Forget the pedantry and distortions: the reason the big parties oppose AV is that it will erode their support

Readers of this blog will know by now that I dislike the Alternative Vote (AV) voting system but like First Past the Post (FPTP) even less. But cutting through all the crud and the crap about those systems’ respective merits and demerits, the one big reason why Labour and Tory dinosaurs such as Margaret Beckett and William Hague respectively oppose AV is that it will erode support for their parties.

It will do so in two ways:

1) It will reduce the percentage of first-preference votes each party receives compared with what they win under FPTP, because the FPTP totals are inflated by tactical voting. Under AV, people who’ve tended to vote for Labour or the Tories merely to prevent the other party from winning can now vote for their actual favourite party or candidate first, and only then switch their vote to one of the bigger parties. Suddenly, people will realise that the parties that have dominated post-war British politics are not that popular really, and that they can be defeated if enough people reject them; and as their reputation diminishes, more people will be emboldened not to vote for them as their first preference in subsequent elections.

2) It means that, instead of having only one choice at elections, voters are encouraged by the actual voting system to look at a range of parties and to vote for multiple parties. This loosens the hold that Labour and the Conservatives have over voters, bolstered by the FPTP voting system, which means anything other than a vote for them in most constituencies is a wasted vote. Under AV, voters can in theory express a wider range of political opinion (although, in reality, a lot of those preference votes will be disregarded in the AV counting process), and they can vent their displeasure with Labour and the Conservatives by voting for other parties first before switching their vote back to them in their final preferences.

On the other hand, if AV is introduced and either Labour or the Tories win an outright majority in parliament, they will try to counter my first point by saying their majority is a ‘majority of majorities’: a reflection of majority support in a majority of constituencies. I’ve demonstrated the fallacious nature of this assertion here. But that won’t stop the parties from saying it, and it’s a major reason for rejecting AV: don’t give the mainstream parties a chance to claim a majority mandate when, in fact, they’ll have won an even lower share of first-preference votes than the share of the vote they would have won under FPTP.

All the same, the potential for AV to undermine support for the Conservatives and Labour is a really good reason – perhaps the only good reason – to vote for AV; although I accept that this will provide a good reason to vote against it for many others.

How am I tempted to vote now? I’m still backing the idea of not voting at all in the referendum, preferably by spoiling one’s ballot paper by scrawling ‘English parliament now!’ – or another pet demand – all over it. In any case, the non-vote camp is definitely going to be the winner – at least, in England – as I can’t see the turn-out being more than 50%. I would be surprised if many more people go out to vote in the referendum than would have turned up to vote in the English local elections being held on the same day; and turn-out for local elections is usually around 30% or so. That’s one of the reasons I’ve soft-pedalled my ‘campaign‘ to encourage people to spoil their ballots in the referendum: the more you bring the matter to their attention, the more likely they are to actually vote!

So whatever happens, the result won’t have much credibility, not only because the turn-out in England will be so pitiful, but because the turn-out in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be significantly higher because of the elections to their national parliament / assemblies that are taking place on the same day. It will be clear that people in England have bothered to vote in the referendum only because a ballot paper was pressed into their hands when they came to vote in the local elections, not because there is any groundswell of opinion in favour of either of the options on offer. If the establishment were really serious about proposing AV as a constitutional innovation of major importance to the UK, they should have made it compulsory to vote – and you could still have rejected both options by not marking anything on the paper or by allowing a third option such as ‘neither of the above’.

Having said all that, if it looks from opinion polls as though the No camp are going to swing it, I would now seriously consider voting Yes, if only for the reasons set out here: to give the major parties a well-deserved smack in the teeth and to offer the hope that their support would be undermined by AV.

