Different and better, or same old New Labour

The Labour List blog is currently running a series of articles, produced by party worthies, on the ‘One Nation Labour’ theme recently introduced by Ed Miliband. I submitted a comment on one of the articles yesterday, but it was not published, probably because it rubbished the whole One Nation concept, albeit in – for me – relatively moderate terms, I thought.

The article, by Labour ideologue Lord Glasman, was entitled, ‘Different and Better: How One Nation can work for Labour‘. I reproduce it in full below for convenience, along with my moderate and moderated-out comment:

In order to generate energy and to succeed in opposition it is necessary to have a narrative, a strategy and an organising concept that can give plausibility and coherence to the swelter of initiatives, policies and programmes that swirl around the Westminster Village.

The narrative must tell a story of how we, as a nation got into this mess and how we as a party are an important part of how we will get out of it.

The strategy, both electoral and governmental, concerns the coalition of interests that can champion the change that is required and generate value, the people and the things that will make things different and better.  A plan of action that can grow in time to deliver electoral success and a compelling programme of government.

The organising concept is the idea that selects and shapes the policy and turns it into politics.  An idea that applies to all areas of policy and defines the identity of the party and of the offer they make to the electorate.  This is what Ed Miliband achieved at the last Party Conference with One Nation Labour.

In comparison, the idea of productive and predatory capital is an excellent and a true analytical distinction but it could not organise policy across the range, it gave no guidance concerning welfare reform, or education, constitutional reform or defence policy.  There was a real danger that we would get trapped in the dominant framework inherited from New Labour and intensified by the Coalition Government and engage in an endless and antagonistic exchange concerning faster or slower, higher or lower, more or less, without disputing the direction of travel.

With the emergence of One Nation however, the organising concept has been established.  It commits Labour to a politics of the Common Good.  In all areas of policy, estranged and divided part of our Nation: capital and labour, north and south, immigrants and locals, men and women, secular and religious need to be brought together in order to generate greater value.  It is different from what went before because no one interest dominates civic, political or economic life but all of these require people to come together and make things better.

Labour was founded in order to demand recognition by those who worked, as part of one nation.  There was no wish to dominate but to remind the rich and the powerful that workers were part of the nation, that they had interests and considered themselves a necessary part of the common good.  That argument needs to be made again for one of the things that is different about the One Nation position is its recognition of labour as a source of value, the Labour theory of value.  Innovation is generated by people with experience and expertise who understand the new technology and can work within it.

This in itself is a radical breakthrough because now we need to have a real conversation with the Unions not about what the Party can do for them, or even what they can do for the party, but what they can do to make things better.  How are Unions to be partners in generating value, honouring good work, defending labour as a necessary partner to capital and technology in the production process?  Do they champion changes in corporate governance so that the workforce is represented on boards?  That should be an important part of One Nation agenda, and one that Disraeli and Burke could not ever accept.  Anyone and anything other than Labour constituted the diverse ecology of the Nation.  We are here to correct that mistake and One Nation Labour does that.

But it is not limited to corporate governance reform on the private sector.  The same applies to the public sector.  How is the workforce, along with funders and users going to make the way we care and look after each other better.  It suggests a move from the contractual to the Covenantal.  We trust each other with the care of our children and our parents and we need to honour those who do that well, but we also need a way of dealing with those that don’t.  One Nation is a demanding category.  Vocational renewal is a double edged sword, it requires quality and equality and we need to be resolute in the pursuit of both.

It goes into making capital available to regions and to break the grip on internal investment by the same failed banking institutions.  Regional banks which serve local markets and businesses draw attention to our reliance on the financial sector and the need for an economy that works on dry land.  The lack of private sector growth in the regional economies outside finance and property is a great concern and One Nation makes the people of those regions part of the nation once more.

It enables us to talk about Land Reform and Community Land Trusts as a way of including people in the property owning democracy by transferring the freehold asset to communities.  In housing that means that the price is halved and there can be a genuine and affordable house building programme.  It is also applicable to Dover Port for example and offers an alternative to privatisation and nationalisation that works in the interests of all the people of Dover and brings capital, labour and the town together in a common concern for its flourishing.

