The epic AV Referendum post-mortem blog: Evil triumphs when the good are led by incompetent halfwits

May 10, 2011

This is a lengthy and cathartic postmortem of the AV Referendum campaign. Parts of it (especially the bits about how the Yes campaign could have won) are based on the insights of staff and fellow volunteers in our marvellous Birmingham group. If you don’t fancy reading  all 3000 words of this, a couple of pithy quotes sum up nicely my attitudes to both campaigns:

First, the Yes campaign:

“It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain” – Geoffrey Howe in his resignation speech.

Next, the No campaign:

“There’s a bright future for all you professional liars” – Elvis Costello, How to be Dumb.

Now, on with the catharsis:

Oh dear.

A crushing defeat of 69% to 31% demands a lengthy post-mortem. It’s an absolute thumping, and surely puts electoral reform off the agenda for a generation at least.

A defeat like this has prompted a variety of reactions amongst Yes campaign activists. First, that this must mean the British people are stupid. Second, that it proves that our opponents had too much money, power and influence that there was nothing we could do. The Yes campaign was “doomed from the start” because powerful forces in the media and politics were opposed to a Yes vote. This seems to be the view of this chap/chappess:

Last night a senior source in the campaign for the alternative vote admitted they knew “very early on” that there was no chance of winning the referendum and that Clegg had become part of the problem: “Every time Clegg spoke about AV our polling numbers went into free-fall. We knew from very early on, before the new year, that we couldn’t win, our message wasn’t getting through and the Liberal Democrats in the whole were worse than useless. Clegg was toxic and everything [Chris] Huhne did in criticising the Tories just put the attention on the political spat – made it a Clegg versus Cameron affair. Utterly unwinnable.

To understand why this view is misguided, let’s have a look at the polling data and at the actual votes cast for Yes.

You can see a history of polling data for the AV Referendum here. Around the turn of the year, Yes were continually on early 40s/late 30s, and often enjoyed a narrow lead over No. Yes lost support slowly over April, then rapidly over the last couple of weeks of the campaign. For the last ten days or so of the campaign, the figures were something like Yes 32%, No 68% in most polls, which is remarkably similar to the referendum results.

The trend, then, is the No campaign winning over the Don’t Knows, and Yes losing support. Part of this can be attributed to the hardening of the Tory vote once Cameron started campaigning, but not all of it. What the overall polling suggests, from way back in 2010, is that the Yes campaign had a base of around 30% of voters, but failed to convince any Don’t Knows whatsoever. Indeed, the total Yes vote was lower than the total Lib Dem vote in May 2010.

That’s a remarkable figure, and one that cannot simply be explained by Nick Clegg, or the EVUL NO CAMPAIGN!?, as some would have us believe.

Let’s put things straight first. This referendum was winnable. It goes without saying that the Yes campaign was dealt a difficult hand. People wanted to kick Nick Clegg. The pro-reform vote was split three ways. Elderly voters and Tory voters were likely to vote No, and more likely to vote than Yes voters (often the younger voters). These factors could explain a small Yes defeat, but not one on this scale.

To say that a No vote was inevitable is wrong for a few reasons, and I want to try and outline why below. First I shall explain the main reason why a No vote happened. It’s because the Yes campaign was shockingly appalling:

1) The Yes campaign was run by people who had never run a national election campaign.

It was led by two kinds of people. The first was the Electoral Reform Society/Take Back Parliament people, who were members of a pressure group and had never run a political national campaign of any sort. The other kind of people were Liberal Democrats. As a rule, Lib Dems don’t run national campaigns: they run a series of targeted, local campaigns and do not operate anything on this scale.

The mass incompetency of the Yes campaign ran through it like a stick of rock. For instance:

2) Its central message was very poor.

The Yes campaign’s main message was “Make your MP work harder”. To which MPs could, and did, plausibly claim that they worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. The yes campaign were trying to get the anti-politics vote, but they weren’t turned on by this message. I spent a lot of time giving out the “Make Your MP Work Harder” leaflets in town. I had many replies to the effect that “We don’t want MPs to work harder, we want them shot”. One said “they should work harder making their own gallows”. Our main message, then, was rubbish. It fell between two stools, and didn’t capture either the anti-politics vote, or the pro-politics vote.

The Yes campaign’s other message – about axing jobs for life and ending safe seats – also didn’t work because AV doesn’t help end these problems.

In contrast, not enough time was spent explaining why our current electoral system was not fit for purpose. The two main unquestionable benefits that AV would have brought are that it eradicates the huge amount of tactical voting under FPTP, and MPs would need a majority of support from their constituents. These are the main messages that worked when talking to voters in the street or on the doorstep, and yet were almost totally ignored by the Yes campaign. The only mention of the latter was a slogan on some Yes leaflets called “Make it 50″ which was so awful and obscure it took our office and local activists a couple of minutes to work out what central office were going on about.

As one of our activists commented on Facebook, when I mentioned I was writing a postmortem blog:

The more I think about it, the more the disconnect between the message we found actually worked on the ground and what the national campaign concentrated on, drives me nuts.

This lack of a decent message was a symptom of the fact that our campaign was not led by political campaigners.

3) Too many rubbish gimmicks

See this source from the Yes campaign, quoted in the Guardian:

We even brought in an advertising man to save us. He came up with the idea of constructing a giant pin-striped bottom to take around the country for people to throw things at as a way of illustrating that AV makes MPs work harder. It was desperate stuff.

I’m assuming this is the same person who posted toilet seats, pond cleaner and rubber ducks to us in the Birmingham group (for a street stall linking AV to the expenses scandal) and inflatable axes (“axe jobs for life”). Part of me wants to dedicate the rest of my career in politics to ensuring that people like this advertising man, and a fair few of those high up in the Yes campaign, never work in politics again. Thankfully for them (and me) I’ve got better things to do.

4) Very little was made of our main strength – the breadth of cross-party support

Nigel Farage was our secret weapon, and yet was hardly ever used by the Yes campaign. He’s a good communicator, would have appealed to older voters (Yes’s weakest demographic) and would have been a great answer to the people who said “This should be a referendum on leaving the EU”. But he wasn’t, because the Yes campaign was run by incompetents. It was trying to be a lefty-love in, forgetting that we needed to appeal to all sections of political opinion, and that we couldn’t rely on the support of all left-wing voters.

5) Squandering what money it had

The Yes campaign had less money than the No campaign. Although published figures put the funding for both parties at about the same, that ignores the large amounts of money put into the No camp from Tory central office. However, the Yes campaign still had lots of money – millions of pounds. Therefore a lack of money was not the issue. The problem was that it misspent lots of money.

It spent too much on phonebank co-ordinators, when no political party now uses phonebanking as a way to engage with voters. The Electoral Commission would have paid for the postage of one targeted mailshot to every person on the electoral roll. The No campaign took advantage of this, we didn’t. There was only one mailshot, sent out to a few targeted voters, and even that was a bit rubbish. It was full of celebrity endorsements, didn’t explain why our system was broken and how AV would change that. What’s more, it managed to cause a race row, as well as as demonstration of how not to run your official twitter account.

