Tuesday 15 February 2011

We could not save £250 million by voting No in May, No to AV spokesman admits

There are principled and reasonable arguments to oppose a change in the electoral system to the Alternative Vote, as well as to support one. The No campaign ought to try to set out win a principled argument against the Alternative Vote and for the current first-past-the-post arrangements as a better democratic system than AV.

Instead, they have launched focusing on rather dubious claims about the costs of a change. The FT Westminster blog summarises the claims and counter-claims.

No campaign advocate and spokesman Dan Hodges did acknowledge to this blog that today's headline £250 million figure does not reflect money that can be saved with a no vote.

He tweeted this morning that the central choice in the May referendum was whether voters wanted to spend £250 million on public services, or electoral reform.

£250 million on nurses, teachers and police or on Nick Clegg's new voting system. That's the choice in the AV referendum.

I challenged this in a tweet back to Dan Hodges

what tosh. please do explain how you could spend the referendum costs on nurses and teachers after you'd won it?

Dan Hodges admitted that they could not do so.

We can't. That money's already being squandered. Fair enough. You prefer the rest of the £250 million goes on Clegg's system.

(My emphasis).

The no campaign may be against the referendum in the first place. But it can clearly be agreed that claiming that voters can save £250 million for public services if the public voted no was indeed an exaggeration.

What if any of the "rest of the £250 million" would be spent on a switch to AV is also challenged, Claiming a £130 million cost on expensive electronic counting systems would fail if (as almost everybody would agree is a good idea), we followed Australian practice and kept counting the votes by hand. as the FT blogs:

The Yes campaign has already rolled out Antony Green, an authority on Australian elections. He says: “We’ve used AV for 90 years at all levels of government. And Australia has never used voting machines to conduct its elections.” Conversely, counting machines are used in many US elections, which have the first-past-the-post system.


I later asked Hodges why he is continuing to use the £250 million figure, having admitted this, the concession was apparently retracted.

@DPJHodges OK, so lose £80m from yr soundbite. If (like Oz) we don't need electronic counting either, what's left?

Odd @DPJHodges says 'fair enough' to point you don't save 250m if vote no (referendum costs gone) then keeps tweeting 250m figure

But, apparently, Hodges' "we can't ... fair enough" did not reflect a concession in the initial claim about spending £250 million on public services.

Er...that's not what I said. I said fair enough to your choice to spend £250 million on AV rather than public services

It seems only fair to quote in full this retraction or clarification tweet too, as well as the earlier softening of the £250 million claim. Please do judge for yourself, from the quote and the context, whether the initial claim that we can save £250 million with a no vote in May is extant.

Those who will want to distance themselves from prioritising this 'costly democracy' principle include anybody who backed the excellent cross-party 'Keep election night campaign', and perhaps some who want a future referendum on something else, like EU membership.

Guido Fawkes notes of the No campaign launch, to which his blog is sympathetic that "Their poster campaign seems to convey that Yes2AV want to kill babies".

It is, however, a novel and indeed welcome development that Mr Matthew Elliott of the Taxpayers' Alliance must be tacitly endorsing a campaign theme which at least implies that some public spending has public value. (The Fabian Society successfully advocated that paying child benefit from the 29th week of pregnancy would help reduce the incidence and risks of low birth-weight. We were not previously sure we could count on Mr Elliott's support were anybody to suggest reversing this. We hope the premature baby charity Bliss will now receive unexpectedly strong backing from Elliott's Taxpayers Alliance colleagues to broaden the coalition for improved maternity services generally, even if some taxpayer-funded spending might be needed to do that.

It is difficult to see why there are greater costs from AV.

What is certainly the case that tripling the male electorate and enfranchising women in 1918 did increase the costs of British democracy. Had the Taxpayers' Alliance been with us, no doubt they would have been criticising the costs of universal suffrage as unaffordable at that time of post-war public spending cuts and the "Geddes Axe".

Those arguing against AV have a proper case to make - and they have a range of serious political and civic voices who might seek to make it. Polls showed that most people - whether yes or no - favoured having a referendum, and we are now embarked on a democratic exercise to decide whether or not to change the way we vote. Isn't it time to stop whining about the referendum itself, and to get on with debating the content? The no campaign ought to try to win the argument that AV would be worse for democracy. (If they win on the merits of the democratic argument, any minor cost differences that they could substantiate would anyway be irrelevant).

If the British people instead think AV would be a better democratic system, we could certainly afford to count their votes.

1 comment:

Tom R said...

It's also worth noting that "No referendum and keep FPTP" is not the only alternative to "Hold a referendum and change to AV" - even if the expense were not already a sunk cost. There is, or until last week was, the option (in principle) of Parliament simply legislating a change to AV without any referendum.

(In fact, most new electoral systems are not introduced by referendum. Once they've been enacted by ordinary legislation - STV in Ireland and Tasmania, AV in mainland Australia, MMP in Germany, runoff ballots in France - and the voters have gotten used to the new system, no politician advocating a return to FPTP is taken seriously.)

But somehow I don't think the "AV Goes Too Far! Vote No!"/ "AV Doesn't Go Nearly Far Enough! Vote No" coalition would have been thrilled with _that_ particular method of saving taxpayers' money...