One Nation is both a radical and a conservative idea and that is why it works.  It retrieves a tradition from within our nation history and through it generate greater solidarity and inclusion. Labour, in recent years, has shown a tremendous respect for diversity and pluralism.  This is greatly to our benefit and it was right to do so.  What was missing was a balance, an account of how that diversity can generate better forms of the common life, of how it could nourish and sustain the common good.  One Nation Labour corrects that imbalance.

Ed Miliband has retrieved, from what his Dad might have called the ‘dustbin of history’ a great gift to his party.  In order to live and grow it must be supported and cared for by many hands.  It offers the possibility of great years ahead.

And my comment:

‘One Nation’ will be an incoherent and useless slogan for Labour so long as the party fails to develop a narrative of that nation’s identity. Britain is increasingly not one nation, but three nations (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) plus another nation (England) that the party and the political establishment in general refuse to acknowledge: England.

‘One Nation’ Labour, and indeed Britain, will be deliverable and feasible only if Labour does articulate a narrative for the whole of the UK: what is the relationship between the devolved nations and England; what can Labour do for and in each; what is the relationship between reserved and devolved – and hence English – policy areas? Can Labour bring itself to articulate a vision for England? If not, what will reform of health, education, housing and social-care policy actually mean, as a Labour UK government’s powers in these areas will in fact be restricted to England, even if Labour refuses to acknowledge and articulate that fact.

One Nation is meaningless so long as the one nation to which it applies in full – England – is the one nation Labour cannot bring itself to value and envision. Simply balkanising England into a series of economic-development regions, as Lord Glasman is proposing here, will not do it.

Fair comment, I thought. The One Nation concept is completely bonkers as applied to the UK as a whole, because no UK government of any hue can any longer develop a fully joined-up agenda for the whole UK that unites social and economic policy, as social policy has been devolved whereas economic and fiscal policy, in the main, remains reserved. In fact, the only nation for which Labour or any party could develop an all-embracing policy vision is England, because it’s only for England that the UK government has maintained control over all of the policy levers.

In essence, the One Nation concept involves an outmoded idea of Britain as a unified nation and polity that Labour itself gave away via the Scottish and Welsh devolution settlements in 1998. But Labour won’t acknowledge that reality, and they steadfastly refuse to acknowledge England as the only nation they could now fully mould in Labour’s image if they were minded to do so. There are many reasons for this, such as political expediency and left-wing anglophobia. But the consequence of this wilful blindness on Labour’s part is that their concept of One Nation is ultimately a sheer fantasy Britain that has absolutely no credibility whatsoever as a vision for the ‘nation’ because it doesn’t even correctly articulate and take account of the actual identity of the nation – England – for which it could be implemented.

Ultimately, One Nation Labour, just like New Labour before it, washes its hands of the social realities of the only nation, England, to which the One Nation vision could ever apply. It’s a mere blueprint for a more economically vibrant and prosperous ‘Britain’, which involves balkanising England into unwanted British economic-development regions, and refuses to articulate any coherent, comprehensive model for a new English civic society: for the way in which we in England can best organise ourselves to deliver the best education, health care, public services and environment for our country that we can. Labour can’t answer those questions, because it’s not even asking them in realistic terms that can be engaged with. In the end, One Nation Britain is meaningless as a vision for England because nothing valuable can ever be done for England by a party that doesn’t love England, and doesn’t value her and her people in themselves. The one nation that has no place in One Nation Labour Britain is England.

If Welsh Labour wants a two-member-constituency voting system, this is the one they should adopt

In the recent row over possible changes to the voting system used for elections to the Welsh Assembly, one of the alternatives proposed by the Labour Party was a system of two-member-constituency First Past the Post (see the Devolution Matters blog for an overview of the row). In other words, to expand the number of Assembly Members (AMs) to 80 from the present total of 60 (made up of 40 constituency AMs and 20 top-up regional AMs under the proportional AMS voting system), Labour was proposing having two AMs per constituency and using FPTP to elect them.

Presumably, the model of FPTP they had in mind was that voters would get two votes each, thereby ensuring that where Labour was the most popular party, it would be guaranteed to win both seats even if it were not the choice of a majority of voters. Labour is not known for its enthusiastic backing for fair voting systems, after all. FPTP wouldn’t be so bad if people had only one vote, so that the Labour vote would be split between both candidates, giving other parties more of a chance, especially if they fielded only a single candidate in constituencies where they knew they had no hope of winning both seats.

