Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Electoral Reform/Deform?

As many readers know we are rapidly approach local elections (5th May 2011) for about a third of the seats on local councils in Britain.  This year for the first time since 1975, the UK also has a referendum.  It is on whether we should change from the so-called 'First Past the Post' (FPP) system of elections to the Alternate Vote (AV) approach.  This was part of the deal that the Liberal Democrats made with the Conservatives when they went into coalition with them almost a year ago.  The Liberal Democrats, as I have shown on a couple of occasions on this blog, have long failed to turn the number of the votes their candidates receive into anything even approaching an equivalent number of members in the House of Commons.  They have long been supporters of electoral reform, moving voting to the Westminster Parliament (well, the bit of it which is elected, the House of Commons; the House of Lords, the upper house is totally unelected) towards some form of proportional representation (PR).  Proportional representation is seen as being 'fairer' as it more accurately reflects the level of support each party receives.  With the FPP system if a candidate receives just one vote fewer then they do not win the seat, even though they may have had tens of thousands of people voting for them.

In the world around 43 countries (of those which are democratic) use FPP, many have had connections to the UK such as the USA, Canada and India and it was adopted in Taiwan when it moved to democracy in the 1990s.  Some countries have a partial FPP system, such as France where there are two rounds and only candidates receiving a certain percentage of votes move into the second round.  However, the bulk of EU countries use a proportional representation system.  This has sometimes elicited xenophobic hostility from the British who see PR systems as foreign and 'unstable'.  In particular, Weimar Germany 1918-1933 and Italy since 1945 are held up as examples of countries for which PR has led to political instability and short-lived governments.  In a patronising way some have even portrayed PR methods as being too complex for the average British voter given how low turn out is at elections.  For example, most UK constitutencies see only 35-40% of the electorate turn out for local elections and 50-70% for general elections.  These arguments have lost lots of ground in the UK in recent years.  The current coalition which has lasted almost a year has shown that actually coalitions can be strong as (West) Germany has demonstrated since 1949.  In addition, for all elections to the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, a form of PR, the single transferrable vote (STV) system has been in use since these bodies were introduced over a decade ago.  I know turn out is low for European Parliament elections, but combined this does mean that many people in the UK population have had some, and many of these, regular, interaction with STV.  Anyone who has been to university will be familiar with it as I know from personal experience that students' unions have been using STV in their elections for over thirty years.

The AV system (used in many Australian elections where voting is compulsory), as even people who support PR acknowledge is a hybrid.   Like STV you rank If someone wins more than 50% of the vote on the first count then they win the seat just as is the case now.  In many constituencies, despite what the No campaigners for the referendum campaign are arguing, this is what will happen.  If no-one gets 50% or above then the second choice votes of the candidate who came last are counted, i.e. the people who put a '2' rather than a '1' by the candidate and so on.  Of course, this quickly eliminates all the minor and obscure parties; supporters of whom are unlikely, despite what the campaigners say, to have rated the larger parties much.  Ultimately, it will generally come down to the redistribution between the larger parties.  Of course, once any candidate goes over the 50% mark the process stops; this is a difference to STV.  It means, in fact that in most cases, the candidate with the highest number of votes in the first round will simply pick up sufficient to go over the 50% mark.

The No campaigners argue that this will mean that someone who received 3rd place in the number of votes on the first count could potentially win.  Yes, this is possible if they first three candidates are close together.  The reason why they fear this is that historically some Labour supporters would 'tactically' back the Liberal Democrat if they thought they stood a chance of getting in, in that district and some Conservative voters might too.  Thus, it is assumed that the Liberal Democrats may receive lots of '2' votes from both Labour and Conservative supporters and so may get in, in more constituencies.  Of course, it would not affect the 'heartlands' of any party where the majority is usually clear, but it will impinge on marginal seats which are the ones parties pour most effort into.  The one factor that makes AV more palatable to traditionalists is that whilst providing a slightly better reflection of the support for parties, it still returns one representative from each constituency.  Strangely, this is now enshrined as an important principle for British politics, despite the fact that the UK had constituencies returning more than one member of parliament up until 1950.