The truth was that Zephaniah was added, not omitted, to the Yes leaflets after one member of staff commented that it’d be odd if a leaflet featuring no BME faces was delivered to houses in London. However, they were added to leaflets in London, but not to those letters sent to residents in Birmingham (including myself) which is also very ethnically diverse, and also Zephaniah’s home city! It was a bad leaflet, badly targeted, with an awful reaction to the media furore that surrounded it. Utter, utter incompetence.

The simple fact is that some people voted No because they received a No leaflet and not a Yes leaflet. When there was a chance to send out a targeted mailshot to every house in Britain, with the postage paid for. This was an epic clusterfuck of a campaign which will go down in the annals of political incompetence.

I don’t think Katie Ghose gets that though. In her speech she said the public had been “shut out” of the debate on AV. What nonsense. If anything, they were shut out by her campaign refusing to print proper mailshots, and by the last fortnight of the campaign taken up with Chris Huhne calling the No campaign Nazis.

If you really want to hear more about the naffness of the Yes campaign, please read this very entertaining piece on Socialist Unity.

So, how could the Yes campaign have won?

If I, and a few of the people in the Birmingham office, had run the campaign, this is what we’d have done differently:

a) Changed the name

“Yes to AV” is far catchier and to the point than “Yes to Fairer Votes”. “Fairer” is reminiscent of new-politics-coalition-newspeak-fluffy-bullshit.

b) Got a professional politician to run the campaign

Perhaps someone like Paddy Ashdown or Jack Straw. Someone who has plenty of experience of running lots of national campaigns.

c) Spent more time lobbying Labour MPs to vote Yes

This from Tim Montgomerie is an absolute must-read. It’s clear that the No campaign spent a lot of time lobbying Labour MPs:

The hard slog of ‘winning the Labour party’ first so that Labour voters could be won later was carried out by former Labour MPs Jane Kennedy (who took on Militant in the 1980s)  and Joan Ryan. For weeks on end they almost lived in the atrium of Portcullis House – the place in the parliamentary estate where MPs, journalists and researchers mingle. The campaign that resulted in a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party opposing AV was won over cappuccino and chocolate muffins. The campaign was also fought in the country. “Whilst Joan Ryan was setting up Labour No to AV and building the national campaign as the deputy campaign director – particularly working out the core vote/swing vote strategy – Jane Kennedy spoke at about two hundred meetings of constituency Labour parties.

It was obvious that Labour voters were going to be the swing voters. Why didn’t Yes do the same and lobby Labour MPs? If Labour “big beasts” such as Jack Straw, Ed Miliband, Ben Bradshaw etc etc had lobbied MPs more to vote Yes, especially the No2AV Yes2PR ones, perhaps the result would have been very different.

This is what I mean when I say that a defeat for Yes was not inevitable. People point to the split of the Labour party on the issue as a reason why a No vote was inevitable. What it actually shows is how effective the No vote were at lobbying Labour, which is something Yes should have been doing as well.

d) Ditch the anti-politics message

It was rubbish and didn’t work.

e) Use Nigel Farage more and take advantage of a mailshot with post paid for.

As I’ve said above.

f) Try and turn it into a referendum on David Cameron

It’s clear that Nick Clegg was a complete liability for the Yes campaign. I don’t have the exact statistics to hand, but I reckon that every time he spoke, Yes lost 5000 votes. What we had to do was turn the referendum on Cameron instead. To quote Eddie Izzard, “If No wins than Clegg gets a bloody nose, if Yes win than David Cameron gets a bloody head”. Tory blogs were making it quite clear what dire consequences Cameron would face if there was a Yes vote. Would Labour voters have needed much persuading to inflict these dire consequences on him?

Instead, our campaign said nothing. Because, you’ve guessed it, it was incompetent. Only Labour Yes did so, and we could easily have tailored adverts like these for “ordinary” voters as well.

g) Focus on bread-and-butter issues

We all know that the No campaign adverts were despicable. However, the creator of the “dead-baby” advert, Dan Hodges, is more right than wrong here in this post. He also argues that the Yes campaign lost this referendum rather than the No campaign winning it. This is his logic for the baby advert:

When I helped created the baby campaign, it was partially because I was trying to frame the issue in a way that people worrying about their jobs, their mortgages and cuts to their services could relate to. I was desperately trying to make relevant a subject that 99 per cent of the public find a complete, utter, total irrelevance.

Now I find the advert, as I’m sure many of you do, morally abhorrent. Yet there is surely a way for the Yes campaign to have framed the referendum in those terms too: “Do you care about the NHS? Do you want to have more say in how it’s run? You should have some more say in how you elect your MP then.” We are a Parliamentary democracy. We need electoral reform for better representation, so we can decide who cuts, and how much they cut, better. After all, much more than 50% of people in May 2010 voted for parties who promised slower cuts to those happening right now, but that is in no way reflected in the Parliamentary arithmetic.

Why on earth did the Yes campaign not attempt to do that? I’m sure you can guess by now…

h) Kicked the local Lib Dems’ arses into gear

The Conservatives put their mighty party machine behind a No vote. It would have been nice for the Lib Dems to do the same, as opposed to gently encourage a few activists to give out Yes leaflets and hope for the best. I’m sure it would have been less resourced than the one run by the Tory’s but the fact that not all those who voted Lib Dem last year voted Yes last Thursday shows that not enough was done to win over all the Lib Dem support.

What about the lies of the No campaign?

All this means that, although it would be nice to blame everything on the lies and misinformation put out by the No campaign, and the unpopularity of Nick Clegg, that doesn’t seem wash for me. We had money, but it was spent badly. Labour was split so badly because little effort was made to lobby them (and Labour MPs were put off voting Yes because of our central message). Our message wasn’t getting through, because it was rubbish. Nick Clegg is unpopular, but so is David Cameron. The No campaign was terrible, but as many people were put off by their tactics as voted No because of their lies. You can’t blame a defeat of this scale on one horrible poster, and ignore all the other stupidity that went on with our campaign, even if it is very frustrating that there’s no way of sanctioning the No campaign for putting a figure on posters all around the country that even they have admitted was made up.

The fact is that we cannot say there was a big conspiracy against us that stopped us winning. If you blame the press, or the No campaign’s money, or the “structures in society” for a No vote, you’re basically saying there’s nothing we could have done. You might as well blame the lizard people, or the Jews, for us losing. Whereas we have agency. That’s the crucial thing. We could have run a much better campaign and won. To say otherwise is foolhardy and risks not learning the lessons that I’ve spelled out in this blog post. Worst, it would be an abdication of responsibility.

The future of electoral reform

Even if we’d’ve had a much-improved Yes campaign, it may still have lost. As I wrote above, it was dealt a very difficult hand, and played it badly. Even if it still lost narrowly, A defeat of 55-45, could have been spun credibly as “Well, this motion only failed because more would prefer PR to AV”, since the pro-reform vote would have split three ways: Yes, No and Meh. A loss on this scale buries the prospect of reform of the House of Commons until about 2040 at least, surely?

I assume so. There are two main possible scenarios here that I can think of.

The first is that a No vote means the two-party system is entrenched. The Lib Dem vote shrinks, or the party splits, and its votes are redistributed between the Conservatives and Labour. First Past the Post is kept, and although electoral reformers won’t be happy, it won’t be another 30-35 years before anyone even dares to speak of reform again.