However, a fairer, more rational and more proportional electoral system for two-member constituencies would be the following, which I’m calling ‘TMPR2’: Two-Member Proportional Represenation (version two). This is a simpler and more practical version of the TMPR system I have previously discussed. TMPR2 works as follows:

  • There are two representatives (AMs, MPs, etc.) per constituency
  • Each voter has two votes. Voters are not obliged to use both votes: they can vote for just one candidate if they wish
  • The individual candidate obtaining the most votes automatically wins one of the seats
  • The individual winner may be either the representative of a party or an independent
  • In addition, if any independent candidate wins the second-highest total of individual votes, that independent candidate is elected
  • However, assuming the second-highest total of votes is not won by an independent, the winner of the second seat is decided on the basis of the share of the vote won by each party:
    • If any party wins over 50% of all votes (that is, the number of actual votes cast, which is higher than the number of voters, as people can vote for two candidates), then both of their candidates are elected (unless one of the candidates obtaining the highest or second-highest total of votes is an independent, in which case the party obtaining over 50% of the vote wins only one seat)
    • In the instance where one of the seats is in fact won by an independent, the party candidate elected is the one that has obtained more votes than the running mate from their own party
    • If, however, no party wins more than 50% of the vote, then the two parties obtaining the highest shares of the vote win one seat each (except in the case where one or more independent candidate are elected, whereby only the top-ranked party or no party respectively wins a seat)
    • In the case that two parties win one seat each, the successful candidates are those who obtained more individual votes than the running mates from their own parties

Advantages of TMPR

  • This is a reasonably proportional system
  • It encourages trans-party voting: voters could and would vote for candidates from different parties. This would equalise the parties’ share of the vote, with the established parties’ share coming down and the smaller parties’ share rising. For instance, quite a lot of right-of-centre voters, if the system were applied in England, would vote for one Conservative and one UKIP candidate; whereas many left-of-centre voters would vote for a Green candidate alongside a Labour or Lib Dem candidate. This means that the vote share parties need to win in order to be elected could be considerably lower than under FPTP. In fact, there is no lower percentage limit on eligibility for a seat. And TMPR2 encourages this pluralism by allowing voters to divide their loyalty between more than one party
  • It incorporates some of the best features of established, familiar voting systems:
    • Like FPTP, the candidate obtaining the largest number of individual votes automatically wins a seat
    • Like AV, if any party wins over 50% of the vote, it takes the whole constituency (i.e. both seats), unless an independent candidate has won either the highest or second-highest individual vote
    • It’s a crude form of PR, similar to STV in the sense that a party, as opposed to an individual candidate, needs to win more than a ‘quota’ of 50% of the vote to win both seats
  • It encourages voting for individuals – and hence, for independents – alongside parties: as voters have two votes each, they will be freer to choose candidates on their individual merits alongside their membership of a particular political party. There would be more of an incentive for independent candidates to run, such as high-profile, respected local figures taking a stand on important issues for the local community
  • It’s easy to understand and operate: there are no complicated voting or counting mechanisms involved, and the result is a clear and direct expression of voters’ preferences. There are no unexpected consequences and fewer tactical-voting constraints for voters. Voters would know that the way they voted would have a direct impact on the result: each of their two votes increases the chances of that individual candidate or party; and if voters are torn between the party / candidate they genuinely prefer and the party they feel they need to vote for in order to ensure that another party does not win (tactical voting), they can hedge their bets and vote both ways.

Disadvantage of TMPR2

TMPR is probably not as proportional as the existing system – AMS – used for elections to the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament. In fact, in an Electoral Reform Society analysis of the 2011 Welsh Assembly election had it been conducted using AMS with 30 constituency seats and 30 regional top-up seats (instead of the present 40/20 ratio) compared with an 80-seat Assembly elected using STV, AMS emerges as the more proportional system. It would be interesting to see the outcome if they ran the same analysis on TMPR2.

However, pure proportionality is not everything; and TMPR does preserve the close links between individual AMs / MPs and relatively small constituencies. By comparison, AMS gives more power to the parties, as top-up AMs / MPs are predominantly elected because of their party affiliation rather than their individual merit or on the basis of local issues. In addition, TMPR is much simpler to understand and operate than either STV or AMS.

