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?


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.

Mehdi Hasan: If I was Ed Miliband…

February 27, 2011

Mehdi Hasan of the New Statesman is, without doubt, my favourite political journalist at the moment. He was great on Question Time a few weeks ago, and I quoted him in my blog on multiculturalism.

He also proved why with a barnstorming speech at London’s Progressive Conference.

I meant to post this yesterday, to coincide with the day of UK Uncut action planned, but illness and Yes to Fairer Votes campaigning got in the way.

I’ve taken the liberty of transcribing some of it below, with fuller versions of the articles he quoted.

If I was Ed Miliband, on Monday morning I would hold a Press Conference in Church House in Westminster. I would invite all of the press: broadcasters, TV cameras, lobby journalists. I would flank myself with three men: Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and Christopher Pissarides.

And I would then invite Joseph Stiglitz, the 2001 Nobel Prize Winner in Economics, to stop forward and address the press. And he would say, as he said to me in an interview in February last year:

I say you’re crazy – economically you clearly have the capacity to pay. The debt situation has been worse in other countries at other times. This is all scaremongering, perhaps linked to politics, perhaps rigged to an economic agenda, but it’s out of touch with reality. One of the advantages that you have is that you have your own central bank that can buy some of these bonds to stabilise their price…[These cuts] would almost certainly lead to higher unemployment.

Then I would invite Paul Krugman, the 2008 Nobel Prize Winner for economics, to step forward and he would say, as he said last September:

The British government’s plan is bold, say the pundits – and so it is.

But it boldly goes in exactly the wrong direction.

It would cut government employment by 490,000 workers – the equivalent of almost three million layoffs in the United States – at a time when the private sector is in no position to provide alternative employment.

It would slash spending at a time when private demand isn’t at all ready to take up the slack.

Why is the British government doing this? The real reason has a lot to do with ideology: the Tories are using the deficit as an excuse to downsize the welfare state.

Never mind that British debt as a percentage of national income is actually below its historical average; never mind that British interest rates stayed low even as the nation’s budget deficit soared, reflecting the belief of investors that the country can and will get its finances under control.

Britain, declared Osborne, was on the “brink of bankruptcy”.

What happens now?

Maybe Britain will get lucky, and something will come along to rescue the economy. But the best guess is that Britain in 2011 will look like Britain in 1931.

Then I would invite Christopher Pissarides, 2010 Nobel Prize Winner for Economics, and he would say at this podium, as he said in the Mirror last October:

But no one doubts that the Chancellor is taking risks with the recovery.

These risks were not necessary at this point. He could have outlined a clear deficit-reduction plan over the next five years, postponing more of the cuts, until recovery became less fragile…

And his unwillingness to further tax the well off is inevitably necessitating more cuts to benefits just when the jobless will need them the most.

And once these three men had spoken, I, as Ed Miliband, would then stare down the barrel of the nearest camera and I would say, “Which of these three men, Mr Cameron, are you calling a deficit denier?”

The rest of the speech is worth watching, too. It’s brilliant. Medhi is such a brilliant speaker, and says some great stuff on the coalition’s muddled economic policies.

He also gives three ways that we can resist the cuts:

1) Intellectually
2) Judicially
3) Politically

There is a March for the Alternative on March 26th. I expect to see you all there.

The multiculturalism debate

February 25, 2011

I’ve written this post in response to a couple of comments on my earlier blog on multiculturalism. There were two main criticisms of it. The first was contesting that David Cameron had been pandering to far-right groups. I’ve responded to those claims in the comments, and I don’t intend to address them here.

Instead, I’ll mainly concentrate on the point that Roger made:

I don’t believe Cameron was pandering to far right groups but seeking to reassure the enormous silent majority of people like myself who believe that ‘multi-culturalism’ (i.e. the celebration and encouraged recognition of racial or social difference) has indeed been a terrible failure.

I was concious even after writing the blog that I hadn’t really grappled with the concept of multiculturalism in any detail. I want to therefore put that right with this blog.