The second is that the trends we’ve seen since the mid-1970s continue. More people vote for parties other than Labour or Conservative. A sizable minority (say 10-15%) still vote for the Lib Dems, whilst UKIP and the Greens gather more and more votes. This means we see more coalitions, or parties winning parliamentary majorities on yet-smaller minorities of the vote. If that happens, the calls for some form of PR could come around quicker than you think. However, I’m not sure any government would actually change an electoral system that had served them so well (c.f. Labour 1997).

There are other short-term consequences that I’ll hopefully write about later this week. This post is long enough as it is.

If anyone still wants to read more on the AV referendum, as well as those pieces already linked to this, by No2AV’s press officer, is well worth reading.

Conclusion

I hope anyone reading this from Central Office (if they do read this) isn’t too offended by this post. I’ve tried to be as constructive as possible. What I want people to take away from this is the fact that the result wasn’t out of our hands. This referendum was winnable, if we’d done things slightly better. That, surely, should cheer us. Even if AV passed, it was going to be the first step of a long journey. Sadly, the journey for political reformers seems a lot longer now than it did on May 4th.

What’s most important is that we learn our lessons from this referendum and remember that we do have the power to change things. We do have agency, and there’s no big conspiracy stopping us from changing things. As FDR might have said, had he been involved with the Yes campaign, the only thing we have to fear is our incompetence.


Why people in favour of PR should vote for AV

May 3, 2011

Jim Jepps of The Daily (Maybe) generously allowed me to write a guest post for his blog explaining why people in favour of PR should still vote for AV. You can see the original, complete with an interesting discussion, here. I’ve cross-posted it below as well:

No2AV Yes2PR was launched by David Owen some months ago. Originally the Yes campaign decided not to challenge their arguments at all. This was decided, as I understand it, for two reasons.Firstly, it seemed like a small irrelevance at the time. Secondly, launching this group undermined all the arguments that the No camp were making: that AV would lead to more coalitions, that we need to keep FPTP etc.

Ultimately not challenging this argument has been a mistake (one of many) from the Yes campaign. It’s led to many people who want electoral reform either voting No or, like Jim, have been very ambivalent about AV because it’s not a proportional system.

Jim has very generously allowed me to write a piece explaining why people in favour of PR should vote Yes on Thursday.

The main argument I’ve heard against voting Yes on Thursday is that a Yes vote would be a roadblock to further reform. If anything, the opposite is the case.

For evidence that AV could lead to more electoral reform, people need look no further than the Political Studies Association briefing paper on the Alternative Vote. It was compiled by Dr Alan Renwick with the help of many leading political scientists, including Professors John Curtice, Simon Hix and Pippa Norris.

This is what the PSA has to say on the subject:

It is clear that changing the electoral system is easier where change has already recently happened: the idea of reform is no longer so radical; more people are familiar with the reform options; there are fewer interests vested in the status quo. Four established democracies – France, Italy, Japan, and New Zealand – have introduced major reforms to their national electoral systems in the last thirty years. Two of these – France and Italy have subsequently instituted further major reforms, while Japan passed a further smaller reform, and New Zealand will hold a referendum creating the possibility of another major reform later this year. (p21)

After changing the voting system in 1991, Italy changed it again two years later and again in 2005. New Zealand held a referendum to change from First Past the Post in 1992, and is holding another referendum asking voters whether they want to change the system later this year.

To say, then, that AV would be a roadblock for reform is completely missing the point. It would actually be a small but significant step towards reform in the future, and make future reform much more likely than a No vote.

Another argument I’ve heard on the blogosphere is that AV would hold up reform because it makes it harder to change to a proportional system:

Truly proportional systems such as that Mixed Member, Largest Remainder or D’hont system, simply ask people to express a party preference and then use centrally controlled party lists and / or second tear ‘top-up’ constituencies to allocate seats to parties on a proportional basis. By allowing voters to rank individual candidates AV is actually a step away from these kinds of system.

This isn’t quite right though. AV would be a small but logical step towards something like Single Transferable Vote. After all, AV is STV for single member constituencies. Another logical step would be to lead to something like AV+, as recommended by the Jenkins Commission. This would be a hybrid of a list top-up system and MPs elected by, you guessed it, the Alternative Vote. So AV would still be a step forward to getting any proportional system.

I’m of the view that people should vote Yes simply because AV is a better system. However, even if you would prefer a more radical change than AV, vote Yes on Thursday, because that’s the only way you’re going to get it.


Would AV help the BNP?

March 31, 2011

With only five weeks to go until the AV Referendum, Yes2AV have unveiled their secret weapon: Baroness Warsi.

Warsi is the chair of the Conservative Party, and judging by her recent comments she is a Yes2Av double agent masquerading as a patron of the No2AV campaign:

Speaking in London’s East End, near where anti-fascists fought a march by Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts in 1936, Lady Warsi argued that a switch to AV would bring “a real risk that candidates would pander to extremists”, with “more inflammatory campaigns, and more policies which appeal to people’s worst instincts rather that to the values of the mainstream”.

Supporters of AV were “backing a system which rewards extremism and gives oxygen to extremist groups”, she claimed. It could also give parties like the BNP more legitimacy and “more power to those people – fringe voters, Monster Raving Loonies, and yes, fascists – who are voting for precisely the kind of extreme policies most people want to marginalise”. Lady Warsi added: “It means that bigots will be given more power in our politics and extremists will look to gain more influence over mainstream parties.”

Anyone would think that under our current system no parties pander to the BNP whatsoever. If only that were true. As Immigration Minister, Devil Incarnate and unofficial nemesis of Paperback Rioter Phil Woolas pandered to the far-right on an almost daily basis. And does anyone remember “British Jobs for British Workers”? It’s not as if Warsi herself is immune from this treatment: she said in an interview back in 2007 that people voting BNP had “legitimate concerns”. I can’t see AV making this situation any worse.

If this were a debate over a proportional system, such as STV or AV+, then there would be a chance that BNP MPs would be elected and sit in the House of Commons. If that were the debate we were having, then the following points could be made:

a) If people vote for fascists, than fascists have the right to sit in Parliament. That’s the point of democracy, after all.
b) The BNP’s views are repugnant, but as I’ve argued before the best way to challenge the BNP is to defeat their arguments in open debate and not to shirk from the challenge.

However, that is not the debate and AV is not a proportional system. It’s a system of electing MPs to a constituency. And it would make the prospect of a BNP MP much more unlikely because of the need for MPs to reach a threshold of 50% +1 of votes.

Take a look at this House of Commons briefing note on the BNP. The three BNP councillors elected for the first time in Burnley in 2002 had an average vote share of 28.1%. This means that 71.9% of voters voted against these councillors, yet they were still elected. If you look at the vote share of BNP councillors elected in 2008 (p7), you’ll see that only one of the fifteen candidates was elected with more than 40% of the vote, and one, in Maltby, was elected with just 23.1% of the vote.

Under AV the only way the BNP could have won these elections is to have picked up a sizable number of second preference votes. This is extremely unlikely, because, to quote this excellent guide to AV, “generally voters either support a party like the BNP, or hate it, so such parties gain very few second and third preferences.”