Real-world prospects for TMPR2

In reality, TMPR2 has very little chance of ever being implemented, at least not for the Welsh Assembly. As the ‘inventor’ of TMPR2, I don’t exactly have a lot of influence. But as the possibility of two-seat constituencies was being mooted, it seemed timely to bring forward TMPR2 as another alternative: as a possible compromise between FPTP and proportionality. The Labour Party wouldn’t like it, because it’s too fair and proportional. The experts at the Electoral Reform Society probably wouldn’t like it because it’s not proportional enough. But maybe the people would like it if they were offered the choice, precisely because it is fairer than FPTP but less complex and fussy than STV and AMS, with a more transparent link between how people vote in each constituency and the winners.

Anyway, I’m just throwing it out there to see if there are any takers.

English parliament

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.

Labour NOtoAV is launched! But the Yes camp shouldn’t celebrate too much!

The Labour NOtoAV campaign was launched on Wednesday, commanding the support of 200 Labour MPs and Peers. What a discredited bunch of has-beens and Westminster elitists! If ever the ‘No’ campaign wanted to boost support for the ‘Yes’ campaign, this was the way to do it! But the ‘Yes’s shouldn’t start celebrating too loudly. Public apathy is probably their best shot.
In the press release accompanying the launch, a few choice quotes were included. I’m reproducing them here together with some counter-arguments:

Caroline Flint – she of the New Labour plan to build ten huge eco-towns despoiling the English countryside – said: “One vote is all I need to vote for the party I believe in – Labour. Why should those who vote for fringe parties have the chance to vote again and again until their vote finally decides the outcome?”

Well, bully for you, Caroline! It’s called democracy, majority rule, that sort of thing. You should know: you were elected on the support of only 37.9% of the voters in the Don Valley constituency. Under AV, you may well not be re-elected. But this won’t necessarily be because of the second and subsequent votes of supporters of ‘fringe’ parties, because, in your seat, only the three main parties bothered to field a candidate – probably because they knew you would be re-elected on such a pitiful plurality.

Maybe more fringe parties will field candidates in Don Valley if AV is introduced. That’s because they’ll at least know that their supporters can register their support for them before having to transfer their vote to one of the mainstream parties. Under FPTP, many voters do so anyway: it’s called tactical voting, or not voting at all – hence the deplorable 59.3% turn-out in your seat. Your pitiful 37.9% share of the vote (i.e. the support of 22.5% of all registered voters) was doubtless actually inflated by Lib Dem supporters backing you to prevent the Tory from winning. Under AV, Lib Dem voters and supporters of other parties standing could express their real preferences first before switching their vote to you – or at least, you hope it would be you. That would reveal the miserable level of support you really enjoy.

So the end result would probably not be any different under AV, as Lib Dem voters would probably support you in the final round of voting. That’s why AV is only the tiniest bit better than FPTP: it still leads to the election of MPs like you commanding so little real support among their constituents.

John Healey MP said: “AV is not a new dawn for democracy. It’s a dreadful system for electing MPs and choosing a Government. AV would hand power to Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems – the kingmakers in any hung Parliament.”

Doh! Weren’t Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems the kingmakers in the last hung parliament, elected under FPTP? There’s no guarantee that FPTP won’t deliver still more hung parliaments; and AV could just as easily deliver the kind of massively disproportional parliamentary majorities the New Labour governments obtained on minority shares of the vote. Let’s wait until there’s an AV election and Labour win a big majority. I doubt they’ll be complaining then. They’re just worried they’ll lose the unfair advantage FPTP has given them.

But John Healey is right to say that AV is a “dreadful system for electing MPs”, because it’s hardly any better than the absolutely awful FPTP system for which we have 13 years of Labour mis-rule to thank. Let’s vote against both of them on 5 May by spoiling our ballots!

Tony Lloyd MP, Chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, said: “Nick Clegg demanded this AV referendum as a fix to keep his party in Government. The only party to benefit from AV would be the Lib Dems. I believe that voters should keep the right to evict one Government and choose another. We shouldn’t be handing that power to Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats.”

