Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Tom Harris hearts AV (but only for the political classes)

That's right. Tom Harris, that stalwart of First Past the Post has a blogpost this morning which makes the case for the Alternative Vote. You should read the whole post as I have only included snippets below. He specifies the circumstances in which he thinks it can work well:


AV is a good system for filling a single position. If Britain had an elected president, for example, he or she would probably be elected by AV, or at least in a run-off ballot. That would make sense.

Similarly, if a local party is choosing a parliamentary candidate, AV is the best system to secure the maximum amount of support for the victorious candidate from party members. And, yes, when electing the leader of a party, AV’s the system to use.

That's quite a few situations where he thinks it is a good thing. Of course there's a but coming:

But when you’re electing 650 people from across the country, you’re not just electing 650 individual MPs – you’re electing a government.

...

And that’s why FPTP remains the best system for the Commons and AV is the better system for electing party leaders. Horses for courses, see?

I'm afraid I don't see. Surely a general election consists of 650 individual races where the voters are choosing their individual MP. If AV is good enough for all the other situations that Tom lists then why is it not good for people in a constituency choosing who represents them? Proponents of FPTP often talk about how that system maintains a "strong" link between the MP and the constituency. The arguments mainly revolve around this link and how bad it would be to lose or "weaken" this through a more proportional system (of which just to be clear AV is not one). There is a case to make that AV actually increases the strength of the link between the MP and their constituents, after all it means that they have to get over a certain threshold within the seat (50%) rather than as at the moment some MPs getting elected with a lot less than that often through the votes of their opponents splitting the opposition to them. There are some pretty unpopular MPs out there even in their own constituencies.

Ironically, for someone who is so opposed to proportional systems, Tom actually ends up making quite a strong case for using something more like STV with multi-member constituencies for the Commons. If what we are really doing is voting for a party nationally in a general election (which is essentially Tom's argument) then what justification is there for parties that get 24% of the vote to get less than 10% of the seats? Or parties that get 35% of the vote getting 55% of the seats? He can't have it both ways. In mustering arguments against using AV for the Commons he ends up arguing against FPTP as well.

I think the sort of arguments we see above could become a real problem during the campaign. there are lots of situations where the political classes already use AV for themselves as Tom describes. Trying to then simultaneously argue that voters in constituencies should not have that same system whilst avoiding the trap of inadvertently exposing the big problems with FPTP is quite a tall order. I don't think Tom has managed it here.

For such an advocate of the existing system to be finding these sort of problems gives me confidence that those of us who want to see change can win this argument.

1 comment:

The Druid said...

This is what I meant yesterday. I dont agree with his point of view but I think it is a very reasonable proposition - one that a lot of people will probably instinctively agree with. He is saying AV is good for picking individuals, but it is not good for picking strong governments.

I dont think anything you have said in your post really refutes that point. AV may be good for various other reasons but it is likely to produce more "balanced" governments, and some people dont like the idea of that - as much as you do, I do, and probably the majority of people reading this blog do.

Lets not fall into the trap of thinking there is no argument to be made against what we believe. If we underestimate the argument against us we are less likely to be equipped to overcome it.

Mark - another question. You have your ear to the ground on these things. Do you get a sense from the powers that be that there is much prospect of people listening to your advice about dividing the bill in two?