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Wings Over Sealand

The alternative to the alternative

Posted on April 04, 2011 by RevStu

If you're anything like me, you've probably been spending anything up to 0.2% of your spare time recently wondering how (or if) you're going to cast your vote in the AV referendum in a month's time. Because on the face of it, it looks like a lose-lose choice.

"If only there was some way we could improve this country's useless, broken mockery of democracy AND kick Nick Clegg's face off at the same time", is, if you're like me, what you've probably been thinking. But maybe there is.

AV, almost everyone agrees, is a waste of time. NONE of the parties in Parliament actually favours it as the best way to conduct an election, which makes it all the more astonishing that it's somehow become the subject of the first single-issue vote put to the British people in almost 40 years, while referenda that the public actually want are denied.

(It's very hard to escape the cynical conclusion that the only reason we're being allowed a voice now is precisely because AV is something nobody really cares about and which won't make any difference to anything.)

Before last year's General Election the Lib Dem leader quite rightly dismissed AV as a "miserable little compromise", so it should come as no surprise that he now wants us all to vote for it. The only purpose the reform will serve is to increase (in normal circumstances) the number of Lib Dem MPs, while having no meaningful impact on the fundamentally unrepresentative Parliaments we end up with. We will still end up, 99 times out of 100, with one party wielding absolute majority power founded on the support of barely a third of voters.

(There is, of course, a certain amount of irony in the fact that the price the Lib Dems have paid to secure this chance of improving their own petty standing is a collapse of support so catastrophic that even if they get AV they'll probably end up losing half their seats at the next election because everyone hates them so much.)

So it's obvious, right? Vote "No", give Clegg a bloody nose, and entertain the very slight possibility that it could bring down the coalition government. (Because Clegg would risk being deposed as Lib Dem leader by a party furious at the squandering of their support for nothing, and without him they might well withdraw from the coalition, leaving the Tories trying to implement brutal, massively unpopular cuts without a majority.)

But wait. A "No" vote will inescapably be interpreted and reported as support for the status quo, and under First Past The Post this country will be doomed to right-wing governments (be they blue or red in shade) forever, with all that that implies for the destruction of civil liberties, the continued growth of the gap between rich and poor, and all the other evils we've seen in the last 32 years. With FPTP we will inexorably continue Britain's sleepwalking journey, begun in 1997, towards a de facto one-party state.

If the electorate rejects AV, the Tories and Labour (whose interests FPTP serves so powerfully) will deem FPTP to be the settled democratic will of the British people, and any chance of proper electoral reform will be lost for a generation or more. But if the "Yes" camp wins, we'll be told "You wanted change, here it is, now shut up" and any chance of proper electoral reform will be lost for etc etc.

So it looks like we're caught in a Catch 22, where neither a "Yes" vote nor a "No" one will actually do anything to restore our illusory democracy to a reality. (And a low turnout will merely send the message that nobody's very bothered about it one way or the other.) But there IS one outcome that will be impossible for the parties to ignore.

If we all go out on May 5 and spoil our ballot papers, there is no way for politicians of any stripe to spin the result. The voters will have unequivocally said "We are neither happy with the status quo or the alternative being offered, and we care sufficiently to have come out to the polling station to tell you so. Go away and come back with something better".

Ballot-spoiling doesn't have much of a track record in Britain, partly because in a multi-option General Election it has very little chance of making a clear statement. Whatever your views, from Green to BNP, there will probably be someone standing who represents your views reasonably closely, even if they have absolutely no hope of winning a seat. Any spoiled papers can therefore be attributed to any number of possible explanations, from similarly-named candidates to voter stupidity.

But the AV referendum is a very different kettle of fish. It's an unequivocal single-issue vote, and there is no conceivable interpretation of mass ballot spoiling other than the one described above. In such an event, in an issue that by the mere fact of taking place had been deemed important enough to merit the country's first referendum in four decades, it would simply be impossible to do nothing without shattering the last pretence of democracy.

