Second preference – Primary colours

Amongst and alongside the hundreds of council elections in England, and devolved assembly elections in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, there is an additional ballot paper fought and argued over. It is, of course, the AV referendum poll, asking the population to become interested in voting reform and constitutional renewal in a way never done before, and especially unthinkable under a Conservative-led government, but these are the days in which we find ourselves.

(And today, for me, is looking like another very beautiful summer’s day, so if the sun doesn’t sign on the righteous then at least one hopes it will on pro-AV campaigners).

The level of debate on both sides has been somewhat…tetchy. It’s been awkward, unsettling, somewhat irritating. I can’t help shake off the feeling that the anti-AV lot are more concerned by their own short-term electoral future, which explains their partisan arguments and insults. At least the pro-lobby have tried to fashion a more rounded, deeper argument, not that it has been faultless on this side either.

It could well be a fatal blow for constitutional reform where AF defeated. My head and heart are saying different things (yes, I really do consider the finer points of voting reform in my quiet moments). There is a hunger for change in the country, one which simmers still after the expenses scandal and all which spewed out thereafter like so much Donner meat on a Sunday morning. Electors have their muscles flexed still, more cynical than ever and less likely to choose any of the main three parties as first ports of call. The age of the protest vote (and, as we’ve witnessed, the age of the protest) has not been this strong in decades.

What other options exist if the AV vote is lost? Would the door slam on any future political reform, so much ideas and ideals turned to dust?

I am throwing onto the table of ideas (it’s a nice table, lots of room for wine and nibbles), the concept of American-style Primaries for almost all candidates for all Westminster constituencies.

Primaries have been tried in the UK in before, with the run up the last general election seeing the Conservatives trying them in some constituencies tainted the most by expenses sleaze. The idea, based largely on the US system of Primaries and caucuses and pulling names out of hats or whatever they do over there, sees residents register in advance their intention to take part in a public meeting at which candidates persuade the assembled bods who should be the candidate at the forthcoming election for a particular party. Crucially, the audience cannot be entirely taken from party members and supporters, it has to be a crowd made from all party supporters and none. “Oh but that could mean Labour supporters voting for the Tory candidate”, comes the cry. So? Under our tired voting system so many such choices are made in the selection of an MP, or is context important all of a sudden?

The Labour left are fond of Primaries too. Leader Ed Miliband is one of a number of left figures who has signalled support in the very recent past. In 2009, Will Straw told CommentIsFree that Primaries could work for a Labour party battered and unsettled by a drop in support. It remains true today that candidate selections are often dictated by the HQs, central office and gentleman’s agreements. Despite storming to victory at this year’s Barnsley byelection, Labour Party members on a number of their websites did cyber-sigh about the alleged imposition of a candidate above local members.

Primaries would hack away some of the grip from ‘on high’. Conservative high-ups are not entirely pleased that one of their winners from the process, Dr Sarah Wollaston, is a vocal opponent to NHS reforms, but we need more people like her, and the doors would open wider with Primaries introduced. We all know how candidates would react with non-party members asking questions unbound by convention, mini-Question Times breaking out across the country with the aim of selecting parliamentary candidates in the name of ‘attracting ordinary voters’.

Bring Primaries (candidates chosen by the people) with AV (an empowering voting system), and you drag the UK into somewhere beyond the 19th Century. Greater chance of BME candidates, younger participants, greater debate in the lead up to polling day with more coverage of each party and their policies. It is not a panacea, there are lots more to do, though they would shine much needed light into the dark of PPC selections.

I would open up Primaries to as many parties as possible. Each constituency must be opened up to allowing parties and the public to scrutinise the choices put to them, the policies promised and the personalities introduced. Yes, the US examples we see over here are filtered to amplify the ‘noise’. Our system is not presidential, our Primaries would not be such big-money freak shows.

If AV falls – and I hope it doesn’t – there has to be a flame of reform kept alive. If the Coalition wants to take a lead from its own past, Primaries would be the best thing to happen for the sake of democracy.

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AV Q & A

Right, I’ve got my polling card through the post and I’m somewhat confused

By the new proviso they’ve tacked on the bottom about not getting ballot papers after 10pm?

No, the thing at the top. “Voting System Referendum”. What the merry Hell is that, I thought only backward countries in the depths of beyond held referedums. Like Switzerland and California…

Well both those parts of the world do hold referenda…Referendums…And now we’ve got one. It’s got the Internet in a right old tizz of excitement. We’re hoping members of the public will get involved around about 24 hours before.

I’m fairly certain it’s referenda…Anyway, what are we voting on exactly?

The voting system used to elect Members of Parliament.

Heavens above, what’s next, tarrif reforms relating to processed meat products outside the EEA?

Look, these things are rare and beautiful gifts given to us by our elected representatives and they must be cherished for what they are.

Fine, it just seems a bit ‘policy wonk’ to me.

You wait until I start explaining how the AV system works…

So, anyway, how did we get a referendum in the first place?

At the last election, the Liberal Democrats and Labour both agreed that the UK should change the way it elects MPs. Labour wanted AV, the Liberal Democrats a different system called STV…

Pff, another broken promise from the LibDems, then, that damn Clegg…

No, no, wait…

Where’s my gold unicorn, eh? WHERE IS IT?

