Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tory Smears On PR

...or, Why We Have To Talk Specifics.

A few people, eg. Costigan Quist, Mark Thomson and Neil Stockley, have been arguing for a consensual, compromising stance, most likely involving accepting the Jenkins Commission suggestion of AV+ instead of our preferred solution of STV. Jennie Rigg and Alex Foster offer a more divisive approach, and I would like to add my voice to theirs. Let me tell you why.

It has become obvious why being vague about what we are supporting will not work over the last week. The Tories, opposed as they are to the principle that every person's vote should count for something, have been lining up to smear the movement that has been picking up momentum over the last week. There are three specific lines that I would like to respond to.
1. PR takes power away from people and vests it in party hierarchies.

A lie.

This is an accusation which is quite justly levelled at a certain subset of PR systems: closed party list systems, such as the one that is used for the Euro elections in the UK. The parties choose the order of the list, and the top candidate is virtually guaranteed to be elected, as long as they're standing for a vaguely well supported party. Or, to put it another way, a safe seat! One that is even more in the gift of party patronage than safe seats at the moment! Similarly, since AV+ requires there to be top-up lists, the same problem applies to Alan Johnson's favoured solution. Not only that, but AV+ doesn't even get rid of safe seats on a constituency level. As Jennie quite rightly points out, safe seats are a pretty key feature of what we want to get rid of. It is the link from the immediate crisis to this specific reform, made off the back of Mark's excellent analysis (with a little help from yours truly).

STV, on the other hand, puts as much power into the hands of the people as possible. In effect, it rolls the Tories' proposed open primaries and the general election into one, and throws in proportionality as a bit of a bonus. David Cameron is being straight-forwardly deceptive in making the argument he made today. He knows he is, he knows what we favour (or at least, he ought to), and, as Millennium argues, if this electoral reform thing gets rolling, then he would be an absolute hypocrite not to get on board with any Lib Dem efforts to favour STV, not AV+.

2. The Lib Dems just want PR because they want to always be in government.

A ridiculous line, and one which pre-supposes a parliament which looks more or less like the one we have now after a reform designed specifically to ensure that it does not. In making this claim, the Tories (or anyone else) are assuming that under the new system, the Lib Dems are still the only other main party in the Commons after the Tories and Labour. Why? It seems to me pretty likely that we could see, at the very least, UKIP and Green MPs under most systems of PR, certainly including the ones that we favour. Assuming Scotland remained part of the UK, you'd also likely have a sizeable nationalist contingent. Plenty of people to form a coalition with, even if the few BNP members elected were (rightly) so toxic that nobody wanted to form a coalition of any sort with them.

Ironically, the one system likely to produce the outcome being suggested by this talking point is the one supported by Alan Johnson, AV+. As Lewis Baston noted in a report on AV (pdf) for the Electoral Reform Society,
...life under AV is fairly comfortable for Liberal Democrats. All their incumbent MPs are likely to find their seats safer than under FPTP, and change to proportionality would destabilise this comfortable position. AV also suits Lib Dem campaigning techniques quite well, and the party could reasonably look forward to faster electoral progress than under FPTP in its target constituencies because acquiring second preferences is easier than acquiring tactical votes.
It's easy enough to see how this works: for the most part, it's reasonable to assume that both Tory and Labour voters would put the Lib Dems preferentially higher than Labour or the Tories, respectively. In even vaguely close seats, this would give us a real advantage. It also favours centre parties, and does very little to represent smaller, more niche parties like the Greens or UKIP. If AV (or even AV+) was the system we were advocating, then there would be a lot of truth in the criticism that the Lib Dems just wanted to be in power all the time. As Baston remarked,
It would be understandable if the party settled for AV for a – perhaps lengthy – ‘transitional period’ or ‘national conversation’ rather than move quickly into a more thoroughgoing electoral reform.
It would indeed, and it is to the party's credit that it has continued to favour STV and not AV, when, as Jennie mentioned,
thanks to Chris Rennard, our party is actually best geared up to fighting FPTP elections, and would likely LOSE seats if STV came in.
To see this point, just imagine how many of our campaigning techniques (eg. bar charts) would translate to a proper proportional system like STV. But anyway, the main point is, we should not be the only significant presence after the main two parties under STV (and that's assuming that none of the existing main parties undergo splits or rapid transformations under the new system, which is a game for another time..).

