Thursday, 24 February 2011

Lies and smears about electoral reform

A very good article by John Kampfner in yesterday's London Evening Standard, This referendum is about a lot more than vote reform:

Ultimately this referendum, on May 5, comes down to different visions of Britain. The "yes" campaign tends to be supported more by the young and optimistic. The "no" brigade is comprised mainly of Conservative Right-wingers who hate any form of change. These people opposed devolution for Scotland and Wales (now accepted as normal) and other forms of social change of past decades that have become part of the fabric of British life.

I hope he is right about that, because if so, the "Yes" side should win quite easily. Certainly the "No" campaign has got off to a lamentable start, with an irrelevant and mendacious focus on the supposed cost of changing the system. And they are also talking demonstrable nonsense about the system itself. Tom Newton-Dunn, who surely privately knows better but is presumably doing Rupert Murdoch's bidding, affects to believe in The Sun that AV is too complicated. Are they seriously suggesting that the British are too stupid to number candidates 1, 2, 3 in order of preference, as the Irish and the Australians have been quite capably doing for many decades? Is this really the best they can do?

As this campaign gets under way, I begin to feel that maybe it matters more than I thought it would. I mentioned the other day pro-STV friends who think AV almost an irrelevant diversion, so inferior is it to STV. While there was some force in that viewpoint in the abstract, now that the referendum is actually happening I suspect that it will be a disaster for progressive politics if the "Yes" side now loses.

Finally for today, may I commend a blog post by Neil Harding entitled 10 Facts About The Alternative Vote.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Changing the voting system

TV's Andrew Rawnsley has written quite a good piece about the forthcoming referendum on the Alternative Vote. In his view, the current polls are more or less meaningless; either side could easily win; and support on both sides is so far soft.

I must say I am a bit depressed to find that even some of my LibDem friends, who (like me) have been agitating for electoral reform for decades, are lukewarm about this particular proposal and, while they will vote yes if they can be bothered to vote at all, they won't be positively campaigning for it. This is because they want STV, and think AV is so inferior to STV that it is scarcely any better than what we have at the moment.

I also want STV, but the hard fact of life is that we are not going to get it anytime soon. I am of the "anything is better than nothing" view. We all know that AV is not a proportional system. It can sometimes produce distorted results, just like first-past-the-post (FPTP). But breaking the stranglehold of FPTP is surely a good thing in itself, and introducing the principle of preferential voting likewise. Numbering candidates in order of preference is better than the all-or-nothing choice of the present system, and could be a step towards STV: all that would be required to move from AV to STV is to join existing constituences together into groups of, preferably, five. The voters by then would have got used to the idea of numbering the candidates 1, 2, 3 and so on.

Even if STV proves to be beyond our reach, AV is still better than what we have because it very largely removes any incentive to attempt to vote tactically, i.e. the voter can safely write down his or her true preferences without having try to guess what everybody else is doing.

As Roger Mortimore of IPSOS-Mori points out in an excellent new paper, A Guide to the Alternative Vote (PDF), it's not true that it it impossible to vote tactically under AV, but the effects are unpredictable and it is difficult to see how in practice a candidate or party could organise it. They might try, but the important thing is that for the ordinary elector there is no point in it.

Andrew Rawnsley meanwhile thinks that the more people hear about preferential voting the more they will like it, so he is optimistic that the campaign could produce a majority for change. Certainly David Cameron's speech on the subject last week was a disgraceful tissue of lies which the pro-AV camp ought to be able to demolish quite easily.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Saturday, 5 February 2011

No evidence supports NHS reforms

The other day in The coalition so far: good or bad? I expressed, among other things, some doubts about the government's proposed NHS reforms.

It's worse than I thought. The excellent Ben Goldacre of "Bad Science" fame (best known for his brave and relentless skewering of the claptrap that is "homeopathy") now writes in Andrew Lansley and his imaginary evidence that there have been 15 major reorganisations of the NHS in 30 years. An upheaval every two years! What an absurdly wasteful and inefficient way of carrying on. Yet, according to Goldacre, no real attempt was made to measure the effectiveness of any of these "reforms". And so there is no evidence to support what the government now wants to do.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley keeps talking about "evidence" to back his proposals. Goldacre shows that there is no such evidence. In reality, nobody knows whether they will improve things or make them worse.