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Yes to Fairer votes launch

Many apologies that both writing and commenting here remains so light. It's going to be like this until December, when I finally finish and submit my article on Italian urban peripheries. Until then, the combination of that article, the other daily demands of my job and the ongoing fight to secure a viable future for our department just means I have very little spare brain-juice available for LJing. I'm doing my best.

Anyway, on Friday evening I downed tools and headed out of the house, all dressed from top to toe in purple, to help launch the nationwide Yes to Fairer Votes campaign at the Hyde Park bonfire in Leeds. The date of the AV referendum has been confirmed now, and November 5th marked exactly six months until it will take place. So it was time to get out there and start spreading the word.

We had a professional photographer along with us, as the nationwide campaign is asking local groups all over the country to submit photos of their events for a collective gallery. So we started out by doing a few posed photos in front of the bonfire and the fireworks:

That raised quite a lot of interest in itself, as people came up to ask what it was all about, and what we were saying 'Yes' to. And once the fireworks had finished, we dashed down to one of the main exits to the park, and got stuck in to handing out flyers, giving out stickers and signing up new members:

You can see our full photo-set here.

Responses were pretty good on the whole. A few people just weren't interested, but I didn't encounter a single person who wanted to argue the case with us for keeping the existing first-past-the-post system. Rather more depressingly, though, the great majority of the people we talked to either a) had no idea that there was going to be a referendum on the voting system in six months' time or b) had no idea what AV is.

And that's a sad state of affairs, because what's happening next May is a really big deal. It's far bigger than a general election, where you merely vote to elect a government for the next five years. This referendum is about whether or not we should change this country's entire voting system permanently. It matters, and everyone should be thinking about it and talking about it and getting ready to decide how they want to vote in May.

Of course, the whole reason why we were there was to raise awareness about the referendum, and explain to people how AV works and why we believe it is fairer than the current system. And actually people seemed pretty interested once they heard about it. We chatted to as many people as we could and gave out a good couple of hundred flyers between us, with a fair number of people seeming actively pleased to be given them, or even coming up to us of their own volition to find out more. So it felt like a pretty positive start to the campaign. But there is still very definitely lots to be done.

Having said all that, of course, it would now be remiss of me not to finish off this post with a simple explanation of how AV works, and why I think it is an improvement on the current system. I know that a lot of people on my friendslist are already extremely well-informed about it. But I also know from my experience at the bonfire on Friday night that plenty of people won't be. Since everyone (who's over 18 and a UK citizen) will get to vote on this next May, I think it's time we all started talking about it. So this is my simple starter's guide to what on earth it's all about:

  • The change proposed is very simple. Under the current FPTP (first-past-the-post) system, you place an 'X' by the candidate you want to vote for, and whoever gets the most Xs wins. Under AV (alternative vote), you get to rank the candidates numerically in your order of preference instead.
  • If you want to, you can simply vote as you always have done under the AV system. You just put a '1' next to your favoured candidate, and leave the rest blank.
  • But AV also lets you express your preferences in more detail. You can vote '1' for the candidate you like best, but also '2' for the one you like next best, and so on until you run out of candidates or preferences. (See an example here.)
  • If no candidate gets more than 50% of the votes on the basis of first preferences, the candidate who got the least votes is eliminated, and the electoral officers look instead at the second preferences expressed by the people who voted for them.
  • These second-preference votes are allocated to the relevant candidates, and this keeps happening until one candidate has at least 50% of the total vote. That candidate is then declared the winner.
  • This means that in order to win their seats, parliamentary candidates would have to appeal positively to at least 50% of the voters in their constituencies.
  • The result would be fewer safe seats, and thus more accountable MPs.
  • It also means that if you live in a seat where your favourite candidate usually comes third, you would no longer have to face the choice between wasting your vote and voting tactically. You could express your actual preference by putting your favourite candidate first, but (assuming that that candidate is then eliminated) you would also still get to have a say in which of the remaining candidates wins by using your second (or third, or fourth) preference votes.
  • And if everyone in the country was voting on that basis, we might just get a Parliament which represented the views of the voters rather better than it does now - surely a good thing, whatever your personal political preferences are.

There's a lot more to say about it than that, of course. It isn't a simple issue, and there is plenty of debate to be had about how AV would actually play out in practice. But I am well enough convinced that it would be fairer than the current system to consider it worth actively campaigning for a 'Yes' vote. And I am absolutely certain that we should all be thinking about it pretty hard between now and the actual referendum. So consider the above my small, humble contribution to kick-starting the thought-processes. If it's the first kick you've had, then I've done my job.

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( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 7th, 2010 11:10 pm (UTC)
Purple lightsaber. Win. :)
Nov. 7th, 2010 11:16 pm (UTC)
INORITE! A lady was selling them on a stall at the bonfire, and I explained very nobly to the people I was campaigning with that I didn't mind buying one to help us and our campaign materials look more visible amongst the crowd. But of course secretly I was actually all "MUST HAVE TEH SHINY!", and thrilled to have the excuse to get one. :-)
Nov. 8th, 2010 09:48 am (UTC)
Wow. I thought I knew about AV, but had no idea a date for a referendum had been set. How did I manage to miss that? Thanks for the heads up.

