A rotten way to fight a referendum

There is something unsatisfying about the arguments deployed by the Yes side in the referendum campaign on electoral reform.  They are right that the Alternative Vote is preferable to First Past The Post, but it is not vastly preferable and will not solve all the problems in our electoral system that need fixing.

But if the arguments on the Yes side are unsatisfying, the arguments on the No side are worse.  Their claims are either spurious – including in the cost of the new system the cost of the current referendum itself, which is by now a sunk cost and an argument against holding the referendum in the first place, not an argument for voting No – or false.

For example, they argue that AV will lead to coalitions, taking it as read that coalitions are a bad thing.  But under FPTP, the share of vote going to the two largest parties, those that might be capable of forming a majority government on their own, has already fallen from 95 per cent in the 1950s to 65 per cent now.  The ability of either of those two parties to get to 42 per cent of the vote, which has been the threshold of what is needed to get a working majority, will be much reduced.  If AV will lead to coalitions, so will FPTP, and at least AV, by rewarding candidates that collaborate and exchange second preferences in the campaign itself, will tend to encourage relationships between parties that are more conducive to the success of the coalitions that we are going to have anyway.

Similarly, the No side claims that the influence of the British National Party would increase under AV, because its voters would be able to use their second preferences for mainstream parties and thus encourage those mainstream parties to chase after BNP votes.  But what happens under FPTP?  Those mainstream parties still chase after BNP votes, but rather than saying “we are better placed than the other mainstream parties to represent you, the BNP-inclined voter”, as they would under AV, they will be saying “we are better placed to represent you, the BNP-inclined voter, than is the BNP itself”.  This is much worse.

It is striking that the arguments used against AV turn out to be even stronger arguments against FPTP.  This is because FPTP was never consciously chosen as the best way to conduct our elections, it is merely the handed-down tradition from an earlier, less literate, less democratic age and which has survived simply because nobody has challenged it.  It belongs in our constitutional history alongside the rotten boroughs and the property-based franchise.

The only good argument for preferring FPTP to AV is that AV rates all preferences equally.  A candidate with 10,000 first preferences is in a weaker position that someone with only 2,000 first preferences but a further 10,000 fourth preferences.  Should someone’s fourth choice be given the same weight as their first?  That is the assumption that AV makes, in the absence of any grounds for making a different assumption.

Yet again, though, we find that FPTP does the same thing.  While first preference votes are treated differently, second, third and subsequent preferences are all given the same weight, namely zero.  If it is doubtful that voters care as much about their second choice as their first choice, it is even more doubtful that they do not care about their second choice at all.

Whichever electoral system we adopt, assumptions have to be made about how much the voters care about their choices.  It is no criticism of AV that it makes such assumptions if the alternative is FPTP which does the same.

It may fairly be asked, though, how else might a referendum campaign on the difference between AV and FPTP be fought?

The advantages of AV are small, and less than other electoral systems that are not on the ballot paper at all.  Not many people are campaigning for AV for its own sake, most of its supporters would actually rather have something else and hope that AV will help them get it later on.  The referendum really has to be fought on the merits of the proposal that is on the ballot paper, thin though these are.  It is telling that the official Yes campaign itself has had to be named “Yes to fairer votes” and not the more convincing “Yes to fair votes”, because they cannot bring themselves to tell the voters that AV is actually “fair”.

The No side has a weak hand, and again it is split.  Some of them quite like things the way they are; others would like a different reform and think that rejecting the current proposal is the best way of getting a new one.  A lot of the debate has centred on criticism of the organisations on either side of the argument and the politicians that are associated with them.  Again, these are not on the ballot paper – a referendum is different from an election – and it is a shame that they have become such a focus of the debate.

There is a lesson here for those people who want to have a referendum on Europe.  The government’s European Union Bill lists the occasions that might require such a referendum.  Take as an example section 4(1)(g):

“the conferring on the EU of a new competence to carry out actions to support, co-ordinate or supplement the actions of member States;”

The Lisbon treaty added “tourism” to the list of areas in which the EU has competence to carry out actions to support, coordinate or supplement the actions of the Member States.  Under the EU Bill, a similar addition in the future would require a referendum.

Would we get a better debate over that than we have had about electoral reform?  Or would the arguments rage in fact over the broader issues of EU membership, the respective opinions of Eddie Izzard and David Gower, and whether ABTA was secretly funding one of the two sides in the campaign?  It is hard to imagine that a debate about an EU policy to “support, co-ordinate or supplement” those of the member states would stay for long focused on the facts.

But under the EU Bill, referendums of this sort are promised to us.  Unsatisfying, spurious and false is a sad way for the debate about one of the most important issues in British politics to be conducted.

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