I started my first post on AV by saying that I had yearned for a better voting system all my life but that I expected to be disappointed. Now the expected disappointment has arrived, and although the count is not yet finished it is already clear that the referendum is a massive defeat for AV [update: by approximately 70% to 30%]. Moreover, the consensus is that the opportunity will not arise again for at least generation. By then I’ll be an old man, so even if we do eventually get a decent voting system I probably won’t live to see how it affects politics in this country.
It is not easy to say anything positive about this situation. But let me try all the same.
The prospects for voting reform.
Is it true that we will have to wait at least twenty-five years for another chance to change the voting system? It certainly could be, but it is not an absolute certainty. It does of course seem as though the conjunction of circumstances that led to the referendum we have just had is unlikely to happen again any time soon, since if the Lib Dems see their representation in parliament drop drastically, as is likely, then the number of seats going to Labour and the Conservatives will have to be that much more equal for there to be any prospect of the Lib Dems being able to negotiate for voting reform again.
And even if, by some miracle, the Lib Dems found themselves holding the balance of power at the next election (which might just happen if, say, the Conservatives are deeply unpopular, but the new seat boundaries give them some extra seats and Ed Miliband lacks the charisma to capitalize all that much on their unpopularity), it seems very unlikely that they would try to get another referendum on voting reform in the ensuing negotiations: it would be far too easy for opponents to say that the public had made its decision. In fact, this is such a strong argument that I think one would have to be delusional to hope for voting reform in either this parliament (well, that much is too obvious to be worth saying) or the next.
Indeed, the Lib Dem route to voting reform looks as though it might be doomed for ever, unless there is a major change in attitudes in this country. Consider what it requires: first the Lib Dems have to hold the balance of power; then they have to enter into some kind of agreement with a major party, in a country that regards compromise as betrayal (a charge that has some substance in this case but that would I think be applied to any agreement); and then they somehow have to have a referendum that is not regarded by many as a referendum on the coalition itself, in the face of campaigners who will be encouraging just that. It doesn’t feel as though it could possibly happen.
A much more plausible route to voting reform is through the Labour party. They have made noises about it in the past, and although their MPs were mostly opposed to AV, the younger generation of Labour MPs seemed more in favour than the old guard. (This was certainly the case amongst those whose views were reported in the media: I don’t know whether it applies to the rank and file.) But there is always the problem that when a party gains power under FPTP with enough of a mandate to make a major constitutional change, it is in a position where any change is likely to weaken its position, at least in the short to medium term.
So perhaps the best hope for voting reform in the next parliament but one is that the Conservatives win a comfortable majority at the next election, but that Labour win a significantly larger percentage of the vote. In fact, here is a suggestion: vote tactically at the next election to make this happen.
How does one do that? Well, in any seat that Labour isn’t going to win, we want to maximize the Labour vote. And in any seat that Labour is going to win, we also want to maximize the Labour vote. Does this mean I’m saying that everyone should vote Labour? No — if you are in a marginal constituency where Labour is a serious contender, you should vote against Labour (or, better still, just enough people should vote against Labour for their main rivals, probably the Conservatives, to squeak in). The result of all this would be to maximize the Labour vote without giving them seats, leaving them with the feeling of burning injustice that Lib Dems have had to put up with for decades.
