Anoraks and PR

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I’m still trying to be on my best behaviour by not commenting here on the London elections, but I can’t let this comment by Lib Dem Voice’s resident troll Laurence Boyce go unchallenged:

Please allow me to provide my own advice for London voters.

First preference: State your first preference for Mayor of London.
Second preference: State your second preference for Mayor of London.

Because it really is as simple as that.

I didn’t comment on Laurence’s previous advice on electoral politics as he was clearly on a massive wind up. After noon on 1 April, it ought to have had a “don’t feed the troll” neon sign hung above it and can be summed up thus: “me, me, me, me, me, me, me.” I don’t however question that his opposition to proportional representation is genuine. It is however one thing to oppose any electoral system that would prevent tactical voting; quite another to claim – as he has done today – that it is an irrelevance.

The May 1997 election would not have been as spectacular as it was were it not for tactical voting on an industrial scale. This isn’t the eighties (don’t be confused by Laurence’s designer stubble); tactical voting is no longer a controversial electoral tactic. All parties encourage it or discourage it according to what happens to be to their personal advantage in every election. The electorate intuitively understand this and exercise their preferences accordingly. Of course, all this negativity has a corrosive effect on our political system, but it is a product of the system not something individuals trying to make the best of a bad job ought to feel particularly guilty of. If you hate it so much, change the system, don’t whinge.

To claim then that the SV system is as simple as giving your ideal two choices a first and second preference vote is somewhere between laughably ignorant and criminally misleading. As an opponent of electoral systems that would dispense of such tactical voting, Laurence simply can’t be allowed to have it both ways.

Opponents of PR like to accuse its proponents of being anoraky. Anyone who has spent more than five minutes at an Electoral Reform Society AGM can hardly disagree, but when the debate moves beyond the merits of individual systems and instead focuses on broad principles, it is the other side who start to sound distinctly hairy palmed.

I might prefer STV as an electoral system but I’m really not personally that fussed so long as it achieved three things:
1. The overall votes cast should broadly reflected in Parliament. A minority party with 35% of the vote should not be sitting pretty on the government benches with 56% of the MPs.
2. Voters should have a choice of candidates, not just parties. I’m realistic that in most cases the electorate will simply vote on party lines but bad eggs should not be unaccountable simply because they are high up on some closed party list.
3. Voters should not be forced to choose between stating a genuine preference and having their vote count, or between voting positively for a party and voting negatively against one.

Any system which achieves those aims is fine by me and I will happily refrain from getting too bogged down into the details. Yet when I talk to opponents of PR, they bombard me with weird arguments about why Parliament should reflect the popular vote, why the public should be denied a choice of candidates (a feature of the first past the post system – which is just as much a closed list system as the one used for European Elections) and either that tactical voting is an irrelevance or some beastly thing that people should somehow be prevented from doing – and ultimately the only way to achieve that would be to outlaw any political party beyond the first two.

All those arguments are intensely complex and downright weird. They genuinely involve patiently explaining the logical equivalent of black = white and that all swans are purple. Terribly clever these fellows, far far too clever for their own good. Blessed with exceptionally flexible spines and neck muscles, they can disappear up their own sphincters on a whim. They are capable of the most obscurantist argument the collective membership of ERS can only dream of.

Asking the most hardcore electoral reformers to focus on broad principles rather than detail is an exercise in futility, but the next time some Tory calls you an “anorak” simply for believing that votes ought to count for something, ask them why and hand them a raincoat.

Finally, back to Laurence for a second, it is probably a good thing he isn’t a Londoner. A committed atheist, it is hard to see how, out of principle, he could vote for any ticket other than Unity for Peace and Socialism.

11 thoughts on “Anoraks and PR

  1. I don’t get the last jibe. What does being an atheist have to do with voting for the morning stars list?

  2. It certainly was a cheap jibe, but follow the link anyway if you want a laugh. My point is merely that the UFPS are the natural choice for militant atheists as they are supporting the secular Chinese government against the suspiciously well funded ‘thugs’ working for the sinister and wicked Dalai Lama. In any contest between the religious and the secular, Laurence has never sided with the religious in the past, so why should this be any different?

  3. Well, I would say something about the Tibetan protestors already ignoring the Dalai Lama by protesting the way they are, but its Laurence so who cares.

  4. Just to play devil’s advocate but why shouldnt a party that wins 35% of the vote be sitting on 56% of the seats if it delivers stable government; if the system simply magnifies voter preferences (even the sort of change in votes that happened in 1997 would not necessarily have resulted in a change of government in); and if the electorate is broadly happy with it as a system?

    I ask simply because I think it is always worth supporters of PR considering why treating parties ‘fairly’ is such an important thing…

    (yes, I know you are talking about STV and that is not directly proportional but I did say I was playing devils advocate…)

  5. I didn’t say you couldn’t make an argument for FPTP, just that that argument is complex and obscurantist. For your example to hold up, for example, you would have to explain why most rich EU nations have PR and stable governments. Even the deadlock of the last German elections didn’t stop them from forming a stable executive.

    You can patiently explain how all of those countries don’t really have stable governments or are somehow special cases, but it isn’t a straightforward argument whichever way you look at it.

    And I explicitly did not endorse STV. I can think of at least four different systems and many different iterations that would fit the three principles outlined above.

  6. I am an atheist and yet don’t like Communist regimes. You’ve made a pretty silly point here, one worthy of Lawrence Boyce.

  7. As an atheist who isn’t a communist either, I think you’re making a rather silly attack here Bob (can I call you Bob?). I wasn’t accusing all atheists of supporting the Chinese, merely people who repeatedly maintain that religion is All Bad and that secularism is All Good, i.e. Laurence Boyce.

  8. Bob is fine James. I don’t think I am making a silly attack, I find your jibe uncharacteristically rather ignorant. I don’t consider all religion bad, but I do think it is a social illness and I also think secularism is all-good. I don’t like being equated to dogmatic authoritarian Maoist nut jobs.

  9. But Bob, I’m not equating you to a dogmatic authoritarian Maoist nut job. Unless of course you are Laurence Boyce. I’m struggling, really struggling, to work out what your problem is. I’ve already pointed out that I’m not mocking all atheists – of which I include myself – just specific individuals with rather dogmatic outlooks on life.

    Given the fact that (unless you are really a British born, golf playing American light entertainer who has returned from the dead), I don’t have an effing clue who you are, don’t you think it is a little egotistical to assume that I’m attacking you?

  10. You didn’t just single out LB, but also comitted atheists!

    You said of Lawrence that as ‘a committed atheist, it is hard to see how, out of principle, he could vote for any ticket other than Unity for Peace and Socialism’.

    I am only reading what you put.


  11. Bob, only an individual who has been clinically brain dead for five years would draw that conclusion. It is clear from the context that I am referring to how Laurence self-defines not launching a broadside against every atheist in the world, including myself.

    Good grief, and they say fundamentalists take texts too literally!

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