Every status update since the dawn of Thomas


Wednesday, 4 May 2011


The hot topic that everyone is talking about certainly isn’t this. But anyway, out of a sense of duty (because I happen to actually know what the terms mean) I suppose I should say something about the referendum on voting reform – should we stick with First Past the Post (FPP) or change to the Alternative Vote system (AV) to elect our MPs? - for those who don’t have a clue and can’t be arsed to otherwise look up the details... well, bad luck, because by the time you read this it’ll all be over. Should have written this a couple of weeks ago. Still.

Let’s cut to the chase:

FPP = everyone in your area (“constituency”) votes for one candidate off the list standing for that area. Whichever candidate gets the most votes wins. Simple.

The main criticism of the current FPP system is that in constituencies which are a "safe seat" (ie. The “majority” will always vote Conservative even if the Conservative candidate is a half-eaten tube of Pringles) anyone not voting Conservative may as well take up the Tibetan nose-flute as exercise their democratic right to vote.

Bear in mind, the “majority” in FPP might be quite small, and not really a majority at all – if only 30% vote Conservative, as long as every other candidate gets less than 30% they have won. It’s actually the larger loyal minority that wins. This can lead to a stale old deadlock that FPP supporters like to call “stability”. In times of voter apathy these loyal minorities are sometimes the only people who turn out. Voters are apathetic because they have no faith in politicians, or that their vote will ever change anything, partly due to… this system.

With AV, where there's no majority over 50%, second and third choices etc are taken into account - so you're more likely to get a less predictable result, and a vote that more accurately reflects the diversity of voters’ preferences.

AV = everyone votes by ranking the candidates in order of preference (first choice, second choice, third choice etc.) If a one candidate gets over 50% of “first choice” votes, they win.

If they don’t, this happens: The candidate with the least number of “first choice” votes gets scratched out – they have now left the Big Brother house. So are the ballot papers of everyone who voted for them wasted? No – because for those people, their “second choice” is now moved up to “first choice” and added to the totals. This may bring up one candidate to 50% now – if it doesn’t, another candidate is scratched out and… so on until SOMEONE gets 50%. Sounds horrendously complicated. It is - but also a subtler gauge of voters' prefs.

The main criticism of AV is that you end up with nobody's first choice and only a second or even third-choice compromise. While compromise may seem preferable to being rail-roaded by a small, set-in-their-ways minority, it could make unstable coalitions more likely, as there could, theoretically, be a greater mix of different party MPs. Another main criticism is... Nick Clegg.

Clegg likes it because it should be (or would have been before they screwed up their image in this coalition) better for Lib Dems by breaking the deadlock of “safe seats” – Lib Dems may win on second choices. Milliband likes it because that’s how he beat his brother to the Labour leadership – on an AV vote amongst Labour party members.

Other scare stories are that it’ll give power to the BNP (but only because it’ll give a better chance to a wider range of political parties in general – some of which are, yes, extreme – but if that’s the way the public votes, that’s the public’s stupid fault – ain’t democracy grand) and that it’ll cost loads of money to change, something which is being angrily denied by the AV camp. Mainly, it’s just a bit of an unknown – no one really knows how it will change things. It may make no difference at all.

And neither, of course, is a direct vote for who runs the country. Who gets to be government is who has the most MPs in the House of Commons, NOT who has the most overall votes. Both FPP and AV are still just to decide which MPs get a "seat" in any given constituency - but then if it was the total number of individual votes that decided government you could end up with party in power who don't actually have a majority of MPs, and then they could not be sure they’d be able to pass any legislation once in power – you’d have a weak, toothless government. Confusion over whether you’re voting for an MP to represent your area or voting for who you want the actual damned government to be is inherent in the system. This is democracy at a considerable second-hand remove – it ain’t Athens.

I have no faith that AV will change anything for the better, but I’m going to vote for it anyway – mainly because, after years of whinging about the stagnation of politics and how my vote is pointless and wasted, I’d be a coward and a hypocrite not to take the opportunity to shake things up.

This idea that FPP is tried and tested and works and AV may mess things up and we’ll all be running around unable to make decisions and the country will grind to a halt – did anyone pay attention to the last general election? Or the one before that? We HAVE a coalition under FPP. Voter apathy as been a problem for decades. People are massively disillusioned with the system and the choices facing them in elections – the whole point is, the election system is NOT working like it used to these days. If this makes the political parties rethink how they go about the business of getting votes, that might not be such a bad thing.

Plus many arguments against AV have struck me as alarmingly missing the point of democracy. All this Hobbesian “we need a decisive result, not compromise and coalitions” pretty much = we need to ignore variety of opinion and have a strong, single-minded leadership. Well alright! Dictatorship it is then.