Things have changed through the formation of the coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, as this has disgruntled both Labour supporters who previously would have voted Liberal Democrat and, of course, many traditional Liberal Democrats have abandoned the party.  In fact, from the Barnsley by-election, it seems the Conservative might benefit from UKIP supporters giving them a '2' vote, if not in a Labour heartland like Barnsley but in other more uncertain locations.  All PR encourages people to give support to smaller parties, thus we might see Greens gaining votes from across the political spectrum, from people, who in the past would not want to 'waste' their single vote on a Green candidate.  Of course, for Labour and the Conservatives any advance of smaller parties, even the Liberal Democrats, weakens their traditional position.  This is why, despite promising electoral reform before the 1997 election, once in power Tony Blair abandoned the ideas and only had the Jenkins Commission and then ignored its advice through all his time in office.

I do not think the vote for AV will succeed.  I would prefer that we went to STV as is the case for so many elections already in the UK.  By having the referendum on the same day as the local elections David Cameron, a clear opponent of any adjustment of the FPP system, has muddied the waters.  Britain is a very apolitical country with few people taking interest in politics these days let alone the electoral system, even though these are factors in them losing their jobs and public services.  They actually tend to blame other people like immigrants, than the politicians whose policies have impinged on them, but that always seems to be the way in the UK.  Other referenda, such as in Canada have had insufficient turn-out to bring about change in the electoral system.  Given how few people vote in local elections, I think the same will happen here.  The failure of the referendum will allow David Cameron to dismiss for ever any discussion of changing from the FPP system.  This is important for Cameron as he has ready plans which will make it easier for the Conservatives to remain in power indefinitely.  By abolishing 50 constituencies and redrawing boundaries, called gerrymandering, something the Conservatives of Westminster Council were very adept at doing in the 1990s, will make it hard for anyone but the Conservatives to win a majority of seats in parliament for the foreseeable future.  Just as Tony Blair seemed eager to reduce civil liberties in the UK, Cameron's mission appears to be to reduce democracy, in the broadest sense of the word, through both reducing opportunities for ordinary people and also to make it harder for any other party except the Conservatives to come to power.

My life has seen the steady erosion of liberty and democracy in the UK and it appears to be proceeding now even brisker than ever.  It is a pity that AV will not come in, but in many ways the whole set-up is just a blind for the damage that the Conservatives seek to impose on British democracy.

P.P. 21/04/2011
This morning I received the first piece of publicity about the referendum, a leaflet from the No campaign.  I was interested by its approach, which suggests the No camp are unnecessarily nervous, because the lines it takes are very much about scare mongering.  Of course it starts with 'keep one person, one vote' probably the most equitable issue about sticking to FPP.  Interestingly it says 'none of your taxes have been used to print this leaflet', well, the Yes campaign can say that too, but there is a sense that it is suggesting others would use tax money.

Inside the cost is the first issue that is raised is the cost.  It is argued that the cost of AV is £250 million broken down into a number of components, first, £91 million for the referendum, despite it being piggy backed on local elections in many towns.  Next is £130 million for electronic counting machines, which actually have nothing to do with AV.  Northern Ireland uses STV (as does Scotland and Wales) which is more complex than AV and yet they still count by hand as it makes clear on the website of the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland.  FPP votes could be counted by electronic machines, but the UK has chosen not to use them.  Thus, there is no connection between electronic machines and AV.  The final cost is £26 million on explaining the new system to the voters.  I have no idea where that figure comes from.  Given that every part of the UK uses STV for at least one election, I see no reason for this cost.  We did not have training in STV when it was adopted for European elections.  As the publicity points out, this £250 million could pay 2,503 doctors, presumably for a year; 6,297 teachers; 8,107 nurses; 35,885 hip replacements or 69,832 school places.  So, the party which is most opposed to AV, i.e. the Conservatives, will not then be cutting public spending budgets?  Oh, yes, in fact they are and by much more than £250 million.  Let us compare that £250 million, even if AV did cost all that to other current expenditure.  By 20th March 2011, the UK had spent £55 million on firing 110 cruise missiles at Libya; every sortie by a Tornado costs £30,000 just for fuel and the loss of a single Tornado would cost the UK £50 million to replace.  As for the war in Afghanistan, that now costs the UK £4 billion per year (£10.95 million per day).  So, to save £250 million we only need to not fight in Afghanistan for 23 days, less than one month.  The No campaign says, when many people are facing job losses or pay freezes should the money be spent on a 'politicians' fix'.  The argument against this is quite simply with PR it is unlikely we would have had such policies in the 1980s let alone now.