I do have a question, though, which I've not yet been able to work out the answer to. Suppose in my area there are three candidates, standing for the Nice Party, the Middlin' Party and the Horrible Party.

Is voting:

NP 1
MP 2
HP 3

equivalent to voting:

NP 1
MP 2


Does use of a '3' imply a slight preference towards the Horrible Party, in a way expressing no preference doesn't, and mean my vote for them will be counted if the first two round of counting don't produce a result?

I had assumed that that was how it worked, but nothing I've read thus far as made the point that if your "last choice" is someone you actively don't want you should leave it blank rather than ranking them last.
Nov. 8th, 2010 10:13 am (UTC)
Well, if those really are the only three candidates running in your constituency (i.e. there's no fourth candidate from the Certifiably Insane Party), then yes - there is no effective difference between ranking a candidate third and not ranking them at all.

The possible outcomes for your vote based on the scenario you've outlined above are:

1. One of the candidates gets 50% of the votes. In this scenario, there is no re-allocation of votes, so only your first preference vote is looked at.

2. No-one gets 50% of the vote, so the weakest candidate is eliminated, and the second preferences of people who voted for that candidate are counted up and re-allocated. If the Nice Party candidate is the one eliminated, then your vote will be transferred to the Middling Party candidate, whom you had ranked as your second preference. But by that point, there are only two candidates left in the race anyway, so one of the remaining candidates should now be a clear winner. There shouldn't be any scenario in a three-candidate race where it is relevant to go to third preferences.

As far as I understand, the same basic principle should apply no matter how many candidates are running. Votes will only ever be re-allocated up to the point where there is a clear winner in a two-horse race. So if 'x' is the number of candidates, then the count might go as far as looking at votes ranked x-1, but they would never get as far down the ranking as x.

Um, does that make sense? That's how I understand it, anyway.
Nov. 8th, 2010 10:18 am (UTC)
Yes, that makes sense - of course you never have to count the x-ranked votes (I can do sums, honest). I suppose in the more realistic case of there being lots of candidates, some number of whom you regard as nasty, then it's better to leave them blank than rank them (assuming they are all of exactly equivalent nastiness).

Thanks for writing such a long reply when you're very busy!
Nov. 8th, 2010 10:30 am (UTC)
No worries! I'm actually more or less on top of my work so far today, so can afford a few minutes here and there to talk about AV. :-)

And yes, indeed - of course in practice where there are more than three candidates, and you actively dislike several of them, it's likely that you'll want to leave several blanks at the end of your ranking. I think the most important rankings are always going to be 1 and 2, which allow you to vote freely for a minority candidate while also having some influence over the outcome of a battle between two stronger candidates.
Nov. 8th, 2010 10:20 am (UTC)
Is purple the official colour of the AV system or did they let you do the campaign design?
Nov. 8th, 2010 10:32 am (UTC)
It's the official colour, and I swear am *not* doing this just because it is an excuse to wear it a lot - HONEST! The lady who organised this particular event, and who hadn't met me before Friday, sent us all a message going "Don't forget to wear purple!" And I was like, LOL!
Nov. 8th, 2010 10:35 am (UTC)
Heh... yes, must have been hours digging through your wardrobe to find something.

Good luck with the campaigning, it's a worthwhile cause. I'm afraid I'm a little sceptical it will get passed, but then that is what campaigning is all about, helping important political decisions that might go the wrong way.
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 20th, 2011 12:40 pm (UTC)
It's somewhat unfortunate that purple is the UKIP colour, has been for ages, and they're probably more popular than the AV debate in either direction, then.
Nov. 8th, 2010 10:43 am (UTC)
I'm afraid most people just won't bother to turn out in May, or at least not outside Scotland and Wales - and they have bigger fish to fry than AV. The local elections always have low turnout, people's faith in politics is at an all time low and people want to punish the Liberal Democrats in particular. I think they should a) have waited and given themselves more time to better inform the electorate about what it means, b) not included the referendum bill on the same bill as boundary changes, therefore making it so Labour can't really support it as cities will drastically lose representation and us the vote and c) done it as a separate vote so that pro-AV Labourites like me could have campaigned for it more easily. As it is, we'll mostly be concentrating our efforts on the elections, which we DO need and want to win, and not the Yes vote (even if the top brass had told us to push for a yes vote rather than not campaign on it) as it's hard enough to get people to understand what they're voting for and why.

I don't think most people care about the voting system, at all. Even when it's explained to them, as I've discovered from my small-scale campaigning efforts.
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 20th, 2011 01:29 pm (UTC)
Yes, this is what I'm starting to think about low turnout, too. You're right about legitimacy, and the prospect also makes me generally sad, because to me this is such an important change and I'd really like people to be properly engaged with it. But ultimately I do think that it will play in the 'Yes' campaign's favour.