Of course, you might feel that in the light of the Lib Dems' epic treachery there's no point even in winning proper proportional representation any more. But that's a short-sighted view amounting to no more than cutting your nose off to spite your face. The Lib Dems' actions have at their core been pragmatic, and PR would bring us electoral scenarios where they (or some new third party or parties) had a genuine choice of who to back, and where Labour could once more afford to position themselves as something other than Tories Lite and still have a hope of winning, with all the knock-on effects that would generate in terms of voters being offered a genuine choice.

I'm amazed there hasn't been an organised 38 Degrees-style campaign based around this idea. It's simple, it's obvious, and it would actually work. Ironically, in trying to neutralise the power of the electorate, the government has thoughtlessly handed it the first opportunity to force a genuine shift in the political landscape since 1979.

One tiny blog by an old videogames hack with a few thousand readers isn't going to make it happen. But we've got a month. If we start making some noise, who knows who might be listening? For democracy's sake, vote XX.

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19 to “The alternative to the alternative”

  1. Deano says:

    I think you underestimate the politicians' ability to spin stuff. Or failing that, to just ignore it entirely. There might be a bit of short-term buzz if a huge number of people spoil their ballots, but in five years time it'll just be "People voted and they voted 'no'" and the couple of little guys pointing out that 10% of people spoiled their papers will be ignored.
    I think it's just too big an issue to take a risk of letting a 'no' vote pass to be honest. Much as it's a horrible comprimise, only a 'yes' result will feasibly keep the issue on the table. Far from ideal, but the cost of a 'no' result is just far, far too high for me to risk personally.

  2. RevStu says:

    10% wouldn't be nearly enough, I agree. 40%, however, would be an epoch-shattering political cataclysm.

    Who's going to take further reform forward if you vote "Yes"? Both Labour and the Tories have a huge vested interest in FPTP, and the Lib Dems are going to be utterly crushed in 2015 pretty much no matter what happens between now and then. Vote Yes and you're actually destroying any hope of meaningful reform for at LEAST a decade, and probably much longer.

    The one thing that’s for certain here is that hardly anybody feels very strongly about AV one way or the other. So there will never be a better chance to persuade people to give up either a Yes or a No vote for something that will actually make a difference.

  3. RevStu says:

    " it's just too big an issue to take a risk of letting a 'no' vote pass"

    And I'm afraid that's just madness. All the way back to 1979 and probably far beyond, AV would have made precisely zero difference to anything. Where we had a Tory majority we'd still have had one under AV, where we had a Labour majority we'd still have had one under AV, and sometimes the majorities would actually have been bigger. The risk of losing that is no risk at all.

  4. Tom Feilding says:

    I'll be putting a '1' by AV.

  5. Rob M says:

    You can't really say what we would have had, as we only have record of a single preference vote, made in a FPTP system (where people avoid voting for minority parties because they know its a wasted vote.)  It's the shift in voting behaviour that makes AV interesting, much more than simply the number processing.
    Although, yes, how the fuck we're in this situation with the referendum rigged from the start due to asking a question no one wanted asked, I don't quite understand.

  6. Deano says:

    I think, with the best will in the world, you're not going to get more than 10% of people on board with such a campaign. You'd need an actual campaign, with bill boards, advertisements, campaigners and so on to get anywhere near 40%. A bit of internet activism, even if it explodes all over Twitter like a Rebecca Black video, still isn't going to reach anywhere near 10%.
    So such a 'vote' would, ironically enough, be wasted.
    So yes, we either vote 'yes' and take electoral reform off the table for a decade, or vote 'no' and take it off the table for a generation. I wish your idea would work, I really do, but it's just not going to happen, so I'm sticking with the lesser of two evils.
    When I said "too big a risk" I meant it purely in terms of it taking further electoral reform off the table for the forseeable future.
    On a side-note, I'm not entirely convinced the Lib Dems are as screwed as everyone thinks. The electorate has a short memory, if they stand-up to the Tories on just the right issue, at some time close to the end of the 5-year term, perhaps even forcing a slightly early election, then they'll do a lot to separate themselves from the Tories and win back a lot of what they chucked away.

