strange_complex: (Me Yes to Fairer Votes)
I'm still busy campaigning away for Yes to AV, and will probably write more about the local campaign soon. But today I'd like to take a little time to point out why the Alternative Vote can deliver clearer messages to politicians about what voters actually want than First-Past-The-Post, using the example of this week's by-election in Oldham East & Saddleworth.

This by-election came about because the man who won the seat at the General Election, Phil Woolas (Labour), was found guilty of knowingly telling lies about his closest opponent, Elwyn Watkins (LibDem) in his election literature. The judges ordered a re-run of the election, and Woolas was suspended from the Labour party.

The resulting by-election attracted a great deal of media scrutiny, and prompted very sustained campaigning efforts from both the Liberal Democrats and Labour: the latter now headed by a replacement candidate, Debbie Abrahams. And the basic reason for all of this was that by-election results are normally seen as diagnostic - a sort of mid-term barometer reading on how all of the political parties involved are doing in the eyes of the electorate as a whole.

So what data has the result yielded, and what can it tell politicians about what voters are thinking? Let's compare the detailed results in OE&S from May 2010 and January 2011:

May 2010 - Turnout: 44,520 (61.2%) +4.4

CandidatePartyTotal votes Percentage % change
Phil WoolasLabour14,18631.9-10.7
Elwyn Watkins  Liberal Democrat14,08331.6-0.5
Kashif AliConservative11,77326.4+8.7
Alwyn StottBritish National Party2,5465.7+0.6
David BentleyUK Independence Party  1,7203.9+1.8
Gulzar NazirChristian Party2120.5+0.5

January 2011 - Turnout: 34,930 (48.0%) −13.1

CandidatePartyTotal votes Percentage % change
Debbie AbrahamsLabour14,71842.1+10.2
Elwyn WatkinsLiberal Democrat11,16031.9+0.3
Kashif AliConservative4,48112.8-13.6
Paul NuttallUK Independence Party  2,0295.8+1.9
Derek AdamsBritish National Party1,5604.5-1.2
Peter AllenGreen5301.5N/A
Nick "The Flying Brick" Delves Monster Raving Loony1450.4N/A
Stephen MorrisEnglish Democrats1440.4N/A
Loz KayePirate960.3N/A
David BishopBus-Pass Elvis670.1N/A

Firstly, overall turnout was lower than at the General Election, as is typical for by-elections. So it's no good comparing overall numbers of votes - we have to focus on the percentage won by each party. On this basis, the obvious story is a collapse in the Conservative vote (-13.6) and a boost in the Labour vote (+10.2), with the Liberal Democrats holding more or less steady in the middle (+0.3).

But how do we explain this, and what does it mean? One problem with first-past-the-post is that we can't really tell. Clearly, it's out of line with how the three main parties stand in nationwide opinion polls, which would have conditioned us to expect a collapse in the LibDem vote rather than the Tories. But why didn't this happen? Is it because Elwyn Watkins had such a good relationship with the local electorate that his own vote has held up in spite of nationwide discontent with the Liberal Democrats as a party? Is it because Tory voters in the constituency deliberately decided to vote tactically for the LibDem candidate in an attempt to keep Labour out, as numerous commentators have suggested? Or is it some combination of both?

Under FPTP, we can only speculate about what happened, and what it all 'means'. At best, opinion pollsters can ask a sub-set of the voters about the reasons behind their decisions. But wouldn't it be even better if all of the voters in this constituency could have expressed their preferences clearly and unambiguously at the ballot box in the first place?

This is one of the things that AV offers. Imagine that Tory voters in particular - the main group suspected of tactical voting in OE&S - hadn't had to do so. Imagine that they could have expressed their true preferences by ranking candidates instead. Then we would be able to see more clearly what the real picture was.

The suggestion is that a third of people who voted Tory in the general election actually switched their votes to the LibDems in the by-election - not because they positively supported the LibDem candidate, but because they negatively opposed the Labour candidate, and saw Elwyn Watkins as best placed to defeat her under an FPTP system. If this is true, AV would make that shift, and those feelings, transparent. Under AV, we would be likely to see those same voters, now freed of the need to vote tactically, being able to put the Tory candidate whom they really preferred first, in the knowledge that if he were eliminated, their second-preference votes for the Liberal Democrat candidate would still be carried forward to help decide the final outcome.

This means that AV would have allowed local Tory voters to express their preferences in more detail, transmitting more information about what they actually thought about the candidates running for office via their choices at the ballot box than they were able to under FPTP. Indeed, this is of course true for all of the voters in the constituency, not just the Tory ones. I'm simply picking on local Tory voters because they are the most obvious example here of voters whose preferences we can't fully understand when expressed only through the FPTP system.

