Cameron’s hopeless case against AV

A point-by-point rebuttal of the Tory leader’s speech against electoral reform.

David Cameron's speech against electoral reform performed a valuable service by highlighting how weak the arguments against AV (and for FPTP) are. Here's my point-by-point rebuttal.

1. AV is disproportional

The evidence shows that AV would have produced even larger Labour landslides between 1997 and 2005 . . . and larger Conservative ones in the 1980s.

Cameron is right. In a landslide situation, such as 1983 or 1997, AV does increase the winning party's majority as second-preference votes tend to follow first-preference votes. A fully proportional system is more desirable. But this is not as strong an argument against AV as some opponents suggest.

The system is designed to ensure that the government elected has the broad support of the majority of the population. Labour would have won more seats in 1997, 2001 and 2005, as Lib Dem voters preferred them to the Tories. Unlike under first-past-the-post (FPTP), it is not possible for a government with minority support to win a large majority.

In any case, the logical conclusion of Cameron's argument is to support proportional representation, not FPTP.

2. AV is too complex

I don't think we should replace a system that everyone gets with one that's only understood by a handful of elites.

How stupid does he think the electorate is? The fact is, millions of people already use the system. AV is commonly used for internal elections in businesses and trade unions, for most student union elections, for many American mayoral and district elections, and for Labour and Lib Dem leadership elections. In practice, no one has ever complained that the system is too complex.

3. AV means that some people get two votes

[I]f you vote for a fringe party [that] gets knocked out, your other preferences will be counted. In other words, you get another bite of the cherry.

What's wrong with taking second preferences into account? Cameron uses the example of the "BNP or Monster Raving Loony Party" voter who gets "another bite of the cherry". But what about the Tory supporter who wants to vote for their party in a Labour-Lib Dem marginal? Under AV, they can vote for the Conservatives without fear of enabling a Labour victory (by putting the Lib Dems as their second preference). But FPTP means they must either take this risk or hold their nose and vote for the lesser evil. AV would dramatically reduce the need for the depressing act of tactical voting.

4. Only three countries use it

Only three countries use AV for national elections: Fiji, Australia and Papua New Guinea.

But this fact has no bearing on the intrinsic value of the system. As John Rentoul has argued, this is "akin to saying that we shouldn't have an NHS because other countries don't".

5. AV means more hung parliaments

Hung parliaments could become commonplace.

Having complained that AV will lead to more disproportional outcomes, Cameron now warns that it will lead to more hung parliaments. He can't have it both ways. But that glaring inconsistency aside, he's wrong about hung parliaments. Australia uses AV and has returned one hung parliament in 38 elections. Conversely, FPTP in Britain delivered hung parliaments last year, in 1974, in 1923 and 1929 and twice in 1910.

Ultimately, whether or not AV results in a hung parliament (or a one-party majority of 200+) depends on the will of the voters. It's called democracy. Is Cameron opposed to this?

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.