The ConDems setting the date for a referendum on AV for next May – has raised the issue for many of how the electorate’s votes would translate into parliamentary representation under a new and different system.

Most of the estimates that I’ve seen of the impact of AV, had it applied in May 2010, suggest that the LibDems would have gained significantly, the Tories would have lost some seats and Labour may have been marginally better off with a handful more.

There are dangers in letting likely outcomes colour attitudes to the Alternative Vote and how we should vote in the referendum. Here are three:-

-estimates of outcome based on 2010 voting patterns are misleading and based on assumptions about second preference voting that may prove incorrect.

– the next election may be for fewer seats, many having new boundaries, so further, possibly mistaken, assumptions about both first and second preference voting will inevitably qualify any estimates of results.

-tactical voting will become altogether more complex.

This last point is least obvious but perhaps the most interesting.

Tactical voting under ‘first past the post’ has often comprised voters switching their votes to support candidates most likely, in their estimation, to beat an incumbent MP or keeping their vote switched in subsequent elections. Voters’ estimations, based on previous election results and current polling, have often proved accurate.

This will remain possible and will no doubt be practised, but AV adds the further ingredient of a second preference, with scope for this vote to be used tactically. This second vote has the potential to either reinforce or undermine prospects of the electors’ first choice candidate succeeding.

Further, unless failure to exercise a second preference is considered to produce a spoiled ballot, the option for voters of expressing a single preference only will remain.

Indeed, it seems highly likely that not only so-called ‘tribalists’ will adopt this tactic but also many others in constituencies where the distribution of second preference voting, or indeed, the likely best placed candidate to displace an incumbent MP, is uncertain. With a reduced number of seats and many of the remaining ones having new boundaries that could be a lot of constituencies.

None of this is to argue against supporting a move to AV in next year’s referendum, but I do suggest that taking a position for or against AV because you anticipate a particular party will gain or lose could prove foolish.

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Many people, myself included, are by now used to the Daily Mail getting things wrong.

Sycophantic support for Mussolini, Hitler and Mosley’s Blackshirts in the 30s are evidence not only of wayward political preference but appallingly poor judgment; bad calls that continue to this day.

“You couldn’t make it up” is just one of Richard Littlejohn’s catchphrases regularly deployed in his rants about political correctness and health and safety – but The Daily Mail manages precisely that.

So notorious have its slanted features become over the years that for a long time I used to joke with friends that I wouldn’t even believe the results on the Mails sports pages, let alone agree with them.

Imagine my surprise therefore on Saturday.

I watched the prologue of this year’s Tour de France – a time trial of 5.5 miles circuiting the wet streets of Rotterdam. It was won by Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara. His comprehensive victory was no great shock; he won the equivalent time-trials in 2007 and 2009.

What was a shock, was the Daily Mails take on the event.

“Rain hampers Bradley Wiggins as Germany’s Tony Martin takes Tour prologue”

-ran the webpage header, last updated at 9.07pm, hours after Cancellara had claimed the first yellow jersey of this year’s Tour.

A combination of disbelief and self-doubt led me to check the page again the following day, and there it remained; and Fabian Cancellara had still won.

I then noticed, tucked away in the 7th paragraph, that the Daily Mail had actually conceded that Martin ….eventually finished second behind Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland.

For probably the first time in my life I wondered what Richard Littlejohn might say and made a mental note never again to joke about the unreliability of Daily Mail sports results.

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* as http://www.voiceoftheturtle.org has it:- “Hurrah for the Blackshirts”
A famous example of the Daily Mail’s longstanding commitment to impeccably balanced and unbiased coverage of controversial political events. This headline appeared on the front page of the 8 July 1934 edition, and accompanied a piece on Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists that read, in part: “If the Blackshirts movement had any need of justification, the Red Hooligans who savagely and systematically tried to wreck Sir Oswald Mosley’s huge and magnificently successful meeting at Olympia last night would have supplied it.”
Subsequent articles emphasised the paper’s unstinting support — on 15 January 1934, the BUF was described as “a well organised party of the right ready to take over responsibility for national affairs with the same directness of purpose and energy of method as Hitler and Mussolini have displayed”. This betrays the paper’s similar enthusiasm for Fascist parties elsewhere in Europe, especially Adolf Hitler’s burgeoning Nazi movement (“The sturdy young Nazis are Europe’s guardians against the Communist danger”).

My view remains that most of the cuts to public spending proposed by the coalition and its Labour predecessors are avoidable, unnecessary and/or undeliverable as things stand; they result from political choice.

It seems odd, therefore, to take issue with press coverage critical of the Government, but sometimes it has to be done.

It particularly hurts to say it, but I think Philip Hammond, Tory Secretary of State for Transport, was correct in what he told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show:-

“…telling departments to budget for 40 per cent cuts was a way of making sure that the real target of 25 per cent on average was reached. I don’t expect any departments will see a 40 per cent cut but some departments may see cuts a bit higher than 25 per cent, some departments may then see cuts a bit lower than 25 per cent.”

Responses elsewhere to news that civil servants have been told by the Treasury to draw up proposals for cuts of 40% to their departmental budgets were predictable.

There was widespread horror at the likely impact that cuts of this magnitude might produce, particularly on the poorest and most vulnerable who, as a matter of deliberate policy will suffer most from so-called austerity, despite the persistence of the “we’re all in it together” meme.

“Cuts on that scale would exceed anything ever done by a democracy” wrote commentator Andy McSmith in the Independent.

There were accusations of spinning; deliberate leaking of the 40% cuts exercise aimed at colouring expectations with the hope of prompting a welcome relief when actual proposals emerge to meet the budgets’ requirement of 25%. The successfully softened-up “Ah well, it might have been worse” approach was well summed up by Nicholas Watt in the Guardian:-

“Outline the worst case scenario, goes the thinking, so that voters will be grateful when George Osborne eventually shows some mercy.”

Such alleged sleight of hand was variously referred to as a scare story by LibDem MP, Bob Russell and the oldest trick in the political book by Tory MP John Redwood.

Most of this stuff, however, is tosh.

If 25% cuts in most departmental budgets are required, it makes sense to ask top civil service managers to prepare proposals for cuts of 40% for 2 reasons.

The first is Hammond’s explanation; that scope to go below and above the 25% cuts requirement is straightforward common sense if one wants to maintain flexibility, prioritise between and across departments and avoid rigid top slicing.

The second is to provide options for decisions on priorities within departmental budgets. Should ministers or the Treasury really be expected to adopt the first plans for 25% cuts that emerge from senior civil servants and departments? Not if they have any political nous, they shouldn’t.

Moreover, any Treasury suggestion that proposals be worked up for the 40% figure were bound to leak out. Any attempt to keep it secret, disguise or deny it would rebound badly on the LibCon coalition, so being up front from the outset also makes sense.

It’s the presentation by commentators of the Treasury instruction as an indication of possible intent rather than a sensible approach to produce the widest range of options for decision, which gives grounds for the accusations of softening-up the public.

Commentators presenting process as possible outcome at best, or at worst, mistaking process for outcome, help no-one, least of all anyone worried about the impact of cuts on their future lives and those seeking to ensure the LibCons pay a price at the polls for their political choices.