Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Sorting the good arguments for AV from the bad (revised and updated)

I will be voting “Yes” to AV on 5 May.

But in some ways I will be doing so in spite rather than because of the case that has been put forward by the “Yes” campaign.

For a start, I’m not convinced that AV would make “lazy MPs” work any harder. Nor is there any evidence that the 2010 expenses scandal would have been averted under AV. The causes of the scandal were relatively low pay for MPs, generous expenses, a lack of openness, and old-fashioned greed in too many cases. They could have surfaced under any electoral system.

Another argument is that the current voting system allows too many MPs to stay in safe seats year after year, thereby breeding complacency and arrogance in our politics – one source of the expenses scandals.

Let’s look at the evidence. We are being offered the same “optional AV” system as is used in the Australian states of New South Wales and Queensland. Voting in Australia is compulsory, making valid comparisons a little tenuous, but following the March 2011 state election in NSW, 55 of the 93 seats in the state parliament (59%) are “safe”; that is, a two-party swing of 10% of more is required for them to change parties.

According to the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), 44% of seats in the UK House of Commons currently fall into this category.

OK, last month’s NSW election saw an electoral landslide of historic proportions, that made a lot of conservative coalition candidates much bigger margins than they would otherwise have enjoyed. Still, before the 2011 election, 44% of the seats in the NSW parliament were considered “safe”.

And in Australia’s Federal House of Representatives, which is elected using the non-optional form of AV, 40% of the seats are now “safe”.

In short, the evidence that AV would end the safe seat syndrome is hardly overwhelming.

So, why change to AV?

First, even though AV is not a “proportional” voting system, it would be fairer to third parties and independent candidates than first past the post (FPTP). The ABC’s elections expert Antony Green has shown that in NSW and Queensland, middle ground independent and minor party candidates have better chances of winning under AV rules than under FPTP. They can still win from first place, and have new opportunities to win from second place on preferences. But candidates from the extremes of politics find it harder to win under AV because they need to achieve a majority of support after the distribution of preferences, not just a majority on first tally of votes.

As the Financial Times said in its leader (26 April 2011):

The real appeal of AV, and why Britain should vote for change, lies in the fact that it is more sympathetic to smaller parties. FPTP, a winner-takes-all system, may have served Britain well for many years because its politics used to split naturally into two big teams. They no longer do. At last year’s general election, the Conservative and Labour parties won just 65 per cent of the vote.
And, it must be added, 86 per cent of the seats in the Commons.

The FT went on to explain how the current system drives voters to vote tactically:

Under FPTP there are no prizes for coming second. So voters who do not think their favourite candidate can win often cast ballots for other representatives with stronger hopes of success. FPTP thus tends to drive voters towards two big parties and under-rewards smaller blocs for the votes that they win . . .

. . . AV would allow voters to register their support for their first-choice party, however slim its hopes of success appeared. Smaller parties should have their true levels of popular support recognised at the ballot box. Theresults should be less unfair to the Lib Dems, in particular.

The elegant words of Roy Jenkins sum up the second part of the case for AV:

[AV] would increase voter choice in the sense that it would enable voters to express their second and sometimes third or fourth preferences, and thus free them from a bifurcating choice between realistic and ideological commitment or, as it sometimes is called, voting tactically.

Third, AV would enhance the democratic legitimacy of the House of Commons. Under first past the post, MPs are often elected with the support of only a minority of people voting in their constituencies. At the 2010 election, two out of three MPs were elected without the support of the majority of voters. In other words, most MPs cannot claim to speak for the majority of their constituents.

Under AV, each MP would have had to reach 50 per cent of the vote in order to win. They would need to reach out across party lines to win the support of a majority of voters. As a long time observer of Australian politics, I don’t buy the argument that AV would make election campaigns nicer and more cuddly. But candidates would, most likely, work harder and MPs would be more representative of the people they are meant to serve.

No, AV is not a miracle cure for the ills of British politics. But it would make for a politics that are better than what we have now.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011 / Comment / Editorial - A better choice of voting system

The real appeal of AV, and why Britain should vote for change, lies in the fact that it is more sympathetic to smaller parties. FPTP, a winner-takes-all system, may have served Britain well for many years because its politics used to split naturally into two big teams. They no longer do. At last year’s general election, the Conservative and Labour parties won just 65 per cent of the vote.

This level-headed leader in today's FT sums up the main reasons why I am voting yes.

Posted via email from Neil Stockley's posterous

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

AV referendum: why the "antis" are winning

Today, the new YouGov poll on the AV referendum shows that the “no” camp has opened up a 16% lead amongst those most likely to vote.

Yesterday, the latest Guardian – ICM poll also gave the “antis” a 16% lead. In February, the supporters of change were narrowly (2%) ahead.

When you look at the detailed figures, the reasons aren’t difficult to discern. First, opposition to change from Conservative and Labour voters has hardened. Let’s start with ICM*. In February, Tory supporters wanted to keep first past the post by a 44% margin. That margin has now swelled, to 54%. Conservatives don’t love coalitions and want to reduce the risk of such a thing ever happening again.

