Friday, 18 February 2011

The AV debate needs a guide to the evidence (and some offside flags)

Politics is about disagreement. The Prime Minister and his deputy have today set out their differing views on the Alternative Vote (reminding us that there is simply no way to vote for or against their government in this referendum!). And the electoral reform, disagreements between supporters of first-past-the-post, the alternative vote and various forms of proportional representation reflect not just different political values and interests, but legitimate disagreements about the range of trade-offs involved when choosing how to elect a government, a Parliament and individual representatives.

Everybody is entitled to their own opinions, though not to their own facts.

What might help to raise the game of all sides in the campaign could be a good way to help everybody to distinguish between the two.

As we embark on the first national referendum campaign for 35 years, this is a good moment for civic society to call on our (publicly-funded) academic community who have spent many years studying the issues to find the most effective way to help to scrutinise the claims and counter-claims in the public sphere, simply in the interests of keeping it a clean, democratic fight, with as much elevation as a heated political argument could hope for.

Of course, the civic role of academic experts would not be as referees, with the power to call a halt or declare a result, which is up to the public vote. But some linesmen (and women) could help to keep the playing-field level and offer a reputational advantage to those players willing to keep the arguments honest.

Individual academics will no doubt play a role as media talking heads, sometimes to help one side or the other argue its case, and at other times as neutral analysts. The LSE blog is beginning a briefing service precisely "to try to keep the facts straight", which Patrick Dunleavy kicks off today. The campaigns and their supporters will challenge and check the claims on each side.

In my view, what could be particularly useful would be for an authoritative group of experts with different substantive (Yes, No and don't mind) views on the referendum question itself to collaborate in setting out soon, and in one place, a consensus overview of the evidence about several of the most common questions and arguments in the public and political debates about electoral reform.

So I think this ought to be a moment the Political Studies Association or its members should try to respond to - particularly given the recent emphasis it has placed on the public understanding and value of academic research, and the broader social contribution which this can make. Perhaps that might involve trying to work with the BBC and House of Commons research departments, and representatives of other media groups to find out what would be useful to inform media and civic debate.

Done well, this might particularly help national and local media outlets to get at what the real differences are about the future of our democracy, without needing a political science phD in every local radio newsroom, and to avoid simply spending months relaying 'he said, she said' disagreements about every basic fact in a way more likely to leave many people baffled and disengaged than exercised by the democratic choice which now falls to us to make.

Many competing campaign claims will be true, so voters will have to decide how to choose between them, while some may be valid in some circumstances and not others.

Some common claims might simply be false, or misinterpretations of the evidence, and it would be fair to flag these offside.

On central questions - 'how likely are hung Parliaments under the current system' and 'would there be more hung Parliaments under AV or not, and why' - the evidence will often be complex and the electoral geography may have shifted in recent years, so it would be useful to have an authoritative and up-to-date summary of what the balance of evidence is.

A good indication that this could work well is that something similar was successfully attempted by a group of academics, convened by David Butler, to inform the Jenkins Commission. As Butler wrote of their report, they did not discuss the 'for and against' arguments over electoral systems: 'it was clear that, in our personal capacities we had differing views ... but in regard to almost all the technical issues we addressed, we were able to find consensus'.

Their 1998 academic submission (PDF file) remains a useful overview to several issues about electoral systems, albeit now twelve and a half years old. The type of input sought by an independent commission to assist its deliberations and recommendations will be different to that for a public referendum, and the political, civic and media debate around it, but it seems a good model to help to raise the bar of the debate.

Let the debate go on. But perhaps some flags and whistles could help to keep the game flowing, and help to try and tilt the voters' choice from a confused choice to an informed one.

1 comment:

Katrina said...

On April 8th 2011 there is a public AV debate with members of the Vote Yes and NOtoAV campaigns, as well as an independent expert at Dartington Hall. The idea being to give listeners the info they need to make an informed choice on 5th May.