We do actually have some data on second preference votes for the BNP, for the London Assembly elections in 2008. You can find it on p8 of the House of Commons briefing notes. By my calculations, across the fourteen constituencies we have data for, an average of 4.93% of voters put the BNP down as a second preference. This would have been insufficient to win any of the council seats I mentioned above, even in seats where they polled 40% of votes in the first round.

Warsi is therefore plain wrong. AV would not help the BNP: if anything it would make them almost impossible to win any seats. Indeed, that’s why the BNP are supporting the No campaign.

There is another strand to Warsi’s criticism, about whether AV would give more influence to voters of extremist parties, but I will address that in a later blog post.


Yes to Fairer Votes Blog

March 15, 2011

You can read my blog on the Youth Says Yes event we organised at the University of Birmingham at the Yes to Fairer Votes website.

I’m in the TV footage at about two minutes in – I’m the chap in the red coat holding the banner in the middle.


No2AV plays the Nick Clegg card

March 3, 2011

It was obvious that No2AV were going to play the Nick Clegg card at some point. Seeing as he’s now one of the most unpopular men in Britain, tying him to the AV campaign was going to be something they would do, in the absence of any coherent arguments about why we should keep First Past the Post.

Nick Clegg’s approval ratings, which were higher than Winston Churchill before the general election, have been falling steadily ever since. The latest polling suggests that Clegg’s approval rating stands at -34, with 28% thinking he’s performing well and 62% thinking he’s doing badly.

Most importantly from the referendum campaign’s point of view is that Nick Clegg is immensely unpopular with Labour voters.

In my view, the result of the referendum will be decided by the proportion of Labour voters that decide to vote Yes or No. Most Tories are going to vote No, most Lib Dems will vote yes, with Labour being split on the issue. How their members vote will therefore probably decide the result.

Clegg’s approval ratings amongst Labour voters is a comically bad -87, with only 5% thinking he’s performing well and 92% badly. No wonder Ed Miliband has asked Nick Clegg to take a step back from the Yes campaign and avoid being its poster boy.

This makes good sense, though the thought of Ed Miliband being Yes2AV’s poster boy instead doesn’t exactly fill me with joy and happiness.

So, now to No2AV’s advert:

A Labour-supporting friend I showed the advert to said, “This is REAL?! I thought it was a parody.” That tells you all you need to know about it, I think.

It does seem like a parody, mainly because its claims are wild bollocks hyperbolic nonsense.

Duncan Stott has already written about a few of them, but I’ll expand with a bit of detail below.

1) Nick Clegg won’t be Lib Dem leader forever

At the rate things are going, he might not even be an MP in 2015. He’s MP for Sheffield Hallam, the only seat in South Yorkshire not held by Labour, and was elected courtesy of a large student vote. Something tells me that students and young people aren’t going to be so keen to vote for the Cleggmeister in the next election.

2) AV doesn’t mean the Lib Dems will get more seats

The advert indicates that the Lib Dems will automatically benefit from AV. To explode that myth you only need to look at the polling data. The latest Yougov poll puts the Lib Dems on 10%. And that’s a surge in the polls, by their standards.

The Lib Dems have consistently been the second preferences of many voters, particularly Labour voters, but I cannot see that remaining the case now. Also, as the Yougov polling data I linked to indicates, they have lost more than half of their first preference voters. Only 45% of people who voted Lib Dem in May still support them now, according to those latest figures.

I cannot believe that the No campaign have overlooked what ought to be a rather simple principle: that AV will only benefit the Lib Dems if people vote for them.

3) AV does not lead to more hung parliaments

As discussed before on this blog, there’s no evidence that AV leads to an increase in the number of hung parliaments.

Indeed, it might have escaped the No camp’s attention, but we have a hung parliament at the moment, under First Past the Post. And it’s not the only one in living memory: take 1974 for example.

4) Nick Clegg does not decide who forms a government: we do

In May, when the polls were increasingly predicting a hung parliament, Nick Clegg said that he would enter coalition talks first with the party that had the biggest mandate. And he kept his word on that (again, not something you’ll read often these days). As I’ve written before, there was no way that the Lib Dems could have entered a coalition with Labour, because the numbers just weren’t there.

So even if we had a situation, as in May, where a hung parliament looked likely, it wouldn’t be Nick Clegg who decides whether there is a hung parliament, or who decides who enters into a coalition: it would be you. Me. Us. The voters.

If anyone is reading this from No2AV: well done. This latest advert is nowhere near as morally repugnant as the baby one. However, it’s preferable if campaign adverts:

a) Are not morally abhorrent.
b) Contain some facts that are, you know, true (yes I’m looking at YOU, the bogus £25om figure still included on the advert).
c) Contain a clear, principled argument.

I suppose 1 out of 3 is an improvement from 0 out of 3.

If anyone is reading this from Yes2AV: can we have some billboards of our own, please? Ones that conform to the three points I just listed would be even better.


There are just two minor flaws with No2AV’s claim that voting Yes2AV will cost £250m…

February 28, 2011

CAT: Why don’t we drop the defensive shields?
KRYTEN: A superlative suggestion, sir, with just two minor flaws. One, we don’t have any defensive shields, and two, we don’t have any defensive shields. Now I realise that, technically speaking, that’s only one flaw but I thought it was such a big one it was worth mentioning twice.
(Red Dwarf, Holoship)

I am reminded of Kryten’s words whenever I see the No campaign’s figure repeated anywhere. I’ll explain why below.

That cost figure can finally be put to bed, thanks to Channel 4′s Fact Check blog:

Take another look at the Electoral Commission’s comment; at this stage it hasn’t even considered if electronic voting machines are necessary – let alone looked at the potential cost.

Whether voting machines are bought are not is a separate debate that is unrelated to which voting system we use. They could also be introduced if there’s a no vote and we keep FPTP.

Next, the Treasury has said that there won’t be any extra cost incurred if there’s a Yes vote in May:

Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has denied the claims that a move to AV, under which voters rank candidates in order of preference, would force Whitehall departments to make more painful savings.

In a letter from his private office, Mr Alexander insists: “The Government has no plans to reopen departmental spending review settlements as a consequence of a Yes vote in the referendum on AV.” He also confirms that £120m has already been set aside for the next general election, to come from the Cabinet Office budget, and reveals that the Treasury “has not received any advice on the assumptions behind the cost of the next general election should it be an AV election”.

Mr Alexander, who backs AV, went further, telling The IoS: “I don’t expect to see any increase in the cost of holding a general election if the British people vote yes. There’s no good reason to believe that even under a new voting system an election would need to be more expensive.”

The cost of the 2010 General Election, as far as I can gather from this written answer from Francis Maude, was £102m. A rise of £18m in five years, after allowing for inflation, seems about the same figure in real terms.

Ah, you might say, but Danny Alexander is a Lib Dem, and in favour of AV. No wonder he’s quickly come out and rubbished No2AV’s claim. Surely a vote for AV will mean there is less money to spend on health services, maternity units and the like?

Ahem:

Asked if they would have to make bigger cuts if there is a Yes vote on AV, a bemused health department spokesman said: “No. Of course not.”

So there you have it.

As Kryten might have said, there are really only two problems with saying that voting Yes2AV will cost £250m. Firstly, it won’t cost £250m. And secondly, it won’t cost £250m.

