Fisking David Cameron

Fisking: A point-by-point refutation of a blog entry or (especially) news story. A really stylish fisking is witty, logical, sarcastic and ruthlessly factual; flaming or handwaving is considered poor form.

The following is my attempt at fisking this essay by Prime Minister David Cameron on why people should vote No to AV. I don’t know how witty it might be, but it’s bound to be somewhat sarcastic and factual. Note: the PM’s text has not been altered, but for considerations of length, I have altered the formatting, merging of some his “paragraphs” together to address a common point.

In four days, Britain votes in a referendum that is critical to our democracy and our future. Normally, when we vote, those votes have a use-by-date. We elect Councillors, Mayors, MPs and governments for four or five years. But the referendum on AV is about voting in a change that is permanent.

(Unless, of course, further reform takes place in the future. Nothing is ever truly permanent in politics.)

Unless enough people turn out to vote on Thursday, Britain is in real danger of exchanging an electoral system that works for one we would come to regret profoundly.

(Problem number one with Cameron’s arguments – he believes the current electoral system actually works. But even if AV is adopted and after a few elections, proves to be a dud, there’s nothing stopping the country from moving back to FPTP, or trying an even better system.)

To me there are four important reasons to save the First-Past-the-Post system we use today.

The first is its simplicity. It’s so simple it can be summed up in one sentence: the candidate who gets the most votes wins.

(True – the candidate with the most votes does win – even if far more people voted against them.)

Just compare that to AV: a confusing mess of preferences, probabilities and permutations.

(Here he assumes that voting under FPTP is very simple for everyone. For a lot of voters, voting under FPTP involve preferences, probabilities and permutations and other varied contortions as they try to decide if they should vote for the candidate they really like, or the candidate they feel might actually have a shot at winning so that their vote “counts”, or for another candidate they don’t like that much but who might have a shot at winning and beating another candidate they really dislike. Yes, FPTP is very simple and straightforward.)

Leaving aside the clear danger that this complexity could encourage negative campaigning – as in Australia, where voters are greeted at polling stations by party apparatchiks with ‘How to Vote’ cards, telling people the exact order in which to rank each candidate – it would also throw up some patently unfair results.

(Because negative campaigning doesn’t exist at all under FPTP? Cameron obviously hasn’t seen any of the ads being run by Conservatives here in Canada during our current election campaign. As for the matter of “party apparatchiks” greeting voters at polling stations with cards telling them how to vote – a) people don’t have to follow those instructions, they are free to vote any way they damn well please, and b) isn’t political campaigning on election day banned in the UK? It is in Canada. As for patently unfair results, is it fair when a party wins a majority despite coming in second in terms of the popular vote? Is it fair when a party receives 35% of the vote and 55% of the seats in one election, while in the next election, a different party wins 36% of the vote but only 47% of the seats? Is it fair that a party see its share of the popular vote increase, but it actually loses seats from one election to the next? Is it far that a party win over a million votes, but fail to elect a single candidate?)

Under AV, the person who comes third in people’s first preferences can end up coming first in the race.

(Barely true. In 30 years of AV in elections in the Australian states of NSW and Queensland, this has happened ONCE. In most instances, whoever is ahead on first preferences will win. Sometimes, the second place candidate will win. Almost never will anyone below second win.)

It makes winners of losers and losers of winners. The result could be a Parliament full of second-choices who no one really wanted but didn’t really object to either.

(The problem here is that under FPTP, with most MPs winning their seat with less than 50% of the votes cast in their constituency, often much less than 50%, it looks as if Parliament is full of MPs whom most of their own constituents didn’t want. Again, the reality of AV is that in the majority of cases where preferences will come into play, the candidate that was ahead on first count will end up the winner. AV will not produce grossly different results than would FPTP, but it will ensure that every MP in the House of Commons is preferred by a majority of voters, even if he or she wasn’t everyone’s first choice.)

The second major strength of First-Past-the-Post is its effectiveness.

Throughout history, it has risen to the demands of the time, often with a brutal decisiveness. That’s what happened when it brought in the Thatcher government in 1979. The British people recognised it was time for change – and the electoral system didn’t let them down. On other occasions, when the public has felt that none of the major parties have all of the answers, it has led to a hung Parliament – as it did last year.

(And AV would in most instances have returned the same result, and perhaps even more so.)

Under AV, such decisiveness is much less likely. It will make hung Parliaments more commonplace and make it more difficult to kick out tired governments.

(Not true. It is the reality of more people voting for parties other than the two biggest that leads to hung parliaments. Canada uses FPTP but has had 3 consecutive hung parliaments in a row, with a 4th likely on 2 May.)

Indeed, if it had been in place at the election last year, Gordon Brown could still be Prime Minister today.

(Dubious. AV simulations show that Labour would have won more seats than it did and the Conservatives fewer, but Labour would still have finished second and it still would have been a hung parliament. It might have allowed the Lib Dems to form a coalition with Labour, but they were adamant that Brown step down as Labour leader – which he agreed to do.)

I can’t imagine anything much worse than a voting system that leaves half-dead governments living on life support.

