Tag Archives: first past the post

AV referendum – the return of the old politics

So the Nos won the UK AV referendum comprehensively, with 68% of the vote, on a higher turnout than expected.  Their campaign only seemed to gather momentum as time went by.  This is a bitter blow to me, as I actually liked AV – while having reservations about proportional representation (PR).  Now it will be considered politically toxic, probably forever.  It doesn’t help that most people that voted No did not understand what they were voting against.  In fact very few voters seem to have understood the system or its implications.  It is highly frustrating that so many nonsense arguments were tolerated, and even encouraged by the media (turning back on hundreds of years of history; would cost £250m; gives some people but not others more than one vote; and so on).  What went wrong?

There were clearly tactical errors by the Yes campaign.  They failed to find compelling reasons to change.  Their two favourites, making MPs work harder and ending safe seats, were very weak as AV would not make a huge difference.  They took a tactical decision not to explain the system to voters, on the basis that it would turn them off.  So they left that to the Nos, until finally they found a good way of communicating it (the Dan Snow broadcast with pub vs coffee shop).  That broadcast proved that you can communicate new ideas if you apply enough thought and creativity to the task.  There seemed to be too much time spent online, and not enough trying to get through to proper floating voters.  It is more difficult to say whether the later idea to portray a Yes vote as an anti-Tory one was right; it certainly swayed some.

Why was the No campaign so effective?  The use of the Tory machine clearly helped.  The campaign was very well funded, so they were able to put much more, and much better produced literature.  They weren’t even trying to win the argument, simply repeating a whole series of misleading sound-bites endlessly.  But particularly striking was their use of of mainstream politicians.  David Cameron and the Conservatives put on a strong, united front.  And enough Labour politicians supported them to rally many traditional Labour supporters.  By comparison, the Yes campaign had only the much weaker Lib Dem machine behind it, and tried to use non-politicians much more.

So the voters were not engaging with the arguments and trying to make sense of them, but taking a lead from people they trusted.  Conservative supporters rallied to a very impressive extent behind the official Tory line (80-90% according to one poll).  The newspapers may also have helped.  If all these respectable people were reinforcing even the more spurious No arguments, people thought there must be something to them.

So people actually have quite a lot of respect for good old-fashioned politicians when it comes to political arguments.  A year ago we thought that disillusion with politicians was ushering in a new politics.  The surge for the Lib Dems after the election debates.  The coalition with political enemies coming together in the national interest.  But this new politics seems to have been a mirage.  People are happier in the more familiar, tribal territory.  They will follow the old politicians, who don’t seem to care what they say in support of causes they think are in their interest.  The expenses scandal is completely forgotten now.

There also seems to be a deep conservatism amongst British voters.  They are sceptics of almost any change, though they are quick enough to get used to changes when they happen.  This is quite comical at times.  I remember huge resistance to the London Eye being erected; now nobody would want it taken down.  David Cameron’s and Boris Johnson’s appeal to “hundreds of years of history” to support FPTP is comical in the same vein, given how recent our democratic institutions actually are.  The idea of a “progressive majority”, popular with some on the left, is a nonsense.

A further lesson is that we should be highly suspicious of referendums to decide constitutional changes.  If people just follow the politicians, then shouldn’t just let the politicians decide?  Independence for Scotland – yes to a referendum; electoral systems, European Union treaty changes – no.

So the old politics is back.  What does that mean for progressives?  And what does it mean for the Liberal Democrats?  Topics for another day.


The Economist shoots itself in the foot. Twice.

This week The Economist has come out for a No vote in a leader on the UK’s referendum to the voting system.  It argues that AV is no improvement on FPTP, so we should vote no.  It wants the system to be more proportional, with 20% of parliament’s seats reserved selected by proportional representation (PR), and the rest on FPTP.  It dismisses the argument that a Yes vote would make further change more difficult, without really saying why, beyond “It might exhaust the national appetite for reform.”  This is pretty weak stuff, but on two counts the paper has undermined its own argument.

Update.  Having read more of this week’s edition, the Economist’s hidden reasoning looks a bit clearer.  They are worried that a Yes vote would make the Conservatives so angry that they will derail other reforms, such as that for House of Lords.  Alternatively if there is a no vote then these reforms are more likely to go through as a consolation prize.  They appear to think that these other reforms are more important.

Also they are making a big deal out of the fact that because many voters will not preference all candidates, then some candidates will be elected with less than 50% of the vote.  They think this is a major problem with the Yes case; and yet I think this is simply equivalent to an abstention.  Nobody suggests that MPs should be elected with 50% of the whole electorate.  And enough people will cast preference votes, especially if there is a major left-right polarisation, to make the change in system worthwhile.  This article on NSW and Queensland state elections, which use the same preferential system envisaged here, makes that quite clear.

In the first instance, in the very same edition, the paper covers the Canadian general election, held under FPTP, with the sub-headline “A last-minute surge for the left might end up benefiting the right.”  This is exactly the sort of perverse outcome that AV can do much to prevent, because it reduces the problem of the split vote.  In Australia, which uses AV, the rise of the Green party has not benefited the right.  Under FPTP, using first preferences, the right would have benefited royally from the Green’s success in the last Australian general election.  So, “no improvement”?  The Economist makes the case against its own editorial with wonderful succinctness.