The problem with trying to answer whether multiculturalism has failed is that it’s hard to define multiculturalism, and even harder to work out how it can be judged successful or not. There’s a few different definitions of multiculturalism here. My favourite is from Ruth Lea, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies, who said:

There is another way to define multiculturalism which I would call diversity where people have their own cultural beliefs and they happily coexist – but there is a common thread of Britishness or whatever you want to call it to hold society together.

And that is clearly what I would support because you do accept that people have different cultures and you accept them.

It a positive acceptance not a negative tolerance.

That’s what I imagine multiculturalism to be. I imagine lots of different cultures – Afro-Carribbean, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, whatever – underneath an umbrella term of “Britishness”. I imagine, then, that I could be at odds with Roger on this point, but I wouldn’t want to speak for him on this.

It’s difficult to know what an alternative to this sort of approach would be. As Bob Piper cutely pointed out after Angela Merkel’s speech on multiculturalism:

Merkel says multiculturalism has failed in Germany. Surely she knows the last time they tried monoculturalism it was hardly a major success.

For there have always been different cultures. There is the distinction between popular and elite culture, for instance, which was written about by Richard Hoggart.

This split existed even in the Middle Ages. Take the veneration of a thirteenth-century dog St Guinefort by local peasants, which was a popular cult amongst the laity, even if it was frowned on by the established church. The distinction between different sorts of culture have always been around.

Anyway, back to the present. As pointed out above, multiculturalism could be judged to have succeeded if different cultures united around a common thread. In the Middle Ages, for instance, the different elite and popular cultures had a shared Christian culture. Now, the common theme would appear to be patriotism – a celebration of Britishness (or Englishness) and a feeling of national pride. As Sunder Katwala points out in this excellent article on the successes and failures of multiculturalism, this is something that Britain seems to have got right.

Katwala quotes comments made by Spurs footballer Benoit Assou-Ekotto to make his point:

Assou-Ekotto is beginning to look ahead to the World Cup finals with Cameroon. Although he was born in France and has a French mother, there has never been any issue over his allegiance. Like many young people in France born to an immigrant parent or parents, he feels that “the country does not want us to be part of this new France. So we identify ourselves more with our roots.

“Me playing for Cameroon was a natural and normal thing. I have no feeling for the France national team; it just doesn’t exist. When people ask of my generation in France, ‘Where are you from?’, they will reply Morocco, Algeria, Cameroon or wherever. But what has amazed me in England is that when I ask the same question of people like Lennon and Defoe, they’ll say: ‘I’m English.’ That’s one of the things that I love about life here.”

It’s quite clear that multiculturalism has succeeded more in Britain than in either France or Germany, where both their leaders have, like Cameron, declared it to have “failed” in their countries. As Sunder Katwala points out, despite maintaining a strong national identity by having “the Tricolore fluttering from every town hall”, and banning burkas, French society does not seem particularly integrated. Moreover:

[T]he truth is that France’s particularly strident anti-multiculturalism has run so deep that it makes a definitive social comparison difficult. It would famously offend against the Republican philosophy of integration to even collect the information which would be necessary to inform any serious study of the successes and fallures of how integrated (or not) France actually is.

Germany has done a woeful job of integrating its Turkish minority into its society, with over half of German Turks saying they feel unwelcome in the country, and some German-born Turks do not even have full voting rights. Judged by Germany’s standard, the integration of ethnic minorities into Britain has been a rip-roaring success.

The fact is that certain sections of the British media usually ignore any stories about the success of multiculturalism, whilst playing up any examples of a lack of integration amongst minorities. Take two events that happened last November, around the time of Remembrance Day:


About 35 Islamic protesters, dressed in dark clothes and with many masking their faces, carried banners and chanted slogans such as “British soldiers: terrorists”.

They gathered near Hyde Park in London before burning a model of a poppy on the stroke of 11am then marching along Exhibition Road and along an underpass, past the Victoria and Albert and Natural History Museums.

And also:

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association across England has been rallied together to join in fundraising for the Poppy Appeal on behalf of The Royal British Legion in recognition of the valuable role British Armed Forces played during the World Wars.