It might only techically be one reason, but it seems like such a big one that it’s worth mentioning twice.


An A-Z of rubbish arguments from No2AV

February 22, 2011

A is for Australia

As the No campaign never tire of telling us, only three countries use AV at the moment. One of them is Australia. According to one poll commissioned by the Institute for Public Affairs, 57% of Australians wish to go back to FPTP rather than AV. The IPA describes itself as “Australia’s leading free market think tank. Promoting public policy based on individual liberty, limited government [and]  free markets”. Call me cynical, but they don’t sound like the sort of body that is generally in favour of fluffy causes like a fairer voting system.

Antony Green is a political commentator in Australia who has been following the AV Referendum, and has become increasingly bemused by No2AV’s arguments. In this blog he goes into the opinions of Australians of the various voting systems in more detail. He actually finds that most Australians would actually prefer Optional Preference Voting – ie the version of AV that would be adopted in the UK – to either Compulsory Preference Voting or First Past the Post.

The No campaign are using Australia as the main case study, despite the fact that it’s a different system of preferential voting. In Australia, voters have to rank ALL candidates in order. The AV we’d have in Britain would be “optional preference”. As an Australian Labour activist wrote on Labour List:

It also gives a greater weight to first preference votes, decreasing the tendency of perverse outcomes such as where the candidate who comes third determines who wins in a three cornered contests.

The No campaign are also putting out other Australia-related falsehoods. Take this from Margaret Beckett, for instance:

It led to a significant drop in the number of people voting in Australia – that’s why they had to make voting compulsory. AV doesn’t help democracy, it stands in its way.

As was pointed out on Labour List, there’s no evidence for this – indeed, turnout was 71% in the first election held under AV and only declined in the next election.

B is for the BNP

William Hague has said that “A vote for AV would be a vote for the BNP”. Except the BNP would not benefit under AV. Indeed, apart from the Conservatives they are the only major party not to be in favour of a Yes vote. They say that it is “unfair to smaller parties”, whilst ignoring the fact that smaller parties such as UKIP and the Greens are in favour of AV. The fact is that AV would benefit these smaller parties as it would mean they pick up more first and second preference votes. The BNP, in contrast, would pick up very few second and third preferences.

I’ve written in far greater detail about whether the BNP would benefit in this post.

C is for Complicated

David Cameron has called AV “complicated”. It isn’t. Maybe Cameron has problems counting to five, but I’m pretty sure all British voters can.

As this flowchart demonstrates (taken from here) First Past the Post can, on occasion, be more complicated than AV!

D is for Doorstep issue

Martin Kettle quotes an unnamed Conservative minister as saying that “The public have many priorities. This [electoral reform] just isn’t one of them”. Apparently we shouldn’t care about electoral reform because it isn’t brought up as an issue on the doorstep by voters.

I daresay it isn’t a doorstep issue, but it’s still important. Poverty in Africa, for instance, or climate change, are important issues but aren’t brought up on the doorstep either. Also, electoral reform should be important, as it can help address issues arising from people’s disconnect from politics and politicians.

In any case, this argument is a smokescreen from the No camp designed to get around the fact that AV is simply a better system than FPTP.

E is for Extra Votes

See number 2 of this from Conservative Home: “supporters of fringe parties can see their vote counted five or six times”. This is ridiculous. Everyone’s vote gets equal weight, and gets counted in every round, but some votes will be transferred to a different party.

David Cameron keeps making the argument that AV gives some people more than one vote, but he obviously hasn’t listened to his old university tutor, Vernon Bogdanor. This is what he wrote in an article for the Guardian:

But the no campaign’s claim that AV gives some voters two votes, also made by former foreign secretaries led by Douglas Hurd, is equally absurd. As Jo Swinson, Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire, said on last week’s Question Time, if I ask you to buy me a Mars but a Mars is not available and I suggest you buy a Twix instead, I will not receive two bars of chocolate. A transferred vote is not a multiple vote.

The No campaign have rebranded in the last few weeks as “Keep One Person One Vote”, so I do want to hammer the point home that AV doesn’t give you more than one vote. Here’s Alan Renwick in A Citizen’s Guide to Electoral Reform:

Under the alternative vote, only one of a voter’s preferences counts towards the final result: each voter’s ballot has the same weight as any other. If your second preference is counted, that’s because the candidate to whom you gave your first preference has already been eliminated from the race. So no one has two votes. (pp66-7)

One final point on this is the letter a group of historians wrote urging people to vote No.

It’s a rather silly letter written by some people who have gone down in my estimations. Richard Evans, I thought you’d know better. Thankfully this pile of rubbish was nicely flattened by Hopi Sen.

They claim that “For the first time since 1928 and the granting of universal suffrage, we face the possibility that one person’s casting ballot will be given greater weight than another”. This is simply not true.

Until the end of the 1945-50 parliament, several seats in the House of Commons were reserved for the English Universities. Any graduate from these universities could vote in the election for these seats, in addition to their vote in the residential constituency. So the vote of University Graduates counted for more than that of non-graduates.

Further, from 1918 the elections for those seats were conducted by Single Transferable Vote. So Britain had both an unequal franchise, and a system of proportional representation in the House of Commons well after the introduction of universal suffrage.

The rest of the blog post is well worth reading.

Finally, just to put the issue to bed, or if you need more convincing, here’s Antony Green once more.

F is for Fiji

Fiji is one of those countries that has the AV system at the moment. The No2AV myths-busting blog says that they “want to scrap it”. Except that’s because they had a military coup in 2006, at which point their new government banned elections and made plans to rewrite the constitution. That’s why Fiji are thinking of scrapping AV.

Also, as was pointed out in the comments, Fiji has a very weird system of AV, in which it’s the candidate who decides where their second preferences go, rather than the voters of that candidate:

Voters are only expected to vote for a single party and then allow their chosen candidate to decide where their vote is sent if he/she is eliminated.

So it’s not even the same system that’s being proposed in Britain – it’s a much worse system.

G is for Gives more power to politicians, not voters

This was John Prescott’s line on Newsnight last week. It’s completely spurious, as it’s based on the fact that AV will lead to more hung parliaments (see “H”). Indeed, it gives voters more power, as AV ends tactical voting (see “I”). Also, MPs will have to work harder for their constituents and reach out beyond their core vote to win seats.

Indeed, the Jenkins Commission said that:

AV counters one important objection to electoral reform. This is the tendency to transfer power from voters to the subsequent deals of politicians (para 127)

H is for Hung Parliaments

David Cameron said in his No2AV speech that AV would mean hung parliaments would become “more commonplace”, with all the horsetrading which that implies. Leaving aside whether coalitions are a good or bad thing, AV won’t lead to more hung parliaments necessarily. There have been fewer hung parliaments  in Australia, which uses AV, then in Britain, which uses FPTP. There’s simply no evidence to support Cameron’s claim.