Back in February, Labour voters said “yes”, by a 4% margin. But now they are saying “no”, by a 6% margin. It looks as if their temptation to give Nick Clegg a kicking is proving too great, even if Labour will have a steeper hill to climb when future first past the post elections are held under new electoral boundaries.

Lib Dem voters still overwhelmingly back change (71%-29%). But even amongst this group, net support for AV has dropped by 10%.

Second, the older voters become, the less likely they are to want a new voting system. ICM* says that 52% of 18-24 year olds support AV, compared to 45% of 35-64 year olds and 25% of those aged 65 or over. This trend has become more pronounced since February. Voters in the older age groups are twice as likely to vote as those in the 18-24 year old group – another tendency that has firmed up over the last two months.

YouGov asked different questions in February and April, and they have only just started weighting for turnout, which makes direct comparisons difficult. In February**, they showed Tory voters wanting to keep first past the post, by a 42% margin. In April, that figure had grown, to 62%. But unlike ICM, YouGov says that Labour supporters are now evenly divided whereas back in February, they preferred the status quo, by a 9% margin.

For months, YouGov have also found that older voters are more likely to prefer first past the post, and to vote in the referendum.

Perhaps it’s time for the “Yes” campaign to revive “Ralph’s story”, still the most compelling piece of storytelling they have come up with.

YouGov** have come up with another interesting finding: whereas men would vote no by an 8% margin, women would do so by a 19% margin. But 27% of women are undecided, compared to only 14% of men.

ICM’s figures*** also show a gender gap. They find that men would vote no, by a 13% margin but for women the margin is 18%. But women (28%) are more likely to be undecided than men (17%).

In February, ICM*** found that men would vote no, by a 3% margin, but that women would vote yes by a 3% margin. Women swung against AV as the number who are undecided fell by 6%.

As for YouGov, their figures** suggest that women were inclined to vote “no” than in February and that they are more likely to do so now.

To summarise: the “no” campaign is doing the best job of getting its messages across. They have been especially successful at consolidating their base amongst Conservative supporters and older voters. And they are doing a good job of deterring women voters from supporting AV.

*These ICM figures are based on all voters expressing a preference, turnout weighted.

**These YouGov figures are for all respondents, not adjusted for likelihood to vote.

***These ICM figures are for all respondents, not turnout weighted.

Friday, 8 April 2011

What Australian state elections tell the UK about the alternative vote

The real strength of Alternative Vote over first past the post is in individual constituencies, especially in contests where the leading candidate falls well short of a majority. AV won’t change the face of national politics. But in some constituencies it will ensure the election of representatives who can lay greater claim to representing the majority view within the local electorate.

I am appalled at the amount of misleading material coming out of the NO2AV campaign. But some "yes" campaigners are guilty of over-simplifying the issues. One example: the promise that there would no safe seats under AV.

In this post, Antony Green, the ABC's highly respected elections expert, comments on the experiences of NSW and Queensland. Those two states are very relevant, because they use the form of AV that the UK will vote on next month.

Green concludes that AV would not change the face of UK politics, but that it would have an impact in three- and four-cornered contests, and in constituencies where candidates would be elected under FPTP without the support of a majority of electors.

Posted via email from Neil Stockley's posterous

Monday, 4 April 2011

Liberal Democrats: a "no-issue party"?

The latest issue of The Economist features a brief article about the woes of Germany’s liberal Free Democrat Party (FDP). The FDP has fared disastrously in opinion polls and state elections since entering a coalition with Angela Merkel’s CDU in 2009.

There is an obvious comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who are also in coalition with the main centre-right party here. Our opinion poll ratings have halved since last year’s general election. But we should not read too much across from the FDP’s experience. German politics is very different. They use a form of proportional voting, for a start and the “market liberal” FDP are hardly soulmates to the various stripes of “social liberals” who dominate our party.

Yet I was struck by one observation in the Economist article:

When Mrs Merkel vetoed [their promise of unaffordable tax cuts], the FDP went from a one-issue party to a “no-issue party,” notes an academic.

The Liberal Democrats are also looking like a “no-issue-party”. MPs, activists and members are interested in a lot of issues, from jobs to Libya, from banks to pupil premiums. But the voters don’t seem to be able to find a quick and easy way to get a handle on us. Last week, YouGov asked voters which party would do the best job of handling a number of top problems facing the country. For each one, the Lib Dems were in single figures, well behind both Labour and the Conservatives. On the economy, which voters see as the top issue facing the country, just 4% saw us as the best party. The result is consistent with YouGov polls since the general election.

These poor issue ratings can’t be explained solely by the fact that the Lib Dems are part of the coalition. The British Election Study (BES) found that during the 2010 campaign, the party did not win any of the arguments on the issues that mattered most to voters.

