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Friday, 18 February 2011

David Cameron and the Alternative Truth

As a supporter of the Coalition, I can't help liking David Cameron as Prime Minister, even if I disagree with him completely about the Alternative Vote - I'm campaigning for a Yes vote in the referendum. I think he is pretty reasonable as Tories go and I like his style. I like his simply saying "no" when Ed Miliband asked him if he could honestly say that he was happy with his forestry policy. I like the fact that people who disagree with him don't appear to be taken out and shot in the way that they were under New Labour. And I like the fact that there is a genuine debate over the Big Society - exactly the sort of debate, over the underlying philosophy of a Prime Minister, that people have been saying they want. So, good luck to the guy. I still don't vote Conservative, I'm a Liberal Democrat, and I wish that we'd won the election and Nick Clegg was Prime Minister, but, nevertheless, there have certainly been Tories that I like less than I like David Cameron.

That said, there was something I didn't like about his speech opposing the Alternative Vote today. Mr Cameron is a consistent critic of electoral reform and can say what he likes, but he did something today that I don't like in speeches. He did the rhetorical trick of pretending not to understand something when, actually, he understood it full well. I don't like that. It's like when the Labour MP Brian Sedgemore defected to the Liberal Democrats and John Prescott claimed never to have heard of him - that was not true. He was a prominent-enough Labour MP for Mr Prescott definitely to have known him well.

Similarly, during the extended and rather boring death throes of the last government, when some Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) or other had resigned in protest at who-knows-what, and Harriet Harman on Question Time said how much we'd all miss so-and-so's hard work in government, when she knows full well that PPS don't do any hard work in government - they are MPs who (for no extra pay) help ministers keep in touch with backbench opinion. So Ms Harman was saying something that she knew not to be true, to make a rhetorical point for a television audience.

Anyway, in his speech on AV today, the Prime Minister tried to score a comic point about how complicated AV allegedly is, by quoting a complicated-sounding passage from a book about AV. According to the BBC, Mr Cameron said:
Here's a passage from a book detailing how the Alternative Vote system works:         
"As the process continues the preferences allocated to the remaining candidates may not be the second choices of those electors whose first-choice candidates have been eliminated. It may be that after three candidates have been eliminated, say, when a fourth candidate is removed from the contest one of the electors who gave her first preference to him gave her second, third and fourth preferences to the three other candidates who have already been eliminated, so her fifth preference is then allocated to one of the remaining candidates."         
Do you understand that?
I didn't. And I've read it many times.
And I don't think we should replace a system that everyone gets with one that's only understood by a handful of elites.
The passage in question is perfectly comprehensible. It explains that, if there are more than five candidates standing to be your MP, your fifth preference might be end up being counted in one of the later rounds of voting, if the candidates to whom you gave your first, second, third and fourth preferences have already been eliminated by then. Admittedly, it is written in a fairly academic tone, but since Mr Cameron has an Oxford First in PPE, he's fairly academic himself. Were it true (which it isn't) that AV can only be "understood by a handful of elites", then Mr Cameron would himself be among them and it's silly, and less than honest, for anyone to pretend otherwise.

This is a Prime Minister who was taught Politics at Brasenose by one of the world's leading experts on electoral systems, Vernon Bogdanor, and we're asked to believe that Mr Cameron doesn't understand how AV works and can't get to grips with the passage quoted above? Come on. He and his speechwriters can normally do better than this. That's what happens with rhetorical jokes - they are fair enough up to a certain point (even if this one is hardly hilarious), but they take the person making the speech into territory in which what they say is not true.

So, this was a speech in which the Prime Minister claimed not to understand AV. Perhaps tomorrow we'll get the speech in which the Prime Minister uses his deep understanding of AV to present a serious argument against it. That would not only be more honest, it would also be more interesting.

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