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Lies, damn lies, but no Statistics

As someone who lives in a country in which proportional representation and coalition governments have brought stability, prosperity and common sense to politics for the last fifty years, I find the American-style partisanship of the UK AV Referendum rather sad. Worst of all is the group that are using lies, damn lies, but no statistics (or facts) as their principle campaign message. There should be an honest debate, with no tricks, no lies, no misleading headlines with carefully arranged small print.

2010 showed that the UK electoral system is broken and needs to change. Two out of three MPs came to power in Constituencies where the majority of the voters chose someone else. Politicians and their activitists have become too cosy, and many are clearly fighting like wild dogs to hold onto the bones of power long after they have sucked the life out of the electorate.

AV isn’t a perfect system (it’s not proportional), but it has many advantages over the current one. So, what is wrong with the current system of First Past the Post (aka FPTP)? What are the reasons to vote for a change to AV? Many voters want an honest debate about these two systems, but the No campaign refuses to talk of the benefits of the FPTP system. They’ve made a decision to fight dirty, to try and manipulate you, the voter, and to attack anyone who speaks in favour of a change to Fairer Voting.

The strange thing seems to be that the No campaign fail to see that an electoral system that would turn a popular share of the vote of 33% to 33% to 33% for Labour, Conservatives and LibDems (a ratio of 1:1:1) into Parliamentary seats in a ratio of 3:2:1 is unfair.

Even stranger is the fact that the Tories, who on the whole are disadvantaged by the current First Past the Post system, albeit less than are the LibDems (but still substantially so against Labour) seem mostly to think that voting No is in their interests. Is this because there are large numbers of Tory safe seats in which the incumbent only needs to show his face once every so often to be elected in a job for life, meaning Central Office can parachute in an out of area, unelectable-in-a-marginal kind of loyal to the leader candidate? This could equally apply of course to some Labour safe seats, such as Bradford Central which, as Andrew Neil said on BBC1’s “This Week” program, Labour would win if you put a cat on the ticket for them”. It is said that “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Safeseats offer almost absolute power to their incumbents who are mostly party favourites, including the last Labour MP elected from Bradford Central who’s conviction for expenses fraud caused the by-election last week.

Maybe Cameron is happy to cede all the power to the Labour party for long periods with no Tory influence (other than through the tabloids) just to ensure that the Tories can similarly gain such absolute power when the pendulum swings the other way? Or does he just fear any sort of change because of his limited experience of life (PR and Politics)? Whatever, Tory voters seem mostly to be following Cameron’s lead on this, with one or two clever exceptions.

It really is a shame for Cameron, you know. He spent so much effort and time erasing the public memory of the Nasty Party sufficiently to be elected in 2010, only to find that his people swiftly cast off their woolly, green jumpers so as to give better access for their fangs to tear into anyone who stands in their way in the No campaign. There are of course, one or two wise exceptions, but most Tweeters for the No campaign are Tories of one form or another, and they are fighting one of the dirtiest, nastiest political campaigns I have experienced since voting for Maggie Thatcher in 1979. Imagine the worst kind of sleazy advertising and you could be reading a No2AV tweeter replying to someone seeking fairness. Fairness is not something the No campaigners do.

Apparently Cameron is a little worried now, and there is talk of him taking over the campaign personally. I’d like to give him credit as someone who felt a distaste for all the nastiness, but apparently that isn’t what worries him. What is worrying fort him, after all his preparations, is the fact that the Yes campaign is more popular than the Nos, and he desperately wants the Referendum to fail because otherwise his hard right wing back benchers will show the loyalty given to Margaret Thatcher. When Cameron moved the Tories to Right of Centre, a lot of those who had not already left for UKIP (which incidentally supports the Yes campaign) started machinations against their leader. For some reason they don’t seem impressed by the way he very adroitly moved the blame for the cuts insisted on by the Conservative dominated Cabinet onto the LibDems.

Let’s backtrack a bit. Gordon Brown, in his death throws as Labour leader finally succumbed to his party’s desire to move to AV. It went into the Labour Party manifesto and they fought the election with this on the table for the LibDems. The LibDems had always been supporters of electoral reform – but they prefer STV as being more proportional than AV. Cameron has been consistently against any form of change to the system. But he had to offer something to the LibDems in order to take power, so he agreed to a Referendum on the subject.

There were some conditions though. He knew that grass root LibDems favoured STV over AV, so thought he had a better chance of getting a No vote from LibDem voters with AV. This brought a new problem though – Labour were in favour of AV. How to nullify this threat? Add to the Referendum legislation a clause about removing 50 Parliamentary seats through balancing the electoral boundaries along the lines of number of voters, not population. This would hit Labour hardest, and he hoped this extra manipulation would work in the Tories’ favour by actually having the Referendum not take place or if it did by pushing many Labour voters into the No camp, as indeed it has, even though in principle they are not against the idea of Electoral reform. Their current leader, Ed Milliband, stands in the Yes camp. So. Cameron is worried.

