Saturday, 19 February 2011

To AV, or to AV not?

I'm not sure how many times the Prime Minister has been stopped in a busy shopping street by one of those ever-so-nice market research people to explain his views on the sort of washing powder he prefers, or his preferred brand of mayonnaise. I suspect it hasn't happened very often. But most people will have experienced such an encounter at one time or another, being asked to rank their preferences with a 1,2, 3 and 4 and so on. This 'complicated' task is mathematically very similar to voting for contestants on the X-Factor, or the Eurovision Song Contest.

Choosing a brand of mayonnaise, a preferred washing powder or Simon Cowell's next signing are just three of the sorts of tasks the British public are expected to grapple with on a daily basis. It's also a bit like selecting an MP under a new-fangled voting system – the Alternative Vote (AV). But does David Cameron place such faith in the intelligence of his fellow citizens?

Like the opponents of decimalisation in the late sixties and early seventies, the No to AV campaign, led by Cameron himself, has decreed that AV is complicated and could be costly to explain and run. The evidence would, however, suggest that the electorate are rather more comfortable with changing the way we do elections than the vested interests of the Conservative party – and the more tribalist elements of the Labour party - might like to think. One poll in the last week showed the Yes campaign was 10 points in the lead, although this has not quite been matched by other polls.

Recognising its weaker position, the No campaign has scrambled to rely on an incoherent ragbag of arguments, which can hardly be said to be responding to a general public disenchantment with politics and politicians. It is also trying desperately to ignore the statistical evidence – that every government since 1945 has been elected with less than 50% of the vote. Even with its landslide victory in 1997, Labour only secured 43.2% of the vote. And in some seats at the last election, seven out of every 10 voters wanted other candidates.

The No campaign tells us that hung parliaments are more
likely with AV, as if this is in itself an undesirable outcome. Playing on the supposed British preference for strong, single party majority, they've completely forgotten the democratically questionable results thrown up by hung parliaments of the 1920s, 1970s and in 2010 – all under First Past the Post. Each resulted in a single party being unable to effectively govern alone.

Yet the No campaign, as personified by local organiser and 2010 Tory candidate Chris Philp at a talk given to City University students in January, Philp criticised Clegg for 'making deals in dark rooms' – despite the essential presence of the third party in supporting Cameron's government. He then made an extraordinary personal attack on Clegg in his role as 'kingmaker'. But it's clearly news to Philps that the Conservatives can no longer rely on the support of a healthy chunk of the electorate to form a majority government. Those who oppose AV in the Labour camp are similarly misguided. And, where I slightly depart from the Yes campaign's official line, I believe coalitions will remain just as likely, if not more likely in the future as a result of the slow ebbing away of support for the major parties, including the Lib Dems. Negotiating a programme for government with other parties will become a part of the course to Downing Street.

We've easily established there's nothing difficult about AV. The hard work is left to returning officers and people who count the votes – and they're paid to do that. It will mean that election results come in much later in the day. That's a price worth paying for a move to fairer representation. What's more, the Yes campaign knows that there is still a clamour for change, despite general public disenchantment with the Lib Dems. And although introducing AV didn't feature in any of the manifestos in 2010, neither was 'business as usual' acceptable to the electorate in the cold light of day after the MPs expenses' scandal.

As Serge Lourie, AV proponent and a long-serving Richmond councillor also said at City, it's time for 'grown-up politics'. Lourie conceded that no electoral system was perfect, but the 2010 General Election was a rejection of the old politics, and the absurdities of tactical voting and MPs with 'jobs for life'. For me, if the Liberal Democrat side of the Coalition is worth anything, it's worth a push for change.


AYTsang said...

This video should be the official campaign video... or is it?

Paul Prentice said...

I'm not sure - it's a good explanation though!

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