Nick Clegg: the Bernie Ecclestone of voting reform

The AV or not to AV debate is now getting into full swing. Regular readers will already know that I’m not a fan of the AV system, despite the fact that as a Green I’m apparently supposed to be a passionate advocate of it. My major criticism in that post was taking issue with the notion of “wasted votes”, the unhelpful and inaccurate description that supporters of AV like to give to what are in fact merely losing votes. Today I’d like to attack another plank of the case put forward by those who would fiddle about with the existing voting system. Next week I may cast an acerbic eye over one of the other elements of the AV platform – consider this a slow drip-feed of scepticism gently moistening and annoying the sink of the voting reform kitchen.

For those not familiar with the world of Formula 1 (and in most respects I am proud to be one of you) the Bernie Ecclestone of the title is a kind of elderly despot who holds sway over the world of that particular branch of motor-racing. Recently, when he’s not been cancelling the Bahrain opening race, he’s been giving thought to one of Formula 1’s key weaknesses as a spectator sport. Of course, the sport has many strengths for the kind of person most likely to want to attend such an event. There is the rapacious rape (not, I suppose, that there can be any other kind) of the planet’s resources; the smell of napalm in the morning (OK, high octane fuel in the afternoon); glamorous young men; glamorous, if entirely unnecessary, young women; the opportunity to spend lots of money, and to be seen to do so. But there is an Achilles heel. Although the cars rush round at a fiendish speed, for the most part they do so in an unchanging order, an order that was largely determined by their starting position on the grid at the commencement of the action. This is boring. Unkind people describe the proceedings as “a procession”. A glance at the results of practice tells you 90% of what a later glance at the champagne-soaked podium will reveal. It’s all very predictable.

So what to do? Mr Ecclestone has come up with an ingenious idea. He has noted that one of the few things that can throw a spanner in these predictable works is rain. Cars start to slither around alarmingly. Spray makes it impossible for the drivers to see beyond the end of their noses. People spin off. They crash. Much more exciting. So Bernie with, as ever, a weather (sic) eye on the yield at the gate, is suggesting that he randomly, and without the foreknowledge of the participants, begin drenching the course with fake rain. An idea, one might say, that simultaneously gives, and takes, the piss. In order to know who is likely to win the race it is now necessary actually to watch it, rather than merely make a note of practice times. Everyone’s happy. Apart from the drivers, obviously, but this is a spectator sport, so who cares what the participants think of it.

Mr Clegg has a similar problem with our current electoral system. He finds it boring. There are, he feels, too many seats where the outcome is known before the polls even open. He wants to spice it up a bit. He wants to add more opportunities for gasping disbelief as the returning officer tells us that the BNP have won Barking. Surely it’s wrong for all those BNP voters to find that their votes have been wasted. Indeed, twice as many BNP votes were wasted as were Liberal Democrat ones in 2010 since the LibDems had the ignominy to trail well behind the BNP. One would have thought that might give Mr Clegg pause. It hasn’t: no matter, thinks Nick. I’ll piss on the system, and make sure that all the votes of malcontents and assorted toss-pots are properly valued.

Of course, AV will not produce a BNP win in Barking. The only way of getting BNP MPs into parliament is to have a properly proportional system, which is of course what Mr Clegg really wants. That’s more like Mr Ecclestone engineering a random earthquake along with a bit of inclement weather. Mr Clegg knows he has no chance of that. Thus AV it has to be for the time being. So in Barking, most of the votes will still be “wasted”. The Labour party will still win. And that is for the outrageous reason that there are more Labour Party supporters in Barking than there are supporters of any other single party. This is no good. It is too predictable. Let’s try and rain on that parade.

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