The next argument is against the technical aspects of AV which I outlined in my posting above.  The No campaign argues that 'the votes of the least popular candidate decide who wins the election', that is a false portrayal, as in fact that candidate is eliminated, it is the other votes, for other people on those ballot papers which actually decide who wins.   Yes, someone who was in 2nd or 3rd place at the first stage may go on to win, but they, at least will have a majority of the support from the constituency. 

The No campaign argues that the views of BNP supporters will be counted again and again. It is unlikely, unless all candidates are so far from the 50% line (and in many constituencies there are only 3 candidates anyway) that so many lower preferences will have to be counted.  As this referendum has simply come down to a Yes/No, there has been no discussion of different aspects of AV, for example the '2' votes carrying less weight than the '1' votes, the '3' votes less than the '2' and so on.  Given that it has been deemed by the government and many campaigners that the electorate, who, as I remind you, already use STV for many elections, cannot possibly understand the system, there is no discussion of the actual form AV might take in the UK.

The section entitled 'AV is Unpopular' is very misleading.  It shows a map of the world and coloured in green for countries who 'Don't use AV' and purple for 'use AV'.  The countries using it are Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, all according to the pamphlet are unhappy with it. In fact many states of Australia use STV.  The misleading thing about the map is that many of the countries shown in green of course would not use AV because they could equally be coloured as 'Don't use democracy'.  Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Burma, North Korea and, of course, China where a quarter of the world's population lives, are shown as 'Don't use AV'.  Well, of course they do not use AV, because they are (or until recently) dictatorships.  It also neglects the fact that, as noted above, that over 70 countries shown as 'Don't use AV' actually use STV, a more proportional form of voting, far removed from the FPP system, including India where around 21% of the world's population lives; Brazil (3.7%) and Russia (2.7%) and 23 members of the EU including Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece and Poland, use STV.  The French system, whilst not precisely identical to AV is very close to it, and more similar to it than FPP.  The suggestion is that if you do not use AV the only alternative is FPP, whereas, in fact, most democratic countries have gone for something very different and more proportional.

The final element of the publicity is down right hilarious.  It turns history on its head.  Having said that the Liberal Democrats, correctly, are the only party which is wholly behind AV (many Labour and some support it Conservatives support it, though ironically not the BNP), then they associate it with the unpopularity of Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Liberal Democrats.  The publicity says 'AV leads to broken promises', saying that Clegg reneged on his promises not to allow job cuts, a VAT increase, the raising of university tuition fees and the cuts in public spending.  However, I ask how did AV lead to this?  AV is not in place.  We had these broken promises under the FPP system which is how the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to power.  Interestingly, there is no mention of David Cameron and the Conservatives, the strongest critics of AV and the party with its virulent monetarist approach which has brought about all these cuts.  They, of course, kept these policies secret before the election.  Clegg is portrayed as only supporting AV as a way to save the Liberal Democrats at the next election, despite the fact that the Liberal Democrats have been pressing for electoral reform since the 1990s and one reason why they fell out with Tony Blair, was, after his huge electoral win in 1997, he was no longer willing to consider electoral reform despite what he had been promising the Liberal Democrats 1994-7, in preparation for a potentially hung parliament in 1997 when he possibly would have formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and so, as David Cameron has had to face now, also allow a referendum on electoral reform.  If this was the case, would not the Conservatives be ardent supporters of it too?  Even loyal supporters of theirs have begun defecting to UKIP. 