The question is: how can the Liberal Democrats – in coalition – “get an issue” in time for the next general election?

The answer depends on whether the party’s ministers in government will have some defining achievements, on an issue of some importance to the public, for which they can claim credit and become popular. The key is to tell people compelling stories. One sort of story would have the Lib Dems as the heroes, winning the policy. The other would show how their policy wins worked for ordinary people.

The signs have not been encouraging, until very recently. But Lib Dem ministers have started to assert themselves over the NHS changes and they are bringing forward new proposals for taxes on expensive homes.

They are in the correct political space. In recent years, the Liberal Democrats have scored the highest of all the parties for being “on the side of ordinary people, not the best off”. Last month, Populus found this was still the attribute that voters (34%) were mostly likely to say was true of the Liberal Democrats. (Note, however, that 52% thought that the statement described Labour accurately.)

But there is still a long way to go.

Friday, 1 April 2011

A masterclass in political storytelling, courtesy of Shirley Williams

I was in the hall during the great NHS debate at the Liberal Democrats’ spring conference in Sheffield last month, but have only recently tracked down and listened to a recording.

I suggest that you should too, because in the space of three minutes, Baroness Shirley Williams gave the conference a masterclass in political communications. (Click here – her speech is about 26 minutes in.)

Whether she realised it or not, Baroness Williams followed the key steps set out in Stephen Denning’s book, The Secret Language of Leadership (John Wiley and Sons, 2007). But she built on them as well.

Baroness Williams gained the audience’s attention, and not just because she is one of the party’s icons. Here’s her opening:

“Let me begin by saying, because we are being covered by the media, that nothing I am trying to do about health is intended is intended to weaken Nick [Clegg] and his fellow ministers and the coalition. I think that Nick and our fellow ministers have done a remarkable job and I very proud of them and I am very pleased to support them in every way I can. [applause]

“But we cannot be bound by those issues that have never been agreed by us and in particular where the outcome of the policy is specifically different from what we thought it was going to be.”

Baroness Williams spoke to the audience’s perceived ‘problem’ just as Denning advises. In this case, it was the NHS and Social Care Bill that departs from the terms of the coalition agreement. But Baroness Williams also provided her comrades with a sense of reassurance. Yes, Liberal Democrats, we can drop a depth charge under Nick Clegg’s bow, but without being disloyal. Right from the start, there was a simple, underlying morality: the government is not keeping faith with us, so we have a duty to keep faith with ourselves.

Denning’s second and third steps are to stimulate the desire for change and to reinforce that desire with reasons. The body of Baroness Williams’s speech encouraged the conference to do what they already wanted to do – vote down the Bill in its current form and demand big improvements. She urged the conference to reject a specific change. Yet she still applied Denning’s key principles.

Baroness Williams told a springboard story:

"There’s a long history of the private sector cherrypicking the easiest patients. What that leaves out is the most expensive patients . . .

"No names, no pack drill, but I certainly know of distinguished private hospitals in London that pass the difficult cases to the nearest NHS hospital. That would wreck the whole purpose of a health service that is supposed to be open and equal to all.

The reinforcement (which actually came before the springboard story, but so what?) came as she explained how the changes would work in practice.

"We did not expect a massive reorganisation and one which will fall within a period when many of our fellow citizens are worried about whether they will keep their jobs and how they will pay for petrol and food. This is not the moment to embark of the reorganisation of the most treasured public service in the whole of the UK.

"A combination of this reoganisation and . . . huge cuts, efficiency savings, of no less than £20 billion by the NHS over next four years, to add on to that reorganisation . . . is just beyond the imagination.”


“The accountability structures of the new proposals are lousy. The GP consortia will be able to meet in private. They will not have to keep minutes. They will not have to be transparent to the public . . .”

All this may read like a list of points and arguments. But, thanks to Baroness Williams, the conference lived a bad a story: that after massive cuts and a complex reorganisation, we will be left with accountable GP constortia making decision about commissioning behind closed doors and private hospitals cherrypicking patients.

Perhaps that was the story they wanted to hear. One of the other speakers was not far wrong when he described Shirley Williams as “having the sanctity for the Lib Dems of a cross between the Queen Mother and Dame Vera Lynn”. And Liberal Democrats see themselves (ourselves) as the party of conscience and reform, the progenitors of the NHS.

Baroness Williams finished with an appeal to this self-image: the party’s story about itself. She quoted a letter from a concerned citizen and challenged the conference to:

". . . stand up and be counted . . .

. . . in so doing we will strengthen both the coalition and the identity of this party, for which have all worked for so long and with such devotion”.

Yes, the story had a happy ending: together, we can make the coalition better.

Footnote: I appreciate that Shirley Williams is one of the Liberal Democrats’ most experienced politicians and that she has long been recognised as a gifted communicator. (She was first elected as an MP more than two years before Nick Clegg was born.) But I still can’t understand why so few senior Liberal Democrats follow her example and try to use straightforward storytelling techniques to put their messages across.