Saturday, July 03, 2010

Losing the AV Referendum Does Not Mean the End of the Coalition

An awful lot of guff has been written about the AV referendum in the last 24 hours. Most of the media thinks that if it is lost, that will be the end of the coalition. Rubbish. If you go into a referendum you have to be prepared to lose it. If the LibDems walked away from the coalition after a lost AV referendum they'd look prize chumps.

I actually cannot see why the LibDems want AV, as it is probably even less proportional than FPTP. It could lead to even bigger parliamentary majorities. The argument that at least it means an MP is elected with 50% of the vote is also somewhat flawed. Winning 50% of the vote by seventh preferences is a somewhat pyhrric victory.

Let me spell out where I stand on this. I'm against change unless is can be proven that change will be better than what we have at the moment. So for that reason I am against AV. I think a referendum will be met with supreme indifference by the electorate and I just can't see how the question will be worded.

But despite that, the LibDems should be allowed to have their referendum if it makes them happy. It's in the coalition agreement, after all, so I hope Tory MPs won't play silly buggers and try to scupper it by amending a referendum bill.

But what constitutes victory? 50% plus 1? How very FPTP! Or should it be like the Scottish referendum in 1979 where it had to be 66% plus at least 40% of the electorate?

I am not against any form of electoral reform out of ideology. For instance, I'd happily countenance STV for local elections or the House of Lords. But for the House of Commons, the constituency link has to be retained, and whatever its proponents say STV definitely weakens that.


Daragh McDowell said...

On STV weakening the constituency link - I'm sorry Iain but that's just not true. Take a look West for ten seconds and see what constituency work is like for an Irish TD (MP.) I can assure you they could teach most Westminster MPs the meaning of the word 'constituency work.'

Ben James said...

50%+1 where there are two possible choices would be a victory under AV, too.

Michel S. said...


I'm a bit confused how STV would weaken constituency link -- I dislike it myself, but for the reason that it over-*strengthens* the constituency link, at the expense of party cohesion.

AV could be even more majoritarian than PPTP, but it might attract back disenchanted voters, in case the leading two candidates are unsatisfactory. For example, in France's last presidential election (not entirely AV, only a 2-round system), the centrist candidate Bayrou almost made it to the second round, and with AV, probably would have -- benefiting from people dissatisfied with Sarkozy and Royal.

The LibDems probably see themselves as being in that situation in enough constituencies to make it worthwhile. Also, I suspect they really want Jenkins' AV+ but did not have the clout to push it through -- esp. since Cameron is already wedded to specific form of boundary reform.

The other option, of having regional top-up lists but keeping FPTP for the constituencies, would be a no-go with Conservative MPs because of the perceived second-class nature of these regional MPs, so I suppose they don't really have any other choice apart from AV?

Richard Manns said...

50%+1, 40% turn-out?

If LibDems protest, you need only point out that only 20% of voters have to support it. Would they want a referendum to pass with less than 20% support?

I don't want my democracy decided upon my 10% of the electorate who magically think AV will bring us manna from heaven.

richard.blogger said...

@Daragh McDowell

Of course you are right that STV does have constituencies, the LibDems amendment to the last government's electoral reform bill (that got nowhere) showed that they wanted constituencies to be county or city based with something like 5 MPs per constituency with about 100K constituents per MP. (Their plan was not 100% successful because of the geographical spread of the population there were still some constituencies with one MP and representing as few as 25K people.)

However, the problem is that 5 MPs will represent one constituency. And since they are large then some parts of every constituency would be industrial (natural Labour) and other parts rural (natural Tory), so will the Tory MPs only fight for the policies for their rural constituents and the Labour MPs only fight for their urban, industrial constituents?

The constituency link is important. And I would argue that we need constituencies that are more focussed, so we don't have the mixed affluent/poor constituencies where the MP often represents half the constituents. Therefore there should be more, rather than fewer MPs.

Dan Sullivan said...

