Wednesday, 4 May 2011

On AV and the Daily Mail

Tomorrow sees many of us head to the polls to vote on the alternative vote (AV) system, a system which, if implemented, would sort of actually change some shit a bit. Predictably, the Daily Mail doesn't really like it.

Under the typically restrained and understated heading of Vote No tomorrow to stop Clegg and his cronies destroying democracy in Britain - forever, the Mail's leader column argues that putting candidates in order of preference rather than just voting for one is "fiendishly-complicated". Because putting candidates in order of preference (if you feel like doing so), is presumably incredibly taxing to its readers. Why on earth would you want a system which risks encouraging voters to think about it, when you can just stick your customary X next to whoever your local Tory is?

The piece goes on to refer to "the lies, cynicism and personal insults of the desperate Yes camp", a particularly laughable charge to anyone who's paid even the slightest bit of attention to the No campaign.

For this paper passionately believes that the arguments against the arcane AV system, in which candidates are marked in order of preference, rather than with a simple ‘X’, are overwhelming.
The simple 'X', there! Nice and simple. Not like those complicated 'numbers'. What are they all about? We don't know, and we don't want to know! Let's just do an X, please, so we can be back in time for Emmerdale. It's not all frivolity though, the Mail has actually thought about this shit. In the next paragraph they drop their big fact bombs:

The reallocation of losing votes, until somebody gets 50 per cent, wrecks the historic principle that every citizen has one vote of equal value, which can be counted only once.
This is, broadly speaking, horseshit. Or at least a distraction from the issue. Winning votes remain the most important. If a candidate gets 50% of first preference votes, they win! If not, they don't have such a convincing mandate. AV then starts to count up the second preferences, then third, and so on. If the candidate who didn't quite win is popular as a second choice, then he will win. What AV does is attempt to seek the candidate who meets with the approval of most voters. The Mail prefers the system whereby a candidate with the approval of 30% of the electorate, in a low turnout, would still win even if the other 70% absolutely hated the bastard, simply because their votes were split between the other much nicer candidates.

Again, the counting of second and third preference votes only comes into play if the 'winner' doesn't have a majority. Under first past the post, your vote isn't really as equal as you think. If you don't vote for the winning party, your vote and your opinions count for precisely jack shit. You don't get to influence the election one bit.

Next we get to my favourite bit of the article:

Votes initially given to fringe parties, such as the BNP, will be counted two, three or even four times — and prove decisive in some constituencies.
Now, in the very next paragraph, we get this:

Overwhelmingly, AV is a system which — by requiring candidates to campaign for second, third and fourth preferences — favours bland, common denominator politicians over bold, decisive leaders. It rewards those who cause minimal offence — rather than those who have the courage of their convictions.
So, there you have it. AV is a system which rewards the most inoffensive candidates. But it also rewards the most offensive candidates, such as the BNP! I'm pretty sure you can only make one of these arguments, though perhaps the Mail is putting the "the BNP will win!" argument as their first choice, and expressing a second preference for the contradictory "no offensive politicians will be able to win!" argument. Either that or the Mail doesn't actually consider the BNP offensive, which I suppose is always a possibility.

A moment of decision in the polling booth is replaced by a process of relative judgment, as voters try to decide who they dislike least.
Doesn't that just fill you with terror? Voters would be largely unable to just vote on the spur of the moment by tossing a coin, or voting Tory on a whim because they were given a blue pen and their favourite colour is blue. They'd have to have some actual preferences! Nuances to their views! Imagine a world in which a voter who wants to vote Green, but would also rather keep the Tories out and is painfully aware that the Greens are unlikely to win, was given the ability to express his or her preferences in a simple numerical order? It'd be fucking insane!

Much of the rest of the article is devoted to detailing the pant-soiling nightmare scenario AV might bring, of hung parliaments and their resultant coalitions, with leaders who didn't win the popular vote colluding to form uneasy alliances and breaking manifesto pledges. I don't really feel it's necessary for me to write a clunking punchline to that, is it? Let's just sound the IT'S OBVIOUS WHAT I'M DRIVING AT HERE klaxon and move on.