This is of course pure fantasy: I do not seriously imagine that many people will be persuaded to use their vote tactically for the sake of (possibly but by no means definitely) advancing the cause of voting reform when there are much more immediate causes such as the economy, education and health to worry about. But if the Conservatives choose the new constituency boundaries cleverly enough, they may help to create a manifestly unjust result and thereby inadvertently bring forward the day when voting reform is next considered seriously. (By the way, I think it is wrong to describe the reduction in the number of constituencies as gerrymandering. The current unequal constituency sizes give an unfair advantage to Labour, and I don’t see that removing that unfair advantage constitutes gerrymandering. It’s more like the opposite. Of course, it will become gerrymandering if the new boundaries are drawn up specifically with a view to maximizing the number of Conservative seats, and I don’t have 100% faith that that will not happen …)
Looking further ahead, it is said that younger people are more in favour of voting reform. (As one commenter suggested, perhaps votes should have been weighted according to how many general elections the voter is likely to get to vote in.) Unless they gradually morph into FPTP supporters as they get older (perhaps because they get more right wing), this gives some hope that if the question does come up again in a generation’s time then there will be more chance of a change. Also, one lesson from the current referendum is that there is almost certainly no point in trying to introduce the “miserable little compromise” of AV (which I have argued is not all that miserable). The arguments for PR are much easier to make, so any future attempt will almost certainly have to be for full-blown PR.
Incidentally, on the subject of slightly off-beam suggestions for voting reform, another amusing one is that each constituency should select its MP by whatever procedure it likes. So if you’re in a constituency where most people would like a runoff system, you have a local referendum, get your system up and running, and use that to select your MP. But if you’re in an FPTP-ish area then you can use that. What could be more democratic than letting each constituency decide how it wants to select its MP, rather than imposing a uniform system on everyone? This idea does raise a problem though: how does a constituency decide what voting system to adopt? Presumably it votes. But according to what system? (I think even the most ardent FPTP supporter should recognise that using FPTP to decide amongst four or five voting systems would be idiotic.)
What if we’re stuck with FPTP for the next 50 years?
So far my “consolations” have consisted in wildly optimistic fantasizing. So I’ll try to be more realistic. Let’s assume that we’re not going to get voting reform any time soon. How bad is that?
If you support voting reform because you support the Lib Dems, or more generally you want to put an end to the Labour/Tory hegemony and usher in a new kind of consensual politics where issues are debated on their merits, then it is pretty bad. But what if what really interests you is not who has the power but what decisions get made? Then the situation is more complex. I’ll illustrate that with a couple of examples.
Example 1. The Labour/SDP split.
The SDP split from Labour in 1981, formed an alliance with the Liberals, and, as I have said already, never managed to get more than a handful of seats despite getting a significant proportion of the vote. The reason they split was that they regarded Labour as too left wing, a statement that became all the truer once they had left the party.
Now one view is that the whole project was a failure: the SDP never came close to being able to implement its policies. But another view is that they forced Labour to move to the centre, since to do anything else was to risk permanent Tory rule as a result of the split of the left into left left and centre left. And in 1997 we got Blair, who was centrist enough that, had he (or rather someone like him) been leader in 1981 there would have been no need for the SDP. So one could argue, and people have argued, that the SDP got what it wanted — it just did so indirectly rather than directly.
I’m not saying that’s an ideal state of affairs, since it did take them sixteen years and during those sixteen years we got hit with some awful decisions such as the poll tax and rail privatization. But it does at least illustrate the (not altogether surprising) principle that a party can have a significant influence on the decisions taken by government, even if it does not form part of that government.
Example 2. Welfare reform.
My second example is of a policy that I have supported ever since a few seconds after I first heard of it as a teenager: negative income tax. The few seconds were what it took to move from thinking it was obviously nutty to understanding the reasoning behind it. Actually, negative income tax is not the whole of the story. Another major part is the integration of the tax and benefits systems. I’ll just say a little bit about these issues before going back to the general point.
Poverty traps have long been recognised as a serious problem in the UK. If you are on benefits, then those benefits are withdrawn when you earn money. At the moment, they are withdrawn at rates that mean that many people find that for each pound they earn, they end up better off by only a very small amount such as 15p. In fact, some people end up worse off if they work, when all the expenses (such as childcare) are taken into account. Something is very clearly wrong with an economic system that for many people provides no incentive to work.
