Say “Yes” to AV!

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My reason for supporting AV is simple: it would create a fairer system of government that Britain deserves.

After weeks of haggling, Parliament finally passed the necessary legislation to set the stage for a referendum on changing the voting system for Britain’s general elections this coming May. A “Yes” vote would abandon the current “first past the post” (FPTP) system and adopt the “alternative vote” (AV). Both the “Yes” and “No” camps have now begun to campaign for their sides. I throw my weight—whatever its worth—behind the “Yes” camp.

There are many points of contention between the camps—how much AV would cost, whether people would understand, who in the world use it, whether it will boost or kill small parties etc. My support for AV is based solely on the belief that that would create a fairer and more contestable political system.

The current FPTP system allows electors to pick just one candidate on the ballot paper, and whoever gets the most votes wins. Simple and effective—but is it fair? British Members of Parliament serve two purposes: on a constituency level they represent the people in central Government, holding it to account; on a national level, the numbers of MPs from one party determine whether that party can form a Government.

In principle, in a constituency with three main contesting parties, under FPTP, a candidate needs to win only 34% of the vote to represent that constituency. Multiply that nationally, the winning party will not need anything close to a majority of votes to form a Government to raise our taxes, make our laws or take us to war. In 2005 Labour won 62% of seats with only 41% of the vote. Supporters of FPTP argue quite rightly that the current system allows strong Governments to be formed, but democracy is about building representative Governments, not strong ones.

AV would change that. It would allow voters to rank candidates by order of preference, and the winning candidate must garner at least 50% of the votes. More people’s votes must be counted to find a winner, rather than the 34% in the example given above. It would end the system where, for example, a Labour candidate in a constituency with an inner-city population greater than the suburban or rural population can ignore the latter’s preferences, because the suburban and rural second-preference votes can now also count against Labour. It would mean that every candidate must work harder to persuade people to vote for them, even as a second choice.

Supporters of FPTP fret that the chances of creating hung Parliaments are greater under AV, but that’s not a disaster. Politics, especially national politics, shouldn’t be about one party that hasn’t achieved a majority imposing its agenda on people who didn’t vote for it. In fact, we value compromise and consensus between stakeholders in all our social relationships—family, friends, couples. Why should national politics be any different?

FPTP supporters say that AV won’t bring the change it is intended, but stagnation in popular participation in national politics is partly due to apathetic voting culture encouraged by FPTP. Winning AV won’t change that overnight, but it would be the first step for people to re-engage with national politics. After all, it is the former that the latter is supposed to serve.

And now, you can make it happen, by voting “Yes” on 5 May.

Click for more information about the “Yes” and “No” camps.

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I hereby sentence you to vote at the next election

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European Court of Human Rights

"I hereby order you to give your inmates the vote!"

The row over giving prisoners the right to vote is about two separate issues, and Britain should comply with the Court’s ruling.

Last evening the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly for a motion urging the Government to defy the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling on giving prisoners the vote. The issue has triggered a heated debate, at least in Westminster village, on two separate matters – whether convicted prisoners deserve the privilege/right to vote and whether the unelected supranational court in Strasbourg can issue such a decree in defiance of the will of the nation’s elected representatives. Some Eurosceptics have even seized on the chance to call for the withdrawal of the UK from the European Convention of Human Rights, the treaty that will celebrate its diamond jubilee in 2018 and is the legal basis of the Court. The rest of the country, of course, is too absorbed in other matters, such as potential cuts to local councils, to care, but I will comment on it anyway.

Unusually for me, I don’t have a “clear” answer, at least to the first debate, the principle of allowing prisoners to vote. Both sides of the argument have equally valid points. Prisoners, by breaking their imaginary contract with society, have certain rights withdrawn from them, mainly personal liberty, and with good reason. On the other hand, they are human beings too, and certain rights apply regardless, such as the right to equal treatment and the right to a fair trial. Should the right to vote constitute part of that bundle of suspended rights?

Clearly, there is a case for either side, and I remain undecided. The only thing I will say regarding that is that although a prisoner is currently living with reduced rights, most will eventually be released into society, their right to vote will one day be restored. With that in mind, it is certainly right to prepare prisoners with the capability to participate in democratic society, perhaps having elected prisoners representatives to represent the interests of inmates in the prison (not sure if this happens now).

But without any clear-cut philosophy or school of thought to fall upon (democracies around the world have different attitudes to the matter), the current debate has been framed as a conflict between the democratically elected national Government and the distant, unaccountable Court in Strasbourg. Popular power, or authority from above?