Giving second preferences to the Conservatives could be the best tactic for the Lib Dems under AV

If you use the delightful Electoral Calculus to ‘predict’ the 2015 UK general election result using the latest opinion-poll figures from ComRes, there’s very little variation whether you use the First Past the Post (FPTP) or Alternative Vote (AV) electoral systems. According to ComRes, the current voting intentions across the UK would be Labour 40%, Conservative 36% and Lib Dem 10%. Using FPTP without factoring in any tactical-voting swings between the parties, and on the basis of existing constituencies, Labour gains an overall majority of 40 while the Lib Dems drop to only 14 seats. Using AV still gives Labour a majority of 30 but helps the Lib Dems to 32 seats: much better, but still way below the 65 seats that would be proportional to their vote share.

Factoring in a 5% tactical-voting swing from the Conservatives to the Lib Dems doesn’t change the result. However, Electoral Calculus doesn’t allow you to factor in a tactical-voting swing from the Lib Dems to the Tories. On the basis of the Electoral Calculus prediction – however unreliable it may be – I would say that the best thing Lib Dem voters could do to prevent an outright Labour win would be to give their second preferences to the Tory candidates wherever they stand a chance of beating Labour.

This runs slightly contrary to my previous post on AV tactical voting, where I assumed that Lib Dem voters would be reluctant to give their second preferences to the Conservatives in seats of this sort in the context of a Labour resurgence. However, if the aim is to prevent an overall Labour majority, this makes absolute sense – just as it makes sense for Conservative voters to indicate the Lib Dem candidate as a higher preference than the Tory candidate in seats of this sort in order to defeat Labour, on the basis that Lib Dem voters couldn’t be trusted to give the Tories enough second preferences to win. Obviously, if it emerged during the campaign that doing so would be the best means for the Lib Dems to keep out Labour, then the tactical rationale would change.

Ironically, if Labour were thwarted from winning an overall majority by this tactic, then the Lib Dems would be in a much better position to form a coalition with Labour as the largest party. The same tactic would apply under FPTP, except that Lib Dem voters would have only one sensible choice: the Tories. In other words, if Lib Dem voters in Tory-Labour swing seats want a coalition with Labour, they’d be better off voting Tory as their only choice under FPTP, and as their second preference under AV, rather than voting Labour! Such is the bonkers logic of single member-constituency parliaments elected by either system!

If you enter more realistic predictions of the parties’ vote shares in 2015, you get a hung parliament under either system, the only difference being the number of Lib Dem seats. I would consider a 35% share of the vote for both Labour and the Tories to be more realistic, with the Lib Dems recovering to 20%. On this basis, Labour emerges as the largest party under both systems, with the Lib Dems gaining 45 seats under FPTP and 65 under AV.

If you enter lower vote shares for the major parties – on the basis that AV is supposed to encourage voters to opt for minor parties as their first preference – there’s virtually no change to this picture. Assuming a 32% share of first preferences for both Labour and the Tories, and 16% for the Lib Dems, Labour is still the largest party and the Lib Dems win 63 seats. Minor parties pick up only one seat, and that’s not Caroline Lucas for the Greens in Brighton Pavilion, who is predicted to lose her seat to Labour. So much for AV fostering political pluralism!

Lessons from the Australian election for AV in the UK

The Australian elections are heading towards an almost perfect tie. At the time of writing, the governing Labor party had won 70 seats, with the opposition Liberal-National Coalition gaining 72, while independents had won four seats and the Greens one. This meant that, with three seats still outstanding, no party would cross the threshold of overall control (76 seats) and a coalition deal would have to be struck between one of the larger parties, the independents and potentially the Greens.

The results in terms of seats belie the fact that the Coalition had obtained 43.5% of ‘primary votes’, compared with 38.6% for Labour and 11.4% for the Greens. So based on vote share alone, the Coalition [capital c] ought to be entitled to try to form a coalition [small c]. ‘Primary votes’ are what we’d call over here ‘ first-preference votes’: Australia uses essentially the same preferential voting system that we’re going to have the option of adopting in the referendum next May, and which is known in the UK as the Alternative Vote (AV). The only difference is that, in Australia, voters are obliged to express a ranked preference for all the candidates in the election; whereas, in the UK, voters will be allowed to rank only the candidates they actually want to vote for.