Now suppose that you were designing a system from scratch. (A major problem with what I’m about to say, and with welfare reform in general, is that one is not designing a system from scratch. To keep the discussion simple I will make this assumption, but ultimately one needs to work out a way of moving from one system to another without causing massive hardship and discontent, and this makes it formidably difficult to implement change.) If you were a mathematician, then you would probably consider the following simple model, at least to start with. You would like to choose a function (for take-home pay) where the input is the amount you actually earn — let’s call that (for actual pay) — and is the amount you end up with after the tax and benefits system has had its way with you. In deciding what the function should be, you would take into account the revenue the government needs, the distribution of how much people earn (and how it might change if poverty traps were eliminated), and political considerations such as how much you want to redistribute from rich to poor, the effect of tax on incentives to work, and so on.
One obvious point is that if somebody is actually earning nothing — they might, for instance, be unemployed — then we do not want them out on the streets. So we want their take-home pay to be non-zero. That is, should not be zero, and more generally if is very small, then should be greater than If we were to merge the tax and benefits system and call everything tax, then the obvious definition of the “tax” you pay, if your actual earnings are and your take-home pay is is So if is small, your tax rate is negative.
The idea of a negative tax rate sounds ridiculous until one thinks (i) that it is just giving a different name to benefits, (ii) if you do it properly, you can choose the function in such a way that everyone has a reasonable incentive to work, and (iii) it is only the very poorest in society who end up with more money than they earn. The necessary condition for (ii) is that the derivative of should be bounded below by a reasonably large lower bound. In more everyday language, you want a system where, especially at the lower end of the scale, for every pound you earn you get to keep a significant percentage. (I would suggest that you should get to keep at least 60p, the amount you get to keep as a higher-rate tax payer under the current system. Indeed, in an ideal world the derivative would not just be bounded below but monotone decreasing, though whether that is practical I don’t know.)
I won’t say any more about this, except to say that I realize perfectly well that there are all sorts of complications that I have not addressed. But if I try to address them then this red herring will start to dominate the post. The reason I have talked about it at all is that a long time ago (and possibly still — I haven’t checked) the Liberals were talking about this kind of thing: integration of tax and benefits, negative income tax, elimination of poverty traps and the like. So for that reason, as well as their support for voting reform, I liked the Liberals. Much more recently I have seen similar ideas put forward by the Greens, which makes me feel positive about them as well. But the real point I am making is that, very unsettlingly, this particular cause has now been taken up by Ian Duncan Smith, former leader of the Conservative party and a politician I thought I didn’t like at all. Although it is far from certain that he will succeed, it is under a Conservative government (oops, sorry, a coalition) and in the hands of a right-winger — or has he had a Damascene conversion? — that some kind of major reorganization of the social security system appears to have its best chance for a generation.
Further mildly consoling thoughts.
I don’t have much to say here. The first thought is that if it is correct that there is absolutely no chance of voting reform for at least ten years, then we can at least say that in the next election AV would probably have made very little difference. Why? Because the Lib Dems are likely to see a collapse in their share of the vote, so we’ll be back to something like a two-party system for a while. And under a two-party system FPTP isn’t as bad as it is when there is a biggish third party.
On the topic of the Lib Dems, I think they should be very worried not just about the short term but about the long term as well. Plenty of people are angry with them, and in the short term that will be disastrous for them. But in the longer term people are going to ask themselves the following killer question. If the Lib Dems are going to do a deal with Labour or the Tories in the event of a hung parliament, then what is the point of voting Lib Dem? Surely one should just make one’s mind up which one prefers out of Labour and the Tories rather than leaving the decision to somebody else and to the unpredictable results of coalition negotiations. It will be very hard for them to come up with a convincing answer to this: having good policies is, alas, not enough.
Another thought is that if, as many predict, the newspaper industry does not manage to survive in its current form because of the internet, then perhaps the concentration of power in the hands of people like Rupert Murdoch will be lessened. Perhaps within ten to twenty years we will see major changes to how opinions are disseminated that will mean that no single person has as much influence as the most influential people today. I don’t know whether that would be good for democracy, but improving on what we have now ought not to be hard.
How to get AV even if the system is officially FPTP.