  7. RevStu says:

    “You can’t really say what we would have had, as we only have record of a single preference vote, made in a FPTP system (where people avoid voting for minority parties because they know its a wasted vote.) “

    Voting for minority parties under AV is every bit as much of a wasted vote as it is under FPTP. If you seriously think a Tory government that couldn’t even win a majority against Gordon Brown’s corpse of a Labour party is going to put forward anything with a genuine chance of letting in a load of Greens in the future, or fragmenting the Tory vote with a bunch of UKIP MPs, you’ve got cuckoos loose in your bonce. They’re already furious with Cameron for even offering something this feeble.

    It will be FAR harder to persuade people to abandon generations of inbuilt main-party voting habits and start giving their first choice to minor parties, even with AV, than it will to get them to alter their position on something like AV that they don’t really care about in the first place.

    Scotland and Wales already have electoral systems vastly more proportional than AV (indeed, something close to perfect in terms of balancing proportionality with accountability), but even that only got three MSPs into Holyrood from minor parties in 2007 (two Greens and one independent who was a very high-profile former Westminster SNP MP).

  8. Jon says:

    Can ex-pat Scots vote in the Scottish elections?

  9. Rob M says:

    It's not wasted, because it gets counted.  And then you still get to show your preference out of the ones who actually have a chance.  It's not going to produce any radical changes in outcome in the immediate future, but a system where you can safely actually vote for the person you want to vote for is a step firmly in the right direction.
    And I don't agree that, of a choice of two heavily optimistic hypothetical events, a sequence of "40% of voters miraculously spoil their ballet -> we get PR" is remotely more likely than "We manage to get AV -> and then we move onto PR".

  10. Deano says:

    It's also possible that the results of an AV election themselves will provide a greater argument for PR. It's a hard case to make right as we don't know how many people are voting tactically or not for the party they actually want to win, but the one that has a chance.
    If we get to the next election and 40% of people vote for a non Tory/Labour candidate as their first choice (even if they're heavily split and overall don't win the other parties any more seats) then it'd have the same effect surely?

  11. RevStu says:

    "And I don't agree that, of a choice of two heavily optimistic hypothetical events, a sequence of "40% of voters miraculously spoil their ballet -> we get PR" is remotely more likely than "We manage to get AV -> and then we move onto PR"."

    It's about a billion percent more likely. You simply can't ignore, even in our current excuse for a Parliament, a 40% ballot spoil. It would almost certainly be the "winning" choice, and you just don't have the option of ignoring something like that unless you're going to say "Fuck it" and put tanks on the streets.

  12. RevStu says:

    "If we get to the next election and 40% of people vote for a non Tory/Labour candidate as their first choice (even if they're heavily split and overall don't win the other parties any more seats) then it'd have the same effect surely?"

    You're imagining that anyone would even bother reporting that. All that would be deemed to matter is that the Tory or Labour candidate won in the end, and Parliament (which is where our laws are made, remember) would be full of Labour and Tory MPs with a vested interest in keeping it that way.

  13. James S says:

    It's a noble gesture, but I think you underestimate the ability of parliament and their Fleet Street paymasters to squash or spin the spoiled votes.
    Stu's 40% spoiled outcome suits no-one but the very smallest fringe parties. It's hard enough to get balanced coverage of something biased against one of the three major parties, let alone all three of them at the same time.
    I'd suspect rather than waking up to the papers reporting that the people are unhappy that we'd be hearing about how a malicious internet campaign wasted £x million of public money on a sham referendum and that it might be best for everyone if we never have another referendum on anything ever again because people can't behave themselves.

  14. RevStu says:

    I think that's wildly pessimistic bordering on mental. But even if it happened exactly like that, what would we have lost? AV? AV is worthless. I'd risk losing AV to get an extra sugar in my tea, never mind to have a real chance of very significantly advancing the cause of PR.

