>Let be AV-ing you


 It’s day of the local elections and I’m not voting.

But – UKIP tweeps and others out there concerned about my lack of civic engagement take note –  I am going down the polling station today – to have my say in the UK’s referendum on adopting the Alternative Vote electoral system (or not).

The consequences, advantages or disadvantages depending on your point of view and what you think democracy should deliver, are fairly and clearly summed up in a briefing paper by the Political Studies Association.  On my reading, AV is not a big deal, preserving the basic, highly disproportional majoirtarian logic of first-past-the-post and (as far as simulations can tell) excluding smaller parties but boosting the Liberal Democrats.

So, not something you would really want to vote for unless you were a dyed-in-the-wool LibDem; felt reallocating preferences to many voters’ second or third choice candidate to generate a diminished 50%+ majority for the winning canidate really was a major democratic improvement ;or are convinced that politically AV will be a first step to further  electoral reform along more proportional lines, or that the Liberal Democrats will  revert to their imagined role of the 1990s and became natural and easy coalition partners for Labour in a ‘progressive pact’.

Personally, I’m not, I don’t and (on both of the last two counts) I severely doubt it.

So –  after doing some short-term partisan guesswork about what might most damage the cohesion of a coalition government I really don’t support – I’ll be voting No.

I’m a little surprised to have ended up with this decision – although I repeatedly come back to  – and good citizen that I am (honest) I’ve tried to tune in to the debate. But the rival campaigns, low profile and mostly confined to the TV and radio studios and internet have, frankly, both been been pretty dire. Both have tended to present AV as if it were a proportional system (‘fair votes’ for the Yes campaign, a entree to parliament for the BNP for the No side), although both have touched on preference reallocation mechanism, the proposed new system’s only truly innovative feature. The Yes campaign argue that it ensures genuine majorities (see rather witty beet v graphic below), the No campaign that preference re-allocation it is complicated, doesn’t eliminate tactical voting and can generate equally perverse results. Some invoke Arrow’s paradoxes

Interestingly, figures from the Party Labour  – now the most likely recipient of my vote if they had a candidate around to around to vote for –  lined up on both sides of the campaign, but, oddly, have lacked any very distinct or clear message. for or against Those in the desperately worthy Yes campaign repeated the rather tired Fair Votes ,some-reform-better than-none mantras, while those on the more brutal, kick-ass No side have recycled the equally tired pro- first-past-the-post arguments (the best of which centre on the ability to ‘kick out the bums’)  in ways indistinguishable from those campaign’s mainly Tory backers.

Left-wing blogger (and author of a soon to be published UCL PhD on the concept of Chavs) Owen Jones, however, advances a more interesting argument  distinctly of the left opposing AV

 “… because I think it will institutionalise mushy centrist politics. I think that’s exactly the aim of many of its staunchest supporters, because they are … mushy centrists and want an electoral system most likely to ensure their ideology dominates.”
and more concretely because he sees it as faciltating the type of LibDem-Labour alliance that some people are as mentioned, actually, still hoping for and which  this left-wing take on things sees as an important (if never realised) element of the New Labour project.
The obvious objection is that AV would have delivered Tony Blair a bigger landslide in 1997 that FTTP, although I guess it could be argued that a weakened Blairite forces couldn’t repeat this trick on the same scale

Here, however, as it often does, my mind veers off to Czech(oslovak) politics and, concretely, to the AV-like electoral system promoted in 1990-1 by President Václav Havel in preference to list PR, which he (rather accurately as it turned out) would empower political parties and produce a core of legislators with little connection with localities (the fabled ‘constituency link’ as it is called in British debates). However, Havel also favoured it because it felt it would promoted centrist candidates, who would benefit disportionately from second preferences, and prevent ideological polarisation.

He also hoped it would help prevent well organised parties with concentrated support from overcoming divided liberals – the scenario the beer versus coffee poster outlines, although a daft ine for most reasonably developed democracies where pro-beer forces would be consolidated into a  Friends of Beer Party  that would romp home easily under FTPP (perhaps on a public crawl programme).

Like much of what Havel advocated,  his electoral reform project – actually a  form of the Supplementary Vote (asking for first and second preferences only)* – never really stood a chance and was quickly voted down  by the country’s emerging parties – although, in a certain, it lives on in the two-round, first-past-the-post system used for the Czech Senate, whose logic loosely parallels the ‘instant runover’ in SV). 
In the Czech context, Havel was in hindsight was probably right: there are no deep class cleavages  in Czech society and  perhaps because of that the country’s ideologically strident but depressingly corrupt parties have continually struggled to generate clear, stable majority of left or right, resulting  centrist politics by default. 

But, as Carsten Schneider’s excellent heavy-duty political science book on democratic consolidation argues, what matters most is the democratic fit of electoral system to a particular society. British (or perhaps, anticipating the de facto detachment or independence of the other nations, should I say English society is not the Czech society and perhaps a more polarised politics between loose blocs of left and right is a better fit. 

Perhaps the real issue is not electoral reform – even the kind of elegant mixed system that I might turn out to vote for – but decentralise political power to locally elected bodies and  to loosen up party structures, which seem as closed and narrow as anything Havel feared.

* Note Havel’s proposal was technically a mixed system – I guess we might call it  a kind of SV+ – as they also contained a rather elegant proposal for proportional ‘top-up’ seats for votes in constituencies where combined first and second preferences did help elect winning candidates in individual member constituencies. My old notes suggest that under Havel’s proposal fall voter’s first and second preferences were simply to be added together (giving everyone a second vote), rather than re-allocating the votes of all except the two leading canidates.

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