But back to the actual campaign the no people are running. Overwhelmingly negative of course, but No is a negative, isn’t it? Here’s a typical example of the misguided information they have spread onto the wider internet, this from a Conservative Home blogger:

The fact is that AV would mean that most general elections would result in hung parliaments, which take power away from voters and deliver it into the hands of politicians, who then proceed to negotiate deals behind closed doors, resulting in a government and a programme for which not a single person voted.

That’s full of rubbish. Let’s go through it one point at a time.

  1. “…AV would mean that most general elections would result in hung parliaments…” NOT TRUE. Australia which has run AV elections for 90 years has had fewer Hung Parliaments than the UK’s FPTP system generated during the same period. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest AV would produce more or less coalitions than FPTP.
  2. “…(hung parliaments) take power away from voters…” NOT TRUE. Hung Parliaments reflect the way voters voted. In such situations the average view of all voters lies between the different party extremes, and forming a coalition is the most accurate way of representing the way the voters as a population voted.
  3. “…(hung parliaments) deliver (power) into the hands of politicians…” MISLEADING. The purpose of ALL elections is to deliver power into the hands of the politicians. We elect them as our representatives, unfortunately we do not have a Direct Democracy, nor do we have voter initiated Referendums six times a year on 15 to 20 individual laws to be enacted of not per year as they do in Switzerland, so our representatives must by definition have power to act.
  4. “…(politicians) negotiate deals behind closed doors…” NO CHANGE. This has always been how politics works. All parties have different wings, Labour have the far left, and the moderates, the Conservatives have the strongly Christian (eg John Selwyn Gummer, Ann Widdecombe etc), the Euro Sceptics (eg John Redwood, Normal Tebbit) and the Europhiles (eg Ken Clark). Conservative Prime Minister John Major even said he’d “rather have the Bastards in the cabinet than out of it”. Most people don’t know what goes on in Cabinet either, or how the Lobbyists affect the voting of MPs, and I think the Cash for Questions scandal of the 1990s was another “smoke-filled room” scenario.
  5. “…(hung parliaments…result) in a government … for which not a single person voted”. TRUE. Elections are not about the vote of just one person; they are about the cumulative votes of the whole country. Maybe one or two selfish people think it’s all about them, but that’s wishful thinking.
  6. “…(hung parliaments…result in a) programme … for which not a single person voted” NO CHANGE. Ah, Party Manifestos. What happened to the Labour Party’s manifesto pledge to create an elected House of Lords? They had 13 years and three Parliaments to do that, but didn’t – and there are many similar instances from periods when the Tories were in power. In fact, in my over thirty years of voting in UK elections the manifesto is the last place I have learned to look to find out what the plans of politicians are: much better to read the headlines from the Tabloid Press. Was Dangerous Dogs legislation in the Conservative party manifesto in the 90s? No, but within three days of a story about a toddler being mauled by a dog appeared in the Tabloids there was a hastily produced (and badly written) law enacted to control them. Safe seats give parachuted-in Parliamentarians no reason to listen to their Constituents, just to their Party Masters who inserted them in their Jobs for Life and to the Press who can keep them there or eject them. FPTP reinforces this habit of turning deaf ears to the voters; voting for AV is a step in the right direction to open politics up because candidates will have to appeal not just to their core voters, but to enough supporters from other parties too to get their second preference votes.

What of the (non) statistics? One of the No camp’s most speculative numbers which they present as fact in an attempt to mislead and manipulate voters is:

“The Alternative Vote system would cost us £250m”

Their defence? “It’s a prediction”. Ah hah. “We say would be – would makes a difference”. Ah yes, weasel words. Cynical manipulation designed to mislead large numbers of voters.

The Treasury however has said that the cost of an election will be £130m whether there’s AV or FPTP. So where did the No campaign get the extra £120m from? This is based on the idea that Voting Machines would have to be bought for the whole country. This is, however, pure speculation. Australia has had an AV system for over 90 years, and 99.9% of the country has never used voting machines. The no campaign have been desperate to find some – and have found (wait for it) five experimental machines. Five. In the whole of Australia. In the UK, nobody has announced any plans to buy any voting machines. There really is no need to buy new machines every election, or for any election. Moving a few voting slips from eliminated First Preference choices to Second Preferences is child’s play.

To have a look at the type of things each campaign are saying, check out this video taken at the Bristol AV debate. It’s a really interesting snapshot.

Glossary
AV = Alternative Vote
FPTP = First Past the Post
STV = Single Transferable Vote

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