  15. Tom Camfield says:

    I don't know where the figures of 10% or 40% come from… who are these mysterious people who would spoil their vote? 25m people voted in the last election, 250,000 went to the anti-cut march, that's… 1%.
    Even if you think that more people can get to a voting station than London, even if you think that the figure of 250,000 didn't include people who couldn't or wouldn't bother to vote – it's not as if AV is something that people think really affects their lives; it's this weird change to the voting system that most people don't understand or don't care about.
    The whole idea of changing the voting system is really not on the minds of the people losing their jobs, or simply trying to get little Timmy to do his homework. I want proportional representation, but then I have a lot of time on my hands, a lot of people don't, and think the whole idea is frivalous. Even you've only spent 0.02% of your time thinking about it: I doubt anyone else gives a shit. Sadly.
    As for the winners and losers, the Tories win from a YES vote, because the border change means less Labour MPs from the sparsely populated north. They also win because the votes normally wasted on UKIP and the BNP will be scraped off and fed to them before any of the main parties are taken out of the race, this means they can appeal more to the centre while still being the party closest to the right, giving them a much broader range of appeal.
    As for the post-vote spin; I don't think you have to worry about politicians spinning anything, rather it is the journalists themselves who will latch on to the outcome to further their own personal agenda. Whether its some hate filled bile from the Mail, or some patronising sarcasm from the Guardian, it's not going to be good for the Lib Dems because the papers like shitting on them at the moment (and why not, it's certainly captured the public imagination). Some papers will go for a Conservative win or a Liberal loss, others will say a win for the Coalition or for Milliband. Either way it'll be a win without Clegg, or Clegg's fault they lost.
    It's been a long post, so I'll wrap things up. Personally I'll be voting for AV. If most MPs don't want it, then that's the best way to fuck with them. And yes, isn't it miserable that fucking with the leadership is the only thing left to do in this stupid democracy.

  16. James says:

    So, John Walker linked me here on Twitter a couple of days ago when I questioned his mocking tone about a Yes to Fairer Votes event in Bath, as though he thought it was some kind of super argument that would instantly convince me. Been meaning to post, and thought I should probably get around to it before the polls actually open. Going to try and control the rage.
    Lets be perfectly clear: You have two options on Thursday. Vote yes to change, and a system that is objectively more democratic, or vote no to keep the broken system we have now. Spoiling your ballot will not mean anything. Your ballot will go in a pile with those people who were just a bit too thick to mark only one box, or fill in the paper without signing their name on it. No one will record the difference. No one will see the difference, and no one will care. You are not being clever and you are not making a statement. The regulations on how to count votes are all on the Electoral Commission web site if you need to check that for yourself.
    All you are doing by encouraging people who support the principle of reform to spoil their ballot is artificially inserting one of the major problems with FPTP into a vote that should have avoided it! It's unfortunate that proportional representation has become synonymous with electoral reform in this country, because there are many things wrong with FPTP, and proportionality is only one of them. AV fixes many of the others, most notably the spoiler effect (, which is what happens when one or more similar candidates join a two person race and causes the less popular candidate to win. It's demonstrated well here: and here:, but also in the fact that George W Bush would probably never have been president if Ralph Nader hadn't stood, and in the fact that the BNP can take council seats in England with as little as 23% of the vote, even though they would have lost in a head to head fight against any other candidate in the field. In encouraging people to spoil their ballot you just introduced that effect to a single issue vote, the one thing that FPTP should be good for! Well done!
    A system that can elect a candidate who is plainly the least popular barely even deserves to be called democratic. In some three, or even four, way marginals you might as well draw straws for the winner for all it represents the will of the people. A candidate that can have a safe seat on 40% of the vote, despite the fact that more people voted against him than for him, because of the split vote among other parties has no reason to heed the will of his constituents, and unsurprisingly leads to the kind of disillusionment we have now. We have one chance to change that.
    Don't go thinking that spoiling your ballot will somehow lead to getting PR. It won't. Your statement won't be counted and, worse, you've taken votes away from the real possibility of change. A Yes vote might put PR on the back burner for 10 years. A No vote puts it off the agenda entirely for a generation. That's not wild speculation. George Osbourne gave an interview to the Daily Mail ( in which he explicitly boasted about it! Labour MP Tom Harris has said similar things on his own blog (Bookmark says it used to be here:, Seems to have gone). The Leadership of the Labour party still think the idea of majoritarian, rather than representative, government works in their favour, so even those that back AV mostly don't back PR. The Political Studies Association published a briefing paper for journalists (, which they sadly seem to have studiously ignored, in which they looked at the arguments being put forward by both sides. They found history to show that the battle of interpretation after a no vote in a referendum is almost invariably won by supporters of the status quo, rather than advocates of a different change.
    What we have at the moment is minority rule. A change from FPTP to PR is a big change. It's not possible without entirely rethinking the way we organise politics in this country. A change from FPTP to AV is a tiny change, and objectively an improvement. A change from AV to either of the most prominent systems of PR (STV or AV+) is a tiny change. There is nothing miserable about AV. As long as we want to keep the constituency link in this country (and current evidence suggests people don't want anything that will make hung parliaments more likely, as PR would), AV is the best system we could have. History shows that political reform in this country comes slowly and in stages. We've never had a revolution, and we're not about to. The Suffragettes got the vote in 1918, but it took a further ten years for them to get equal rights with men. They got a little more of a say, and they used it to get what they really wanted. Look up the demands of the Chartists and when they were each implemented. We have a once in generation chance make Britain a more democratic place. This is our time. Mark one box, and make it the one that says "Yes"!

