Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill - Procedure Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 140-149)


27 JULY 2010

  Q140  Chair: Is that like the French presidential elections?

  Professor Dunleavy: It is the instant run-off version of a dual ballot. The difference is that in a dual ballot you have a first round in week one and everybody can look at all the votes and then you have the second round in week two and you shrink the number of candidates in week two. But obviously it would be very chancy to ask British voters to come back a week later, so I think you would have to go for an instant run-off version!

  Professor Fisher: If you were to go for something as alien as electing a chief executive ... .

  Q141  Chair: Alien to?

  Professor Fisher: Alien to the British political system.

  Q142  Chair: Not to the rest of the Western democratic system.

  Professor Dunleavy: We do it in London.

  Professor Fisher: It is an important point. Different political cultures mean that different systems work in different ways around the world. This is going back to the point about international comparisons. If you were to go with that, I agree with Patrick, SV would seem to be the most sensible option. The two-round election, although it has the advantage that people can be voting for a second time in the light of seeing what has gone on previously, strikes me as being a slightly risky system, as indeed happened in France in the early 2000s.

  Q143  Chair: Le Pen?

  Professor Fisher: Yes.

  Q144  Mr Chope: Can I come back to the question which is being put in this referendum if the Bill goes through unamended? You are implying, in fact saying, that the question is ambiguous because it is talking about the AV system. How would you seek to have that question altered to refine and clarify the choice available? Do you think there is any scope in a referendum for having essentially a whole series of questions so that people could express a preference as to which of the alternative systems they would like, whether they would like London AV, STV, first-past-the-post? So in a sense they could experience what it would be like to engage in an AV system when they were putting down their preferences for the voting system. What you are saying at the moment is that you think any referendum based upon the existing proposed question is going to be flawed because of the ambiguity, and what I am inviting you to say is what would you put in its place?

  Professor Dunleavy: You cannot put very much in the referendum question. There would certainly need to be at least a footnote which explains what alternative voting explicitly means. In the past, when we legislated for the London Mayor for example, the legislation just said the supplementary vote, but that was a special made-up label which designated one system, whereas I think Alternative Vote designates a whole class of systems—single office holder, multiple preferences, instant run-off. So you need to have a footnote possibly, or a clarificatory memo or something of that kind, in the booklet which goes to voters and possibly available in the polling booths for people to check what exactly it is they are voting for.

  Professor Fisher: I think having the range of choices would be catastrophic. I think Patrick is right to draw our attention to the variants but I think it is the job of the House to decide which is the most appropriate one before putting it to the voters.

  Q145  Chair: If I can just switch questions for a moment and ask how campaigning funding rules will work in a referendum on AV. What is your take on how effective that is going to be?

  Professor Fisher: The rules in terms of spending are laid out by PPERA, such that the Electoral Commission needs to designate each side, the yes or no campaign—which is not without difficulty, as seen in the North East referendum, where there can be competing sides—and each side is permitted to spend £5 million. In addition to that, there are sums available for political parties to spend provided that the political party takes a unified stand. This strikes me as potentially problematic because there is an interest for a party in taking one stand and therefore allowing them to spend a certain amount of money, which is determined by the share of the vote, they enjoyed at the previous general election. So the Conservative Party will have an advantage here as the only party which exceeded 30% in May. So there is a potential issue, not an insurmountable but one which needs to be borne in mind. Then other participants can register, they are allowed to spend half a million pounds, and then if you do not register up to £10,000. One of the key issues which was raised in Professor Ewing and Dr Orr's paper is that there is a potential anomaly in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act in respect of third party campaigning, ie whether you are a registered participant or not. Whilst in general election campaigns it explicitly excludes the newspapers from these third party considerations, in the part of the Act which deals with referendums it only explicitly excludes the British Broadcasting Corporation and one in Wales. Professor Ewing and Dr Orr's paper suggests there potentially could be a case whereby newspapers would have to register as participants in order to take a position on the referendum. This strikes me as almost certainly an oversight in the Bill. Mistakes happen but in the passage of this legislation there ought to be some amendment, otherwise you could find yourself in a position where the newspapers would be hamstrung from taking a particular view.