3. PR results in chaos and deals made in smoke-filled rooms.

OK, this one is a bit more difficult, because basically it's true, coalitions must be formed under PR systems, more or less whatever you do. You can still give a government a solid mandate, by having an election for the Prime Minister separately, and tasking them with forming a government, but yes, there will either be a search for coalition partners, or a minority government will have to reach across the aisle for support on individual planks of its programme.

But look at it this way. Politics, the art of the possible, is about coalitions of interests. Always has been, always will be. New Labour is not a natural, cohesive grouping of people; died in the wool trade unionists would rather not be in a party with Peter Mandelson if they could help it. Nor, for that matter, would some of the more foaming eurosceptic types in the Tory party want to be in a party with Ken Clarke. Sometimes, the economic/social liberal distinction rears its head in our own fair party. The point is, FPTP doesn't eliminate coalitions, not really; it just makes people form coalitions before running for election, not after. The political parties are the coalitions, and often the wheelings and dealings are much more murky than they might be under PR. The oft-quoted example is the scrap between Blairites and Brownites which characterised much of the current Labour government's term. How open and transparent was the process which led to most of the policy ennacted over the last ten years?

Under PR, the negotiations are much more open, in that at least we know what each party wants, the news can report on the negotiations (most of the information would likely be leaked from somewhere), and we can see what comes out the other end and draw our own conclusions about what went on. If we don't like the result, crucially, we can vote next time to change the balance of power within that coalition, without kicking that coalition out of power. Under the coalition that was New Labour, we had no such option. STV, uniquely, even lets you do this within parties, by favouring, say, proper Old Labour types over Blue Labour candidates. Under FPTP, change in parties often takes a very long time, and its direction is completely uncontrollable by the electorate.
So, three lazy lines against PR, and three responses. But what do we notice about each of the responses? Crucially, in order to defend the principle of electoral reform from the self-interested, complacent opposition of the Tories, we are going to have to be specific about which system we are talking about. And if we don't speak up for STV now, we are going to be lumbered with a system which is much more open to criticism from those who oppose any form of PR.

It's all very well saying the Tories have nothing to do with it, but at some point, if we want this to go forward, we are going to have to make an argument to the people and win a referendum on the matter. The Labour grassroots don't much care for electoral reform, so campaigning on the ground for reform is going to fall largely to us. It is perfectly reasonable to throw everything we can at making sure we can fight on our own terms, for the system we actually believe in.

10 comments:

Jennie said...

Thank you for this excellent and eloquent post. You rule.

Costigan Quist said...

Nice post.

I do think compromise will be needed, but I've never mentioned AV+ or the Jenkins commission in my posts - and for good reason.

My starting point is always on what we want to achieve rather than on systems.

I want to see a system with far fewer safe seats, where people can still vote for their party without having to vote for that party's candidate (i.e. they get a choice of candidates from each party) & where we maintain a constituency link.

I would want any discussion on electoral reform to start off trying to get agreement on what we want the system to achieve and, only then, to start looking at which of the many voting systems out there best matches those agreed objectives.

Jo Christie-Smith said...

Personally, I like most of us would prefer STV and that's party policy.

So we have defined what we want but it just a tad naive, not to mention cutting off our nose to spite our collective face to turn down the option for AV+ and continue with FPTP, if that is all that's on the table.

The fact is that if the Tories get into power we're not going to have any form of PR so there's no compromise to be made with them. Of course they're going to try and smear the movement!

But with others....? With others you have to find the common ground and like Costigan says focus on what you're trying to achieve and not throw your toys out of the pram if you don't get everything in one go.

Andy said...

Jennie: Thanks, you're not so bad yourself.

Costigan: So what compromise are we talking about here, if (as you seem to suggest) AV+ isn't really what you're interested in? I'd go with any steps which are a part of STV, eg. preferential voting or multi member consituencies, but really that would be because they are steps towards the system I favour.