To me, what all this demonstrates is that AV is a superior electoral system to FPTP because it conveys a clearer message to politicians about what the people who are voting for them actually think and want. It enhances the political dialogue by making it easier for voters to indicate to politicians when they approve or disapprove of their actions. And if politicians want to do well under an AV system, they will need to listen and respond to the extra data which voters are providing to them. Indeed, they will have to, because of the requirement which is also part of the AV system that a winning candidate must secure the support of at least 50% of their voters. In other words, AV should mean an electoral system which is literally more democratic, because politicians become more responsive to the will of the voters.

I'm also quite aware that in this particular constituency, the likely message from voters to politicians which AV would have transmitted clearly, and which FPTP did not, is disenchantment with the Liberal Democrat party. If the LibDem share of the vote really did hold up partly thanks to Tory tactical voters, then that is perhaps not such great grounds for self-congratulation as Tim Farron tried to claim afterwards. And you know, much as I am still steadfast in my support for the party, I think it would actually be better for us to hear the clearer message that AV would have delivered in OE&S. It would have been a more accurate barometer of what we're getting right and what we're getting wrong, and a more helpful guide as to how to do something about it.

Of course, ultimately no by-election result can ever be a really accurate reflection of national political success or failure. Obviously local issues and local personalities play a huge role; as does the scope which voters tend to feel for registering a 'protest vote' in a situation where they know that it will have no effect on the party of national government.

But I would like all voters to be able to express their opinions more clearly in both by-elections and general elections. I want a better dialogue between voters and politicians - one in which our voices are stronger, and our candidates are forced to listen more attentively.

And that is (just one reason) why I am saying Yes to AV.

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strange_complex: (C J Cregg)
I can't help feeling today rather like the Italian allies apparently felt on the eve of the Social War in 91 BC. They fought alongside the Romans on campaign, and were therefore profoundly affected by Roman foreign policy. Rome's enemies were their enemies, and Rome's campaigns were their campaigns. But they had no vote in Rome, and thus no say in the decision-making process that lay behind declarations of war.

Velleius Paterculus describes their situation thus:
In every year and in every war they served with twice as many foot and horse as the Romans, and yet were not given the right of citizenship in the very state which had reached through their efforts so high a position that it could look with contempt on men of the same race and blood as if they were outsiders and foreigners. (Roman History 2.15.2)
Their reaction was to rebel against Roman power, causing warfare throughout Italy: an action which in fact resulted in them getting exactly what they wanted, since the Romans realised that extending the vote to the whole of Italy was a small price to pay for peace and stability on their doorstep.

I'm not saying anything of the sort is either desirable or necessary now - it would be far better if the United States simply stopped throwing its weight around so much, and dragging the rest of us into its ill-thought-out wars. But I empathise with that sense of frustration. Today the world's future is being decided by the electorate of one nation. And all the rest of us can do is stand there crossing our fingers.

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strange_complex: (C J Cregg)
... tonight is election night on The West Wing!

I hardly think the result is actually in doubt, but:

Go Bartlet! Four more years!

UPDATE: Man on Channel 4 announcing the programme this evening:

"First [before Friends] it's election night on West Wing. Now that's scheduling..."
strange_complex: (Default)
I registered for a postal ballot for the forthcoming local and EU elections, since I am in one of the pilot areas for it. Unlike some people, I received my ballot papers in good time, and sent them off last Tuesday evening, after [ profile] diffrentcolours had verified my identity.

Since I voted, though, I have been inundated with election leaflets through my letter-box and bombarded with 'election special' interviews and Party Political broadcasts on TV and on the radio... all of which are totally irrelevant to me, 'cos I can't change my mind now even if I wanted to.

It's all made me realise that if postal ballots catch on and are implemented across the country for all elections in future, political parties are going to have to rethink the way they campaign quite radically, in order to make sure they've got all their messages across in time to catch the postal voters as well as the people who vote in polling stations. Last-minute smear campaigns, for instance, are going to lose a lot of their effectiveness if half the country have voted by the time they come out.

I think on the whole a change like this will probably be positive, because I don't much like the current tendency to ignore the electorate most of the time, and only pull out desperate fawning measures at the last minute. Having to allow for a 10-day (or so) period during which people are voting, rather than direct everything towards one day, might just encourage some slightly more thoughtful campaigning. (Well, I am an optimist by nature...)

On the other hand, though, I think I might prefer to vote in person in the next general election, because voting by post does make it all seem a bit less of a ceremony. I like the feeling of being one of millions of people across the country going to play my part in the democratic process on polling day: it's part of the build-up towards the ritual of then staying up all night to see what happens (something I've done for the last 3 general elections, despite the fact that I was too young to have voted in the first of those!).

That's just sentiment, though, and given that not very many people get quite that excited by elections (especially local ones), anything which encourages people to vote at all has got to be a good idea. Overall, I reckon postal voting is definitely a good thing: but it is going mean some differences if it becomes standard practice.


strange_complex: (Default)

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