In my view, the Australian results demonstrate once again just how bad a system AV is and how it favours two-party politics, or two-and-a-half-party politics as it would be in the UK. This is because people’s higher-preference votes for smaller parties inevitably end up being eliminated in the counting process, and only those voters’ lower-preference votes for the major parties are ultimately used to determine the result. This tendency is exaggerated even further in Australia by the fact that you are obliged to exhaust the ballot (express a preference for all the candidates), so that almost every vote comes down to a contest between the two largest parties.

Also, the fact that the Greens achieved their best-ever result, and yet their 11.4% of votes translated into only one seat, shows how unfair and disproportional the system is. What essentially happened in this election is that first-preference votes for the Greens were transferred almost entirely to the Labor Party in the preference count, which frequently enabled the Labor Party to overtake the Coalition, which had obtained more primary votes than Labor in many seats. This is how Labor managed to almost achieve parity with the Coalition on seats despite its much lower share of primary votes.

In the UK, this mechanism is likely to favour the Tories and the Lib Dems at the expense of Labour. In Tory-Labour fights – in England, this is mainly in the Midlands and the North – it’s quite conceivable that more Lib Dem voters would put down the Tories as their second preference rather than Labour, especially if those two parties are still in a coalition. So if Labour is only narrowly ahead of the Conservatives on first-preference votes, it’s quite possible the Tories could leap-frog Labour to victory thanks to the Lib Dem second preferences. As a consequence of this threat, I’ve suggested elsewhere that Labour voters in close Tory-Labour elections held using AV should consider voting tactically and putting the Lib Dems down as their first choice, in order to ensure that the final two parties left in the count are the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, and so enable the Lib Dems to beat the Tories based on the second preferences of Labour voters. This example demonstrates how, despite what is claimed for it, AV actually encourages some rather perverse tactical-voting scenarios.

Meanwhile, in Tory-Lib Dem fights – e.g. in southern England – the Lib Dems are more likely to benefit from this mechanism as Labour voters’ second or final preferences would be expected to be for the Lib Dems, if anything, rather than the Tories. Now, you could say that this aspect of AV is actually fairer than allowing the election to be decided purely on the highest plurality (i.e. based on the largest minority of ‘first preferences’ only, which is effectively what First Past the Post does in most seats). But if more people genuinely want one party to win rather than any other, isn’t that a fairer result, even if it produces disproportional outcomes at a national level? AV is arguably better at producing the ‘Condorcet winner’ (the candidate that would be preferred by most voters overall to any other candidate in a straight one-to-one comparison) but not so good at indicating the candidate that is strongly preferred by the greatest number, which FPTP in theory does better – although FPTP results are distorted by tactical voting. These problems do not exist in either of the ARV or TMPR voting systems discussed in previous posts: ARV always awards the win to the most popular candidate overall, regardless of whether this is the Condorcet winner or not; and TMPR gives the seats to both the Condorcet winner and the party that is strongly preferred by most voters – or both to one party, if they are the same.

Be that as it may, as in Australia, we’d effectively end up with two-party politics in England using AV, except the two parties in the North and Midlands would be the Tories and Labour (unless tactical voting for the Lib Dems by Labour voters of the kind I suggested above kicked in), and the two parties in southern England would be the Tories and the Lib Dems. This would effectively consolidate the three parties’ stranglehold over English politics while squeezing out the smaller parties. The only way parties like the Greens and UKIP could win seats would be if there was a strong candidate from one of those parties that supporters of the other parties would vote for tactically, whether as their first or subsequent preference, in order to unseat the incumbent MP. This is in fact what happened in the Australian seat of Melbourne, won by the Greens yesterday, as first-preference supporters of the Coalition – with its notoriously hardline anti-Green leader – hypocritically transferred their subsequent preferences to the Greens in order to defeat the Labor candidate, who came top in terms of primary votes. This shows just how pernicious tactical voting can be under AV: the Greens benefiting from Coalition tactical votes designed to beat Labor, whereas normally Green voters transfer their vote to Labor.