The article continues to moan about the Coalition government, which obviously could have only happened under the AV we don't have:

The replacement of Trident has been delayed . . . counter-terrorism powers have been weakened . . .  the promise to reduce the number of non-EU migrants to the tens of thousands has been downgraded . . . reform of Labour’s insidious Human Rights Act has been kicked into the long grass.
And the reason the Tories couldn't force through all these promises? Because they didn't have a mandate. There was a hung parliament. The Tories failed to convince the majority of people that these policies were important, and so they had to compromise.

Indeed, the messiest compromise of them all is the referendum itself — an expensive distraction which is taking place for no reason other than Mr Clegg insisted upon it as part of the price of his support.
Of course, the fact that it's only now that we the public get to actually vote on AV is a demonstration of one of the limitations of the first past the post system. We would never have had the option of doing this if the Tories had been in complete control, even if they only had a low percentage of the vote. AV is not a perfect system, but because of the brutally black-and-white nature of FPTP, we're most likely not going to get the choice of alternatives like the single transferable vote or full proportional representation unless we get this, because it's usually not in the interests of parties who rule under FPTP to implement. Only the hung parliament has afforded us this opportunity for now, and we'd probably need another to get a similar chance in future.

The latest estimate is that, of those certain to go to the polls tomorrow, around two-thirds will vote No.

But, alarmingly, more than half of those asked say they may not bother to take part at all. This is where the danger to our democracy truly lies.

For it is certain that the luvvies and political anoraks who support AV — if only as a step to full proportional representation — will turn out in their droves to cast their ballots tomorrow.
Ah, the political anoraks! They'll be out there, voting. With their bloody considered political opinions, the big fucking nerds. Get a life! Just vote for who your dad voted for, or for whoever's promising the most frequent wheelie bin collections.

And, thanks to a disgraceful agreement between Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg, no minimum turnout is required for the referendum to be binding.
...just like no minimum turnout was required for the current election's result to be binding. You know, the one that brought us here. The irony here is something else; the Mail is arguing against AV, a system that tries to appoint a candidate with the broadest majority appeal, while defending a system which actually gave us the no-overall-mandate situation it's complaining about, a system in which the Conservatives failed to get an overall majority on a relatively low turnout.

Of course, no lazy No-to-AV article would be complete without "We will be stuck with a system used by only three countries in the world", and sure enough that appears at the end of the article, enabling you to cross off the last bit of your No-to-AV bingo card. It's just a half-arsed argument that plays into people's fear of change; it adds nothing to the debate about how well AV might actually work and just replaces it with "You don't want to look like Fiji, do you? They're probably fucking MENTAL in Fiji!".

So anyway, there you have it, the AV debate, laid out in idiot's terms by the Mail. To summarise: Vote no to AV, because it's waaaaaaaaay complicated and you couldn't possibly understand it. And it'll bring boring, safe, bland, do-nothing candidates who are also extremist and offensive. Also, NICK CLEGG LIKES IT AND HE IS A DICK!

Actually, that last argument is reasonably compelling.


  1. Great article.

    I dislike punchable face Cameron more than Clegg.

    And I also think our current system is uselss so I will be voting for AV.

  2. Great article, though your articles always manage to make me completely infuriated with the Daily Mail which isn't always good for my stress levels. I have a horrible feeling the No to AV will win just because people can't be bothered to look into it and think what it's like at the moment is "ok"

  3. Fair enough AV isn't really all that complicated, but the Yes side is also acting as if it's complicated.

    The real question is, "Is it necessary?"

    The answer is "No."

    "And[sic] I also think our current system is uselss[sic]", Why? Didn't get the result you wanted?

