Friday, 22 May 2009

I've got the solution, now show me a problem

Martin Kettle's piece on political reform starts off sensibly enough, noting that the window for action is really pretty small as, after the election, the new government will find bigger fish to fry. But soon enough, we get on to electoral reform and discover once again that there is no political problem that a new voting system won't solve.

In this case, the "main advantage" of the AV system is that it will ensure MPs have a true majority of votes. Kettle doesn't actually say why this is an advantage; I'm going to guess that the idea is that it would encourage MPs to worry more about keeping all their constituents happy. This is probably true, in that MPs who rely on second or third preferences to get elected will want to maintain a minimum level of acceptability. That's why it's a bad idea.

MPs, frankly, should be prepared to make unpopular decisions. AV puts a campaigning MP in the position of persuading her 1st preference supporters that she's true to the ideals of her party, and her opponents' 1st preference supporters that she's a perfectly acceptable alternative to their party. It's a balancing act, with the concomitant risk of falling between two stools. Proponents will argue that this leads to government by consensus, which I don't doubt. But it's not a consensus based on winning the argument, just on finding an innocuous middle-ground: the consensus of the lowest common denominator.


Mike said...

I am not sure this is borne out by the experience of other countries like Australia which use an AV system - there is real political divide not merely lowest common denominator consensus.

Interesting to see Alan Johnson come out in favour of AV+ on the basis of increased voter power over MPs. I'm not sure myself.

Andrew R said...

I had to look this up, but apparently the common outcome in Australia is that minor parties horse-trade with the major parties; put the right policies in the manifesto and the Greens (e.g.) tell their supporters where to put their second preference.

Which is fine, but it does seem to involve a pretty high level of back-room dealing as opposed to engagement with the electorate. Interestingly, it probably does hand more power to minority parties than our system does, by giving them a say at least in the manifesto, if not in actual policy/legislation.

I don't know if this really addresses the problem of MPs needing to be more accountable to their constituents - it seems more like being accountable to the leaders of a minority party.

Mike said...

yes, the influence of minority parties is a tricky one - the issue for me being whether holding the balance of power gives disproportionate influence.

I guess the accountability comes from the problem that a tiny percentage of the electorate swing elections - those who live in marginal seats and vote for one of the parties in contention there. I guess Alan J's point would be that accountability comes from giving more of the electorate more influence over more MPs.

It's a tricky one because I am yet to be convinced whether perceived benefits in accountability will translate into better governance. Democracy need not be an unqualified good - e.g. we dont elect senior civil servants or judges, like the US does.

Andrew R said...

Well, it's all a trade-off: stability/accountability/representation/effectiveness. The question I have is, what's the relationship between current political upheaval and voting reform?

If the idea is accountability, I'm not sure that electing an MP on the basis of third preference votes really adds that - I wouldn't feel that an MP who was only my third choice a)owed me very much or b) spoke for me in any kind of accurate way.