As for responses from members of the public, my experience is the same as yours. I'm quite used to people who aren't interested, but across three street stalls / flyering campaigns and one phonebank stint so far I've been very pleasantly surprised by the positive response. Most people who already know about it seem to be planning to vote 'Yes', and most people who don't know about it but stay to listen to our explanation seem to be convinced by the time we've finished with them, too. I've encountered a few vague sceptics, but not yet anyone whom I felt was seriously planning to vote 'No'.
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 20th, 2011 02:49 pm (UTC)
Thankfully only one or two "PR or nothing" responses.

Argh, yes - so frustrating! The referendum isn't some nice philosophical debate about "Do we like AV or not?" It's a direct either-or question, and anyone who says 'No' to AV had better feel comfortable about saying 'Yes' to FPTP at the same time.

Sorry for the rant, which you obviously don't need to hear. But - grrr!

And agreed about the phonebanks not necessarily being indicative about overall views.
Nov. 10th, 2010 12:42 am (UTC)
This is the system used in Australia.

It does seem to be a better system than FPTP (from my limited political insights) as it gives people greater power and pretty much eliminates the need for tactical voting.

However, it still doesn't stop there being a hung parliament or stop people moaning about who eventually won/formed a coalition.

Also, voting is compulsary in Australia. Failure to vote (or at least turn up to a poling station) is an offence and you get fined. I'm still undecided as to whether this is good or bad.
Nov. 10th, 2010 12:46 pm (UTC)
I support a move to AV as I think it would improve the FPTP system but without creating constant coalitions. I got very annoyed during the coalition negotiations by the blanket assumption that everyone voting Lib Dem would want a government with Labour and AV allows people voting for marginal candidates to expresss their 'if not, then' preference.

I don't support PR though as it hands too much power to the small fringe parties who tend to be kingmakers under a coalition system - you only need to look at some of the parties propping up coalitions on the continent to see how that works.

As an entirely separate point, I do get annoyed with the way people refer to 'wasted votes' as if it's only worth voting if you get your own way. A vote for a losing candidate isn't wasted, even under the current system. It expresses a preference.

And even if you do require your vote to have a definite impact to make you consider it worthwhile, if everyone who sat around not voting because their votes are 'wasted' actually bothered turning up and voting you'd probably see big swings. A result doesn't need to swing far enough to change the result to make a difference, a smaller majority puts a seat 'in play' so other parties make more of an effort potentially leading to a greater swing next time. End rant. :-)
Nov. 10th, 2010 10:39 pm (UTC)
A vote for a losing candidate isn't wasted, even under the current system. It expresses a preference.

No, indeed - you're very right about that, and it's one of the reasons why I have always simply voted for the party I support, rather than voting tactically.
Nov. 10th, 2010 01:38 pm (UTC)
Reading this article in the Guardian


There seems to be a connection between AV (of which I'm not totally convinced either way until I've done some more research) and the boundary changes (which I will oppose because it reduces Labour's representation in Parliament).

Can someone explain the connection, if there is one? Can you vote for one and against the other?
Nov. 10th, 2010 10:36 pm (UTC)
The AV referendum and the boundary changes are connected at the moment, because they both form part of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which has now finished being debated in the Commons and moved on to the House of Lords. The bill as a whole includes proposals to a) hold a public referendum on AV, b) make changes to constituency boundaries and c) reduce the total number of MPs in the House of Commons. So at the moment, as myfirstkitchen says above, most Labour MPs will oppose the bill, because even if they support holding a referendum on AV, they don't support the boundary changes, and they cannot vote for one without also voting for the other.

For the general public, though, we don't get a say on the issue of boundary changes. That will be resolved by the normal process of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill being debated in parliament, and MPs voting on it on our behalf. Assuming that the bill passes, though (which it should do given that Tory support for it was one of the major promises which they made to the LibDems in the coalition agreement), then the issue of whether or not we should actually adopt the AV system will be put to the people in a general referendum. We'll just get to vote 'yes' or 'no' in response to one simple question, as follows:
"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?"
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 20th, 2011 01:22 pm (UTC)
Heh, no problem - I've been enjoying your comments. Much of the discussion here is still topical anyway, which I assume is why you didn't notice the date at first.

Also, thanks for the add, and I shall add you back when I've posted this comment. Looking forward to getting to know you.
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 20th, 2011 02:21 pm (UTC)
Oh, good work on getting a paid job with the Yes campaign! I bet that'll be huge fun, not to mention good experience if that's your preferred career direction.

I actually only friended andrewducker today, but I know oxfordgirl from being part of the same goth / geek circles when I used to live in Oxford, and matgb via much the same channels now that I live up in Leeds. Nice to 'meet' you. :-)
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )

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