  4. and even Fiji want to get rid of it!!!!!! (because they want to get rid of elections altogether and have been suspended from the Commonwealth of Nations and the Pacific Islands forum as a result. Cheers, the No Campaign. you cunts)

  5. Just had a cracking phone call with my mum about this. She's voting no and reads the Daily Mail.

    Mum: I'm voting no.
    Me: Of course you are. You read the Daily Mail.
    Mum: No. That's got nothing to do with it. I made up my mind all on my own. I've just read what that bloke, what's that bloke's name...
    Me: Nick Clegg.
    Mum: I've read what that Nick Clegg wants, and he wants too much.
    Me: Where did you read about what Nick Clegg wants, mum?
    Mum: Um...uh...I just think that Nick Clegg's going too far.
    Me: What does Nick Clegg want?
    Mum: Uhh...don't ask me. I don't know, I just know it's too much and if someone wins they should win. If someone wins a race, they should win.

    It's my mum reading the Mail that made me rant about it so much.

  6. @Anonymous (15:34),
    "The real question is, "Is it necessary?"

    The answer is "No.""

    I'd argue that the real question is "Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the 'alternative vote' system instead of the current 'first past the post' system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?". At least, that's what you'll be asked tomorrow should you choose to go out and vote.

    Whether it's necessary is subjective (depends on how you define 'necessary'), whether it's desirable further still. But we have the referendum now, for better or for worse, and if you think it's better than the current system, vote for it. If not, vote against it.

  7. They've pulled out the big guns on this one though, David Starkey and even Mr Littlejohn's offered his deep insight on the referendum.

    Thoughtful stuff, no not thoughtful. thoughtfree stuff.

  8. Re: Anonymous:

    "Why? Didn't get the result you wanted?"

    Frankly, no. A system which gives one party 4% of Commons seats when they achieved 26% of the popular vote (as in 1983) is ludicrously undemocratic.

    Tory and Labour dinosaurs moan that AV would lose them seats, as if it's somehow their party's right to gain 61% of the house with only 42% of the vote. If Labour or Tory members moan, it's because they are losing their long held unfair advantage. If Lib Dems moan, it's because they have been unfairly disadvantaged for decades.

    Those who like "decisive governments" at the expense of accurate representation of the country's wishes are trading in democratic principles for a cheap illusion. How can you call a country which flips and flops between socialist and conservative every decade "decisive" if we can't even plan ahead longer than 15 years without everything being reset?

    AV is not proportional but it's a step in the right direction. Many of us wish we could vote for PR but Cameron gave us the option of a bad choice (AV) or an utterly terrible choice (FPTP).

  9. great post!
    the mail are being so blustering and flustered on this one.

    i love the bit about how it is only political anoraks who care! last election saw a lot of people throw away political apathy. this is a good thing. it's democratic! people voting because they care and have considered what they want.

    I'm voting yes because if we don't say yes to change now, there's no hope for change further down the line.

  10. Will make little differece. Any government that gets elected into power worries in the first two years about not screwing up, and in the second two years about getting re-elected.

    This cycle always results in the following: the government will always attempt to follow "popular" and "modern" trends. And when it comes to policy making will always be half hearted because they want to upset the least number of people and fear the PC stick.

    This is the song and dance of our current system, and thus reform is very slow (if thats what you're after). Changing to AV will simply be a new method to attain the same old crap. If you actually want power to affect change, best bet is to go and write for the sun / [insert any newspaper read by the masses].

    Nice article tho.

  11. I couldn't even get to the end of the article. How would a 'dozy little shit' like me be able to cope with the complexities of AV?

    I didn't vote today I am far too apathetic/jaded/anarchist* and actually, I genuinely am not sure if I do understand the real implications for our 'democracy' if AV is implemented. But then, I don't believe anybody does.

    *delete as applicable

  12. Highly disappointing result regarding the referendum. Disappointing for a number of reasons. I'd be happy to shrug it off and move on if I thought it was a democratic result, because that IS democracy, taking the good with what you consider to be bad.