AMYA collected a total of £20,963.02 for the Royal British Legion over the period of 13 hours, which is a phenomenal achievement. Due to the impressive collections, the Royal British Legion has now asked us to assist in their regional collections also in Midlands, North West and Scotland.

Two very different stories about Muslim groups and their activities to commemorate British soldiers. Now, guess which one the tabloids focussed on?

Of course, it was the first one.

The point here is not that all Muslims raise money for charity, nor that they all burn poppies.

Rather, the question worth asking is why does the media focus on the poppy-burners? Partly because it’s a more interesting and sensationalist story. Another factor seems to be that it the media is falling for the publicity stunts that Muslims against Crusades do.

It’s also possible, however, that there is an agenda at play here. For months, if not years, some of our tabloid newspapers have been focussing on negative stories about a small group of Muslim extremists, which is having serious repercussions on how the British public perceives Muslims and Islam. The Star and the Express, owned by someone not known for having well-thought out views on cultural difference, have been putting forward the myth that an Islamisation of Britain is happening, and that we are being “taken over” by foreigners:

With all this, is it any wonder that 98% of Daily Star readers think that Britain is turning into a Muslim state? See this and this, also.

So I’d argue a main problem is one of perception. However, another problem is that it’s jolly difficult to have a sensible debate on multiculturalism, because the debate gets closed down very quickly, on both sides.

The first person to come out and say that multiculturalism had failed in Britain was Trevor Phillips in 2004, and he wrote that, for instance:

That is why I disagree with those who say that integration and Britishness are irrelevant to the struggle against racism. There can be no true integration without true equality. But the reverse is also true. The equality of the ghetto is no equality at all.

The responses to Phillips’ continuing critique of multiculturalism as “separateness” are bemusing, to say the least. On the one hand, Ken Livingstone, when he was Mayor of London, said that Phillips was so right-wing that “soon he’ll be joining the BNP”. In contrast, a charming video (with equally charming comments underneath) from a user called “BNPxTRUTH” calls him a “Marxist Thug”. Judging from the comments, that’s one of the nicest things that’s been said about him.

However, there is obviously a common ground with myself, Roger and Trevor Phillips. One cannot indeed just celebrate “difference” for the sake of it. There has to be a common thread that binds us all together. We cannot just say that to be British is simply to be “different”, as then your identity has an identity-shaped hole.

Furthermore, a “ghettoisation” of Britain has been happening, especially in areas outside London, and is something that is entrenched by faith schools.

Yet this is hardly something being said by a “silent majority”. How can it be said that the majority is silent, when you can have articles talking of the “war on the English” in Britain’s biggest-selling newspapers? In 2005 David Davis, then Shadow Home Secretary, called for the scrapping out an “outdated” policy of multiculturalism. John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, said that multiculturalism had “failed the English”. Another prominent bishop talked of the “newfangled and insecurely founded doctrine of multiculturalism”. This is hardly a deafening silence, rather, it is a deafening clamour.

It’s becoming obvious that a nuanced debate on the successes and failings of multiculturalism, and working out how we proceed, is therefore difficult, but necessary. That’s why it’s even worse that Cameron’s speech didn’t take into account any of multiculturalism’s successes and instead stated that it has failed. By doing this he has played into the hands – willingly or not – of far-right groups by simply stating that multiculturalism had failed, and ignoring its successes.

It isn’t just Cameron who is guilty of this. In an interview last week, attorney-general Dominic Grieve had this to say:

the English Defence League’s anger at what it regards as “appeasement to Islammist [sic – this was quoted from teh Grauniad after all] extremism is something politicians may ignore at their peril”.

Which makes the EDL sound like a group quietly expressing valid views on the nicities of radical Islam, when in fact it’s run by people who think that “the sooner we start killing Muslims, the better”.

I think the time has come to move on from multiculturalism. That doesn’t mean that we should accept it’s failed completely – in many ways it has worked.