So don’t believe it when people try to claim that AV eliminates tactical voting: far from it. Nor is it remotely proportional and, arguably, fair in terms of awarding the win to the most popular candidate in each constituency. You could argue that the overall result in Australia, in terms of seats, is proportional to the extent that, in most seats, it came down to a straight fight between the main left-of-centre and right-of-centre candidates, and that these two fundamental positions were evenly matched overall. But this does consolidate the dominance of only one left-of-centre and one right-of-centre party – or, in England, two left-of-centre parties and one right-of-centre party. And, on top of which, AV would perpetuate the electoral divisions between the different English ‘regions’, making Labour only a party of the Midlands and North, and the Lib Dems only a party of the South; while the Tories are the only real right-of-centre alternative nationwide.

No wonder the Tories were so keen to put AV, and not PR, into the coalition agreement! And perhaps there was some cynical calculation on the part of the Lib Dems to the effect that permanent three-party politics, which is the most likely consequence of AV, would at least assure they had a quasi-perpetual influence over Westminster’s unaccountable governance of England.

Clegg gets the blues

It must have been an interesting night in the Clegg household last night! The half-Dutch deputy PM watching the World Cup final with his Spanish wife, and kids with doubtless split loyalties! But as could have been predicted – and, indeed, as was predicted by that noted oracle, Paul the Octopus – the blues got the better of the orange.

The blues were indeed far more deft in their manoeuvres, and far better on the ball, than the oranges, who were left hypocritically crying foul! And when the reckoning came, the blues were the dominant force and the oranges were roundly defeated.

Now, what does that remind me of?

The Liberal-Democrat Accession and the English Parliament

You should always be careful what you wish for and be wary of the law of unintended consequences. Although I will probably be voting Lib Dem this time round – unless my Tory MP astounds me by previously unsuspected support for an English parliament – a Lib-Dem break-through could have far-reaching ramifications for the prospects and nature of any future English parliament.

For a start, as they made clear yesterday, the Lib Dems will make their support for a minority Labour- or Conservative-led government conditional on introducing proportional representation. One imagines this would involve a referendum on changing to the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system for UK-parliamentary elections.

Many supporters of PR see it as a way to mitigate (i.e. ignore) the West Lothian Question. The logic behind this position is simple, though flawed in my view. For example, under STV, if the actual vote on 6 May exactly followed yesterday’s ICM opinion-poll ratings (Con 33%, Lib Dem 30% and Lab 28%), then the Conservatives would be the largest party both in England and the UK as a whole; and in any coalition of the parties to form a government, the UK majority thus constituted would also be consistent with the parties’ shares of seats in England. Therefore, on one level, it would no longer matter if non-English MPs voted on English laws, as the same laws would be passed if only English MPs voted.

On the other hand, the reverse logic could also apply: if the votes of non-English MPs were no longer needed to pass English bills, why let them vote at all? The only real justification for non-English MPs voting on English legislation presently is when there is a link to spending in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland via the Barnett Formula. But presumably, the days of that formula itself might well be numbered under a Con-LibDem coalition, as the Lib Dems favour scrapping it and even the Tories talk in their manifesto of greater fiscal autonomy for Scotland.

Indeed, in a proportionally elected House of Commons, the situation of non-English MPs voting on English laws would come to appear blatantly, if not scandalously, anomalous. Under First Past the Post, by contrast, the fact that Labour’s Scottish MPs have occasionally been required to pass the government’s England-only legislation against the will of a majority of English MPs did not on one level seem that outrageous in that the government majority procured in this way was no more disproportionate than the normal majority of English MPs only it would expect to command, as both majorities were merely the product of the absurd FPTP electoral system rather than of the way English people actually voted at the 2005 general election.

In other words, in a situation in which voting majorities in the Commons bear little relation to the way the public actually voted at the election, the misuse of non-English MPs to inflate those majorities even further does not stand out too obviously. By contrast, in a proportionally elected House where the parties’ shares of the seats are meant to reflect the way people voted, and where MPs are meant to be more accountable to their electorates, distorting those shares by allowing MPs not accountable to the people affected by bills to vote on them would be completely inconsistent and unacceptable.