    After asking my family why they voted NO though, it's just disappointing. A new voter, my sister when asked why responded "don't know", then when pressed further added "don't like change". Then there's my parents that voted NO because they're 'set in their ways'.

    The whole thing just reeks in my opinion. It just doesn't feel like a real democratic decision has been made.

    What this result seems to say is that the majority of Britain, (that bothered to vote) are loyal to their newspapers and whatever they say MUST be true because I've been buying this newspaper for years!

    Wish we could do this whole referendum again without the YES and NO camps that seemed to just muddy the water the whole time, replying to each others lies and misinformation, and instead just inform, WHY NO? WHY YES? Just the facts. Might see a different result, or the exact same but then at least it'd be fair and I'd move on happily.

  13. My view is there should be some attention paid to those who didn't bother to vote. we aren't stupid. Why has the majority of the country decided we don't feel we have an investment in the future of our democratic system?

    If I was a politician that is the question I would be asking.

  14. Not voting is not a political standpoint. Sorry. And why on earth is "democracy" in quotes? What do you think a democracy is? And where does "dozy little shit" come from? Do you know how quotes work?

  15. Hi Hannah, "dozy little shit" is something a different blogger said about Elly a few weeks ago, for which he both publicly and privately apologised.

  16. He didn't apologise publicly Jonathan only by email. And only after I had contacted his boss at the New Statesman, and only in quite a half-cocked manner anyway.

    Hannah- the kind of contempt you show someone with my perspective is one reason why the YES campaign failed.

    If you believe I do not have a political position than we may as well not speak at all.

  17. But Hannah you seem lovely. I will be sorry to miss out on the debate. Oh well.

  18. i've always thought my father had the right idea when it came to not voting. if you really don't feel you can vote for any candidate, or for one side or another of an issue; spoil your ballot. at least that way you're regestering your opinion, by just not turning up you're putting yourself in with everyone who just doesn't gve a shit, which is different, and really best avoided.

  19. That's exactly the point - thank you, ACG. In fact, Elly, why not go one step further? If you believe it's so much of a problem that politicians should be concerned that the majority of people are actively making the decision not to vote, rather than not voting because they can't be bothered, why not start, or find, your own political movement to remedy the things you think are wrong with the system? Taking no action at all and expecting the system to anticipate your needs, especially if you are as vastly represented as you seem to think you are, is at best lazy and at worst irresponsible. One of the good things about living in a democracy, or a "democracy" as you say, is that you are free to challenge the status quo. And saying that you don't think anybody understands the implications of the options offered in the referendum isn't a political standpoint either. There is, of course, a finite extent to which one can predict the ramifications of any decision, however well educated. That doesn't mean that you should avoid making decisions altogether and continue to exist in a state of paralysed uncertainty; it means you have a duty to educate yourself as much as possible, or at least to the same standard that you would desire from your peers, to have the best possible chance of getting it right.

    I do apologise for answering your comment even though you stated that we should not discuss our disagreement, but I don't share your views on that. Feel free to ignore this comment if you believe we may as well not speak at all.

    Jonathan, thank you for clarifying the "dozy little shit" comment's origins - that makes much more sense now (incidentally, congratulations on a terrific blog). What doesn't make sense is leaving the quote in the middle of a rebuttal to the above piece with no explanation; it's like me getting angry at you for something my mother said to me. But no matter: I was simply curious.

  20. "What doesn't make sense is leaving the quote in the middle of a rebuttal to the above piece with no explanation; it's like me getting angry at you for something my mother said to me"

    Welcome to the wonderful world of Elly. The things she says don't necessarily have anything to do with anything. She's fun like that. It's what makes my every fleeting internet encounter with her such an unparallelled delight :-)

  21. Glad to hear you enjoy the wonderful world of Elly. You have to admit conversations get less tedious when I am around.

    But I can't be arsed to address your points, just as I couldn't be arsed to vote about AV.