Also, as this IPPR Report “Worst of Both Worlds: Why First Past the Post No Longer Works” makes clear, hung parliaments are equally likely under First Past the Post anyway. That’s primarily because more and more people have started voting for parties other than Labour or Conservative, as this chart makes clear:

Blue = Conservative, Red = Labour, Yellow = Liberal/SDP/LibDem, Grey = Other

The report concludes:

Since the 1970s, UK citizens have shown a clear appetite to vote for third parties and to embrace a form of political pluralism which runs directly against the grain of the way FPTP operates. It is breaking down in a new context of multi-party politics. Designed for a world that no longer exists, it looks increasingly anachronistic in 21 st century Britain. Electoral trends since the 1970s are eroding FPTP’s ability to do what its advocates claim it does. As a result, unless it is reformed we can expect at least some of the following to happen, all of which profoundly undermine the case for its retention. (p21)

In other words, our current system is broken. AV would be a small but significant step towards fixing that system.

I is for Increases tactical voting

According to the “AV myth-busting” article, AV would reinvent tactical voting. This misses the point slightly. As the BBC defines it:

Tactical voting involves constituents who agree with the policies of one party deliberately choosing not to vote for their candidate.

Usually, this is because the candidate in question has little prospect of winning and so the voters prefer to give their second-choice options a better chance of winning the seat.

This type of tactical voting – essentially “do I vote with my head or my heart?” – is completely removed with AV. Say you are a Green voter in a Labour/Tory marginal. You might vote Labour, rather than Green, to ‘keep the Tories out’, because you see Labour as the “least-worst” option. Under AV you could vote Green as your first preference and still influence the outcome of the election with your second preference.

And the scenarios the No2AV campaign give for tactical voting under AV are ludicrous beyond belief:

For example, in a three way seat where both Labour and the Liberal Democrats were in danger of coming last, a Conservative might be tempted to give their first preference to Labour, for fear a Labour elimination would mean a hefty vote transfer to the Lib Dems.

This is such a ridiculous hypothetical scenario it doesn’t even bear thinking about.

J is for the Jenkins Commission

The No campaign love to quote the Jenkins Commission report on electoral reform on AV. Take this, for instance:

He cited the danger of tactical voting wiping out a party, the “unpredictable’ disproportional link between seats and percent of the vote ‘it is even less proportional that FPTP [first past the post]”.

However, for some reason the No campaign never quote this bit (paragraph 126):

Under our system, AV would have a number of positive features which persuade a majority of us that it would be superior to FPTP as a method of choosing constituency representatives. First, there will be many fewer ‘wasted votes’ in the constituency side of the election, and far more voters will potentially influence the result. This, we hope, will encourage turn-out and participation. Second, it would encourage serious candidates to pitch their appeal to a majority of their constituents, rather than just seeking to target a hard-core minority of the party faithful. This should lead to more inclusive politics than FPTP. Third, because second and subsequent preferences may count, it will discourage individual candidates from intemperate attacks on their rivals, since they will be hoping to gain their second votes and will not wish to alienate their supporters. This should contribute to the more consensual and less confrontational politics to which the majority of the public appear to aspire.

Funny that.

K is for Kicking governments out

An aspect of FPTP David Cameron praised in his speech was the fact that it is decisive, and can be used to kick out unpopular governments:

There’s nothing more powerful than that – when people see their vote had led to the removal vans driving down Downing Street.

Except, as David Aaronovitch pointed out in the Times last Thursday (I came across the article in a copy of the paper in a Chinese takeaway, you can find it through the paywall if you really want to) AV would actually make it easier to remove unpopular governments. Voters would just rearrange their preferences so as not to vote for them. Jenkins calls this tactical voting – I’m not sure I agree with that. Can you call not voting for a party you don’t like tactical?

L is for Liberal Democrats

If you listen to the the No campaign, you’d assume that the Lib Dems are the only party that could benefit from AV being introduced. At their campaign launch Robert Winston said:

AV represented “a threat to democracy” since it is a constitutional change that will benefit one party, the Liberal Democrats.

There’s no reason why AV would automatically benefit the Lib Dems. It would only if people voted for them, and judging from recent polling data, that doesn’t look like it’ll be the case. Also, if it’s only the Lib Dems that benefit from AV, why are all the political parties apart from The Tories and the BNP in favour of it? As I said in “B”, parties such as the Greens and UKIP would get a lot of first and second preferences.

The simple fact is that voters are moving away from Labour and the Conservatives to other parties, as I argue here. The introduction of AV would be an acknowledgement of that change.

I’ve written more about the Lib Dems in No2AV plays the Nick Clegg card.

M is for Miserable little compromise

How Nick Clegg must regret saying that. It’s being used in all the No campaign literature now. However, as Paul Perrin has pointed out, he seems to be referring not to AV itself, but to the package of constitional reform that Labour was offering. What Clegg actually says about AV is this:

AV is a baby step in the right direction – only because nothing can be worse than the status quo.

So it’s an improvement on the present system.

N is for Nobody wants it

See number 6 of this Con Home article mentioned above. However, to quote John Rentoul, “I want it”.

So do a whole plethora of political parties and campaigning organisations, the Church of England, Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, John Cleese and Eddie Izzard.

See also “W”.

O is for Obscure

See point 1 of that Con Home article cited above.

Except AV is used by the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats to elect their leaders, by trade unions to elect their representatives, by student union bodies, by MPs to appoint select committee chairs, the Church of England to elect Bishops, etc etc. It’s commonly used in Britain already (about 14 million people use it in Britain already). Close cousins of AV, such as the Supplementary Vote system, are used to elect elected Mayors, such as in London. AV is even used to decide Best Film at the Oscars.

Meanwhile FPTP is becoming ever-obscurer. As the IPPR report says:

Over the course of the 20th century, a number of states have opted to switch away from FPTP. From Australia in 1913 through to New Zealand in 1993, successions of states have embraced wholesale electoral reform. More tellingly, no major democracy in the modern era has gone the other way and adopted FPTP. Since 1945, only three new democracies have introduced FPTP based on the British model – Albania, Macedonia and Ukraine – and even these countries subsequently decided to switch to a different system.(p19)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again -FPTP is totally unsuited to modern-day politics.

P is for Papua New Guinea

Yup, it’s one of the three countries that uses AV. Which is more of an observation than a comment on the merits of First Past the Post. As is pointed out by Daniel in the comments, and by Renwick in A Citizen’s Guide to Electoral Reform, AV was introduced to try and reduce inter-tribal tensions, so that candidates would have to appeal beyond their own tribe. As Daniel says:

They originally had AV under Australian rule and it worked quite well for the tribal society, electing candidates who could appeal to and work with a broad selection of the population. Upon gaining independence they decided to choose the simpler system FPTP, however it lead to so many problems; divisiveness, corruption, negative and dirty electoral campaigning, and candidates winning constituencies with as little as 5% of the vote; they decided to return back to AV.

Q is for Quoting statistics on how past elections would have turned out under AV

I’ve written about this before:

You don’t know because people vote differently under different electoral systems. Also, the whole campaign would have been different, with candidates also campaigning for the second preference votes of voters for other parties, rather than merely relying on their core voters.

Under AV, the whole dynamic would have changed. Thus, you would see more votes for smaller parties (such as the Greens, the Pirates and, maybe, the Monster Raving Looney Party) because people could vote for a smaller party with their first preference whilst still being able to influence the outcome of the vote with their second. You would also have seen an increase in Tory first-preference voting, instead of some voting Lib Dem tactically. That’s because AV virtually ends tactical voting.