(And this never happens under FPTP?)

The third reason to save First-Past-the-Post is its efficiency.

Everyone knows this country needs to cut spending and get back to living within its means. At this time, we need to protect those things that provide our country with real value for money.

Our current voting system does that – it’s cheap to administer and comes with little bureaucracy.

(Personally, an electoral system’s relative “cheapness” really doesn’t figure on my list of desired features.)

There is a real danger that AV could come with additional costs, from public information campaigns explaining the complexities of AV to the extra expense of counting votes at election time.

(Again – there NO evidence anywhere that vote counting machines will be needed, and the Yes side recently pledged that no vote counting machines would be brought in.)

At this time I think our money is better spent on public services than on our political system.

(Personally, I think a better democracy is worth any cost. It shouldn’t ever be an either-or proposition.)

The fourth reason to save First-Past-the-Post is to do with our history.

Each democracy in the world has its own story, shaped by its own chain of events. The American system, with its strong checks and balances, was born of revolution – designed to avoid the possibility of over-mighty government. In Europe, both after the Second World War and the fall of Communism, many countries adopted other more plural voting systems, again constructed to avoid the experience of being dominated by over-mighty governments.

Britain’s democracy has its own story. Two centuries ago, voting was limited to a privileged few. Generations of campaigners fought and died to change that. Their struggle gave us the principle that sits at the heart of our democracy today: we are all equal, therefore we all have an equal say at the polls. One person, one vote.

(Except that some voters are more equal than others. In 2005 it took a mere 26,906 votes to elect a Labour MP, but 44,373 to elect a Tory MP and a massive 96,539 votes to elect a Lib Dem MP. Almost four times more votes were required to elect a Lib Dem MP, compared to a Labour MP. That didn’t improve in 2010: it took 33,000 votes to elect a Labour MP and 35,000 votes to elect a Conservative MP, but no fewer than 119,000 votes to elect a Liberal Democrat MP.)

So First-Past-the-Post isn’t just one way of counting votes; it is an expression of our fairness as a country. It is enshrined in our constitution and integral to our history – and AV flies in the face of all that because it destroys one person, one vote. If you vote for a mainstream candidate who comes top in the first round, your other preferences will never be counted. But if you vote for a fringe candidate who gets knocked out early, your other votes will be counted. That means the second, third, even fourth votes of someone who supports the Monster Raving Looney Party can count as much as the first vote of someone who supports a mainstream party. That is unfair and undemocratic.

(Everyone gets one ballot under AV. Everyone has the choice of ranking as few or as many candidates as they want. The main point that Cameron misses here is that it’s not an advantage to have all of your preferences counted. To quote a maths professor:  “Consider first what it means if you get five bites of the cherry. It means that your first-choice party is eliminated, and your second-choice party, and your third-choice party, and your fourth-choice party. Compare that with the poor old voter who gets just one bite of the cherry. Their party is either the party that wins or the party that comes second. In the first case, they obviously do better by far. In the second case, it is not clear: if you vote Labour and Labour come second to the Conservatives, then you might well have preferred the Liberal Democrats or the Greens. But (i) they were behind Labour and (ii) right until the final round your vote was counting for your favourite party rather than for lower and lower choices. GETTING MORE BITES OF THE CHERRY IS A DISADVANTAGE STUPID!”)

Don’t take all this from me. You can judge the relative merits of First-Past-the-Post and AV by how popular they are overseas.

Our current system is one of Britain’s most successful exports – used by almost half the electors on the planet, embraced and understood by 2.4 billion people from India to America.

(All the countries that use FPTP only do so as a result of historical pressure (such as the UK). Every single new democracy since 1945 has rejected AV. Three of them did start off with FPTP but quickly changed it for better systems. Only three countries use AV in national elections though plenty (such as the USA and the UK) use it for non national elections and most of the countries that don’t use AV or FPTP use something far more proportional. And just because FPTP is used in other countries doesn’t mean that there isn’t a desire to change the system in those countries, or at least a recognition that it’s not working well. Candidates to India’s Lok Sabha (the lower house) can win seats with as little as 10% of the votes cast. There is growing recognition in Canada that FPTP is clearly broken. The US really does have a two-party system – not really comparable to how party politics are evolving in the UK.)

So in the next few days ask yourself a few questions: do you want to switch to a voting system that is hopelessly unclear, unfair and indecisive? Do you want elections that are – as Churchill put it – “determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates”?

(If we’re going to quote Churchill, let’s remember that he had this to say about FPTP: “The present system has clearly broken down. The results produced are not fair to any party, nor to any section of the community. In many cases they do not secure majority representation, nor do they secure an intelligent representation of minorities. All they secure is fluke representation, freak representation, capricious representation.”)

And do you want to rip up a valuable part of our constitution and centuries of British history for a system that is unpopular the world over? If the answer is no, make sure you get out to the polling station on 5th May – and vote no to AV.

(How does Cameron know AV is unpopular the world over? You can’t equate quality with quantity. Billions of people eat at McDonald’s yet I don’t see anyone arguing that means it’s the best restaurant out there.)

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