  17. RevStu says:

    “As long as we want to keep the constituency link in this country, AV is the best system we could have.”

    There’s probably nothing more guaranteed to piss me off and dismiss you as an idiot than statements like this, demonstrating such crass, insular ignorance of far better systems that already exist right here in the UK.

    The Additional Member System used in Scotland and Wales for elections to the devolved parliaments there delivers very good proportionality (not quite perfect, but pretty close) while retaining the constituency link. Every voter has a named constituency MP they vote for by FPTP, then any imbalance in parliamentary proportionality is corrected by the addition of extra members from party regional lists, voted separately by Single Transferable Vote.

    AMS destroys most of the arguments of both the Yes and No camps with regard to AV. No one party has ever had a majority in the parliament to date, and the SNP have governed since 2007 as a minority, with no coalition partners, yet the sky has not fallen in. There has been no chaos, no rioting in the streets. Government has functioned effectively since devolution and managed to pass some very significant legislation through seeking consensus. It’s a simple system at the point of use, requiring the voter to cast just two simple “X” votes.

    I hope you’re young, in which case I can easily forgive your enthusiasm and passion completely overwhelming your intellect as far as AV goes. It will make absolutely no practical difference to anything, and will absolutely certainly not represent a step towards PR. There is a massive parliamentary majority in favour of majoritarian systems, and there always will be. It’s a bit like dreaming that Rangers and Celtic would suddenly spontaneously decide to hand over a third of their revenues every year to Partick Thistle to make the Scottish league more competitive.

    I’m sad, but resigned to the fact that the UK electorate is going to bottle this once-in-a-lifetime chance at taking a genuine leap forward, by being suckered into choosing one of the two totally dud horses on offer. Not one nation on Earth has ever used AV as a stepping stone to PR, and we won’t be the first. Waste your vote by voting Yes if you like – even if you win you’ll achieve nothing, and it looks like you’re actually going to get slaughtered. A mass spoil couldn’t possibly be dismissed as an endorsement of the status quo, but a whopping defeat will. I’m an old man, and I don’t expect to see another UK-wide referendum on anything in my lifetime. It’s your future you’re pissing away.