Saying "My starting point is always on what we want to achieve rather than on systems" sounds to me rather like the following:

My starting point for holiday destinations is always on what I want from the holiday, not specific countries. What I want from my holiday is people speaking french, lots of croissants, and the ability to visit the Eiffel Tower.Jo Christie-Smith:

Personally, I would rather keep FPTP than move to AV+. AV, I could live with, but AV+ would set back the cause of electoral reform by decades, by giving the whole idea a bad name and making a mess of a system. Like I outline in my post, I can't defend AV+ from the criticisms the Tories level at it. If we have to go into a referendum arguing for it, I for one am not confidant I can do so succesfully. If we lose that referendum, what momentum we have is killed stone dead.

Paul Griffiths said...

While I don't think AV+ would be quite as hard to justify as you fear, I agree that we should argue for STV for as long as we can.

As others have pointed out elsewhere, we'd stand a better chance of getting STV for local elections. That, if Labour and the Conservatives start to match policy to rhetoric with regards to localism and devolved power, may even turn out to be the bigger win in the long run.

Neil Stockley said...

Andy,

I agree with Costigan, the real argument should be about the case for reform. But, as I say in my recent post, a specific option will have to be on the ballot if a referendum is held

My personal preference is for STV -- that’s what I voted for, by the way, in New Zealand’s “preferendum” back in 1992. But if another voting system, that represents progress towards proportionality, such as AV-plus is the one that’s on the table, then we should support it.

As Jo says, let’s get real: this issue has moved on quite a lot over recent days. Both Nick Clegg and the Electoral Reform Society have indicated they would support a referendum, to choose between first past the post and AV-plus. Yes, we have to talk specifics, but let’s make them the correct specifics.

Of course, the Tories would oppose any PR option that is put up. For instance, they would charge that STV would end the link between constituents and representatives and require massive constituencies; also “the tail wags the dog”, etc.

On (2) and (3) above, I think that the real point to make is that PR elections may lead to coalition governments, but that such arrangements put a lot of pressure on the junior coalition partners. If voters don’t like how junior parties use their “power”, they punish them at the next opportunity. Look what happened to the West German FDP after they walked out on their coalition with the SPD in 1982. Nor does the “squeeze” stop under PR. New Zealand has used PR (MMP, or AMS) in every general election since 1996. Each election has resulted in a coalition government. At every subsequent election, the junior coalition partner has suffered a big drop in its support.

Also, it’s not correct to argue (as in your point (3)) that parties will make clear before the election whom they will align with.

Re your reply to Jo: I am a little startled that you would prefer FPTP (a non-proportional system) to AV plus, which is a part-proportional system, with many positive features and could be supported – see the Jenkins report. Or that you could “live with” AV, also a non-proportional system. AV is the sort of reform-without-real-reform option that some Labour people support, to try to kill the argument off. Isn’t “fair votes” what it’s meant to be all about?

And do you really think that Liberal Democrats would be the only ones campaigning actively for electoral reform?

Andy said...

Neil:

a specific option will have to be on the ballot if a referendum is held.Exactly, so at some point we're going to have to talk about it. If we don't do so now, we'll find it just is AV+ before we know what's happened.

But if another voting system, that represents progress towards proportionality, such as AV-plus is the one that’s on the table, then we should support it.As I said above, I don't think AV+ is a step in the right direction, because it is a waste of reform-momentum. OK, it represents proportionality, but it doesn't represent an end to safe seats, and that's the real problem.

Both Nick Clegg and the Electoral Reform Society have indicated they would support a referendum, to choose between first past the post and AV-plus.Well of course they have, it would look churlish to say they wouldn't support it (ie. be against it). Point is, the potential referendum is not set in stone yet.

Of course, the Tories would oppose any PR option that is put up. For instance, they would charge that STV would end the link between constituents and representatives and require massive constituencies; also “the tail wags the dog”, etc.And I'm quite happy to have those arguments, because I believe I'm right and they're wrong. I wouldn't be as happy defending AV+, because I'd have a nagging feeling that they were right.

