Friday, February 18, 2011

Welcome to the "I dunno about AV" campaign

The forthcoming AV referendum is only the second to be held throughout the whole of the UK in history. In this case, it doesn't follow the familiar pattern of referendums everywhere with governments holding them only when they think they'll get the result they want - for the obvious reason that the government doesn't agree on this. But this outsourcing of Cabinet deliberation to the electorate is also a common function of referendums; it was the case in 1975 as it is with this one too.

If you don't like referendums, you could always abstain or spoil your ballot paper - but this wouldn't distinguish you from those who weren't interested or who were unaware. So what to vote for? I'm surprised that the No campaign isn't doing better. You would have thought that those favouring the status quo along with those who favour a properly proportional system would easily be able to muster a majority. This was, after all, a system that no-one originally wanted. That there are signs that this might not happen might be down to an 'anti-politics' mood, as some have argued.

The only thing I'm certain about on the whole issue of voting reform is that too much is claimed for it and two of the most common claims have appeared in the Yes campaign that specifically touch on this issue of voter disillusionment:

1) By creating fewer safe seats, elected representatives would be less inclined to be complacent and corrupt.

Leaving aside the possibility that AV can sometimes increase the bonus for the winning candidate, surely only the most insular of political observers could possibly conclude that there is some kind of correlation, never mind causation, between voting systems and levels of corruption?

2) Voting reform would increase voter turnout.

That AV has improved turnout in the sole country that uses it is impossible to demonstrate since Australia has compulsory voting. Rather the unsubstantiated claim rests on crude comparisons with other countries that have properly proportional systems. Germany has AMS, German voter turnout is higher, ergo voting reform will improve 'voter engagement'.

These non sequiturs abound when people make the mistake of assuming to know the mind of people who stay at home on polling day. I don't know any more than anyone else why nearly half of the Scottish electorate didn't vote in the 2007 election but since Holyrood is elected by AMS, we can rule out the supposed disenfranchising effect of FPTP as a factor.

Given that turnout at local elections is pretty dismal across the UK too, is it possible that voters have a fairly clear perception of where power lies in the British constitution? If so, simply changing the mechanism by which representative arrive at their respective assemblies looks a much more conservative measure than its advocates claim, which brings me to this:

One of the problems with the No campaign is that it is by very definition a negative one. This isn't helped by adopting narrow claims about how much it will all cost. Now, some oppose AV on the grounds that they want a proper proportional system. I'm agnostic about this too but their reasoning makes sense and one that doesn't seem to have been considered by pro-PR people in the Yes camp. What reason is there to suppose that AV is a 'stepping-stone'? One of the functions of limited constitutional reform is to deflate demands for more far-reaching change. While not entirely comparable, this was the case with many of those who accepted the case for devolution. Why should this not turn out to be the case with AV too?

Another thing: If referendums and AV are good things, why are we not to be offered a multi-option referendum with FPTP, PR and AV on the menu? People could express their preferences as easily as 1, 2, 3...

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