  18. James says:

    Sorry Rev, but your ignorance is showing. I hate to tell people on the Internet to RTFM, but seriously, go and look up the actual facts. It is impossible to have have proportionality while retaining the same constituency link. Disproportionality occurs because of wasted votes – those votes that are cast that do not get anyone elected. If we want to have proportionality at Westminster, that would require multimember constituencies, even if it's only the single large multimember constituency of AMS. To fit the extra 200-odd MPs we'd need for the proportional block into the House of Commons, we'd need to massively reduce the number of constituency MPs: a weakening of the constituency link.
    The proportional part of the Scottish parliament is not elected by STV. You can tell because STV is not a party list system. (Which is incidentally why it would be my preferred choice – I think we could do with as little power as possible in the hands of political parties.) The additional members in Scotland are elected by the D'Hondt method. The Voting Systems pages on Wikipedia are really pretty good. You should check them out.
    Given, as you say, that there is a massive parliamentary majority in favour of majoritarian systems, I'm somewhat at a loss to understand how you think spoiling your ballot is going to help bring about PR. At the moment we are governed by minority rule. The chance to move to a majoritarian system is pretty significant step forward. The Political Studies Association report that I linked to above found that once a country has changed it's voting system once, it's much more likely to change it again.  Well done to all those countries that have moved straight from FPTP to a form of PR. Here in Britain we have a long struggle ahead of us for proper representation, and I'd rather be doing it under the better system of the two on offer. Spoilt ballots, mass or otherwise, will be ignored. It's people like you taking votes away from the pro-reform movement who will be responsible for defeat, should it turn out that way. It's my future you're pissing away, and I'm fucking raging about it.

  19. RevStu says:

    "Sorry Rev, but your ignorance is showing. I hate to tell people on the Internet to RTFM, but seriously, go and look up the actual facts. It is impossible to have have proportionality while retaining the same constituency link."

    Jesus Christ. It ACTUALLY HAPPENS RIGHT NOW. It's going to happen TOMORROW, on the very same day as the AV vote. Scotland and Wales are going to vote for individual constituency MPs (representing roughly the same number of people as in Westminster), and the Parliaments will then be balanced proportionally with list MPs.

    Constituency link just like in FPTP, but also significantly proportional representation which thus far has been 100% successful in preventing any one party getting a parliamentary majority on a minority of the vote. It’s not an abstract theory, it ACTUALLY HAPPENS IN REAL LIFE RIGHT HERE IN THE UK. It’s almost impressive that you can sit there and simply insist that black is white. Have you considered a career in Scottish Labour?

    "Disproportionality occurs because of wasted votes – those votes that are cast that do not get anyone elected."

    Sigh. You evidently know nothing about how it works. The entire point of the system is that the list vote balances the disproportionality of the FPTP votes. The 'wasted' FPTP votes are effectively taken into account when allocating the list seats. It's not absolutely perfectly proportional because there are more constituency seats than list ones, but it's vastly, enormously, infinitely more proportional than AV (which is of course 0% proportional), so your original assertion remains utter bollocks.

    "The additional members in Scotland are elected by the D'Hondt method."

    You're correct on one thing – the list vote isn't STV, it was very early in the morning and I got muddled up with the Scottish local elections, which ARE done by STV. My bad. However, the d'Hondt method is the formula for allocating the seats proportionally, not a way of voting.

    "It's people like you taking votes away from the pro-reform movement who will be responsible for defeat, should it turn out that way."

    Fuck you. You've fallen for the oldest trick in the book, and in doing so will DESTROY any chance of proper electoral reform. You're doing EXACTLY what Cameron wants you to do. Even the Lib Dems have repeatedly said that a voting-reform referendum is a "once in a lifetime" event, and if you believe a victory for AV would lead to further reform, the simple fact of the matter is that you're a complete idiot incapable of grasping the most blindingly obvious of realities.

    The upside for you is that you're never going to have to face up to that, because your stupidity is going to result in a crushing victory for the status quo and the issue will never arise.

    "I'm somewhat at a loss to understand how you think spoiling your ballot is going to help bring about PR."

    Then learn to fucking read, because I explained it simply enough for a monkey to get it.

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