    But I can be arsed to repeat that my apathy, as an intelligent-yes, intelligent- and previously very politicial person, is something the powers that be, and the people trying to change the world, should care about.

    That you don't, and instead you take the piss, just confirms my apathy.

  22. that is not a surprise. But I don't think you will achieve your goals by not giving a shit about the people who *seem* to not give a shit.

    *I use * *s here to indicate that though they seem to not give a shit, they do probably actually care but have become apathetic due to the state of our 'democratic' process among other things.

    *I use ' 's to indicate that I don't think our democracy is working very well at the moment. Hence the need for electoral reform. Which has not occurred.

  23. I think if you don't vote, then you take yourself out the conversation, and if you then go on to complain about policies, politicians or the state of our democracy then you don't have a leg to stand on, because you decided that you don't want to express your voice through the democracy we have.

    I also think that when so many ppl across the world don't have a vote or a meaningful vote, then it is disrespectful not to vote, although that is my opinion and I'm not suggesting anyone should agree with it, it is just one of my motivations for voting. Across the world we see people put their lives on the line to vote, and in the UK ppl shrug their shoulders and can't be bothered to read up on av, or their politicians, or moan over a pint that 'there's no point coz they're all the same'. In our own recent past most men and no women could vote, we take it for granted.

    It isn't perfect. Politicians are corrupt, they break promises. But when we dont vote, we ignore our past and we ignore that change comes by being part of the democratic process. Not ignoring it.

    I feel a sense of pride when I vote. Because although it is a right, it is also a privilege.

  24. That should say most men and all women could not vote.


  25. Although as acg's dad says, I think at least if you are spoiling your ballot you are still actually involved in the democratic process, as opposed to not getting involved at all, and then moaning about how everything has turned out later on.

  26. I am not moaning. I used to spoil my ballot but realised it was pointless as spoiled ballots are counted as 'no-votes' not 'none of the above'.

    I am merely pointing out that be excluding people who did not vote in this referendum from 'the conversation' about electoral reform, you are not going to achieve your aim, of electoral reform.

  27. "that is not a surprise. But I don't think you will achieve your goals by not giving a shit about the people who *seem* to not give a shit"

    What goals? I don't have any goals. I'm finding it hard to get worked up enough to care when someone comes to my blog to say they weren't sufficiently engaged by the AV debate, which is done and over and isn't going to be coming back.

    It's not so much that I don't give a shit about engaging disillusioned voters, it's more that a) it's not really my job since I'm not a politician or even a political activist, and b) if I *was* going to piss a load of time up the wall attempting to re-empower voters, I wouldn't start with you.

    I know there are loads of people out there who don't feel like their needs are being catered for by the current set of parties. But I don't have the fucking answers and I haven't claimed to have them, so why you've popped up here talking about my 'goals' as if you have the merest whiff of a clue what there are is frankly beyond me.

  28. Elly, i wasn't saying you were moaning, your posts weren't moaning, i was talking about the people i meet or hear who don't vote and then complain over their pints about how awful everything is.

  29. Elly....if you think we need electoral reform, if you think that our democratic process needs overhauling, then why couldn't you be arsed to vote for/against AV, which was a vote precisely for electoral reform?

  30. Because monkeysocks, I was not convinced by the Yes campaign. I didn't read anything or hear/see anything compelling about why AV in particular would helpfully 'overhaul' our democratic process. I didn't trust the people advocating the change. And I did not see a definite commitment to it from those who could actually implement it e.g. The Labour Party/Lib Dems.

    Whilst the Libdems are still in the pockets of the Tories, their commitment to electoral reform will be questionable.

  31. Jonathan- sorry for popping up on YOUR Blog. And sorry for assuming you shared the goals of those in the YES to AV camp, and for assuming that even though the vote is over, people still want electoral reform to be achieved. Including you. Sorry about all of that.

  32. Thanks Elly, I accept your apologies.