  Chair: We are collecting quite a few amendments as a Committee as we go along. I was going to ask questions about pre-legislative scrutiny and pretty much you are it. We have been allowed three sessions, which is wholly inadequate, and of course one of those sessions is taking place now today, at the very same time as most of us would want to be on the floor asking the Deputy Prime Minister questions. That is just by way of a comment to underline, hopefully on behalf of all colleagues, there are some fundamental flaws in this process which we feel need to be addressed pretty quickly. Eleanor and then Simon?

  Mrs Laing: I am seeking to clarify exactly the way in which AV works. It might be that people in this room understand it, because we pay attention to these matters, I would suggest it is important that the majority of people not in this room should understand it. You have referred, Professor Dunleavy, to the London AV system and then you have both referred to the differences between AV and STV and to the Australian system, et cetera. Having examined what is in the actual Bill and the way it is set out in the Bill, how does the system in the Bill differ from those other systems that you have described?

  Q146  Simon Hart: Just on the subject of explanation, you were talking about the role of the media in explaining what all of this means as we run up to the great date. Bearing in mind that it will coincide with a very party political election in somewhere like the Welsh Assembly, how can the broadcasters on the one hand act as a public service explaining what people should do but stop short of falling into the trap of inadvertently supporting one party or another? To be able to square that circle strikes me as being quite difficult for the broadcasters.

  Professor Dunleavy: I think the Bill, as far as I understand it, is offering voters the choice of the Australian version of AV, what is called the Australian version. That means that voters can express as many preferences as they like by numbering, if nobody has an outright majority on first preferences we begin to eliminate candidates from the bottom and we inspect their second preferences and transfer them to the candidates who are still in the race. We carry on doing that elimination of candidates from the bottom until somebody has majority support or has more than half of the votes and there are only two candidates remaining.

  Q147  Mrs Laing: So the candidate who comes sixth has his or her votes redistributed?

  Professor Dunleavy: Yes, to candidates still in the race.

  Q148  Mrs Laing: To any candidate still in the race not just the top two, but the candidate who comes fifth does not have his or her votes redistributed? I understand it, I am just trying to get this point straight. So for the people who supported the candidate who comes sixth, their votes count twice, but for those who supported the candidate who came fourth or fifth their votes do not count twice, if, after one distribution, 51% appears—50% plus one?

  Professor Dunleavy: That does get to a really acute point, that in many, many constituencies whichever is the third or fourth party, it is quite likely that you may never count their second preferences under the Australian version of AV. In a way that is very limiting for MPs because the winning MP will no doubt have had a convincing majority. If you look at the London system, it will tell you that Ken Livingstone or Boris Johnson both won 58 or 60% of the vote, so they have strong legitimacy as the voice of London because we have counted all the second preferences and we know where those second preferences went. But in the Australian AV system, it is very likely you will never count up Liberal Democrat votes across the country. If a Conservative or Labour person gets to 50% plus one, you will stop the counting.

  Professor Fisher: There is no easy answer, we are in completely new territory holding a national referendum under this piece of legislation. The Electoral Commission is charged with producing information which is deemed to be neutral, and outside of the 28 day period before the referendum—I believe this is correct—the Government can also issue some guidelines. But given the Government itself presumably does not have a position in this particular case—

  Q149  Simon Hart: It has two positions actually!

  Professor Fisher: Quite! It is inevitably problematic and we will have to see how it plays out. To go back to the point made at the outset, this is completely new ground because no referendum of any size in this country has been fought under the regulations introduced at the beginning of 2001.

  Chair: Professor Fisher, Professor Dunleavy, thank you very much indeed for your time this morning and for your contributions. It has been fascinating.

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