Solely on the conflict of Parliament vs. Court, I side with the Court, and I believe that the ruling should be followed as a matter of principle. The European Convention on Human Rights is the most powerful human rights legislation in the world to date, and while some are suspicious of its intrusiveness, especially when certain cases are highlighted by the media, many forget that this treaty came as a response to one of the most severe and systematic transgressions of human rights in modern European history – the second world war and the holocaust. Human rights abuses are still rife throughout Europe, especially in ex-communist bloc countries. If long-standing signatories to the Convention such as the UK demonstrate that even it doesn’t respect the Court, it will be impossible for younger members to learn to comply. They will also learn that human rights are applicable only when it is popular or convenient, not when it is right. That is certainly not the image that Britain wants to portray.

People who advocate the withdrawal of Britain from the Convention are taking their Eurosceptic folly into even greater absurdity. They bemoan that the faraway Court is not accountable to the British public, but that is a ridiculous contention. The whole point of having judicial independence is so that popular accountability doesn’t enter the equation. Courts are meant to uphold the law without fear or favour, not pander to whatever is popular at the time. If the focus of the argument is altered to have a sole domestic dimension, one could argue that no British judge is “accountable” to the public, since none of them have to face elections.

Secondly, even though the European Court of Human Rights is based in Strasbourg, the law that it is based on, and the people it serves, are very British, because Britain is willingly under the Court’s jurisdiction by being a party to the Convention. Arguing that a judgment of the Court is not valid because it is not based on British soil would be like saying that a court in London cannot rule on a matter that occurred in Kent, even though both places are subject to the same law and the presiding judges may come from outside Kent.

The House of Commons has understandably and legitimately expressed its opinion, but now is the time for the Government to do the right and proper thing by complying with the Court’s ruling, however “distasteful” it may be.

Want to revolutionise the way we vote?

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A vote counter at work

"What do you mean I'm counting it the wrong way?"

Parliament began the new term by debating the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. If passed, the system of deciding who governs Britain could change forever. But how? Today’s and tomorrow’s posts attempt to explain.

On the first day Parliament returned from summer recess, it began debating the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. The Bill was a key demand for Liberal Democrats to join the Conservatives in coalition, and will be an important test of the strength of their partnership. If passed, the Bill would do two things. First, it would enable a referendum to be held on the future voting system for electing Members of Parliament. Secondly, it would reduce the number of constituencies from a record high of 650 to 600, and even out the number of people each MP is meant to represent. Let’s first look at the proposals for a referendum on the alternative vote.

The referendum, to be held next May alongside elections in all the four nations, will ask the electorate whether they want to replace the current “first-past-the-post” system of electing MPs with the “alternative vote” system.

First-past-the-post is very straightforward. It basically means “majority wins”: whoever receives the most votes wins the seat. However, many criticise it for its unfairness. if 51% of the electorate votes for Party A, and 49% Party B, Party A’s candidate can hardly claim to have won over the electorate. Choice is also limited, as many voters might have to opt for who they think will win, rather than who they hope will win, as process known as tactical voting (e.g. a Liberal Democrat-supporter votes Labour instead of Lib Dem because she wants to “keep the Tories out”, rather than truly wanting Labour to win).

The ultimate result of FPTP could be that the party that commands a majority in the House of Commons, which becoming the governing party, may be enjoying only very weak popular support. For example, after the 2005 election, Labour only took 35% of the popular vote, yet ended up with a 157-seat majority over the Conservatives, who won 32% of the vote.

A system of alternative vote would change how people cast their votes. Instead of picking one candidate, people will list candidates by preference: 1, 2 and 3. If a candidate gets more than 50% of first-preference votes (i.e. “1”s), he wins. But if that is not achieved, the candidate who holds the fewest “1” votes will be eliminated, and the second-preference votes (the “2”s)  of those ballots will be distributed among the remaining candidates. Eventually, a candidate will obtain more than 50% of the vote and win. This system is praised by some to be fairer, as the winner would have to have gained at least half of the electorate’s approval.

But the price of “fairness” could be to complicate the composition of Parliament. Majority governments will be harder to emerge, and more hung Parliaments will produce more coalitions. But the British people have now seen how a hung Parliament can work, and may decide that having them once in a while to keep party politics in check is beneficial. Of course, another drawback is to increase the workload of vote-counters on election night.

Of course, the AV system itself is not alien to Britain, as it and its variants are used to elect the party leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties and the mayors of London and other cities. The Conservative party is against the proposal, but was forced to accept the referendum as part of the coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats. It is expected that Conservative MPs will vote the Bill through to allow the referendum to happen, but campaign against changing the system next May.

Tomorrow we will look at the other half of the Bill, which proposes to reduce the number of MPs and to “equalise” the size of constituencies.

Do you support the first-past-the-post, alternative vote, or another voting system? Let me know!

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