Also, it’s not correct to argue (as in your point (3)) that parties will make clear before the election whom they will align with.Go back and read what I said again. My point was that political parties under FPTP are de facto coalitions. Labour and Conservatives are little more than broad "centre left" and "centre right" coalitions, under one party umbrella. I was trying to argue that the lack of coalitions under FPTP is an illusion.

Re your reply to Jo: I am a little startled that you would prefer FPTP (a non-proportional system) to AV plus, which is a part-proportional system, with many positive features and could be supported – see the Jenkins report. Or that you could “live with” AV, also a non-proportional system. AV is the sort of reform-without-real-reform option that some Labour people support, to try to kill the argument off.It depends on whether the question is where I would prefer to start from, or what I would support a transition to. I would prefer to start with an AV+ system, and be campaigning for STV, than start with FPTP. But I would prefer not to go through all the upheaval of a transition to AV+, with all the sense that the issue is now "dealt with" that it would create. It is in that sense that I said I could "live with" AV: I could live with the outcome of this move for reform being AV, because it is then only a small step to say "lets make constituencies multi-member", and hey presto, you've got STV. With AV+, it's rather more difficult, because it's still a fairly big and fundamental reform to move to STV. You'd be creating a whole messy two-classes-of-member problem, only to then go on and say you wanted to abolish it again. Meanwhile, people who didn't like the lack of clarity provided by having to vote for a constituency candidate and for a party list would be turned off electoral reform.

Isn’t “fair votes” what it’s meant to be all about?For certain values of "fair", yes. For me and many others, it's not just about proportionality, it's about removing safe seats and the complacency that they bring with them. On this front, AV+ would be every bit as much a "reform-without-real-reform" as AV.

And do you really think that Liberal Democrats would be the only ones campaigning actively for electoral reform?

I have a sneaking suspicion we would be, yes. Certainly the only thing even remotely resembling a mass membership organisation. Labour party members would be all too aware they'd be making their own lives a lot harder.

Neil Stockley said...

Andy,

I look forward to seeing your campaign for an FPTP vs. STV referendum.

I think your latest response shows that we have different criteria for assessing electoral systems. I am more interested in progress towards proportionality, more representativeness and greater diversity, as well having some chance of succeeding in reform, than seeing an end to “safe seats”. (NB – I once heard a member of the Australian Senate, which is elected by STV, claim, with some accuracy, to have “the safest Labor seat in the world”.)

I think your overall approach, STV or else AV as some kind of half way house, might be more useful if the Lib Dems had total control over the timing and options in any referendum. Sadly, we do not.

Also, Lib Dems will never achieve any electoral reform on our own. We need to work with all sorts of other people – for instance, electoral reformers in the Labour Party, the Greens, Plaid and Tory electoral reformers (yes, there are a few). If we do not, the Tories and anti-reform elements in the Labour Party and elsewhere will slaughter any ideas for electoral reform.

Meanwhile, the world continues to move on. In today’s Guardian, Nick Clegg calls for an FPTP vs. AV-plus referendum – by early September!

Reg said...

I'm surprised that people keep accusing AV+ of used closed lists. If you read the Jenkins Report it clearly recommends open lists for the proportional ballot paper.

Having said that, I still don't like AV+ as it is still basically a non-proportional system.

Dingdongalistic said...

AV+ doesn't entirely get rid of safe seats, but it does reduce them, due to the fact that a candidate can no longer win on a minority of the vote. Similarly, STV doesn't entirely get rid of safe seats either, though it most likely does to a greater degree than AV/AV+.

With STV, experience in Northern Ireland has shown that parties spreading themselves too thin with too many candidates can be punished electorally, due to the fact that not everyone decides to cast a full preference vote. Thus there is still an incentive to have party selection of candidates, no matter what people sometimes claim about STV 'combining' selection and election.

Therefore in a strong party area, it is hypothetically possible, combined with internal selection procedures that favour the incumbent, for an STV seat to become very "safe", provided that people vote on party lines. Moreover, one could argue that there might be a greater incentive for parties to select incumbents, to avoid the phenomenon of previous incumbents candidates from running again as independents and 'thinning out' the party vote.