Recently I have had a number of Twitter debates about the AV referendum with Charlotte Vere (@CharlotteV), the Finance Director of the No2AV campaign. They have usually consisted largely of her claiming that nobody really wants AV and me pointing out that most reformers, and certainly all of those backing Yes2AV genuinely think AV is an improvement over First Past The Post.
Saturday, 5 February 2011
However yesterday the discussion took a turn for the interesting. I realised that Charlotte was the Conservative candidate in Brighton Pavilion in the general election last year. What makes this pertinent is the fact that the Conservatives ran what they called an "open primary" in that constituency to choose the candidate (it was actually more like an open caucus as the voters had to attend a meeting but it was still an open process with any voter from the constituency able to attend). And in this selection process, they used, wait for it, a "run off" system. The way it worked is that there were 6 candidates and the voters chose the one they wanted in the first round. The lowest placed candidate was then eliminated and the voters then voted again for one of the remaining 5 candidates. Then the lowest placed was eliminated and the 4 remaining candidates were voted on etc. etc. until we ended up with two candidates and ultimately one winner.
Sound familiar? It sounds remarkably like the Alternative Vote to me. The only real difference with the run off system is that the voters vote in multiple rounds. With AV all the rounds are combined into one ballot with all the preferences (1st, 2nd, 3rd etc.) listed at the start of the process. I really cannot see a fundamental difference between the systems. They both allow the voters to choose 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc. preferences to ensure that their views can influence the final round of voting.
From this report in the Brighton Argus it would appear that the vote during the Brighton open process was quite close. Two of the lower placed candidates were eliminated simultaneously and there were audible gasps when one of the lower placed candidates went out suggesting there was significant support for them. We do not know the exact numbers as the totals from each round were kept secret but I think it is fair to say from the way the voting went to the final round that no single candidate had a big lead throughout the process. Therefore there is a significant chance that if instead the winner had been chosen at the end of the first round of voting which is what happens under First Past the Post, Charlotte may well not have won at all and the candidate could have been someone different. Ironically had that happened, her profile would not have been so raised and she may not have been chosen as the finance director of the very organisation that seeks to deny the electorate a very similar preferential process for Westminster elections!
Charlotte herself claims that different elections require different systems but when I pressed her on the specific reasons as to why an open primary type vote and a constituency election should use such differing systems she did not respond. To be fair, she may have been pressed for time and of course Twitter is not the ideal medium for lengthy explanations so Charlotte is quite welcome to use the comments below this post to respond. I hope she does as I am genuinely interested to know what her reasoning is on this.
Whatever the response is though I think it is fair to say that Charlotte Vere, such a vocal opponent of a preferential voting system for Westminster is actually pragmatic enough to recognise that such a system has real strengths. Which suggests to me that in reality she is fully aware of the benefits of such a system having been the beneficiary of it herself just over a year ago. I am basing this on the fact that as far as I can tell she has not decried the system used to select her and her opposition to preferential systems was certainly not strong enough for her to refuse to participate in the selection process.
So why do the Conservative party more generally so vociferously oppose a preferential system for Westminster whilst simultaneously using a preferential system for their own open selection contests? I suspect it is down to the dynamics of the two processes. In the case of an open selection, what they are trying to do is select a candidate with the broadest appeal. After all they want that candidate to ultimately win the subsequent election. Therefore if they were to use FPTP for the selection there is a real risk that the candidate selected would appeal to a minority of the electorate in the constituency but a majority of that same electorate would not want to vote for them. By using a preferential system for the selection they try to ensure that their candidate has broad appeal. Or at least the most broad appeal of the 6 or so candidates they put up. It is a good indication that they are likely to be fairly popular.
However when it comes to the election within the constituency, they think the best way to ensure a win is to use First Past the Post. And in a good year for the Conservatives they are correct. Last year they won just over 47% of the seats on 36% of the vote. A significant number of their MPs did not get at least 50% of the votes cast. Which means a majority of the voters in the seats of many of their MPs did not vote for them.
I of course understand that political parties want to win seats and the Lib Dems are often accused of wanting to change the electoral system to suit them. I think the big difference is one of consistency. The Lib Dems always advocate preferential systems. We use AV for our internal committee and leadership elections and ultimately want STV* for all other elections, both local and national.
Whereas the Conservative Party seem to want to have their cake and to simultaneously eat it. They choose a preferential system where it suits them in open selections and strongly oppose it where they think it would not benefit them for Westminster elections. Which suggests to me that deep down they are not opposed in principle to preferential voting. Only when they think it will not help them.
If one of the leading lights of the No campaign is ambivalent about the benefits of preferential systems, which also reflects the inconsistent view of her party does this not undermine the credibility of the Conservative opposition to a change?
*STV is AV with multi member constituencies.
UPDATE: After a further Twitter chat with Charlotte she has declined to come onto the blog to give her side. She claims that this post is a "ridiculous personal attack" which makes me look stupid. I of course disagree! She also claims that AV and runoff in rounds are different systems and that AV is not suitable for national elections. I am still none the wiser as to how she justifies the use of a preferential system for a selection and yet fervently opposes a similar (albeit not identical granted) system for a constituency election. And it looks like I will remain none the wiser as she is not going to explain. Which I think is a pity.