"The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it"
Aneurin Bevan

Thursday, 5 May 2011

To AV or Not to AV?

Don't care either way. Here's why.


On the anti side we hear that:

  1. It will produce more coalitions. No, see below. AV is not proportional and studies have shown that it is more likely to reinforce a result (give the winning party more seats if they are popular, give them fewer seats if the result is more marginal) than dilute it. The studies show that the only coalition under AV in the last 20 years would have been in 2010, and get what FPTP delivered?
  2. It is only used by three other countries in the world. Spurious. We are the only country in the world to have a House of Lords, are they suggesting that we get rid of that? No, in the case of the Lords, they say it makes us "unique", so why can't we be unique in other ways? Are the No2AV campaign suggesting that we have to be blandly like everyone else?
  3. It allows second or third placed candidates to win. Only if there is a three way race, ie very little between the top three candidates. In this case, under the current system, irrelevant issues like celebrity endorsements or the candidate's sex life will swing the vote. It is much better that the vote is swung by people's preference than by irrelevant issues, or worse, dirty tactics.
  4. It will cost £250m. Well, when you employ the guy who ran the Taxpayers Alliance to run the No2AV campaign, you should expect totally made up figures. This is a totally made up figure. It includes the cost of the referendum (£100m) so that is unfair, and it also includes the cost of counting machines that will not be used.
  5. It will mean that someone's fifth preference is worth the same as your first. It is unlikely that someone's fifth preference will ever be counted, but if it does get to a fifth round, then there is some truth in this. If you support one of the top two candidates then your first preference will be counted in each round (remember, each round is different, so your vote is counted again) and if it gets to a fifth round then your first preference will be counted along side someone's fifth preference. So what?
  6. It will mean that the supporters of the BNP and fringe parties will decide who wins. The argument is that fringe parties will be knocked out first so their preferences will swing the vote. Well here's the clue: fringe candidates (by definition) will be small in number, the winning candidate has to have 50% of the vote, and the only way to get this is to be popular and get as many first preference votes as possible. So it is the first preference votes that really decide. Studies have shown that even second preference votes are unlikely to change a vote: they are more likely to reinforce the first preference majority.
The No2AV campaign go under the banner of "One Person, One Vote". This is still the case under AV because the counting is done in rounds, and in each round you still only get one vote.


On the pro side we hear that:

  1. Make all MPs work hard. How an MP is elected does not affect how hard they work once they get into the House of Commons. This is a spurious argument. But let's just imagine that Yes2AV are right, and MPs will have to keep canvassing you in the time between the elections. Do you really want that, an MP whose only purpose in life is to get elected? Surely you want an MP who will work hard representing you in Parliament. I think (hope) that most MPs agree. The way they are elected will not affect how "hard" they work.
  2. Give you a stronger voice. Do I have to repeat this? AV is not proportional. The Yes2AV say that "you will still get a say even if your favourite doesn't win", well yes, but by definition, you do not get the candidate you wanted, the candidate who wins will do so mostly on first preference votes. Only a proportional system will give you more say, and AV is not proportional.
  3. Stop MPs "Jobs for life". In a third of constituencies at the last election, the candidate won with 50% of the vote, so AV will have no effect there. Even if AV could stop "jobs for life" (which I doubt) it will not affect one third of MPs.
The Yes2AV campaign says that it is a "fairer voting system". Fair is subjective, of course. It certainly gives you an opportunity to give your preferences, but it will still mean that votes for minority parties have no effect and so are "wasted".

Last year, the British Election Survey found that the proportion of people who gave a minority party their first preference vote was (9%) the same as the the proportion who actually voted for a minority party at last year's General Election. YouGov also found the same result. This shows that AV has no effect in increasing minority party support.

Since 1983 the British Election Survey have conducted a survey at all the General Elections asking the representative group to fill in an AV ballot paper. Academics simulating AV from these surveys show that the Liberal Democrats would have gained very little from AV, only a figure of 20 or 30 seats will be affected. The New Economics Foundation show that using 2010 election results, under AV no candidate would have "won" from third place and a mere 41 would have "won" from second place, so that's one No2AV myth busted. They also found that for the last seven elections the result (in terms of the winning party) would have been the same. The 1997 election would have produced marginally more Labour MPs and all others the winning party would still have won, outright, but with fewer seats. Other studies even suggest AV would have increased the majority of the winning party. The studies agree that AV would not have delivered a coalition in six out of the seven elections. The 2010 election result would have been the same: a hung parliament. The results from the British Election Survey shows that second preference votes would not swing many seats in an election and so the Yes2AV claim that it would make MPs "work harder" or stop "jobs for life" are not based on evidence.

Undoubtedly, giving people more preferences, even if they have little effect, is a good thing. It is a good thing because in a few cases they may have an effect. So AV is only a minor change in the electoral system. Both No2AV and Yes2AV are making a mountain out of a mole hill.

However, I am really angry about the referendum. It is reputed to cost £100m and the polls suggest that the country will vote against it. Hence we will have wasted £100m on keeping the status quo. Even if the Yes vote succeeds we will have wasted £100m on a minor change to the electoral system that will deliver the same government at elections as FPTP. Let's put £100m in context. It is half the annual funding of Cameron's Cancer Drug Fund. It is about the same amount of money (£95m) that Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust has to save by 2015. £100m is a large amount of money. Regardless of the No2AV claims, wouldn't you have preferred that money to have been spent on something we need rather than a referendum that will be unpopular and maintains the status quo?

I am especially angry with Nick Clegg who should have demanded AV as part of the Coalition Agreement and if he asked for a referendum it should have been on proportional representation (ie, something that would make a difference and about which there are passionate divergent opinions). Nick Clegg was in a position where he could have demanded the moon on a stick, yet he agreed on a referendum on something he described as a "miserable compromise". That is pathetic.

So today I will vote this way:

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