The argument is simply that AV would give more seats to Liberal Democrats and so there would be more hung parliaments and more deals involving the Liberal Democrats.  This totally ignores the democratic principle, the Liberal Democrats, even now are heavily under-represented for the amount of support they have constantly commanded at elections.  In addition, ironically, without the Liberal Democrats then the Conservatives, would, at best from their view, have a minority government now and would not be in a position to implement these 'broken promises' policies which they argue are necessary for the country's welfare.  This line of argument is utterly bizarre and turns chronology upside down.  It also neglects the fact that the Liberal Democrats actually want STV and have only been compelled by their comparative weakness to accept AV.  It seems incredible that the No campaign can twist facts around so extremely and somehow make it appear that Clegg alone is responsible for the harsh policies we are suffering.  With AV this situation, in fact would have long been avoided.

David Cameron has cleverly buried the issue and the only electoral 'reform' will be his gerrymandering of constituencies to ensure a Conservative majority at the next election and the foreseeable future.  In the meantime we are being patronised by campaigners who think that the British electorate, pretty used to STV, lacks the intelligence to engage with AV and so can be told distortions.

P.P. 23/04/2011
I have now updated last year's posting looking at the impact of PR on the 2010 general election to also consider how the situation would have turned out if AV had been in place:

P.P. 07/05/2011
As I had anticipated, AV was defeated in the referendum, though by a wider margin than I had envisaged, 70%:30% on a 41% turnout of electors.  It is interesting that in some districts, however, in Glasgow, Cambridge and parts of London the method received a majority 'Yes'.  This was exactly the outcome that David Cameron not only hoped for but engineered through the timing of the referendum.  In addition, he was aided by a very misleading 'No' campaign, notably supported by the 'Daily Mail'.  I was sickened by its headline today 'The Day British People Stood Up For Democracy'.  That is downright insulting to people fighting for democracy across North Africa and the Middle East at present.  Despite how the newspaper portrayed it, the referendum was not about saving or abolishing democracy, just different ways of running elections in a democracy.  However, to the 'Daily Mail' even to suggest a minor challenge to the way things have always been done is an a grave affront.  The system that is retained means that votes of around 50-60% of voters are disregarded in any general election.  You can argue, that anyway, the UK is little better than a semi-democracy given that, still, the upper house of parliament is entirely unelected.

Of course, the view that our method of choosing and running government is the best in the world is one that is held widely.  However, it seems with the coming changes to constituencies even this is going to be eroded further and I suspect that the 'Daily Mail' will make no complaint as Cameron builds a system that allows the Conservatives to remain in power for decades.  Cameron as a unionist will bitterly oppose the steps by the SNP, now with a clear majority in the Scottish parliament, to move towards independence for Scotland.  However, ironically, if he permitted it, then he would eliminate on average 40 Labour MPs from the Westminster parliament, making his goal of an elective dictatorship that much easier.  AV was probably the last chance we had to see off the further erosion of democracy in the UK by ensuring that even with the constituency re-arrangement there would be a greater chance of a wider range of parties being represented in parliament than will now be the case.

In many ways I wish the 'Daily Mail' would just be honest and say that actually it does not support democracy and would prefer a Conservative authoritarian state to be imposed, because then at least we would not have to see such hypocritical headlines.  I have long noted the erosion of civil liberties in the UK under the Blair and Brown governments.  Whilst this had seemed to slow up in recent months, Jan Culik, lecturer in Czech Studies at University of Glasgow, writing to 'The Guardian' this week noted how the police approach towards potential protestors at the royal wedding last week, was the same as that used by the Czechoslovak Communist regime in the 1970s and 1980s.

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