Next, the paper has changed its view.  It used to be a strong advocate for AV in the UK.  Admittedly that was a long while back (and certainly before 1997, when the paper’s online archive starts).  But the paper routinely refers to previously held positions, sometimes dating back to the 19th century.  And yet the paper’s leader makes no reference to this earlier view, and why it has changed its mind.

I have been reading the Economist since 1984 (and its position on AV swayed me in its favour back in the 1980s – one of the reasons that my support is not as lukewarm as some).  This is very disappointing.  The editorial team was probably deeply split.  Its Bagehot columnist, burnt by experiences elsewhere in Europe, hates PR and fears that AV might eventually lead to PR because more people will cast first preference votes for minor parties.  Others no doubt favour full PR.  I can imagine the poor leader writer trying to reconcile all this.  And failing.



How would AV change UK politics?

In my post last week I explained why I am supporting the Alternative Vote (AV) in the forthcoming UK referendum.  This case was based on principle.  We have a system of single member constituencies.  First past the post (FPTP) carries a high risk of unrepresentative candidates being elected.  Of the various systems in use around the world to counter the weaknesses of FPTP (primary elections in the US, run-off elections in France, AV in Australia), AV seems to fit the British situation best.  I avoided asking what the impact of any change would be: just that the system is more democratic.  But there are pragmatic types out there for whom the likely impact of the changes is more important than first principles.  Today’s post is for them.  It will help show them why it is best to think about principles.

The trouble with most analysis of this in the UK is that it is based on looking at past FPTP results, supported by some opinion polls on second preferences, and then predicting how the outcome would have been with AV.  This runs into two problems.  First is that the next election is going to be quite unlike the last few, if for no other reason than that the current government is a coalition.  The next problem is that AV will change voting behaviours, and the campaign pitches of the political parties.  The usual conclusion is that the Lib Dems will benefit quite a bit, Labour marginally, and the Conservatives would lose out.  None of these effects would have been enough to change the outcome of elections except maybe the last one.  Extra seats for Lib Dems and Labour might have made the current coalition impossible, and even a Labour-Lib Dem one on the cards.  That’s enough for most Conservatives.  If we had had AV last time, Gordon Brown might still be PM.

The Lib Dems should benefit.  About time many will say – since the party is badly under-represented in parliament.  More pragmatic types worry that this would give a smaller party too much influence in the choice of coalition partners.  But the Lib Dems do face a problem.  In order to benefit their first preference votes need to get past either the Labour or Conservative candidates (in England – it’s more complicated in Scotland and Wales).  They might then attract second preference votes from whichever of these parties gets knocked out.  And yet the classic Lib Dem campaign technique is to persuade voters to vote for them because one or other of the major parties doesn’t stand a chance; this argument has much less resonance under AV.  Voters will say that they will simply give the Lib Dems a second preference, and give their first preference to their most preferred party.  As a result Conservative or Labour candidates currently in third place might sneak into second, knocking the Lib Dems out.  The Littleborough & Saddleworth seat at the last election was a Labour seat that people count as vulnerable to the Lib Dems under AV; but the Conservative vote was strong and under AV they might well have pushed past the Lib Dems into second place, which would, in fact, have made the seat safer for Labour.  This could be a big help to the Labour Party in the South West.  In Australia the two party system is entrenched (one of the “parties” being a coalition in an electoral pact).  The Lib Dems will be desperate for first preference votes under AV, and in the long term it cannot be taken for granted that the party would flourish.

Labour has less to fear.  It might help them pick up in areas where they are in third place – now great swathes of England.  They may not do so well from picking up second preferences from Lib Dem voters next time – but only because they will have done such a good job of persuading them to vote Labour as first preference.  They get some insurance against those voters drifting back.  It is a moment of truth for Labour supporters who believe that there is a “progressive majority” – a majority of voters for whom the Conservative Party is toxic.  If so the system ensures that the Conservatives never get a majority.

And that is the challenge for the Conservatives.  It will be much more difficult for them to sneak in a majority government against the votes of the a majority of the electorate.  But many Conservatives believe in something like a “silent majority” – the opposite of the progressive majority.  There are lot of people sympathetic to their policies that do not say so, and will not give them a first preference vote.  If so, they may pick up a lot of second preferences.  This could be particularly helpful to them at the next election, when both UKIP and the Lib Dems will be trying to pick off their voters.  If Labour succeeds in pulling past the Lib Dems in South Western seats, then this will make a few seats a bit safer for them, since they will get more second preferences from Lib Dem voters than Labour ones.

For the smaller parties AV is ambiguous.  It is difficult to see that extremist parties, like the BNP, will make any headway, since other voters will gang up against them.  Their best hope of an MP is under FPTP in a split seat.  But UKIP and the Greens may well think they can pick up a majority in favoured seats by scooping up enough second preference votes.  In the UKIP case they need to push past the Conservatives, either in what would now be very safe Conservative seats, or in Lib Dem held seats where they can hope to scoop up some Labour voters too.  For the Greens the game is to push past the Lib Dems, and scoop up enough of their votes to push past Labour (or the other way round), to mount a challenge on the Tories.  In both cases these are long shots, but you need a deal of optimism in politics.

