Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The Alternative View on the Alternative Vote

The problem with the debate on AV is the ridiculous position about which is best. In reality there is little difference between the systems being offered with marginal benefits. But the nub of the issue is that this could have serious implications for individuals and parties as many seats swing on such small margins.

Both sides have explained the systems poorly and it seems to be missing the point. Rather than focus on the benefits of AV and First Past The Post (FPTP), we need to look at the failures of both systems and work out which is our least disliked system, rather than our preferred systems.

First past the post gives the result to the person with more votes than anyone else. AV gives the result to the person 50% or more prefer to be the candidate.

The flip side is that FPTP can mean that people with 30-40% of the vote can win despite the majority voting against. Hazel Blears is a case in point. Equally, with low turn outs, you don’t necessarily get a clear indication of preference. Look at the Welsh devolution vote when the yes campaign was determined by 24% of the population.

Equally AV is seen as a system that rewards the 2nd best option and although you might want candidate A, you’ll actually promote candidate B through your 2nd preference because you prefer them to Candidate C.

People already carry out a form of AV when they tactically vote. They discount their preferred choice and put a cross on their 2nd/3rd preference as their least worst option.

The statistical evidence on various forms of democracy from people like Richard Lipsey and Kenneth Arrow shows that it is the least bad system, and your choice is effectively what you consider the least bad.

Let’s debunk some myths:

In a huge number of parliamentary seats, there will be no difference between AV and First Past the Post. Look at a place like Barnsley. There will be over 50% of the electorate wanting a Labour candidate possibly until the end of time itself. It’s pointless even bothering to put a number next to a second or third place vote.

The overall result is still decided via first past the post. Get 50% of the seats and you have an overall majority – even if your share of the vote is lower than 50%.

The BNP votes count more than everyone else’s. There are two points here. First, no they don’t. Secondly it’s a massive assumption to believe that, however horrid they are, that the BNP will be the last placed. In my Pudsey Constituency it was UKIP, in my parents it was the English Democrats, Green party and an Independent and where I went to University it was The Animal Protection Party. The BNP stood at two of these hustings.

Secondly, the system says if you vote for a numpty party, then they get disqualified for being unrepresentative – now pick a proper party. It does not ‘reward’ facists with an extra vote, only make the minority parties less single issue.

What about the Cost issue? A few hours extra on to the hourly costs of running an election can’t be much. Most are volunteers using council owned property so where’s the cost? Oh, the fancy electronic booths that no one will buy, let alone use. This could also be claimed back by other reforms set to cut the cost of campaigns.

It is unimportant what Nick Clegg thinks, or Ed Milliband, Or David Cameron. What makes more sense, selecting what you want or “trying to upset Cameron/Clegg” and not selecting what you want; frankly a bizarre state of affairs. Yet I imagine many confused (by the campaigning) and ignorant voters will select their preference this way.

Apparently, it will make two party politics a thing of the past really? And is this such a bad thing? I notice the Scottish parliament in grave strife at the moment. Oh! wait, it seems to work fine. There seems to be confusion over tribal loyalty to a party and how politics works. Just because other voices are heard in parliament, doesn’t make it bad. Nor do parties who work together negatively affect the party.

The campaigns will be based on ‘appealing to everyone’. At the moment, British politics is so negative and mudslinging that anything is an improvement. But AV doesn’t really change much. If you have a passionate belief, it’s as likely to win you votes as blanding out a campaign to the lowest common denominator. Does no-one actually see how voting happens on reality TV shows? They spend more time being passionate about how there pet budgie died when they were 7 than demonstrating any talent. Those with no passion and plenty of talent get voted out.

As we’ve come to complex voting systems. Firstly neither is difficult and if the public can fathom out the random rule changes of I’m a celebrity, they can work out how to count to five. This doesn’t mean that this is the preferred choice, merely it isn’t an argument against.

The final myth is that we need change. It’s not desperate and FPTP has worked well enough for a few centuries and will for a few more as well.

The point about the vote is that it isn’t a choice. It’s a Cameron stunt to prove no one wants voting reform when it’s clear that it needs looking into. There are about three alternative voting systems not even being considered that most the No2AV campaigner Lord Owen would prefer.


  1. The theorems of Kenneth Arrow (not "Arrows") say no such thing about the relative merits of different forms of democracy; only that there is no perfect rank-ordering voting system.

    First-past-the-post is widely known to be the worst possible form of voting. The alternative vote, while oddly popular, is considered by many to be the second-worst.

    But there are many other possible voting system reforms: other rank-ordering methods like the Borda count and Condorcet's method, or ordinal methods (which, incidentally, Arrow's impossibility theorem don't apply to) such as approval voting and score voting. And that's saying nothing of the various methods of proportional representation.

    FPTP works poorly, AV is perhaps marginally less-poor, but that doesn't mean that all possible reforms are worthless. The question is, is a "no" vote going to send the message "let's look at other possible reforms," or "let's never speak of this again"?

  2. Thanks for the comments Dale (and for spotting the typo). I was not saying that the theorems explicitly described the two systems on offer, but more that democracy is imperfect however it is done and the statistical evidence helps to show this.

    The American Dream view of democracy being perfect hides the fact there are imperfections and the need for alternative voting systems also shows that we can't easily cover off all the basis.

    Whilst there are plenty of other systems, in my mind the choice given to the British public is a deliberate ploy to put off electoral reform as "something we've tried" by offering the least attractive offering to the public.

    We're not offered AV+, STV etc. so we can't make that choice. Equally, offered four or five systems - how would we decide and would AV provide a different result to FPTP? An enigmatic conundrum.

  3. Interesting read, Thomas. I can agree with your points about the merits - or lack of - in the campaigns on both side. They have really been quite poorly run.

    I'm also disappointed that the coalition appears to have dashed to this referendum on AV without considering some of the other voting systems that are much more proportional. A consultation (probably the Jenkins Report all over again) would've been in order prior to setting the date and question for the referendum.

    As it is, the LibDems seemed so keen to jump in bed with the Conservatives they sold themselves - and the wider campaign for PR in the UK - down the river.

  4. Thanks for the comments Jon, although my personal thought it was the conservatives trying to scupper reform that led to AV being the option 'of choice'. Lets remember Clegg described AV as a miserable little compromise.