Friday, 30 July 2010

A referendum on electoral reform

Daniel Hannan has returned to one of his favourite subjects of recent months, but it's a point that bears repeating:

The only party which went into the last election offering a referendum on AV was Labour – which now says it will vote against the legislation. In other words, all three main parties are now proposing to do the opposite of what they pledged only three months ago.

To remind you, the Conservative manifesto declared: “We support the first-past-the-post system… because it gives voters the chance to kick out a government they are fed up with.” The Liberal Democrat manifesto proposed Single Transferable Vote, with Nick Clegg, for the avoidance of doubt, attacking AV during during the campaign as “a miserable little compromise”. (Incidentally, both parties also promised a far sharper reduction in the number of MPs than their Bill now offers). As for Labour, its manifesto unequivocally stated: “We will hold a referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote for elections to the House of Commons.”

What would make sense instead? Although their current position is the height of hypocrisy, would it really be better if the parties stuck rigidly to their manifesto commitments? If we're going to have a referendum, why not throw it right open?

Here's what Tim Carpenter has to say:
If there is any sincerity at all in the move to have a referendum on our voting system, then we need to get away from the false dichotomy of First Past The Post vs Alternative Vote (FPTP vs AV).

The whole point of having the referendum is to let the public decide what system they feel they want to have, not to have this narrow choice between two compromises that might suit the incumbents.

The options are wider than just these two. The implications are broader, too.

We have STV, STV+, AV and potentially other variations.

Do you want Communism or Socialism? Neither? Not allowed. Sound familiar? What is the point of going through all the process of education, explanation and voting if we are only limited to the two systems?
As well as suggesting the referendum should be broader, he raises a very interesting point:
now the genie of voting system reform is uncorked, the idea you should shackle it into just two flavours is rather odd.

Still, even then, we have a problem, for the voting referendum will, itself, be FPTP. When you have a straight two horse race between incumbent and replacement, it is going to be a simple FPTP event and that is logical.

When one introduces multiple alternatives, then the vote becomes more complex.

It raises the question of what mechanism do you use to determine the preferred and even least worst alternative?

We, in truth, need to decide what system we use to determine the outcome of the referendum itself.
Indeed! So what is the logical way forward? What would politicians do if they genuinely wanted to give the people a choice?
if the AV system wins, is it viable to accept the premise that what is being voted on is, in fact, "change"? "change" is a dangerous concept. We need to get away from blind "change". That got us New Labour and Obama.

So, to mitigate the danger of this blind "change", to lance the boil, why not have a secondary part of the vote using AV to determine what might be the final alternative? Why not do this on the same day?

As AV is to be the winner for "change", according to the assertion above, then could we not make the referendum into "Keep or Change, and if Change wins, Change to what?", with alternatives laid out with an AV mechanism to decide them.

People voting against change can then still vote on what poison they will have to swallow. People who want to vote for change away from FPTP will not have to accept the false dichotomy that gives them AV.

Maybe there are flaws in this plan, but the current trajectory risks another "change" and not necessarily what people actually want.
This makes perfect sense to me. It will never happen.

UPDATE: I've just posted a comment on Carpenter's LPUK blog post:
The problem here is that there may be people for whom FPTP is their second choice, so the two-step "Change/No Change" followed by "What sort of change?" is actually biased against FPTP.

It might be fairer to just go straight to an AV referendum including all of the choices. It would be more complicated, though.

It's depressing that what we're striving for is tyranny of the majority, as an improvement on tyranny of a politically elite minority. It might even give worse results, though I hope not.

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