A deafening No

I haven’t had a lot of time to post lately and the topics I have been tempted to write about require a bit more thought than I can really manage at the moment. Still, I can manage a few seconds to point out that the Daily Mail editorial (or ‘comment’ as it is referred to by the Mail) was again telling Nick Clegg that he had received a ‘deafening No’ from the public with regards to electoral reform. I guess I just wanted to point out – as someone did here in the comments recently – that the Mail’s beloved Tories are not exactly in any position to talk about what constitutes a deafening majority. In the 2010 election the UK public had just experienced a massive economic crash and the then Labour government was led by someone who was supposedly about as unpopular as it is possible to be, yet the Conservatives could still only gain 36.1% of the vote – just 7.1% more than Labour.

63.9% of voters said no to the Conservatives.

In the AV referendum 67.9% of people rejected the Alternative vote, just 4% more than had rejected the Tory party in the general election. Considering the Mail considers Clegg to have suffered a ‘resounding defeat in the AV referendum’ can we also assume they realise that David Cameron also suffered a resounding defeat in the general election?

The Mail might try to argue that the two things are very different: the AV referendum was a straight yes or no whereas the general election had numerous different parties to vote for and therefore it would be harder for any one party to pick up a clear majority. This is a perfectly valid argument. However, this also happens to be an argument that leads directly to the thought that perhaps the voting system needs to be rather more complex than FPTP to deal with this problem. All the current system allows us to conclude is that the Conservatives suffered a resounding no.


After having exchanged a few words with Tom Harris MP on Twitter today regarding the increased complexity of AV I was trying to convey in no more than 140 characters the utter stupidity that underlies the argument that AV is too complex for the average voter or that complexity is in itself a negative quality.

Let’s try and put complexity into context.

People can walk somewhere if they want to. Walking (for most people) is a very simple, un-complex undertaking. People are unlikely to break down or encounter anything during a walk that they cannot deal with.

People can also take make the journey more complex by cycling, which introduces more possible difficulties (punctures, chain falling off and so forth) but also improves several elements of the journey (reduced journey time, reduced impact on crucial joints such as the knee and so forth).

People can take complexity to whole new levels by driving the journey instead, or taking any form of public transport. This level of complexity carries the great risk that the journey might not be completed because of a mechanical failure that cannot be rectified by the individual: for it is unlikely that they understand the complexity of an modern combustion engine or how to fix a train.

This does not stop people driving or taking public transport, as end users they very rarely need to know how such things work, what they do know is that mechanics exist to fix any problems that might arise.

Complexity is all around us, we embrace it because complexity is so intimately linked with progress and understanding.
It is very simple to think that the world is at the centre of the universe and that everything revolves around us. It is very complex to realise that we are one planet amongst almost infinite numbers that happens to revolve around the Sun in an ever-expanding universe. We don’t reject change simply because it is more complex. Otherwise we should throw away just about every single bit of technology in the world.

This is, of course, assuming that AV is actually complex – and if it is more complex than FPTP, who has to deal with that complexity?

From the point of view of the voter AV could not be simpler. You just rank the candidates in order of preference. You can vote for the person you really want to, rather than voting for a lesser candidate simply because you fear voting for your real choice would be a wasted vote. Tactical voting under AV is done with second or third preferences, i.e. I’d really like Mr A, but failing that I would rather have Mr D or Mr H (so rank them 2nd and 3rd) than the horrible Mr X.

That is not difficult and perhaps people can leave the polling station knowing that they actually voted for their first preference for once, rather than voting for someone merely to stop another more despised candidate. Wouldn’t that be a nice feeling? To know that you can actually voted for your real choice without feeling that you have just ‘wasted’ your vote?

Of course, this means that when the votes are counted if there is no clear winner the weakest candidate has to be eliminated and then second preferences are added to see if that can establish and so forth until one candidate has a majority of over 50%. Sure, this is more complex than first past the post, but it’s hardly the same as building a car and we are all happy to be the end user of those, so why not be the end user of the AV voting system?

