A letter has appeared in today’s Times opposing the Alternative Vote. This missive has been penned, or endorsed, by several prominent historians.
As you may know, I am a very mild supporter of AV. Still, this letter has given me the RAGE(tm).
Here’s the essential paragraphs (full text here for those beyond the pay-wall):
“The referendum on May 5 that threatens to introduce a system of “Alternative Voting” — a voting system that will allow MPs to be elected to Parliament even if they do not win the majority of constituents’ first preference votes — also threatens to break this principle.
For the first time since 1928 and the granting of universal suffrage, we face the possibility that one person’s casting ballot will be given greater weight than another. For the first time in centuries, we face the unfair idea that one citizen’s vote might be worth six times that of another. It will be a tragic consequence if those votes belong to supporters of extremist and non-serious parties.”
Let us avert our eyes from the unfortunate confusion between “majority” and “plurality” in the first paragraph. Understanding the difference requires only the most cursory understanding of mathematics, but as a History graduate, I can confirm that this is not regarded as an essential skill for burgeoning historians, except for those boring ones who study trade, or agricultural production or some other tedious byway.
Nor am I irritated by the idea that AV might make one vote worth “six times” that of another. This is mere boilerplate propaganda, and such simplistic piffle is as attractive to historians as the rest of us
No, what enrages me is that these prominent historians don’t seem to know their British political history. Since they are some of our most well known proponents of history, could they not be bothered to even check the facts?
They claim that “For the first time since 1928 and the granting of universal suffrage, we face the possibility that one person’s casting ballot will be given greater weight than another”. This is simply not true.
Until the end of the 1945-50 parliament, several seats in the House of Commons were reserved for the English Universities. Any graduate from these universities could vote in the election for these seats, in addition to their vote in the residential constituency. So the vote of University Graduates counted for more than that of non-graduates.
Further, from 1918 the elections for those seats were conducted by Single Transferable Vote. So Britain had both an unequal franchise, and a system of proportional representation in the House of Commons well after the introduction of universal suffrage. Indeed, the system was something of a controversy at the time, as the Liberal candidate in the two-seat constituency of Oxford University, Prof Gilbert Murray was regularly in second place in first preferences, but was repeatedly beaten by Conservative candidates in the 1920’s, because the surplus of the leading Conservative candidate (Hugh Cecil) was redistributed to the second Conservative candidate (Sir Charles Oman).
It is rather sad that such ignorance of the history of British election systems has been so publicly displayed by some of Britain’s leading historians.