Part 2

One of the two worst aspects of FPTP in the last 30 years was that it tended to create governments that were increasing seen as divisive as the anomaly between the size of the % of the popular vote obtained and the strength of the government majority increased. at least the first Tory government under Margaret Thatcher only had a single digit different between the seats won 53% and proportion of the popular vote 44%, in 83 this was 42% to 61%, in 87 42 to 57 and in 92 it was back to 42 to 51%. Most would agree that it was from 83 to 92 that was the most divisive period in the UK and much of that can be laid at the fact that the composition of parliament did not represent public opinion. Disproportionate parliaments undermine the very notion of democracy as minority opinions even if they are quite large minorities are completely drowned out. This problem of FPTP in the UK reached its nadir in Northern Ireland where a large minority of 30/40% of the population was progressively strangled out of parliamentary engagement by the majority getting consistently 70/80% of the seat on the back of 50/60% of the popular vote.

The 2nd problem is the rise of a new modern (which like many modern iterations of classic forms, lacks the colour, detail and flair of the original) form of rotten boroughs with a significant proportion of parliamentary seats being so safe for one party or another that the incumbent comes to indulge the worst of their venal excesses while contributing nothing of substance to the national discourse. If you start out rock solid sure of 40% of the vote in a seat where at least two other parties are genuinely in the running for 2nd place with the rest of the vote up for contest then the opposition can slowly die and voter turnout falls away. True enough when the incumbent dies or steps down there can be a dramatic turnout when the seat is see as being really in play once more but in many of these seats that is not the case and provided the party does nominate an actual donkey with a blue/red/yellow/green/orange rosette then the seat is safe. This might be something worth having if the parties used these safe seats much like the head of a closed list system and choose their brightest and bravest for these seats but all too often it is the local man who is there for the local people who is sent to London to bat for local interests and the devil take the national interest. And believe me, we've seen enough of that in Ireland to last a lifetime.

Dan Sullivan said...

"I'm against change unless is can be proven that change will be better than what we have at the moment." but that begs the question of what is the X that you would be viewing as being better or worse. Some people would see it as the election of a strong government (one with a large majority i.e. a large % of the seats in parliament) others one with a large mandate (that got a large % of the popular vote), others again that elections should be about choice and that a system that reduce the available choices is a bad one.

It should also be noted that the argument that people can vote to get rid of a government is an endorsement of the negative politics of voting against something rather than for something. You can only get rid of a government in FPTP when sufficient people vote for a party they do not support in order to oust another party they do not support. That hardly makes for positive civic engagement.

Dan Sullivan said...
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Dan Sullivan said...
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Dan Sullivan said...

@richard.blogger but is it not the case on FPTP at present at many seats are represented by MPs who only look after the interests of their voters as the seat is structured in such a way as to be safe for their party and their voters. This is true for all parties to a greater or lesser degree.

richard.blogger said...

@Dan Sullivan

True, but you will always get this problem with large constituencies.

In fact you could argue that the "safe" seats where the MP gets a huge majority are more representative than marginals, because in a safe seat the MP represents a larger proportion of the constituency than in a marginal (where by definition a large proportion do not want the MP). AV does deliver a "legitimacy" that does not exist in marginals.

Anyway, I do not like the idea of making constituencies larger, I think that reduces democracy.

neilmack said...

The LibDems can't afford to exit the coalition any time soon. Clegg has invested all his political capital in a formal coalition : the sort of Governmental structure the LibDems argue would be better for Britain. In doing so he has alienated some of his own parliamentarians, part of his voluntary party, and evidently some electors. He needs a return for his risk.

If the LibDems stay the course, and the Coalition Government succeeds in getting the economy back on the rails, they'll be welded to the Tories. And they'll have a solid product to offer the electorate : solid finance with social responsibility, or to put it another way, Toryism with the regulo turned down. The Right and the UKIPPERs mightn't like the result very much, but economic success will make this the defining political product of the next twenty years.

Besides, the LibDems haven't got anywhere else to go. Is Clegg going to say to his party conference "Another ninety years in opposition, anyone?"

Probably not.

Adam Gray said...

Can you explain why you think a constituency link is so important for Westminster, but not for local councillors, Iain?

Given that councillors can exact more immediate change in local people's day to day lives than MPs can, isn't it as, or more important to retain a constituency link there?

Indeed, shouldn't we have single member wards so that lazy councillors can't be shielded by harder working colleagues?

