Wednesday 20 April 2011

Quiet calm deliberaltion (2) on AV - PLEASE!

For my original appeal for rational debate on AV rather than a slanging match please see my post on 4th April. Unfortunately instead of arguing the pros and cons of AV and of FPTP, more vitriolic accusations seem to be the order of the day, and what should be great debate in a process which began with the Great Reform Bill of 1832 has degenerated into just another political squabble.

On Monday David Cameron claimed that AV was "obscure, unfair and expensive." and his unlikely collaborator, John Reid said it was "not British." All of these claims can and should be refuted quite calmly.

AV is not obscure. When I deserted (temporarily as it happened - I didn't win) my teaching post in Papua New Guinea to fight the February 1974 British General Election graffiti appeared on some of the school blackboards (and, alas, some less appropriate surfaces) saying "Vote Wrigley 1." Whether the pupils wished to further my political career or simply to get rid of me is not clear, but they were certainly familiar with preferential voting. If young Papua New Guinians could understand voting 1,2,3 nearly forty years ago, then AV is not beyond the comprehension of the mature and highly educated British electorate.

No electoral system is perfect, but AV is likely to produce fairer representation than FPTP, which three times under universal suffrage (1929, 1951 and that same election of February 1974) gave the party which came second in the vote the most seats. It is FPTP which is intolerable in a modern democracy.

It is difficult to understand on what basis the "No" campaign claims that AV will cost £250m. How does that extra expense arise? It is not true that counting machines will be needed. Approximately one third of seats may still be decided on the first count. I doubt if counting staff are paid by the hour, but if they are and some counts take a little longer, the increase in cost will be marginal, and well worth it for a more representative and responsive democracy.

John Reid's claim that AV is "not British" is equally curious. Putting aside the strange notion that a voting system has a nationality, AV is used by the Church of England and most trade unions, variants of it by all three major parties and the Greens, and, according to Vince Cable, who should know about these things, "Come Dancing." What could be more British than that collection?

Finally, Cameron tells us that he feels in his gut that FPTP is to be preferred. True we are guided by our gut feelings in several important areas, such as falling in love and whether or not to eat snails, but more rational processes are available for deciding on the mechanisms of our democracy.

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