R is for Reasons to keep FPTP

The No campaign haven’t given us any. Probably because the advantages of FPTP, such as the constituency link, are retained by AV, whilst AV is also an improvement on the current system.

S is for Stick it to the coalition

This isn’t something coming from the No2AV campaign itself. However, it is a common argument I’ve seen from a certain type of Labour tribalist. It’s nonsense that was skewered very nicely by James Graham some months ago:

My fears that Labour would end up getting trapped into a mindset of “what’s bad for the coalition is good for us” have proven to be well founded, and it is an infection which has spread across the board, even among some relatively sensible types. A perfect example is AV. Leaving aside the rather tedious row about boundary changes (which, aside from some of the legitimate social justice issues at stake, amounts to two parties with a rather inflated sense of entitlement arguing about which party should be given the greatest unfair advantage), the idea that losing the AV referendum will damage the coalition is quite mistaken. It will certainly damage the Liberal Democrats, but we’ll have nowhere to go. Our only recourse will be batten down the hatches, refocus on Lords reform and a handful of other reforms, and hope for the best. It will be the Tory right that will hold all the cards, not Labour. The idea that suddenly we’ll decide to pull out of the coalition and meet our doom in an early general election is pure fantasy.

By contrast, what better way to undermine the Clegg-Cameron love in than for Labour to champion AV, and win? The Tory right will be damaged, Labour will come out smelling of roses and the Lib Dems’ influence within the coalition will increase. For many Tories, that will be simply unscionable. An unruly Tory backbench will make Lib-Lab cooperation in Parliament far easier. This is the prize Labour have within their grasp; yet they are so obsessed with ‘betrayal’ they simply can’t see it. I can only look on in despair.

Apologies for the lengthy quoting, but it really cannot be put any better than that.

T is for Two party politics

One of the many ridiculous articles on Labour Uncut about AV (they’ve started calling Fairer Votes campaigners drawing room Jihadists) had this to say about AV:

We’ve waited for generations for a chance to destroy the Liberal Democrats and get British politics back to its natural balance of a two party democracy.

How much can you get wrong in just a single sentence? For a start, this isn’t all about the Liberal bloody Democrats! Also, the two party system has gone. It’s dead. It’s an ex-system.

Why should a two-party system be “natural” for Britain? Over one-third of voters voted for a party other than Labour or Conservative, when that figure was 5% fifty years ago. British politics is more pluralist now. Deal with it.

U is for Unaffected Constituencies

The myth-busting article says:

AV would make no difference in nearly 300 safe seats where the sitting MP has 50% of the vote, or is close to it.

Which of course means that it would make a difference in half of seats. Which means it’s an improvement on the present system. Nobody is suggesting that AV is the cure for all our ills, but it is an improvement on the present system.

V is for Voter ballot papers are printed by Yes to Fairer Votes

The only new entry in my A-Z of rubbish arguments. The Spectator in particular have gone overboard on this issue. This is their first post on the issue. Basically, Yes2AV are funded by the Electoral Reform Society. And the ERS:

…turns out to be the majority shareholder in Britain’s leading and highly profitable supplier of election services, and its dividends are funding the campaign. The business, which is called Electoral Reform Services Ltd, turns over £21m.

ERSL (too many acronyms in this piece, aren’t there?) is the supplies ballot papers and vote counting machines, etc.

The Spectator, and other areas of the right-wing press, are trying to spin this non-story into one saying that the Yes campaign is heavily financed by a large, corporate vested interest. Just last week they posted this, saying that, er, ballot papers and Yes2AV leaflets were being printed on the same machines. Because obviously the ballot papers will be somehow contaminated by the filthy prescence of Yes literature.

This is a complete non-story. For a start,  the ERS and the ERSL are two legally separate companies, so there’s no dodgy dealings afoot. Second, the Spectator try and imply that the ERSL will profit from providing vote-counting machines, but there are no plans to introduce vote counting machines because of AV!

Also, and I cannot believe I have to point this out to journalists, but Electoral Reform Society supports electoral reform is not, cannot and won’t ever be a story.

Once again we have slurs from the No camp to distract us from the fact that AV is simply a better system.

W is for Would rather have PR

I’ve written about this before too. Basically, the best way to get PR is to have a resounding “Yes” vote on a high turnout. How would a No vote further the cause for PR? That thought is ridiculous.

It’s true that groups such as the Electoral Reform Society would prefer PR. But AV is the deal on the table, and it’s an improvement on the current system. If someone offers you half a loaf of bread, you’re going to take it, because it’s better than no bread at all.

See my expanded argument on why people in favour of PR should vote Yes here.

X is for eXpensive (!)

AV will cost £250m! Except £82m of that is apparently the cost of holding the referendum, which would be incurred even if there is a No vote. And £130m of that is on buying voter counting machines. They don’t use them in Australia, which uses AV, but DO use them in America, which uses FPTP. That’s a massive fail from No2AV then.

I’ve written about this in more detail too, in There are just two minor flaws with No2AV’s claim that AV will cost £250m…

Y is for Yes to Fairer Votes kills babies

I wrote about this before too. Yesterday an even worse advert appeared in the Birmingham Mail:

It’s a disgusting and misleading ad, as Left Foot Forward rightly points out. There’s another good blog by Stephen Baxter at the New Statesman here.

Z is for Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz……

Well done for making it to the end!

I’m bored of these stupid arguments from No2AV. It’d be nice if once, just once, they would engage with the issues, and present the British public with a positive case to keep FPTP. Sadly, it seems we have another two months of negative campaigning. Such, such are the joys.

If you’re bored of the No campaign’s rubbish, vote yes TODAY!

(UPDATE April 27th, 2011: I’ve updated this article to include all the new rubbish since I wrote this almost seven weeks ago now. Thanks to all those who’ve provided material for this, including Daniel and waronfreedom in the comments, as well as Tom and Emilie for putting other information my way as well).


The No to AV campaign is going all Phil Woolas on our asses

February 15, 2011

When any politician goes in for extreme negative attacks, it’s always the last act of a desperate campaign. Phil Woolas engaged in his unique brand of slurring when it was obvious he was going to lose. This week marked the start of that type of campaign from the No2AV camp, with this blog and this advert:

For a start, the £250m is a meaningless figure. The No camp might as well have said that AV will cost us all four hundred squillion billion trillion million pounds, and that if we say Yes to AV then disembodied zombies will rise up from graveyards and devour our babies. Now I come to think about it, that is basically what they are saying.

Secondly, they seem to misunderstand how government spending works. Money isn’t being taken directly from maternity wards, out of the mouths of babes and sucklings (literally) and instead being spent on referendum publicity, or on vote counting machines. It’ll come out of the budgets for the relevant government departments that run elections.

Also, complaining about cuts would be more convincing were the No campaign not comprised of groups (such as the Conservative Party and the Taxpayers Alliance) who are in favour of, and are carrying out, massive cuts to public spending that will affect poor and vulnerable people. If you want a proper debate over public spending, then the AV referendum is a red herring. Also, they seem to have based their claims on the wrong electoral system.