Returning to fantasy land for a moment, several commenters on this blog noted that if enough people vote tactically then FPTP becomes a form of AV, but with imperfect information. If, for instance, your favourite party is UKIP but you decide to vote Tory because UKIP has no chance in your constituency, then the effect of your vote is basically the same as it would have been under AV (where you would have put UKIP first, UKIP would have been eliminated, and your second choice for the Tories would have come into play). There is already a movement to encourage people to vote tactically at elections. See for example this website. One way of obtaining AV by the back door, for those who wanted it, might be to expand these efforts. To do so would need an organization that was ready to undertake a great deal of local polling so that there was reliable information about other people’s voting intentions. It could then give recommendations about how to vote. For example, a recommendation might say, “If you live in Basildon and your favourite party is not Labour or Tory, then you should vote for whichever of Labour and Tory you prefer.” Or it might say, “Our polls suggest that enough people like the Greens in Oxford East that they would in fact have a chance there if people did not worry about wasting their votes.” If such a movement became well-established, it wouldn’t change everybody’s voting patterns, but it might make a difference in some marginal constituencies and mitigate the bad effects of FPTP.
An apparent disadvantage of such an endeavour is that if it was successful then it would make it very hard for small parties to grow (as for tactical reasons people would not vote for them). But if there was enough local polling, where the question was not, “Who will you vote for?” but “Who would you choose if the decision was yours and yours alone?” then people would have an opportunity to express their opinion and help choose between the main candidates — exactly what AV allows you to do.
In general, what I am saying here is that there are ways of dealing with the deficiencies of FPTP even if we are stuck with FPTP. It would require the tactical-voting movement to expand greatly. It is unlikely that enough people care enough for this to happen, but the theoretical possibility exists, and making it a practical one is much easier (though still difficult) now that we have the internet.
Let me sum up my suggestions here.
1. Have a website with as much constituency-by-constituency information to enable almost everybody to determine which are the two leading candidates.
2. In cases where the second and third candidates are neck and neck, do more sophisticated polling to see which would do better in a two-way contest, declare that candidate to be the leading one, and make that information available on the website.
3. Do constituency-by-constituency polling where the question is, “Which candidate would you choose if the decision were entirely up to you?” Publicize this information as much as possible, especially in constituencies where it appears that a different candidate would have won if everybody had voted for their actual favourite candidate.
4. Encourage people to vote for one of the two leading candidates while at the same time registering on the website and informing it which candidate they would have voted for if the decision was entirely theirs. This is supposed to be a substitute for putting candidates in order of preference under AV: if your first preference is for a candidate who is unlikely to win, you give that information to the website rather than wasting it in the ballot box. Tactical voting might become more popular if there were a widely recognised way of expressing your true feelings.
A system like that would give people the chance to vote in the expressive way that AV allows. The idea comes off the top of my head, and could probably be improved. (There is no reason, for instance, why one couldn’t collect information about which candidates would have done well under range voting.)
Incidentally, if you want something closer to PR rather than AV, then you have to go further and indulge in vote swapping. For instance, if you support Labour in a seat where the Lib Dems are second, you find a Lib Dem supporter in a seat where Labour is second, and agree that you will vote Lib Dem if they vote Labour. This has happened to a small extent, but is harder to organize (since nobody knows if you have kept your side of the bargain) than the suggestions just outlined.
So if you are very disappointed, or even angry, about the result of the referendum, why not do what you can to create a more AV-like voting culture from within the confines of FPTP?
One final, really quite big, consolation: Cambridge voted yes (by 21,253 votes to 17,871).
Update. Here is a list of the ten places in the country that voted yes: Cambridge, Camden, Edinburgh Central, Glasgow Kelvin, Hackney, Haringey, Islington, Lambeth, Oxford, Southwark. If you’re not from this country, I should explain that the places that aren’t Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow or Edinburgh are districts of central London. For more details see here. There are remarks it is tempting to make, but I’d better not.