In sum, the impact of AV is very uncertain in the UK.  The Lib Dems could assert themselves with a permanently larger block of seats, alongside a scattering of seats for the greens and perhaps UKIP.  Or the two party system could reassert itself, with the other parties finding it more difficult to pick up enough first preference votes.  But the outcome is uncertain for a good reason: electoral politics will be more competitive.  Who knows what voters would do?




AV: why I am voting Yes to a beautiful British compromise

Referendum Day approaches and the polls are tightening.  The public at large has yet to show much interest, but the referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) is an important event in our political history.  Yet nobody can be surprised that the quality of public debate is abysmal.  If the arguments put forward by the Yes campaign, desperate not to lose people in technical detail, look a little weak, those of the No campaign seem like a calculated assault on our intelligence.  The campaign is being fought on emotions: natural British conservatism pitted against the feeling that our current system is part of a stitch-up perpetrated by the political establishment on the people.  I hope this post lifts the level of debate a fraction.

Not that I want to deny the importance of emotions in making decisions like this.  I will start with mine.  My views about proportional representation (PR) have fluctuated a bit over time; but my views on AV, from the beginning political consciousness in the 1970s, have always been in favour.  First past the post (FPTP) is an outrage; a primitive system that belongs to the age of rotten boroughs and not a modern democracy.  AV is an elegant answer to its most egregious features, and the one that is most appropriate to the British culture.

We start with the system of single member constituencies.  This is embedded deeply into the British political culture, though I do not regard it as sacred.  This carries with it the idea that an MP represents her whole constituency, not just the party and voters that put her there.  This is indeed what most MPs claim to think.  But if the election is contested by more than two candidates with broad appeal then the process rapidly degenerates into farce and the winner can be elected on quite a small minority of votes.  You need a degree in game theory to make your you are voting for the right candidate.  This is so obviously wrong that in most elections for an executive office, where you choose one candidate from a diverse field, the system has been abandoned, if it was ever used – from small societies up to presidents of countries, and even Mayoral elections in the UK.  The job of an MP is a serious job, and surely exactly the same logic applies to them as to the London Mayor or the Leader of the Conservative Party.

And that should be enough.  But the consequential results of the system don’t make it any better.  As this video using animals explains, the system soon resolves into a two party system.  Any candidate who wants to challenge the party machine and stand against the official candidate usually fails, and worse, lets in the candidate from the opposing party.  So a lot of the process of democratic choice is handled by two party machines which do not have a strong incentive to be democratic themselves, for example in the way they select candidates.  Of course, if you are a party machine politician you are inclined to think that this is a wonderful political system, but it is fundamentally undemocratic.  It is quite clear from the declining combined vote share of the Labour and Conservative parties that the British are losing confidence in the two party system.

So what is the solution?  PR is popular, but brings with it plenty of problems of its own which are not directly relevant to the debate.  If you support PR the risk of voting No is that a No result is likely to kill the question of electoral reform for generations.  The Americans have developed a system of primary elections, which have the effect of undermining the party machines and making them more democratic.  It has the major virtue of making all safe seats competitive.  The odd Tory proposes it for the UK.  A second alternative is to stage run-off elections in seats where there is no overall winner – the French system.  Both these systems require a second full-scale public election.  They both have the advantage of simplicity: electors make a single choice at each election – the most attractive aspect of FPTP.  But two elections mean doubling up the cost, and campaigning costs in the US system are astronomical, giving rich candidates a big advantage.  And they both seem un-British.  They require a more prolonged period political campaigning.  The British like the drama of a competitive General Election (such as last year), but quickly tire of the electoral process.  And anyway, neither system is being offered to us in the referendum.

Which leaves AV.  This is a built-in run-off system, requiring voters to think ahead about how they would vote if there was a run-off.  It loses the simplicity and immediacy of the single decision, but the whole process is decided in a single, easily comprehensible process in a day.  How quickly the British would take to it is less clear (we can guarantee that the political parties’ campaigns will try to confuse the picture rather then help explain it), but they would get used to it eventually.  It has settled down well enough in Australia, a country that has a very similar attitude to politics to Britain, though its effects there are difficult to disentangle from those of compulsory voting.  Incidentally, the suggestion made by David Cameron that polls show that Australians would prefer to move back to FPTP does not stand up to close examination.  What many Australians in fact dislike is being forced to mark a preference against all candidates for their vote to be valid – and we are not proposing that in the UK.  In Australia AV has not undermined the two party system, as it happens, but it has surely made the two main parties more sensitive to the risks of breakaway groups and so more democratic themselves.  Australia’s parliamentarians are a quirky, spiky lot – the sort of people to hold an executive to account, even if it is often not a  pretty sight.  All in all AV is a beautiful British compromise and I will be voting for it.

I will look at other arguments in the AV debate in later posts.  This one is long enough!