Daily Archives: 28 May 2009

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

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.