Any complexity with AV is the problem of the government, not the voter. Perhaps we should also vote no to sewers as well because they’re complex and expensive and we’d all be much better off taking the simple option of emptying buckets of shit out of our windows like the good old days. Not that AV is expensive, that’s just another scare tactic employed by the old guard who are scared because a more democratic system does not help a very undemocratic elite.

The final point, the really important point I’d like to think, is that we are having a referendum on the way in which we elect MPs and consequently the governments that make the decisions that impact on us every day of our lives. Elections only take place every 5 years, the way in which that government is elected matters. This means I don’t want a simple system to determine this, I want a complex system that better reflects the actual will of those bothering to vote (and as for those complaining that AV will reduce voter turnout, how much lower do they think it can get?).

Think back to the days when computers were horrible great big boxes that didn’t do a great deal and what they did do they did very slowly. We’d look back and describe them as crude, in the same way that we would describe most ancient tools that were a product of physical limitation. Here we have a voting system that is not a product of physical limitation, but rather a philosophical limitation. We could if we wanted have AV or AV plus or full PR, in the same way that we could vote entirely online and get almost instant results. We don’t because the rich and powerful individuals that almost entirely make up our political class rely on an outdated system to cling to a two-party system that with FPTP forces the majority of voters to compromise at the ballot box, or worse still not vote at all.

You have a country divided between safe Labour seats and safe Conservative seats with any other party or individual merely trying to get their deposit back. You could lead a party with the support of a million voters and still not end up with a single seat in parliament.

The same is also true with AV, it is a miserable compromise. But this is not an argument against voting for AV, rather it is a damning indictment of the current government – if AV is a miserable compromise then why did you not offer us full PR – if you keep saying that is superior? Probably because PR would take away the very notion of a safe seat and the Conservatives – who only represent the interest of a small elite, would finally have that reflected in the number of seats they won. Likewise, the Labour party – who seemed to have abandoned the working classes in policy, but can still be guaranteed a huge amount of seats in working class areas – might actually have to start being the Labour party again; instead of the Conservatives with a different colour tie.

AV plus or true PR would be much better, but it turns out our ‘elected’ leaders actually despise democracy. ‘What about extremist parties, under PR they would get MPs elected’ they cry, such an argument seems almost directly against proper democracy. If the BNP or EDL (if they became a political party) or any other extremists gained seats it would not reflect poorly on democracy, merely on the level of debate that takes place on real issues of importance in this country. The EDL exists because our media constantly creates and feeds the narratives that sustain them – as do politicians when they blame the foreigner for all the ills that are a direct result of their policies.

If we elect a series of racist loons, we need more education, not less democracy.

Perhaps true PR might lead to a properly regulated press, a House of Commons that doesn’t descend into the infantile groaning and roaring of over-privileged, public-schooled pals mistaking running a country with messing around in their old common rooms and above all a political class that engages in real issues rather than petty political posturing and point-scoring. Maybe, just maybe, politicians would have to honestly answer the occasional question, rather than aloofly ignoring questions put to them as if we have no right to know what they are really up to.

AV is slightly more complex than FPTP – but only for the people counting, not the people voting – and like most increasingly complex things: this is a good thing. People don’t race out to buy the latest gadget because it does less than the old one; they buy it because it offers them more. We have voted with our wallets for hundreds of years for increasing complexity, increasing sophistication; for products that do similar things in better ways and for products that have revolutionised our lives.

The majority of humanity loves progress and change, capitalism, for example, is entirely reliant on this fact. It’s about time we put down our wallets for five minutes and instead voted with our ballet paper for increased political sophistication, for a voting system that offers us slightly more for the same exertion. AV is a compromise, it’s not the system that would bring true democracy to the UK, nor will it likely change the party system currently in place.

However, it is progress; it is increasing the sophistication of the way we are allowed to vote. It could be, if we all turn out to vote if given AV for the next election, the first step on the path to real democracy and real change.

Now that is change I do want to believe in.