Accordingly, I tend to think that, rather than mitigating the WLQ, PR would render it inoperable. But then if you do not allow non-English MPs to make England’s laws, what arrangements would be made for that little matter of how to govern England? Do you go down the route of an English Grand Committee: English laws debated and voted on by separate sessions of English MPs only? Do you draw the logical conclusion and say that Parliament needs to evolve into an English parliament to deal with English matters, with a separate set of representatives elected from across the UK to deal with reserved matters? Or do you just try to ignore the problem by pretending that England does not exist and that the West Lothian Question simply does not arise, let alone require a solution – the Labour government’s approach?

In this way, by insisting on introducing PR before dealing with the English Question, the Lib Dems might find that question comes and bites them in the bum: they could create a constitutional mess in which the very legitimacy and function of the parliament for which they had finally secured PR was called into question – a British parliament without a valid democratic role and status in most of what it did, i.e. in English matters.

To be fair to the Lib Dems, their manifesto does state that they want to hold a citizens’ convention to help draw up a written constitution, and the English Question would be dealt with as part of this process. But the Lib Dems are not going to be in a position to carry out this commitment in full as part of a coalition government. All they’ve actually said is that they’d make electoral reform a minimal precondition of any deal to support a minority government, not the whole constitutional-reform programme; and neither Labour nor the Tories have any appetite to address the English Question. But as I say, the English Question may impose itself as unavoidable if the Lib Dems do succeed in introducing STV.

There are two possible scenarios that follow on logically from this. Firstly, if the Lib Dems do secure STV (and if, as I argue, this would lead to an urgent need to address the English Question because of the crisis of governance it would bring about), then any English parliament would also be based on STV. Having gone to the trouble and expense of introducing STV, which would require the re-drawing of constituency boundaries and the amalgamation of constituencies into multi-member seats, there is no way the English parliament could then revert to the pre-STV single member-constituency system. Having finally achieved their goal of a proper proportional system, the Lib Dems would never accept an inferior system for England; nor – I think – would the English people.

However – scenario two – what if the British public did not endorse STV in the initial referendum required to adopt it as the system for UK elections? For instance, Gordon Brown favours the Alternative Vote (AV) single-member system, and if the Lib Dems’ referendum were held under a putative Lab-LibDem coalition, it could be a multi-option referendum with AV as one of the systems on offer. Labour could be expected to argue strongly for AV, which is in reality merely a mitigated form of FPTP and would preserve the unfair advantage the present system gives to the party. Who knows, voters might prefer to retain single-member constituencies and the winner-takes-all aspect of the present system, albeit in a slightly fairer form. Under this second scenario, the West Lothian Question could remain in place for much longer, as AV would perpetuate the disproportionality of the present system from which the very ability of Labour to form any kind of government depends and which also disguises the outrageously unfair extra advantage Labour obtains from the WLQ.

In this context, the Lib Dems could find themselves in the unenviable position of propping up an unfairly elected Labour government that exploits its stronger base of support in Scotland and Wales to secure its power in England. Would it not then be both more effective tactically, and give greater moral credibility to their demands for constitutional reform, if the Lib Dems declared now – ahead of 6 May – that they would not exploit the West Lothian Question in the new parliament, even if to do so were the only way in which a coalition of which they were a part could actually form a working majority?

After all, how can the English people believe in the Lib Dems’ advocacy of greater democratic fairness and proportional representation if they are in theory willing to exploit one of the most egregiously unfair and disproportional aspects of the present system simply to have a share in government? If they want England to back them on 6 May and support STV in a referendum, then surely they should back ‘building a fairer Britain’ in the forthcoming parliament, too – including fairness for England.

The SNP would break its self-denying ordinance and support a minority Labour government

I’ve just been listening to an interview with SNP leader Alex Salmond on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme. Towards the end of the interview, Eddie Mayer asked Salmond if the SNP would be prepared to break the self-denying ordinance it has hitherto observed in parliamentary votes on what Mayer called ‘devolved’ matters and what Salmond rightly insisted on calling ‘English-only matters’.

