Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Alternative Vote in action: New South Wales

In the run-up to the Alternative Vote referendum in May there will be a lot of talk about other countries that use the AV voting system. And there will also be an election using the precise variant of AV that the UK will be voting on.

The Alternative Vote has a number of versions around but the one we will be voting on is the "full optional preference" version, practised in the Australian states of New South Wales and Queensland for state elections, whereby voters can number as little as a single candidate for their vote to be valid. (Elections for the federal parliament and most of the other states use the "compulsory preference" version where voters have to number all candidates to count.) New South Wales will be going to the polls on March 26th and it will be possible to compare the claims made in our AV referendum.

(For those who want to see & find out more of the election in the wider context the best guide is the ABC 2011 New South Wales Election.)

At least two claims have been made that are already possible to check against existing experience in the state. Quickly running through them:

Claim 1. AV will mean parties can fight elections as a Coalition, offering voters candidates from both parties.

The full number of candidates in the last (2007) election is available at ABC News Election Preview. There were 93 seats and with the Liberals and Nationals fighting as a Coalition it was possible for voters to have a choice.

However the table shows that each seat had only one Coalition candidate. In fact it would have been playing with fire for the Coalition to offer competing candidates in all but a few seats. There would have been a real risk of votes for one Coalition party failing to transfer to the other, not least due to many voters "plumping" or just using a single preference. For parties aiming to win as many seats as possible this is not a desirable situation and so it's unsurprising that the Coalition stands a single candidate. (In Queensland it proved even harder for the Coalition parties to agree such an arrangement and eventually the two parties merged to eliminate the problem.)

Claim 2. AV will put an end to negative campaigning and parties will have to offer positive reasons to vote for them.

This is one of the wilder claims, and frankly feels like a typical case of seizing on any unpopular element in politics and pretending the proposed change will magic it away. In fact the types of campaigning used reflect the political culture, the effectiveness of methods and any laws governing it far far more than the voting system in use. New South Wales is certainly not free of negative campaigning as this Labor party advert from the last election shows:

If you can find one positive reason to vote for Labor in there (beyond their ability to make cartoons and catchy songs) I'll buy you a pint.

(By the way there is one myth about AV that stems from New South Wales that can be cleared up. There's a belief in some quarters that AV will lead to ballot papers that are the size of tablecloths - some of you may remember David Dimbleby producing one such monster on a few election nights. In fact those monster ballot papers are for the state upper house which is elected by Single Transferable Vote with an option to use a Group voting ticket. That's something different from AV and there are plenty of good reasons for voting against it without the need to resort to such scare myths.)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Lessons from Ireland

The news from Ireland over the last few days has been astounding to watch. Something tremendous is happening and the current chaos is a run up to it. But there are also some interesting comparisons that stand out.

For those unfamiliar with Irish politics, the main governing party is Fianna Fáil - The Republican Party, but don't ask me what it believes in or stands for. Or them for that matter. Despite this Fianna Fáil is one of the most successful parties in the democratic world, having topped the poll in every single Irish general election since 1927.

This once mighty successful party is now polling at 8%. (Irish Independent: Cowen bails out as FF hit 8pc low) The forthcoming general election could be one of those super crashes that permanently alters the landscape of a country's politics not just for the parliament ahead but for decades to come.

Until today Fianna Fáil had a coalition partner, the Green Party. It's the first time the Greens have been in government and they've not had the best of times, with the party suffering internal divides, miserable poll ratings and atrocious local election results. More than a few British Liberal Democrats will be looking at the Irish Greens and wondering if they will suffer the same fate.

In the run up to the election Ireland has, however, shown a few things that may in the UK will want to take on board:
  • It is possible for a failing government to get rid of the prime minister even when the election is very close. UK Labour please take note.
  • Governments can collapse before the full life of a parliament, so fixed term parliaments aren't such a great idea.
  • Parties of purist idealists like the Greens aren't always cut out for the necessary prioritising and compromising of government.
I several doubt the UK's Green parties will be rushing to use their Irish sister party's record in government as a selling point in the near future. But Fianna Fáil also has a sister party in the UK, albeit a sibling that would rather run away from comparisons.

This is because Fianna Fáil is a party without an overall ideology, which swings in the wind between the left, centre and right, which jumps onto whatever vote-winning bandwagon is going, which is full of "local campaigner" elected representatives and which when in government usually lets it coalition partners set the overall direction. Sound familiar?

And of course Fianna Fáil is affiliated to the European Liberal Democrats and in the European Parliament it sits in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe grouping.

Naturally many Liberal Democrats will be rushing to distance themselves from the comparisons, or inventing reasons why a member of the European liberal family doesn't qualify as a member of the European liberal family. But the key points of comparison are there regardless.


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