Friday, 29 May 2009

Why do people think a referendum on AV+ is a prize worth having?

James Graham has done an excellent post on the flaws of AV+ so I won't repeat the same points (writing down exactly what I wanted to say yet again, I must unplug that LibDem hive mind connection...) but merely to pick up on one aspect.

Why is it that anyone thought a referendum on AV+ was a good thing and something that is somehow a prize that should be compromised and fought for? Regardless of the flaws of the system,

WE WOULD LOSE the referendum!

James says "At the height of Blairite hysteria and the depth of the Tory nadir, we MIGHT have been able to pull it off. But can anyone tell me, with a straight face, that it could be won now?"

Here I disagree with him slightly. I don't think it ever could have been won.

The "PR will lead to a politicians' stitch-up behind close doors" argument, whilst we all know why it's wrong, is a very powerful argument in the public mind. Anything that even smells slightly of a politicians' arrangement away from the voters will get short shrift and I'm afraid the top-up element of AV+ does smell wrong and always will to the public at large.

Many years ago when I was at university, we, the LibDems there (and I suspect this is a very familiar story) proposed replacing the current system of inquorate Union General Meetings (UGMs) with a student council. At the time what happened was that every month the UGM would be inquorate and so the small Exec (dominated by career Labourites who thought they were socialists but who magically forgot any principles when they got a whiff of power in the party later - I said it was a familiar story!) would just make the decisions themselves. We thought this through a lot and with the idealism that only a student can have came up with a very thorough proposal. A council of 60 members elected by STV, elected by thirds, UGMs still sovereign etc. We somehow manged to get a referendum called on the same day as the annual union elections (otherwise no-one would vote). We were up-beat, we happily plastered the place with our "Pro-chance" stickers and went round persuading people. Everything was going well until the existing cabal of politicians who held the power started using the simple argument:

"It will just mean more politicians"

That really killed it stone dead. However right we were we just could get over this objection, however much we explained it to people that it wouldn't be politicians it would be them. That was it.

Now, I know that's just a unremarkable story of youthful idealism, but people really don't see politicians as one of them and anything that seems like a system for politicians rather than something coming from the people will lose. I think that's what did it for the North East elected assembly referendum. I bet several of us were surprised by the size of the no vote there.

I was always amazed that we fought so hard for something, to my mind, could never be achieved (winning an AV+ referendum). In retrospect I think we also made a grave tactical error in allowing through the current rubbish system we have for Europe (which really is a politician's system) and not holding out for something better. The PR system for Europe really has set back the argument for electoral reform I think.

But I am straying into a post that's been buzzing round my head for days "How to sell electoral reform", I shall probably commit it to the electronic page once I've dithered and everyone has written what I wanted to say better as usual!


neil craig said...

If you lose you lose - bloody hell its called democracy - you are eager to bomb hospitals but you won't get into a little fight like this.

Anyway you forget that Scotland, Wales & NI have PR, know it works & would vote solidly for it.

MatGB said...

Neil, neither Scotland nor Wales nor NI have AV+.

AV+ is a godawful system that's almost impossible to explain, let alone sell, to the average voter.

Yes, a lot of the country would vote for reform, but vote for this reform? No chance.

Navigateur said...

AV+ is not SUPPOSED to be full-blown PR. It's not a god-awful system at all. It's main component is the AV part, which is nothing to do with PR. It allows your vote never to be wasted and prevents similar candidates from destroying each other's chances in the election which they currently do. This is a HUGE deal and a HUGE improvement over FPTP. I don't support full-blown PR at all because we need our LOCAL constituency represented by an MP PREFERRED by OUR constituency to represent us. If you believe in that you can never support full-blown PR. AV+ is a compromise, we need a referendum on it in 2009, and I would definitely vote for it in a heartbeat.

neil craig said...

So long as the issue is "should the people have a referendum on PR (or indeed between different systems)" I can't see any way that wouldn't be a vote winner. In Scotland though polls show a substantial majority against separation they run anything up to 80% in favour of having the referendum. With present feeling against Parliament I suspect opinion on that would run at 90%+.

MatGB said...

Navigateur—I actually agree with you on the merits of AV, it works well in Australia and is a much better system on its own than FPTP, or the French run-off system.

My objection is to AV+, which requires a massive boundary change, creates a different type of MP and attempts to introduce a false proportionality that still favours the larger parties, only this time we include the Lib Dems in the definition of 'larger'.

If the proposal was pure AV, then it'd be easy to implement and would make sense. The proposal is AV+, which is as hard to implement as the (better) variant, STV, but is less good as a system.

FWIW, I think you overemphasise the single member constituency link—most constituencies today are too big to be natural communities, and too small to be geographically recognises. The MP for Torbay doesn't represent all of Torbay, about a 3rd are in Totnes (including my parents). My MP in Brighouse also represents Todmorden, in order to drive the 40 miles or so to get there, I have to leave the constituency, drive through the Halifax constituency, then enter Calder Valley again.

Much better to have larger constituencies based on recognised areas, like existing boroughs, districts or counties, and have multiple MPs per district, as we used to have until 1948. Use STV, as used well in Ireland, Malta and the Australian Senate, and we've got a more representative system that maintains local links.

No one sane is proposing PR by list with large regions for Westminster elections. No one. STV achieves all the objectives you say you see in AV+, and does so in an easier manner.

Navigateur said...

MatGB, first of all I would support STV in a heartbeat and would definitely vote for it over the current system in a referendum. Secondly I didn't realise the distance issue in some constituencies. That should definitely be fixed so people are always a reasonable distance from their representative, in the current system or in AV+. Yes STV is supposed to give more representativeness. A couple of issues however. When candidates are vying to be the winner as in AV+ I believe that stimulates more vigorous debate between candidates than if they are only required to meet a "quota" of votes as in STV, which might lead to a more "lazy" or "guarded" debate since a person can "get in" even if they come second. We need candidates to maximally expose their opinions and debate hard against each other on the issues to gain as much first-choice votes as possible which is why I support AV+ over condorcet methods too. Secondly, the distance you need to travel to meet your representative will be much greater on average under STV, increasing the communication separation between representative and constituents. Although I agree that that representative will more likely reflect my views under STV, but I think even the "lazy"/"guarded"/"quiet" debate problem could cancel that out. I do still think that local and approachable and outspoken person is better. (Despite all of our internet/mobile connectivity etc.) because of the possibility of demonstations/"town hall"/face-to-face meetings (far fetched maybe, I haven't done any of those but I think the possibility could be very important in some cases). Hence why I would support AV+ over the excellent STV idea (I see the "+" in AV+ as a small way to get some PR, add some more voices, parliamentary votes, a compromise solution, and yes they would be a diffent type of and less-respected "top-up" MP but I'm happy with that and they are too otherwise they wouldn't have applied for it). I wonder if you find any faults in anything I've said I'd love to know.