Thursday, 5 May 2011

A dismal campaign

I have changed my mind during the run-in to the referendum today on introducing single transferable votes in single vacancy constituencies ("alternative voting"). This was not thanks to any arguments put forward by the Yes and No campaigns, but on my own reading, and some reflection on it.

What a dismal campaign it has been, full of half truths and froth. The Yes campaign began with the idea that they were going to win, and thought it only necessary to cement this by buying into the celebrity culture and parading a few half-knowns on their publicity material with platitudes that AV would modernise our politics. The No campaign were considerably more focused at the outset and just fought dirty. I feel a little sorry for the treatment of Nick Clegg in the admittedly well designed material put out recently by the No campaign which did, at last, alight on the main argument against AV, namely that it is more likely to give parties an exit route from their manifesto commitments.

That it should be Chris Huhne who raised this personal attack on Nick Clegg at cabinet on Tuesday adds particularly enjoyable irony, as he has been taking full advantage of Clegg's difficulties by positioning himself to displace him from the leadership of the party and appears already to have acquired and stored away the stiletto which will no doubt in due course be inserted between his colleague's shoulder blades. I have no particular love of the Liberal Party, who seem to me to be often composed of political chancers who are quite happy to hold as many incompatible views concurrently as they feel is necessary to obtain a vote: but nonetheless the way in which Nick Clegg's willingness to go into coalition, as it appears the country wanted after the last election, has been used against him in the campaign does seem somewhat unfair.

Amongst the ludicrous arguments the No campaign have come up with, and some people appear to have been persuaded by, is that AV infringes the principle of one person one vote. This is bogus: instead, AV enables a vote to be transferred from an unsuccessful candidate to one still in the running. It is in effect a more efficient (or at least cheaper) version of a run-off, where voters in an election get a second chance to choose between remaining candidates once the outriders are eliminated. This is indeed the system that the Tory party apply in choosing their leader: if the Tory leadership had been decided on the basis of first preference votes, David Davis would now be Prime Minister - David Cameron only won by picking up second preference votes in the second round. A more plausible argument against AV is that it treats second and third preferences (and so on) as being as valuable as first preferences, but that is true of any run-off system.

If no candidate has an overall majority of first preference votes, it seems to me to be reasonable that the successful candidate should be the least unsatisfactory one, and that is AV's main claim in its favour. It does mean that any MP will be more mindful of the views of all the voters in her constituency and not just concerned with pleasing her core vote as at present.

For election geeks, one last comment: I have read material claiming that AV and single transferable voting are different things. That is not the case. AV is a form of single transferable voting, albeit single transferable voting applied to single vacancy elections rather than multiple vacancy elections - the distinguishing feature of single vacancy STV (that is, AV) is that only the bottom candidates' votes are redistributed on elimination, rather than also those of any initial winning candidates: in single vacancy STV, the count is over once a candidate beats the 50% hurdle. One way of implementing proportional representation (which AV is not) is to apply STV to multi-vacancy constituencies; but there are other well known ways of implementing PR.

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