Thursday, 17 February 2011

The fundamentally fraudulent nature of the Yes to AV Campaign

So there is to be a referendum on May 5th. A fundamentally indifferent electorate is to be offered the choice of changing a flawed, but rough-and-ready and historically resonant system of first-past-the-post with a monstrosity dubbed "alternative vote", or AV. The Yes campaign will present the proposed alternative as providing a "fairer" result in which "every vote counts" and the people's will is better reflected at Westminster. They will hold up the change - offered as part of the Coalition deal - as a decisive shift in power away from political elites and towards voters, as an answer to the mistrust and disconnect that has plagued British politics in recent years.

In a fundraising email last month, Eddie Izzard claimed that AV would end "seats for life", remove the impression that politicians ignore the views of voters, and that first-past-the-post was the reason that "MPs often seem to be a law unto themselves."

None of these things are true. The Yes Campaign - at least, those members of it who believe in electoral reform, rather than merely their own political self-interest - know that they are not true. As they are well aware, AV is possibly the worst method for choosing a Parliament it is possible to devise.

Lee Griffin, who campaigns vocally for AV on Twitter, admitted to me in a comment response on his blog that "FPTP and AV are both nasty systems that propagate parties over policy". Electoral reformers want STV, or some other basically proportional system that would result in a Parliament that reflected the votes cast nationally. AV does not do that. It might produce more hung Parliaments. On the other hand, when it did produce majority governments it would tend to exaggerate the size of the majority. Analysis suggests that AV would have given Tony Blair a larger majority in 2005 - an election in which FPTP gifted him, with barely a third of the votes cast, a majority of over 60 seats. At this election, by contrast, it would have given Labour more seats and the Conservatives fewer - despite Labour achieving a smaller share of the popular (or, under AV, first preference) vote than at any time since the 1920s.

Or as Chris Huhne put it almost exactly a year ago:

Under AV, as under first-past-the-post, there would continue to be safe seats where the MP will effectively have a job for life... Not only does AV fail to give voters the power they should have, but it also fails to remedy the unfairness of the present system... AV can be even more disproportional [than FPTP] when there are big swings from one side to the other such as in 1997 or 1979: under AV both Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher would have had bigger majorities. The electoral system would continue to be like an ill-fitting corset attempting to squeeze all the diverse strands of opinion in our society into an inappropriate and deeply uncomfortable shape.

For some reason, he's not saying that now.

If FPTP is a bad system, AV is a worse one. But if FPTP is a good system, AV manages to neutralise its advantages while exaggerating its flaws. If STV or some other proportional system is good, then AV - being less proportional than FPTP - can only be a step in the wrong direction. Far from eliminating tactical voting (as I explained last year) AV in fact institutionalises it. Why, then, are supporters of electoral reform so enthusiastically embracing this appalling proposition? They cannot - do not - regard it as any more than a stop-gap. Cynically, they calculate that while AV would not actually be an improvement it would create an appetite for constant tinkering with the electoral system. (If, that is, proportionality is truly what matters to them, rather than creating the conditions for permanent left-of-centre government.)

Supporters may respond, sotto voce, that while AV is not the change they seek, it is the only change on offer and they must therefore pretend to like it. But change for change's sake is pointless. This one would be costly - some have claimed up to £250 million - money arguably worth spending on a durable change for the better, but simply wasted on a temporary change for the worse.

It's a dangerous strategy, not only because after the switch to AV most members of the public - who have better things to do with their lives than obsess about the minutiae of electoral systems - the argument would seem to be over. They would validly ask why, since they won their referendum, the reformers were still not satisfied. And the only plausible answer will be that proponents of reform are less interested in popular representation than in advancing their own interests. Far from increasing trust in politics, it will lead to even more mistrust. And rightly so.

Izzard, in the aforementioned email, referred to the upcoming referendum as a "once in a generation" chance to change the system. In that at least, he was right. But AV is, by any reasonable standard, the wrong change.

AV is a reasonable system for choosing an individual - a mayor, say - because it ensures that the winning candidate has at least the acquiescence (though maybe not the active support) of more than half those who bother to vote in the election. If we had an elected president, AV would be a better method than FPTP for choosing him or her. But we have a Parliamentary system, in which a "general election" is a composite of hundreds of individual elections. Under AV, individual MPs will arguably be able to claim a greater mandate from the voters (arguably, because the system weights first preferences and transferred second preferences equally, allowing lowest-common-denominator candidates to win through against those with more whole-hearted backers). But the resultant Parliament might well be less reflective of the national spread of opinion than FPTP would have been - to say nothing of a fully proportional system.

Paradoxically, however, a brutally majoritarian result (say, an increased Labour majority in 2005) might be seen as somehow more legitimate than the more nuanced result produced by the old system, because of the illusion of "fairness" in each individual seat. The counting of second preferences would have given the winning party not just more seats but a greater perceived (though not actual) mandate, as voters who grudgingly gave the party their second preference are lumped together with actual supporters. It could therefore set about its work unembarrassed by the derisory share of the vote (the first preferences) it actually received, shielded from the evidence of its own unpopularity.

Genuine supporters, as well as opponents, of electoral reform should vote NO on 5th May.

UPDATE: My attention has been drawn to this remarkable evidence of how the Electoral Reform Society has attempted to conceal its original objections to AV as a method for electing a legislature. It quite proves my case. A deleted page from their website - written in 2008 - asserted that AV was "not suitable for the election of a representative body". The Society also claimed - back in 2005 - that AV "would do little to restore the legitimacy of government" and "would not produce fairer representation". They were right then. What has changed?