How Not to Organise a Referendum

Another week, another cow pat for David Cameron to create, position, and step in up to his neck. This week’s cow pat is of the Aberdeen Angus variety and it is of such depth that his comb-over is barely visible above the crust.

Yes, you’ve guessed it, it’s the subject of Scottish independence and David has decided that this week is a good week to dictate to the Scottish Parliament exactly how and when the vote should happen. If Scotland tries to do it at a non-Westminster approved time, or use a non-Westminster approved phrasing of the questions, then he will see them in court.

If David had phoned up Alex Salmond and conveyed this message in a private conversation then I imagine Alex would have become a bit cross. Fortunately David decided to announce this through the media, thus avoiding any possible dispute or anger on the matter.

Shockingly, it didn’t go well.

Alex, after he finished laughing and estimating the huge swing towards Scottish independence that David had just caused, announced that he would hold the vote on his terms and it would be in 2014 to coincide with the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn.

If I were a skateboard driver I think I might say that David had just been “pwned.” I don’t drive a skateboard though so I think I’ll settle for him being made to look like a half-witted colonialist.

What was David thinking? He has unpreparedly set himself up against a man who, throughout his entire political career has been preparing for one thing and one thing only – Scottish independence. Additionally he has decided to try to put this man in his place by using the tactic of a posh Englishman in London telling him exactly how his referendum for the Scottish people is going to work. In a debate that could last for the next two and a half years, David has put himself on extremely shaky ground from the start.

Let me move on to talking about Alex Salmond.

Firstly, he looks like Baron Greenback from Dangermouse:

Baron Greenback from Dangermouse

Baron Greenback from Dangermouse

Alex Salmond

Alex Salmond

That is not critical in this debate but I thought I should mention it.

Secondly, although I do not support Scottish independence, I do have to admit that Alex, unlike David, is an extremely competent politician and David taking him on at his specialist subject through some dogma in the media is like me and my mum taking on Manchester United at football.

Every poll I have seen in my lifetime has shown that the majority of the Scottish electorate would prefer to remain part of the UK. If David keeps on his current course however, he may well reverse this in time for the referendum, whenever it may happen. The cynics among you may have spotted another reason for this perceived incompetence. Following the 2010 UK general election, from Scottish constituencies the Labour party had 41 MPs in Westminster. How many did the Conservative party win? Give yourself a pat on the back if you answered 1.

A UK general election without Scottish seats would make a Labour victory much, much harder than it would be otherwise. Although Cameron can’t be seen to be the man trying to break up the union, could it really be that he is more cunning and competent than he is letting on? Could it really be that he is exercising a campaign to actually encourage Scottish independence through a massive double-bluff? If so I was wrong earlier and he is truly a politician of unparalleled skill.

Oh but wait a moment – how would you explain these?

In complicated situations such as these we should look to Occam’s Razor. And that strongly suggests that on this and other important matters – David Cameron has no idea what he is doing.


Indigestion and Electoral Reform

I have belly ache. Perhaps it was all that pizza. Perhaps I have just been fed a little too much misinformation by politicians in recent weeks.

In February I wrote Pizza and Electoral Reform – a blog post about the upcoming referendum to decide our voting system. In it I looked at an example of when First Past The Post (FPTP) and the Alternative Vote (AV) gave different outcomes to the same set of voters’ preferences. I concluded that AV was fairer than FPTP because it took a lot of useful information into account that FPTP ignored.

Some people who read it thought I hadn’t explained that point in enough detail. Reading it again, I think they were right. I was in a bit of a hurry when I wrote it. Sorry about that. I’m in a bit of a hurry writing this to be honest but I’ll try to be clear.

Let me give an example of why taking more information into account might be fairer than ignoring it.

You are getting married and deciding what meal to give your guests. The caterers give you the following options*:

  • Rump Steak
  • Fillet Steak
  • Chicken
  • Halibut

(*There is half a pepper stuffed with rice for the vegetarians but there is no voting option for them.)

Being the kind soul that you are you let people vote on their RSVPs for which meal they would most like to be served.

There is a bit of a quandary for the steak lovers here. By offering two different steak options, the caterers have unwittingly made both of them difficult to elect under a FPTP system.

Why? Well, supposing you have 50 guests coming to the wedding. 27 of them want steak, 18 of them want fish and 5 of them want chicken. If there were one steak option on the menu then both FPTP and AV would leave it the clear winner. There isn’t though – there are two. The FPTP votes come in like this:

  • Rump Steak – 12
  • Fillet Steak – 15
  • Chicken – 5
  • Halibut – 18

Under FPTP, halibut wins even though the majority wanted steak. Using AV, second choice votes would have ensured that steak won the day. It would have been a fairer outcome in my opinion and it would have happened simply because more information was taken into account.

I think FPTP has a massive weakness when the available options are not equally spread out. By that I mean – if there are two popular options that are similar, FPTP will penalise those choices by splitting the vote out between them.

Let’s look at another FPTP example that is relevant to politics. Supposing at the next election there are three major political parties. A large proportion of the electorate are pissed off with the main party because of say, high tuition fees.

Situation 1

The second biggest party puts down a policy to significantly reduce the fees and lots of people vote for that party and that party wins.

Situation 2

The second and third biggest parties both put down a policy to significantly reduce the fees and lots of people split their vote between those two parties and the existing government wins.

Which outcome better reflects the will of the people? We have been told by the No2AV campaign that FPTP is better at getting rid of unpopular governments. It isn’t though. When a government has unpopular policies, all of the alternative parties take the more popular view and split the vote, leaving us with exactly the result that we did not want.

When I wrote the Pizza and Electoral Reform post, I predicted a massive campaign of misinformation. That has certainly happened. Despite the well organised bullshit campaign though, I don’t think there is anything that I have found that suggests, when compared with FPTP, AV is less fair or too complicated for people to understand.

AV is not perfect but I think it’s better than what we have. Whichever way you vote for though – I urge you to ignore the “advice” of the politicians. It truly is a sorry state of affairs when not one politician has been bothered to try to explain the true benefits of the two options without resorting to misleading claims and scaremongering.

Perhaps the best piece of advice in all of this is to just ignore everything you’ve been told by a politician and just vote for the system you consider the fairer using your own judgment. That’s what I’m going to do.

I’m going to vote Yes to AV.