As noted above, the integration of ethnic minorities into a British national identity has been largely successful. As Medhi Hasan said on Question Time, his father emigrated to Britain in the 1960s, and lived mainly in a state of poverty. That his son could be on one of Britain’s leading political television programmes and define himself as “British” said a lot about the success of multiculturalism.

 Also, as Sunder Katwala notes:

[The] history of Britain is largely the history of successful integration. Perhaps that’s why we don’t notice it. But just about every one of the institutions of which we tend to be proud has been the product of immigration and integration – not just the NHS, but also the Ashes-winning cricket team, and the Army, and even the German-Greek infusions to the Monarchy. Though the headlines will always stress the flashpoints over the complex, everyday story of how we live together, our history should give us confidence that integration is possible.

We became a much less racist society. As John Redwood generously noted in response to David Cameron’s speech, the political left in Britain did a good deal to delegitimise racism (though this important broad social change was not the achievement of the political left alone).

However, even he says he is open to the need to move away from multiculturalism. However, if we do move from multiculturalism, what do we move towards?

We have to find some shared values and shared institutions. These institutions will include vague, fluffy values like tolerance, as well as other (slightly) more tangible concepts such as our democratic framework and the rule of law, which I think are aspects people both on the left and right can get behind.

As a social democrat, I’d also say that we need a certain level of equality, so people do genuinely feel like “we are all in this together”. Equality generally leads to a certain level of trust, so that people can pay their taxes and not feel cheated by “free-riders”. Tony Judt in Ill Fares the Land (what do you mean, you haven’t bought this brilliant book yet?) argued:

If we raise taxes or put up a bond to pay for a school in our home district, the chances are that other people (and other peoples’ children) will be the chief beneficiaries. The same applies to public investment in light rail systems, long-term educational and research projects, medical science, social security contributions and any other collective expenditure whose pay off may lie years away. So why do we go to the trouble of putting up the money? Because others have put up money in the past and, usually without giving the matter too much thought, we see ourselves as part of a civic community transcending generations. (pp64-5)

People are more likely to have the trust to do this if they have a lot in common with each other. This is why we cannot just celebrate “difference” for the sake of it but need some sort of shared common thread binding together the people in a community.

I daresay all of this is sounds like a rather woolly conclusion. But I have news for you: life isn’t simple. Multiculturalism wasn’t a complete success or a complete failure: there were good things and bad things to it. Our job in the years ahead is to keep the good things and toss away the bad things, and remember why they were bad. I’m sure some will disagree that it’s social democracy that can provide the common framework that Britain, as a society, needs to become more prosperous. And that’s also good – I don’t expect you to agree on everything.

However, a nuanced, reasoned debate on the merits of multiculturalism and where we go from here needs to be had. Judging from Cameron’s speech, we ain’t gonna get one any time soon.

Why No Platform is illiberal and misconceived

February 24, 2011

As an adjoiner to my previous post on multiculturalism, I wanted to write a piece on why the No Platform Policy is illiberal and misconceived. It’s something I’ve had strong views on for a while – I spoke at my university’s Debating Society against the No Platform Policy three years ago (and we won, thanks for asking).

As some of you might have gathered from the comments of that multiculturalism post, I’m planning on writing something on multiculturalism and national identity. For now, here’s something on No Platform, which is also seemingly back in the news. There’s an interview here with a Birmingham student who argues that engaging with radical Islamic preachers is the best way to challenge their arguments.

No Platform has also been thrust back into the spotlight because of the of the English Defence League. There were a few No Platform tweets when the EDL’s leader was interviewed on Newsnight a few weeks ago. “Tommy Robinson” – actually a pseudonym – gave a spirited performance, but it wasn’t quite good enough. It’s hard to present yourself as an expert on the ways of Islam when you refer to “radical inams”.

As soon as the interview had finished, the EDL reported a surge in membership, and as a result more people kept coming out of the woodwork and asking why we had allowed the EDL publicity. We shouldn’t allow facist movements to appear on television to give them publicity and legitimacy, so the argument goes.