You've also argued, correctly, that the multi member Euro constituencies are absolutely disastrous in terms of link between constituents and their "representatives". So - and I admit they weren't exactly well known when we had them either - shouldn't we go back to one MEP per constituency too?

EyeSeeSound said...

so we don't have the mixed affluent/poor constituencies where the MP often represents half the constituents.

Er, have you ventured outside your house? Show me somewhere in England that isn't mixed affluent/poor. Even beautiful idyllic little hamlets aren't populated solely by people with wealth.

Who are you? Your arguments and justifications are ridiculous.

EyeSeeSound said...

Iain Dale is one of Britain's leading political commentators

Ha ha ha ha, I found out. Hilarious. If you're one of Britain's leading political commentators with the ridiculous arguments i've read and the falsehoods in your posts, the god save us...

oh, that's right, god is dead.

Mate, you are an arse.

richard.blogger said...


Er, have you ventured outside your house? Show me somewhere in England that isn't mixed affluent/poor. Even beautiful idyllic little hamlets aren't populated solely by people with wealth.

I would throw the same statement back to you: ever ventured out of your microcosm?

I live in the Midlands.

Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the industrial wasteland that is Coventry. Oh and I could also lead you by the hand through true blue Tory Kenilworth which is so close to be just not quite part of Coventry. I could then lead you by the hand through industrial Warwick, or South Leam, or to the Victorian/Edwardian splendor of North Leam.

I could take you though the council estates of Coventry or Birmingham where there are thousands of the same house built all at the same time, occupied by thousands of people in the same income bracket.

The rich don't like living right next to the poor, and the poor cannot afford to live with the rich, so there is always stratification: call it ghettoisation or gentification.

It is you that is talking about idylls.

Who are you?

Your worst nightmare?

neil craig said...

"I'm against change unless is can be proven that change will be better than what we have at the moment."

Iain is there any sort of evidence, apart from the successful implementation of the change, which you would first accept as proof that we should implement it?

The philosophical limitations of taking "conservative" that literally must be obvious ;-)

In fact you have thus painted yourself into the corner of calling for the referendum to be on the AV+ system since it has been proven better than FPTP in Scotland, Wales & NI, or at least there is no popular pressure to go back to FPTP. I agree with that.

Lord Blagger said...

It's rearranging the deck chairs.

No role for the voter in deciding an issue.

No equal votes for all.

Just which pig gets to the trough

Lord Blagger said...

And all the systems just rearrange the deck chairs.

Just which pig gets to the trough.

None of the address the major issue.

How does the voter get an equal say and how does that voter get to cast a vote on a issue, not a thieving MP?

FX Man said...

On the other hand... maybe it does...

Calum said...

Grrr. It is not a pyrrhic victory; it is of course a hollow victory. I thank you.

Paul Linford said...

If the LibDems walked away from the coalition after a lost AV referendum they'd look prize chumps.

Is that 'chumps' in the Mandelsonian sense of the term?

Nicholas said...

I suspect that AV might end up getting rather more support across the political spectrum than many people are assuming. Why? Not because it is a good voting system - to be honest I can't get very excited about whether it is an improvement over FPTP or not - but because it will represent an issue which is seen as part of the cherished centre ground of politics. The new Labour leader (whoever that is) will support it as will most of his party. Lib Dems of course. Cameron won't campaign very hard against. Increasing numbers of Tories will see the political gain in seeming "progressive" and will suppport it. I think it will be carried, for better or for worse, (and from what I can tell nobody knows which!) Will we all have to stay up later on election night for the results to be counted? If so, I'm against

youngdegsy said...

AV is not much better than FPTP, but it does establish the principle of preference voting, which would make a switch to STV later on a lot easier.

And for all those who think that STV makes for an easier ride, take a look at the effect on Scottish local government, where there is STV. My wife's a councillor in a four-member ward. All four of them now have to (and do) work to represent a ward with 24,000 people - about a third of a Westminster constituency, but without a constituency office, staff etc. Much more work than under single-member wards with 6,000 each. Yet they all do more than before, because they all have direct competition.

I thought competition sparking improved performance was a quintessentially Tory concept?