The context of the question was the SNP’s election-campaign claims that they would use their influence in a hung parliament to defend Scotland’s interests, in particular to shield Scotland from the severity of the budget cuts that those of us living south of the border are going to have to endure. How could they exercise that influence if they refused to support the party of government in England-only votes?

Salmond stated that he wanted to keep the option of voting on English matters ‘up his sleeve’ as one of the trump cards he might need to play to secure the SNP’s objectives. In other words, the SNP would be prepared to vote on English matters in some circumstances.

Mayer then set the example of a minority Conservative government needing the SNP’s support in a vote on an (English) education bill. Salmond suggested that the example was unrealistic, as the SNP would be more likely to support a more ‘progressive’ policy agenda than one of Tory cuts to public services. This is a round-about way of saying that the SNP would prop up only a Labour minority government or Lab-LibDem coalition, not a Tory government or, one assumes, a possible Con-LibDem partnership.

In other words, if Gordon Brown wants to cling on to power after the election – whether Labour wins the largest or second-largest number of seats – his best bet might be to forge a deal with his SNP compatriots and, of course, Labour’s Plaid Cymru Welsh-Assembly coalition partners.

Come to think of it, it’s rather obvious that Salmond could not get away with suggesting he might do a deal with the Conservatives at Westminster, as the SNP has tried to position the Tories as an anti-progressive force intent on savaging Scottish public services. Salmond is therefore indirectly encouraging Scottish voters to vote Labour in seats where the SNP can’t win in order to ensure a sufficiently large ‘Scottish block’ of ‘progressive’ votes in the new parliament that can override the Tory-LibDem majority in England.

The West Lothian Question could be more alive and embittered than ever in the new parliament – which of course also suits Mr Salmond’s agenda just fine.

Farcical Tory whinges about electoral unfairness

The Tories have been moaning about how they are electorally disadvantaged by the present constituency boundaries in England. In a post on the Conservative Home blog today, they quote the Sun as saying: “On a uniform swing across the country, the Tories would get 278 MPs if they scoop 37 per cent of the vote. But Labour would get 280 on just 32 per cent of the vote”.

As I point out in a comment to that post, 278 MPs still equate to 43% of seats in the House of Commons; so the Tories have got nothing to complain about other than the fact they resent Labour benefiting from the unfairness of the voting system even more than they do.

These anomalies arise only as a result of the unfair system used for UK-parliamentary elections. Admittedly, they are exacerbated by Labour’s gerrymandering of constituency boundaries, such that urban seats, where Labour’s support is concentrated, have smaller populations than rural ones, where the Tories are stronger. But it’s the ‘winner takes all’ principle of the First Past the Post system that translates this advantage into seats in Parliament. The Tories, who have consistently opposed electoral reform, have only themselves to blame. But, rest assured, if they get back in power, they’ll rig the system back the other way, in their favour.

In a properly proportional voting system, these anti-democratic absurdities would be a thing of the past. Using multi-member STV, for instance, the number of seats up for election in each constituency would be in proportion to the population size of the constituency; and the result would be in proportion to the way people actually voted. But you won’t find the Tories supporting that, because then they’d have even fewer than 43% of seats from 37% of the vote.

But – and this is the stupidity of their support for FPTP – they would be the largest party and would have the automatic right to try and form a government; whereas under FPTP, anomalies such as Labour being the largest party in parliament based on a smaller share of the vote can always arise: they’re structurally built in to the system, and arguably this would still work in Labour’s favour even if constituency sizes were all the same, as Labour tends to win their seats on smaller shares of the vote than the Tories.

Idiot, self-serving Tories.

And the other dimension they’re not factoring in to these calculations is that Labour’s overall UK plurality (i.e. largest share but not majority of seats) is entirely dependent on their electoral strength in Scotland and Wales. In an English parliament – based on the shares of the vote the Tories are using for their calculations – the Conservatives would be in the majority, or at least the party of government. And indeed, if they stood up for proper English votes on English laws, rather than their botched mitigation of the WLQ, which allows non-English MPs to continue voting on English legislation, they could prevent Labour from being the party of government for England.

Idiot Tories!