Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Will Brown introduce AV?

I notice Politicalbetting is contemplating a Brown move to introduce Alternative Vote in place of first past the post. The announcement would be in the first days of the Brown administration and is akin to the announcement on Bank of England independence after his appointment as Chancellor.

I think this bit of political crystal ball gazing is well founded. I have argued myself that Brown will make such a move - indeed, in a meeting with my colleague George Crozier last week, I argued exactly the same point.

This time Brown will be even more earnest in his bid to break with the past. I suspect other possible moves as well, such as announcements on Lords reform.

No doubt STV fanatics and purist PR supporters will want us to hold out against the move to AV. Personally, I would back it. It would be easy to introduce and would not require a wholesale review of boundaries. And it would also easy any transition to STV with people understanding the need to put candidates in order of preference on the ballot paper.

But it would also introduce a new dynamic into elections. It would increase the number of seats that could change hands and it would also mean parties having to appeal beyond their own supporters and floating voters.

It would also mean that there was more incentive - much more - to get out to vote. Take for example my home town of Gateshead which, under the new boundaries will contain the constituencies of both Gateshead and Blaydon, as well as a bit of Jarrow. Predictions for Gateshead constituency are that Labour should expect to win with over half the votes cast, but on a low turnout. The Conservatives are in 3rd place and have no chance of winning. But their voters could turn out in larger numbers if they thought their 2nd preferences would actually come into play by ensuring Labour were on less than 50%. In other words, there is an incentive for them to turn out to vote even though their first choice stands no hope of winning.

This is even more so in Blaydon constituency. At the last election the Conservatives got only 8%, but we got 38% and Labour were on 51%. It used to be the case that the Conservatives got 10-14,000 votes in the constituency some 20 years ago. Some have shifted to us but many simply stay at home. A modest increase in the Conservative vote would mean the Conservatives' 2nd preferences would come into play.

Similar battles would be replicated over the North East. Labour marginal seats such as Newcastle North, Newcastle East and Durham City would be even more interesting.

And think of all those Conservative held seats that would be vulnerable to the Lib Dems where Labour are in 3rd place. Over the past century, the Conservatives have been the biggest beneficiary of first past the post. Many in the Labour party will be blinded to that by their own electoral success over the past decade, or by their stupidity or reactionary outlook. Under AV, there will be times when the swing in a general election will produce a more exaggerated result. But the long term benefits outweigh this.

So were Brown to introduce AV, I hope the purists in the Lib Dems look on it favourably.


Liberal Republican said...

I think he too will change the voting system. He has to. Brown will have to do something radical to "bump up" Labour. And if we believe the lastest predictions, we will see a hung parliament and we will be party that everyone will be turning too.

Its also interesting to note that Cameron is flirting with PR.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

It isn't a question of purity, it's a question of whether AV is a good system or not.

The problem with it is that it exaggerates swings. Labour are calculating that this will mean an exaggerated swing against the Conservatives (at Labour Conference last year, senior Labour figures were queuing round the block to say how they thought AV was a Good Idea), but it could just as easily work against them.

Also, and I'm sorry to so tiresomely point this out, it isn't a proportional system, meaning that the popular vote and the number of seats each party gets in the Commons remain distinct.

If Labour want to introduce AV, let them. They don't need our backing, and it won't harm the Lib Dems electorally. If however we find ourselves in a balance of power situation and THEN Labour start talking about it as being a bargaining chip, then we should be upping the stakes.

Pushing for PR isn't about "purity" then, it is about sticking up for our principles and not rolling over and letting Labour tickle our collective tummies at the first opportunity.

What's the alternative? Insist on an independent citizens' assembly to deliberate on an alternative voting system and then put it to a referendum, a la British Columbia. The electoral system is too important to be left to party political horsetrading.

Jonny Wright said...

I'm a big STV fan, but I think on balance, AV would be an improvement on what we currently have. It's not proportional, but it's certainly no less proportional than FPP. As you say, it would have the advantages of making voting more relevant, and forcing political parties to campaign more widely and in a more relevant way.

AV is mathematically almost exactly the same as STV, it's just that AV is for a single-member seat whereas STV is for multi-member seats. Introducing AV would help people get used to the system, which helps us if we go around promoting STV as a fairer way of voting. Also, remember that in a fully STV system, there would still be some single-member seats that would use AV, so we are OK with AV in principle.

I think that if Brown offers AV, we should support him. If we refused, it would be like opposing Civil Partnerships on the grounds that we want gay marriage instead. Surely anything in the direction of electoral reform is worth having, even if it's not the whole hog.

Tristan said...

I have to agree with James here.
We should not accept AV as a bargaining chip - we should hold out for at least some STV for coalition purposes. (Jeremy Thorpe's suggestion of AV for large rural seats with low population and STV for urban/suburban areas is a possibility).

We should not oppose AV if Labour brought it in. AV isn't PR, but its a step in the right direction and internalises tactical voting somewhat.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

Jonny, you are wrong to say that it is no less proportional than FPTP. In many cases, see Australia for an example, it is less proportional precisely because of the way it distorts swings.

In 1997, it was calculated that under AV, Labour's already over-representative majority would have been even larger, precisely because so many people were voting for "anyone but the Tories".

Mathematically, you can't claim that STV and AV are "the same". Even 2 member STV stops the distorting effects of AV at a stroke. It isn't a simple question of degree: it is a question of whether you support proportional representation, or you don't. Make your choice.

Heather said...

Goodness me .... this all sounds horribly familiar .... am I interested ..?? nooooooo ..... am I interested in knowing what you're up to, poppet??? yeeeeessss!!!

Jonny Wright said...

Yes I can claim that STV and AV are mathematically the same.

You're right: they have very different effects to each other, STV is proportional and AV is not.

However, they use exactly the same procedure to calculate the quote, and to tranfer votes. Trust me, I've run in, and helped to organise, lots of student elections. Some of the STV (when we were electing a whole committee), some AV (when we were electing a single candidate to a position).

All I'm saying is that even though AV is not STV, it's close enough to help people get used to the idea.

Jonathan Wallace said...

Heather! Now I know where you are. India!!!!! Not been there before but it's on my list of places to visit!

I'll have to dig up those photos from 1994 when you, me, a certain Sarah Girling and a bunch of Lib Dems painted the streets of Newcastle red one weekend.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

Jonny: STV - even with 2 member constituencies - is proportional, AV is not. The reason for that is at it's heart mathematical. I'm sorry that doesn't fit your world view, but that isn't really my problem.