Back in the room, back in the room, focus now…It is not a broken promise, it’s compromise…

Oh yeah, compromise, Coalition rules, all of that…What do you mean?

The Conservatives wanted to keep the current system, with a cut in the number of MPs to 585, whilst Clegg wanted it cut to 500. So the compromise between “same system, 585” and “STV, 500”, is “AV, 600”.

And are both parties happy with this middle ground?

Pretty much. The traditionist wing of the Tories are against AV to their very finger-nails, and I suspect most LibDems wouldn’t have asked for a referendum on the Christmas List but here we are…

And Labour?

Split. Ed Mil….Edward Miliband, forgive me, is all for it, and hopes to take most of his Party with him. There are dissentors amongst the Labour benches, though, and many local council groups are against it out of an automatic knee-jerk anti-LibDem bitterness…

Citation needed?

Yeah, well, it seems Edward is having a hard time persuading the grassroots to follow him on this one.

So what system to we currently use then?

MPs are elected using “First Past The Post”, or “Winner Takes All”. You just have to win by one vote over your opponents, regardless of vote share. If you top the ballot, you’re an MP.

And this is unfair?

In short, yes.

And long?

Many MPs sit on the green benches without a majority in their constituencies. And this isn’t a partisan point, there are MPs from almost every Party where this is the case. Phil Woolas (remember him….) “won” Oldham East and Saddleworth with 31.9% of the vote, only 0.3 ahead of the LibDems. John Pugh, the LibDem MP for Southport, was elected with 49.6%, still less than an outright majority.

The FPTP system was at its best when there was much more polarised support for the two main political parties. That era died many moons ago, but our voting system hasn’t caught up.

And how does this AV thing work?

Rather than forcing voters into choosing one candidate, even if it’s not one they really prefer…

…Like, ooh, forcing people into making a grubby little compromise?

Yes, thank you, I’ll choose the labels. As I was saying, rather than forcing people into making a choice they might not prefer – holding their nose to vote Labour in a ‘marginal’ seat – AV allows people to make as many choices as they see fit. It empowers, whilst FPTP anchors.

But “winner takes all” is quite easy to understand, isn’t it?

Oh it is, and in many circumstances it is the better system. Politics is not about “black and white”, though, it thrives on the grey areas, the compromise, the give-and-take, which AV promotes.

How do you count votes under AV then?

Voters rank candidates in order of preference – as easy as 1,2,3…All the first preferences are tallied up, and if a candidate reaches 50% of the vote, they’re an MP, easy.

What if they don’t reach this magic 50%?

The second preferences of the least popular candidates are redistributed until somebody does.

Isn’t there a worry that second votes from fringe candidates could swing results?

That’s the current line from the “NO” campaign, who are paranoid about the BNP somehow having a big say in British elections. It’s not as though the presence of extremists over 50-odd years hasn’t had an implied influence over policies, candidates and indeed results as it is, or anything…

Would I be forced into voting BNP? Because I sure as heck don’t want to do that…

Nope. Unlike the Australian system, there’s no compulsion. You can vote just for one candidate, as now, or all of them. Or just some.

But rank, not with a big “X”

Aye, that’s the one. Rank in preference order, and let the counters do the maths…

Don’t you mean multi-million pound counting machines which would deny a hospital of life-saving equipment?

No, no I don’t.

Is this new fangled system proportional? The LibDems liked to talk about proportional representation once…

Indeed so, and it’s a notable uncomfortable truth that AV is not exactly proportional…It was said that Blair’s 1997 victory would have been even more immense under AV….

I don’t like the sound of that…

It’s one of the ghost stories LibDems tell each other over the campfire…

I hear AV will end ‘safe seats’ stone dead? Is that true?

It is not exactly true – I doubt Birkenhead (Labour Majority 15,195) is about to turn into a knife-edge marginal constituency anytime soon…However for much more seats than at present, the contest will become much tighter – no more “tactical” voting, more votes than ever will actually be counted, rather than simply dismissed.

Why are people saying AV is complicated?

Because the NO camp seem to think that an ordinary person can carry around in their heads minute details about football results, soap opera story lines and national flags without any issue, whilst the concept of counting to 5 is beyond them…

Will AV mean more Coalition governments?

Maybe so, maybe not. The current system has had its moments – the 1970s was awash with minority governments and hung parliaments, and last year you may recall there being no single party with the right amount of seats to form a government on their own…

What would happen if the country voted no? End of the Coalition? Cameron angry, Cameron SMASH?

Er…No….Well, I say no, both men are dismissing talk of the Coalition falling if the country says “no”.

Well you’ve made that clear…

It is a tough cookie, and one which many LibDem members see as the only true prize for making such a hard choice last year…The Tory grassroots are hoping for a big fat NO so they can start tugging on the loose threads of the whole Government in the hope it all falls apart.

In summary then, the current system is not very good, proposed system is better if not perfect, and no baby monitors will be harmed either way?

That’ll do for me.

So you could provide a link to the Yes campaign website round about here, shouldn’t you?

Why of course..http://www.yestofairervotes.org