These people obviously have short memories. What helped kill off the BNP in the May elections, as much as anything, was Nick Griffin’s leering performance on Question Time. The moment when he pointed to an Asian man in the audience and said to him “You can stay”, was the most revolting thing I’ve ever seen on that programme. As you can imagine, he’s going up against some pretty stiff competition there.

What Griffin’s performance on Question Time does prove is that the best way to defeat abhorrent ideas is to confront them and defeat them in open debate. Banning extreme groups does not work, and in many cases would play into the hands of the extremists. The BNP and the EDL like to put forward the claim that there is a “politically correct conspiracy” of the “liberal media” or “liberal elite” to stifle debate on issues such as multiculturalism or immigration. Banning these groups only serves to add credence to this message.

Perhaps banning these groups would send a message that we consider fascism, or Islamic fundamentalism, to be immoral. However, is it really the place of governments to decide what is and what isn’t morally acceptable? That is potentially a very slippery slope.

I’m always amused by the fact that people of all political stripes consider that every group should have rights – apart from people they don’t like. That could mean gypsies, fascists, etc etc. A conversation I had a couple of weeks ago demonstrates this, that I shall relate hopefully without slipping into Liberal Dinner Party syndrome.

I was talking to one of the Guild of Students’ sabbatical officers, who said that she was in support of No Platform because she was “opposed to discrimination in all its forms”.

“Except discrimination against fascists?” I piped up. After I said that, she and Hannah, occasional Paperback Rioter, looked at me as though I’d just come out as a closet Orange Booker. But the fact is, you cannot pick and choose which people you want to grant rights to.

I can see the logic for wanting to ban these fascist groups: it comes back to Cameron’s idea of “muscular liberalism”, wanting to ban “preachers of hate” and be “intolerant of intolerance”. However, the simple fact is that not only would banning these groups be illiberal, and not work, it would be impossible to enforce.

It would also be a counter-productive thing to do. Do we really want to force groups like the BNP or EDL underground? Surely it’s best to have their dealings in the open, where they can be easily monitored? Also, the publicity associated with banning American “shock jocks” or people like Geert Wilders from entering Britain gives their movement much more coverage than if they had actually just been allowed to enter quietly in the first place.

Also banning these organisations just doesn’t work, because they will just end up operating as before, but under a different name. This can be seen by the banning of Anjem Choudary’s Islam4UK. In a testy interview on the Daily Politics – and let’s face it, what’s the point of banning the organisation if as a result its founder gets an interview on BBC2? – Choudary said that he probably would just set up a new organisation. After all,

If I gather together with my friends in the park and eat together and decide to write a leaflet and distribute it in the market, is that illegal?

Well, quite. And indeed Choudary has now set up a new organisation, called Muslims Against Crusades. Should we ban that too as well? Perhaps, you could argue, but then he would just set up another organisation. It’d be like herding cats.

Basically, the No Platform Policy can never be a credible policy of any anti-fascist movement. Saying that you are “in favour of freedom of speech, but…” is on the same moral level as saying “I am not a racist, but…” Add to that the fact that it’s unworkable, and you have a heck of a silly, counter-productive policy on your hands.

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).

Hey Porter, will you tell me the time? Time to go, actually*

February 21, 2011

* with apologies to Johnny Cash.

It would not have been an easy year for anyone to have been President of the NUS. Aaron Porter has certainly had a difficult time of it, and there will doubtless be plenty of celebrating now he has announced he will not seek a second term (see his full statement on Liberal Conspiracy here).

This is fairly big news. Porter will be the first NUS President since 1969 not to stand for a second term. It’s been clear, however, that he’s not had the full support of the student movement for a while. Owen Jones, again on Liberal Conspiracy, has written a very good piece on Porter’s failings. It took the NUS far too long to support any of the protests that followed the November demonstration against tuition fees, reflected in the fact that Porter was heckled at an anti-fees protest in January.

In this context, it’s odd that Porter should say in his statement that:

If I have one criticism of this year, it would be that we have not been quick enough to talk about our achievements – and I hope we can pause for a moment to remedy this.