But then, while the crucial element of democracy has been aptly shown by goings on in the middle east recently – the ability to criticise and GET RID of your government – when it comes to political parties, it always has been, to some extent, a prettier word for “mob rule”. Plato certainly thought so. We can but hope that most people are reasonable and sensible and most of our politicians are competent and conscientious. Mmn. Happy voting.


  1. David Starkey's got an interesting article about AV


    ...which, despite being anti-AV has just about convinced me to vote in favour.

    He argues that the growth of the party system, with manifestos which MPs can be held to, has been good for voters. Smaller parties and independents, he says, will be bought off in backroom deals which constituents will be kept in the dark about.

    But as Noise points out, the current system doesn't work either. Politicians can only get elected if they wear a particular colour, and in doing so they have to back a bunch of positions they don't necessarily agree with. Now, this wouldn't be so bad if the parties held genuinely different ideas. We all know that's not the case any more. The voters are already being stitched up.

    The AV campaign has been deeply depressing from both sides. Yes for thinking we need a string of horrible celebrities (step forward Eddie Izzard) to tell us about voting systems, No for telling blatant lies and hoping people won't notice (the BNP won't be more likely to get in because they won't be anyone's second choice. It's an all or nothing deal with that lot.)

    I see even John Humphries, in an interview with Cameron, failed to understand how AV worked. This brings me to probably the best argument for a new system. It'll give people who take and interest in politics and are able to use AV tactically a potentially more effective vote. That sounds good to me.

    Not that there's any chance of the people voting yes. The best odds you can get is 1/16. You can blame scaremongering, or you blame people being pissed off at being asked a stupid question they don't care about.

  2. Or don't understand. As has been proven on numerous occasions, the default setting for the great British public is DUMB.

  3. Erratum:

    Jim pointed out an erroneous/confusing use of "Proportional Representation (PR)" in the above, so I've excised it all together.

    He said: "Cool, but PR is not about basing the elected party on the popular vote. Just like in FPP and AV, in PR you vote for your constituency's representation in government. The difference between AV and PR is that in the latter you have multiple MPs elected by larger, fewer constituencies rather than one MP elected by each of the smaller, more numerous constituencies. There are variations in use in Europe which employ a second vote for a party, but even this does not decide the executive (which is still primarily based on seats). I think you're thinking of the US system. A PR system for the HoC and an AV system for the executive would be awesome. But first we need PR. And to get that, we need AV."

    I said: "Shit, you're damn right - I've removed the reference to PR altogether. As I understood it, PR covers a number of scenarios where the legislature is made up of the various diverse groups of society in roughly the same ratios as in society (whether it's by geographical region or sex or ethnic background or whatever). - I knew this. And yet for some reason I threw that in there before going on to talk about direct voting for govt... my bad, I am an ass."

  4. Never mind the Eddie Izzard b*!!*cks, here's ARMANDO! http://ind.pn/lizYS1

  5. It's a great piece Tom. As you probably picked up on the 'Book I'm pretty fucked off with the whole tone of the debate. Your tone was good. Am no more fucked off after having read it than at the start, so that's a bonus. Thank you.

  6. Mmn - a "decisive answer" says Cameron - which I'd be happy to accept if I thought people had actually, accurately got an idea of what they were voting for. As it is, I get the feeling it was more of a massive abortion - the whole issue was botched on both sides.

    68% "Nah". Or more accurately, I suspect, "What the hell is this? Pfff. Too busy. Not interested". Ah well, never mind eh?

  7. From Jim:

    "The people who voted Yes were those who wanted PR and were smart enough to realise we'd need AV to get it, those who are still die-hard LD supporters, and those who genuinely want AV. Those demographics have something in common: they're very, very small.

    Those who thought AV was a bit better but not worth the hassle, and those who wanted PR but were too thick to understand we'd need AV first stayed at home.

    Finally the die-hard Tory and Labour supporters who profit from a two-party political system, those who want to punish the Lib Dems in general and Clegg in particular, and those who are easily swayed by emotive propaganda and put off by having the AV count explained to them voted no. Those demographics have one thing in common: they're all very large."

  8. From me:

    "Mmm - as indicated in m'blog, it wasn't like I was massively fond of AV or thought it would change much (far from giving marginal parties more of a chance, practically speaking it just makes those who voted for parties who were never going to win state a preference for one of the front runners aswell - but that might change which front runner actually wins) - but what I'm disappointed about is that a yes vote would have opened the door to further change. As it is, "we" have voted a firm no, which basically says "everything is fine as it is - carry on" and scuppered any further debate or chance to change anything for another generation. Shrug.

    Or maybe not - if the next general election is another shambles it might rear it's head again..."