Let’s face it, this figure of £250m is farcical. Apparently it comes from a report commissioned by the No to AV campaign. Which obviously means it’ll be a balanced, impartial figure. Maybe the Yes campaign should commission their own report saying that the referendum will only cost £3.50, and we can spend the referendum arguing over the cost of the campaign rather than the actual issues involved.

For this is what the No campaign are ignoring. They already seem to have given up trying to give us reasons to retain First Past the Post, and the referendum campaign hasn’t even really begun yet.

Of course, bringing in AV will cost some money. Probably not as much as £250m, but it will cost something. Yet surely cost is irrelevant compared to bringing in a voting system that will lead to a more pluralist politics, greater choice to voters and ensure that MPs have a proper mandate?

Except the No campaign refuses to engage in debate with the Yes campaign. Conservative groups who are in favour of AV have even been banned from the Tory conference, for goodness sake. What does that say about the No campaign’s commitment to a fair, open debate?

There are important constitutional issues at stake in this referendum that will affect how every single Briton engages with politics forever. Rather than debating these issues, the No to AV camp has decided to go for scaremongering. It’s immoral, abhorrent and shameful.


The impact of AV on Oldham East and Saddleworth

January 19, 2011

One of the more interesting predictable aspects of the Oldham East and Saddleworth post-mortems was the discussion of what effect holding the election under the Alternative Vote system would have had. VoteNoToAV, an unofficial but enthusisatic member of the “No” twittersphere, got the ball rolling with this soon after the result was announced:

Anyone like to argue that this by-election held under FPTP wasn’t fair or democratic and that we didn’t get a clear winner? #NO2AV

There’s also this PDF distributed by the No campaign about the effects AV would have had on the by-election. As usual with much of the No campaign literature, it spends most of its time bashing the Lib Dems and never once gives any reason why we should keep First Past the Post. I was, however, intrigued by its first paragraph:

Had the 2010 election been held under AV, Liberal Democrats (sic) would have comfortably won Oldham East and Saddleworth last May…

I don’t know how they know this for certain, as they cannot know the second preference intentions of the Oldham East voters.

However, what the No camp seem to be implying is that, whilst under FPTP Phil Woolas was rewarded for his racist and illegal leaflets by winning the seat in May, under AV he would have lost.

It’s good to see the No camp sticking up for honest, fair campaining in this fashion.

The real lesson to take from Oldham East is that you cannot accurately predict who would win an AV election based on the election results of a FPTP one. It’s the same with the predictions of number-crunchers who say things like “In 1997 New Labour would have had a majority of 7million under AV”: you don’t know because people vote differently under different electoral systems. Also, the whole campaign would have been different, with candidates also campaigning for the second preference votes of voters for other parties, rather than merely relying on their core voters.

Under AV, the whole dynamic would have changed. Thus, you would see more votes for smaller parties (such as the Greens, the Pirates and, maybe, the Monster Raving Looney Party) because people could vote for a smaller party with their first preference whilst still being able to influence the outcome of the vote with their second. You would also have seen an increase in Tory first-preference voting, instead of some voting Lib Dem tactically. That’s because AV virtually ends tactical voting.

It’s true that the result would have been closer under AV, but, as John Rentoul says, “In the dull grey light of the waking world, Labour would probably have still won in Oldham under AV, just.” Not only would the result have been closer, but Labour would also have had to work very hard to ensure it retained the seat in the next election. That’s because AV makes more seats more competitive. It would have meant political parties having to knock on more doors and engage with more members of the public, and not rely on a core vote of 35-40%. And that can only be a good thing.

The upshot of all this is that when someone confidently says what the result of this by-election, or that election, would have been under AV, you should treat it with a serious pinch of salt.


Thoughts on Old and Sad (or: I’m so vain I probably think this by-election is about me)

January 6, 2011

It’s very unusual for my home town to be the centre of anything, so I have loved keeping tabs on the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election campaign. Voting in that takes place on January 13th, one week from today.

The first by-election in any Parliament is always intriguing. Add the fact that we have a coalition government into the mix, as well as the exceptional circumstances in Oldham, and we have a perfect storm for political junkies like myself.

Not only is this by-election crucial for all three main parties, but it will also play a major role in determining the media narrative for 2011. Will the focus be on the crumbling Lib Dem vote? Or the stability – or otherwise – of the coalition? Maybe on Ed Miliband’s ineffective leadership? Perhaps the focus will be on disenchantment with the three main parties, as smaller parties see an increase in their vote.

As you’d expect, it’s a crowded field with ten candidates. We’ll be hearing from most of them next week in Paperback Rioter’s online hustings (check this blog out on Sunday for more information on that).

I even got the chance to speak to one last week, when Debbie Abrahams, the Labour candidate, canvassed our house. I gave her my best Paxman-style grilling; the impact of which was probably diminished by the fact that I was wearing my pyjamas and dressing gown at the time.

Debbie Abrahams was Head of Rochdale PCT but resigned over increasing privatisation. She also said to me that she was in favour of AV (“a step in the right direction”). Also, she is married to John Abrahams, a former Lancashire captain and current England under-19 coach. On the face of it, she is probably my dream Labour Candidate.

We talked for a bit about the cuts, and Debbie Abrahams reiterated Labour’s plans to halve the deficit in four years, as opposed to the three years set out by the Government in the Comprehensive Spending Review. She also said that Labour’s cuts would be “fairer” than the coalitions, but I am not sure how that is achieveable. It is the most vulnerable people in society that have the greatest reliance on public services, and therefore any cuts to public spending are going to affect them most.

The main reason I cannot vote Labour in this by-election is because there has still been no apology for what Phil Woolas did, nor any internal action taken against other Labour members of the Woolas campaign. An apology for his leaflets from Labour was a red-line issue for me – I would not vote Labour without that.

Debbie Abrahams said to me that Ed Miliband had apologised, and that “I was standing next to him when he did so”. I cannot find any evidence for this online; the closest is this article from the indefatigable Saddleworth News (their by-election coverage has been exemplary). When asked directly if he apologises for Woolas’s leaflets, Ed Miliband only says that he has “regret” over them. Which is not good enough for me.

I voted Lib Dem in May, and I’m sure you will be astonished to hear that I won’t be doing so this time. This is not only because Elwyn Watkins has said he would have voted for the tuition fees increase. As I’ve argued before, this is a ridiculous position that goes against not only his pre-election pledge, but also his party’s coalition agreement. Actually, the main reason why I shall not be lending Watkins my vote is because he has repeatedly said he would like to “rip up” the European Convention on Human Rights and the Geneva Convention. It is admittedly impressive that a Liberal Democrat is able to attack Phil Woolas from the right on immigration and asylum issues, and if I think about it too much my head will probably explode.

Given the sluggish Tory campaign, the next MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth will almost certainly be either Debbie Abrahams or Elwyn Watkins. Despite what I’ve said above, I would not be too displeased with either of them as my MP, for all their faults. They would both certainly be an improvement on the previous incumbent.

However, I am going to vote Green on Thursday, for Peter Allen. I met him on Uppermill High Street last Saturday, and he came across as down-to-earth and friendly. I’ve written before that I was impressed by Caroline Lucas at the Green Conference in Birmingham, whilst some of my favourite bloggers are Greens. They are also the only party that have a coherent anti-cuts message, and for that alone they deserve backing.


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