I think anyone must have a certain amount of cojones to say of themselves, “the only thing I did wrong this year was to not talk enough about how fantastic I’ve been. If only I had done that, I wouldn’t be leaving now”.

It’s hard to know what Porter was thinking when he wrote that. Sadly, as with so many of the NUS’s blunders over the past few months, it seems he wasn’t really thinking that much at all.

When he first became NUS president, Porter announced he wanted to lobby politicians to change policy, not just hold demonstrations. It’s a point that comes over clearly in this Observer interview conducted soon after his election, in which he says “if vice-chancellors expect us to stand on the outside waving placards they are sorely mistaken”.

I have no problem with political lobbying. It’s Parliament that makes the laws, and you need to be able to influence them if you want policy changing. That’s just common sense. However, this strategy seems to have backfired in two ways.

First, it led to Porter, by his own admission, “dithering” and being “spineless” in his lack of support for student demonstrations and student occupations. A student movement needs both political lobbying and grassroots-style campaigning, and under Porter’s Presidency the NUS tended too much to the former.

Also, the attempt to lobby politicians ended up with the NUS being burnt very badly. In December came revelations that the NUS had “urged” the government to cut student grants to the poorest students, which came on the eve of more protests in favour of a free Higher Education in December. Porter defended himself by saying the NUS had suggested no such policy, instead saying that:

We were asked by [Vince] Cable to demonstrate how fees could be kept at current levels and on the basis of his request we produced modelling to show how that could be done.

In other words, the NUS was asked to demonstrate how universities could be funded, given both the cuts and if fees were kept at the same level. Instead of saying to the government, “that’s ridiculous, you shouldn’t be cutting funding for universities anyway you daft ‘aypeths”, the NUS made up a funding model by cutting the amount of money in student grants. This was then leaked to embarrass the student movement.

The fresh revelations last week were the final straw. In a memo you can read here the NUS describes the fees increase as “progressive”:

The loan gets written off after 30 years (currently 25)- the vastly increased numbers of graduates that will never pay the loan off are in fact what makes the system relatively progressive

As well as this:

Much has been made of the Government’s 80% cuts to teaching budgets; of course, whilst thats true, there has not been an 80% cut to the overall Universities budget- in fact the subsidy has been moved into this state backed, loan based voucher scheme.



Both these claims contradict points Porter has been making in public about not only the “progressive” nature of these fees rises, but also his use of the 80% cuts to budgets number to make his case for a graduate tax. His position is untenable now.

 In other words, Aaron Porter has tried to play politics, and lost.

 What happens now for the NUS? Surely they must reinstate their opposition to fees, full stop. A slogan of:

What do we want? Progressive contributions to our higher education using a fair graduate tax! When do we want it? As soon as is politically expedient!

Isn’t exactly going to set the world alight.

As I argued above, the NUS needs to unite political lobbying with active campaigning. You must have both in order to effect real change.

A pictorial representation of just how excited I am about the Cricket World Cup

February 19, 2011

According to the counter on the Cricinfo website, the Cricket World Cup starts in approximately 8 hours time. I think the picture below represents my level of excitement about this prospect at the moment:

If Test cricket is a four course meal at the Ritz with wine, and 20/20 cricket is a Big Mac, then 50-over cricket is a meal at Little Chef, or Wetherspoons. Absolutely impossible to get excited about. Not to mention the fact that England are crap at it, and have been since 1992.

After six weeks – SIX WEEKS!? – of the tournament, complete with about 5,749 meaningless group games, England getting knocked out by some awful, evil buggers like the South Africans (and doubtless with Oldham losing out on a playoff spot) I’ll probably feel a bit like this: 

Still, I’ll watch the highlights, and go through the motions, and get that funny feeling whenever I think of dear old Colly. But it feels like the end of a tired, old format now.

Hopefully I’ll be proved wrong through, just as I usually am about all my cricket predictions.

It’s been a hectic week – hopefully I can get some more blogs up after I’ve spent this weekend playing chess. Until then, have a good weekend, and may your God go with you.


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