Well, the Lib Dems have never actually favoured AV: they’ve always supported the Single Transferable Vote system (STV). Labour was actually the only party to put AV in their 2010 election manifesto, and they did that to try and lure Lib Dem supporters into voting for them tactically (which FPTP obliges them to do) and to lay down a marker for any coalition negotiations with the Lib Dems. Well, that back-fired on them, didn’t it? And the real reason we’re being offered AV, not STV, is that this was the only deal on the table in the coalition bartering with the Tories.

But all considerations of historical accuracy aside (admittedly, not a Labour strong point), it’s complete rubbish that AV would benefit only the Lib Dems. For a start, that rather depends on how people vote, doesn’t it? If people reject the Lib Dems – as the present opinion polls suggest they might – then AV certainly won’t artificially engineer loads of extra seats for them. On the other hand, you could argue they would deserve more, even on a lower share of the vote. In fact, if the Lib Dems won only 10% of the vote, this would correspond to 60 seats on a strictly proportional basis, compared with the 57 seats (9% of the total) they won with a 23% share of the vote in 2010. So I think some redressing of that imbalance is actually what you call fair, really, isnt’ it?

What Tony Lloyd is really attacking when he talks of the ‘right’ to evict one government and choose another is the whole principle of coalition government. He’s defending the idea of one-party rule: the tendency in the past for FPTP to generate whopping majorities for one party (either Labour or Conservative) based on a minority share of the votes across the UK. But in what sense does this constitute ‘choosing’ a government: only 36% of voters supported Labour in 2005, and yet they won a parliamentary majority of around 60. Is that fair? Is that ‘choosing’ a Labour government?

It is also true that no one ‘chose’ the coalition government. But that’s a separate issue from the question of the voting system. Any fair voting system will fail to deliver a majority for just one party given the level of support each party presently enjoys. If Labour can command the support of over 50% of voters, then this argument might start to have some credibility. AV in itself won’t make a hung parliament any more or less likely – that power will continue to depend on how people vote, not on Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats.

David Blunkett – arguably, one of the most unpopular and autocratic Home Secretaries in recent times – said: “People’s trust in politicians has been at an all-time low, so what they don’t want is the kind of back-room deals that you’re more likely to get with AV. Above all, we expect to have one vote – one voter, and each vote counts equally.”

Yes, people don’t want back-room deals. But we’ve dealt with this in the context of John Healey’s point above: AV doesn’t make hung parliaments any more or less likely than FPTP. One recent report came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t have changed the overall result, but only the size of the majorities or pluralities, in any of the last few general elections. And New Labour’s whopping 1997 landslide would have been even bigger, according to one reputable analysis.

As for the idea that AV means that some voters have more votes than others, this is quite ridiculous. AV does give some voters a second (or even third, fourth, etc.) chance to pick a winner. But that’s only so the eventual winner can command the support – to some degree – of a majority or bigger plurality of voters than under FPTP. Again, Mr Blunkett, it’s called majority rule. I know that’s not a popular concept in Labour circles.

It is, however, the case that AV won’t ensure rule by the majority, at either national or local level. It’ll still produce grossly disproportional shares of parliamentary seats; and even at constituency level, it doesn’t guarantee that the eventual winner commands the support of a majority. Or if the winner does obtain a ‘majority’ under AV, this is not necessarily the biggest majority, as not all preference votes are counted. (That’s a long and involved argument I’ve discussed elsewhere and won’t rehearse here.)

So both systems are deeply flawed – FPTP more so than AV – and both should be roundly rejected on 5 May. Spoil your ballot!

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!

What’s missing?

The BBC has published a helpful word cloud for Ed Miliband’s keynote speech as new leader at the Labour Party conference. Here it is:

What word is missing? This passage will give you a clue:

“The old thinking told us that for 300 years, the choice was either the break-up of the United Kingdom or Scotland and Wales run from London. We should be proud that Labour established the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. And we should make sure that after next May’s elections we re-elect Carwyn Jones as the First Minister in Wales and we elect Iain Gray as the new First Minister in Scotland. And I am so so proud that, against all the odds, we helped deliver peace in Northern Ireland”.

I bet you’re asking, “What about . . .?”. Yes, that’s the missing word. Doesn’t appear once in the whole speech.

New Labour may (perhaps) be dead and buried, thank goodness. But the New Labour dictum that the best way to answer the English question is not to ask it is alive and well!

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.