Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

AV is the wrong change

Ever since the expenses scandal broke and people started to question whether the safe seats gifted by our rotten electoral system might have had something to do with it, senior politicians have been doing their best to look like they are doing something about it. The thing is, the reforms implemented and planned really do not abolish the safe seats.

The Conservatives have gone for Open Primaries (or more usually caucuses) where they give the opportunity to voters within a constituency to select their candidate. There are numerous problems with this approach. One of the main ones from my perspective is that CCHQ is still in control of the shortlists, so for example in my constituency in Bracknell where an "open" caucus was held back in October, no local candidates were allowed to stand. I know for a fact that there were local Tories who wanted to stand but they were not shortlisted. I suspect this has happened in other seats as well. One of the losing candidates in Bracknell has already been selected for a completely different seat. A number of these candidates are now doing the rounds at all sorts of different open primaries until they get selected. It is the same sort of faces who would previously have put themselves before a selection committee. It gives the veneer of reform when in practise it is nothing of the sort. Allied to this, there is currently no suggestion that a sitting MP would be challenged for their seat so once selected for a safe seat, we are back to the same old situation.

And now Labour are apparently going to legislate for a referendum to change the electoral system to use the Alternative Vote method. Although the referendum could not happen before the next election they hope to legislate in such a way that a successor government would have to specifically legislate to overturn the decision to hold a referendum during the next parliament which would put e.g. a Prime Minister Cameron in an invidious position looking like he was against reform. All very clever-clever politics (and typical Brown tactics) but aside from all the politicking AV is not proportional. In fact it can be less proportional than our current First Past the Post system. Perhaps most importantly though in the context of doing something about the safe seats, it does not get rid of them. There will be almost as many safe seats under AV as there are now.

I should just stress that I am not being partisan here. It is likely that AV would benefit the Lib Dems and we would end up with more seats. However it is the wrong change. Electoral reform to Single Transferable Vote with multi-member constituencies would give a roughly proportional result and completely get rid of the safe seats.

The two main parties are trying to get away with as little change as possible whilst looking like they are reformers.


Simon Fawthrop said...

I'm still not sure about multi member seats and I don't really like party lists. So here's a proposal, the Scottish system with a couple of tweaks:

1. Anyone who has failed in a constituency election cannot go on a party list for, say, 2 GE elections.

2. Term limits on party list members.

This has the advantage of single member constituencies, so no confusion of representation whilst ensuring that those who are roundly rejected don't get to rule over us through the party list system, as happened in Germany recently.

It still doesn't solve the problem of central control of local parties so we still need some form of primaries, though.

Letters From A Tory said...

Safe seats can only be cracked once the parties change their internal behaviour. Parliament has little or no power over this.

Mark Thompson said...

LFAT. Parliament could legislate for a referendum to change the voting system tomorrow. It is entirely within their power. It's just that the majority of them don't want to do it.

Dingdongalistic said...

"but aside from all the politicking AV is not proportional. In fact it can be less proportional than our current First Past the Post system."

Firstly, Mark, you've got to distinguish between AV disproportionality, which is generally actually tied to something meaningful (IE a party being a widespread preference, or being very unpopular, cf. Labout the Conservatives in '97).

Secondly, the surveys that are always referenced are flawed, in that they are always conducted through the prism of the current system. We have no way of telling how a more open system like AV would change the way people voted, other than looking at examples of it in action in other countries, eg. Australia.

And finally, you're dead wrong about this:

"Perhaps most importantly though in the context of doing something about the safe seats, it does not get rid of them. There will be almost as many safe seats under AV as there are now."

Frankly, I'm a little surprised, as you're normally really accurate, but everything suggests that there would be far fewer safe seats under AV than there are now. To start with, I'm pretty sure I'm right in saying that over half of MPs have seats where they have less than an absolute majority -- the Indie said 2/3, I think, although I may be wrong on that front. Needless to say, any 'safe' seat where the MP does not have an absolute majority becomes no longer safe under AV, due to the requirement to seek 50% broad support.

Take Bill Wiggin's constituency -- my own. He gained around 51% of the vote last election. Under FPTP, it would take a huge swing to the LDs for him to lose it. Under AV, it could take as little as a swing of 1% real support to lose him the seat.

I'm most surprised because AV works in a very similar way to your preferred choice, STV -- in effect, it is STV with single-seat constituencies. The larger the constituencies, of course, the less safe seats under STV (although it's slightly more complex than that, and in regions with strong party loyalty, there would still be some added security for MPs, because parties would still need to have internal selection as to field too many candidates would be a mistake, as not everyone lists all of their preferences). But the basic means of making seat elections more efficient and less prone to tactical voting and vote-splitting is still there. AV is, in essence, the best reform to the single-member system that can be made without moving away from the single-member system itself.