Monday, 21 February 2011

AV Not As Easy As 1, 2, 3

This week has seen the papers finally start to talk seriously about the referendum on electoral reform that will take place on May 5.

Not that one can blame them for taking their time covering this story. After all, there are far more important stories about fairness and democracy going on the other side of the Mediterranean. Perhaps these stories should put the Yes campaign's grievances with First Past the Post (FPTP) in to perspective.

Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer (20/02/11) went for a preemptive strike against the No campaign's argument that the Alternative Vote (AV) was too complicated by claiming that that was going after the 'Thicko' vote.  Rawnsley seems to believe that by too complicated the No campaign mean that people are too stupid to be able to put their top three candidates in order. He makes it sound like the No's are saying people can't count to three.

I'll credit Rawnsley here with misrepresentation. I wouldn't for a second presume that people who don't agree with me are too thick to understand the argument. Let me try to explain what I think they mean.

The point the No's are trying to make is this: As we have seen with the raise of tactical voting AV would encourage people to try to manipulate their extra votes by putting a party that would never win as their first choice and a mainstream party as their second or third.

This will lead to an abdication of responsibility of the voter. Suppose you have some sympathy with an extremist party, say the BNP. You would be able to put them as your first choice on the basis of one issue, for example immigration. You would not have had to have read their manifesto and may even have been appalled by it if you had. You care about immigration so vote BNP first then one of the main parties second.

No big deal you might say. During the first couple of elections that would be true. There will come a time, however, that a marginal seat will be won for a major party by people who voted BNP (or whoever) first and the major party second. If it hadn't started before then that will mark the beginning of the main parties 'listening' to extremist groups so as to secure the second votes of their supporters. Extreme parties might be against AV because they will never reach 50 per cent of the vote but it will turn them in to more successful lobby groups.

Starting to sound a bit more complicated than counting to three, isn't it?

Rawnsley, along with all AV supporters, believe that 50 is a magic percentile. That an individual candidate reaching it is worth changing a system that has given us stable and middle ground governments for time immemorial.

I believe that one is also a magic number.

One person, one vote was a popular slogan for universal suffrage a hundred years ago. Do we really want to do away with that principle? A principle that was so hard won.

AV would create an unequal democracy with some people having more than one vote by virtue of their immoderate views.

Although I won't dwell too much on this Rawnsley also implies that FPTP supporters are little Englanders. That pointing out that hardly any other nation uses AV for general elections is trying to make it sound un-British. It is in fact internationalist to look at other nations and the systems they use. Having done that you would be foolish indeed to not ask yourself why so few go for AV.

Rawnsley's article also makes several assumptions about those who fall in the D/E class bracket. He says that the D/E's are more likely to be persuaded and more likely to stick with the status quo. I'm sorry but that is nonsense. A sweeping statement like this could just as easily be made that they are more likely to follow the line taken by the Labour leadership.

None of this is to say that FPTP is without problems. Of course there are plenty of things wrong with it. These problems will not be solved by AV. Elections will still come down to marginal seats and the House will still not perfectly reflect numbers of votes cast for each party. Only Proportional Representation can fix those problems. Though, like every other it would bring its own difficulties to the table. At least it would also bring benefits.

Unlike AV.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Dictators Aren't Elected

The irony is almost too much to bear. In fact, it's so great that I feel I must be missing something. So if I am please feel free to put me right in the comments section.

An member of an unelected group who hold power over millions of lives has suggested that Britain will resemble a dictatorship if it doesn't do as they say.

That's right. The unelected group accuse the Mother of all Parliaments of running the oldest democracy in Europe like a dictatorship.

The issue that has spurred this lunacy is votes for prisoners, the unelected body is the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the member is John-Paul Costa.

Now before I go on I should make my own position clear.

I personally am in favour of prisoners having the vote. Unless you see disenfranchisement as part of the punishment then I can't see why you would be in favour of denying them them the vote. Particularly those only serving short terms.

One of the reasons I don't believe in removing the right to vote is because I am strongly in favour of a full and healthy democracy. Everyone lives here, everyone should be able to vote. There are a few practical difficulties with what seem to be known now as 'lags' but nothing we can't overcome. For example, if prisoners were given the vote in the constituency that they resided in prior to their spell in the big house then there would not be a problem of prisons influencing the outcome of the constituency they happen to be in.

This is not really about prisoners' votes though, is it? It is about who runs this country.

Earlier this month the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly against the ECHR's decision. What made the vote so striking was not just the huge majority of 212 (234 - 22). The debate had been tabled by arguably the two most senior backbenchers of the Conservative and Labour Parties, David Davis and Jack Straw. That such eminent members of both main parties should be able to find common ground and that so many other MPs should turn out to vote on an issue that technically they can now do nothing about shows the strength of feeling in the House.

Would it not make sense that if the ECHR makes a recommendation and Parliament rejects it that should be the end of the matter? After all, what sort of democracy do we live in when the elected representatives of the people can not decide on the laws of the land?

I should add that this is not an attack on the ECHR as an institution in principle. Rather this is a defence of democracy as a principle. The British Supreme Court also has no business dictating to Parliament. Parliament makes the laws and courts enforce them.

For Mr. Costa to compare Parliament to a dictatorship because MPs wish to carry out their function of representing those who elected them is grossly insulting and shows a complete ignorance of what democracy is.

There has been some confusion in parts of the press between the ECHR and the EU. Understandable in a way as they both suffer from democratic deficits. The ECHR is part of the Council of Europe. Don't worry if you haven't heard of that, you didn't get a chance to vote for them after all.

The CoE's mission is to promote human rights, democratic development and the rule of law. I apologise if reading that has made you spit coffee all over you laptop but you read correctly. Democratic development and the rule of law.

An unelected body promoting democracy and the same body wishing to override the oldest Parliament (and by default law making institution) promoting the rule of law.

I would appreciate another of Mr. Costa's comparisons. This time explaining to me how that makes sense.

Because the irony is killing me.