25 March 2011

Debating the Alternative Vote (AV) at the LSE

I find LSE events bit of a mixed bag but a debate on the Alternative Voted tempted me out for the evening. Or rather, to stay out, as I was spending the day doing bits and pieces in London anyway.

As with the recent debate at UCL, it was held in an impressive lecture theatre, this time it was the New Theatre in the East Building. A change for me as I'd previously only been to the Old Theatre and the Newer Theatre (real name the Sheikh Zayed Theatre).

I arrived just a little early so I sneaked in to the student bar, The 3 Tuns, to celebrate Paddy's Night with a £2 pint of Guinness, about half the usual Richmond price. That's what I call a good deal!

The debate took the usual format with two speakers each for and against the motion, Should we say Yes to AV?

In favour of the proposition were Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, and Helen Margetts, Professor of Society and the Internet at the Oxford Internet Institute.Opposing them were Mark Wallace, experienced political campaigner and former Campaign Director of the Tax Payers' Alliance, and James Forder, Fellow at Balliol College Oxford.

Our chairman for the evening was the LSE's Professor Simon Hix. More on him later.

With such a high-powered set of speakers I had high expectations for the debate.

These were soon dashed.

Katie Ghose opened the debate with the usual bland promises, such as AV would make MPs work harder, but with no evidence or even a reasonable hypothesis as to why this might be the case.

We also heard the old deceit about AV producing majority support for MPs.

In response, Mark Wallace, calmly and comprehensively demolished every pro-AV argument that we had heard and summed this up well by calling AV a false promise.

And that's the real problem. Lot's of people want AV for all sorts of reasons, like hard-working MPs, and they will all be disappointed if we get AV as it can deliver none of these.

Helen Margetts gave us a PowerPoint presentation that tried to explain why FPTP is no longer suitable and while there was some merit in that argument there was none in the subsequent claim that AV would fix the faults. For example, we will still have a high proportion of very safe and reasonably safe seats where MPs will have a "job for life".

My hero of the evening, James Forder, took an analytical fact-based view of AV's faults. He even used some of Helen Margetts' presentation to make his points, replacing her flawed reasoning with something logical.

Our chair became bit of a problem. Professor Simon Hix made it clear early on that he was for AV and he intervened in the debate on that side. I was seriously tempted to write to him complaining about his behaviour but I got my revenge when I found this video on YouTube, where, just a few months ago, he explains why AV is a poor substitute for FPTP.

Some other good points were made against AV during the debate.

AV would deliver beige MPs as all three main parties, already fairly similar, will move even closer into the safe territory in the middle, scared to offer views that could be considered extreme buy either Left or Right.

By treating all preferences equally AV tells us nothing about how voters actually feel. If I vote Green then Labour, is my Labour second-preference vote a strong left-wing vote or a tactical anti-right one?

The pro-AV vagueness aside, this was a good debate conducted in good spirit and was fair use of a spare evening.

That evening got even better when the No to AV camp won the debate on a show of hands at the end.

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