many as possible to become an MP. This preserves the divisions in society, rather than trying to solve them. Ultimately then we will have lazy debaters as MPs, who, because they don’t even have to win over the other side, will not even care to have rigorous debate on law-making, which is a critical function of MPs. Politics will become stagnant and continually divided. What we need to encourage is outspoken campaigners who want to win majority support or preference in a small localized constituency. That brings me to the second advantage of AV+ over STV. Your MP is local, approachable for everybody and the only one for your constituency, a focal-point at short distance. Again, this encourages debate if you disagree with that MP to either win over that MP or for the MP to win over the people rather than preserving the divisions in society or the people reinforcing the MPs already-held opinions. AV+ is centred around a person at a short travelling distance for any constituent. Under STV, your preferred representative will be further away, constituents will be divided as to which MPs they will approach, again preserving the divisions in society. That would therefore mark the end of political progress. AV+ is not SUPPOSED to be full-blown Proportional Representation. The critical component of AV+ is the AV part which allows the majority-and-most-preferred MP in a constituency to be elected, and prevents the possiblity of candidates with similar policies from destroying each others chances of winning in the election as they currently do. The “+” part adds proportional representation as a compromise. Yes, this could be a different and less-respected class of “Top-Up” MPs to add voices and parliamentary votes to preferred parties, but I have no problem with that at all! This STV vs AV+ in-fighting could cripple critically needed electoral reform. Although AV+ has my full support as the best system, all of you should throw your full support behind it AV+ AT LEAST as a first step, if only to get this GHASTLY FPTP out of the way, then debate with me on the other side why you think STV is better as a next step (and I’ll tell you otherwise), but don’t stifle AV+ just because you didn’t get your cherry on the cake, especially given that AV+ is for me the perfect cake.

  18. I’ve changed my mind!! Although MP-constituent debates are less rigorous under STV than AV+, the parliamentary debates are made richer because STV includes, and proportionately, more minority voices. And there is plenty of incentive for that minority voice to try to WIN OVER parliament so that their laws/systems may be passed. Those parliamentary debates could be broadcast to the public to reach them anyway, and those debates are the most critical ones in our democracy, to actually lead to decisions! (the campaign/MP-constituent debates will be less rigorous STV, which is still a disadvantage against AV+, but is not as critical in our democracy as the parliamentary debates) Therefore, I’m lock-and-stock behind STV! I do not know if that will change again. And I’ve been swinging between AV+ and STV for a while.

  19. James — the preferential vote isn’t what’s often cited as the “confusing” aspect of Single Transferable Vote — rather, the process of determining the allocation of each seat is. Understanding the transferable vote is relatively simple when you only have single-member constituencies, as is the case with Alternative Vote — it works just like a knockout election. However, try explaining the droop quota and the way “surplus” votes are re-allocated to someone who’s never looked at electoral reform before — it’s a challenge, I can tell you, because I’ve had to do it before.

    So AV+ isn’t really much more complicated than AMS. And crucially, it tackles one of the biggest flaws of FPTP from the constituency level. When discussing electoral reform, people are always making one very big mistake in only focussing on one issue: national outcomes. In reality there are three: the type of representation (Direct, Indirect, diverse, majoritarian, compensatory etc..), the basis of election (individual, party or hybrid) and national outcomes.

    FPTP is notoriously flawed from the position of nature of representation. For it to be fair only two candidates can stand, which is pretty much the most basic error for an advanced voting system to make. AV allows transferable voting, which grants electors the ability to vote as they would in a multi-round election, but at a fraction of the cost. This is a big advance on FPTP, whatever your views on single-member systems in general.

    Dave

  20. Sorry, misunderstood the way the blockquote tags worked. Is it possible to delete my previous comment? Ta.

    So in a referendum we will have to contend with all the arguments about the confusingness of AMS AND STV.

    James — the preferential vote isn’t what’s often cited as the “confusing” aspect of Single Transferable Vote — rather, the process of determining the allocation of each seat is. Understanding the transferable vote is relatively simple when you only have single-member constituencies, as is the case with Alternative Vote — it works just like a knockout election. However, try explaining the droop quota and the way “surplus” votes are re-allocated to someone who’s never looked at electoral reform before — it’s a challenge, I can tell you, because I’ve had to do it before.

    So AV+ isn’t really much more complicated than AMS. And crucially, it tackles one of the biggest flaws of FPTP from the constituency level. When discussing electoral reform, people are always making one very big mistake in only focussing on one issue: national outcomes. In reality there are three: the type of representation (Direct, Indirect, diverse, majoritarian, compensatory etc..), the basis of election (individual, party or hybrid) and national outcomes.

    FPTP is notoriously flawed from the position of nature of representation. For it to be fair only two candidates can stand, which is pretty much the most basic error for an advanced voting system to make. AV allows transferable voting, which grants electors the ability to vote as they would in a multi-round election, but at a fraction of the cost. This is a big advance on FPTP, whatever your views on single-member systems in general.

    Dave

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