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.