Elections are about consent

After reading this article in the Guardian, Will anyone vote for AV in the electoral reform referendum?, I started to read the reader comments. After wading through too many “I’m voting No to punish Nick Clegg” comments, I came across a lengthy contribution by a reader using the pseudonym “tingedfringe”. Their comment was so lengthy, he or she had to split it up into two separate comments. I think it’s one of the better reader comments I’ve read on the AV debate on any site, and I thought I would share it with you. I’ve formatted the spacing and line breaks to make it a bit more readable, but that is the only change I’ve made to tingedfringe’s comment, which you can read on the Guardian site here and here:

On May 5th we are being given a choice between two single member constituency systems. One is better than the other, in single-member systems, at determining which candidate is closest to the general will.

That system is the Alternative Vote. It is not the best single-member system, but the other single-member systems are either hideously long-winded (huge ballot papers) or hideously mathematically complicated.

(For those who don’t get the reference of ‘the general will’, the general will is the average of all the wills of the individual voters – read Rousseau’s The Social Contract, for more information)

The problem with the Alternative Vote vs FPTP argument is ultimately how the argument is framed. Framing is very important in political psychology, because political arguments are largely moral. Moral arguments are largely emotional. Our largely emotionally framed absurd beliefs lead us to equally absurd conclusions. Examine your tautologies.

So, let me first try to deal with the absurd framing of the debate first. Elections Are Not About Winners And Losers. Elections are not a horse race. Elections are not about your team winning. Elections are not about one party passing the post first.

Elections Are About Consent. That may be a simple point to make. But it is the whole argument for the Alternative Vote. And it is what destroys so many of the myths. If a candidate does not have the consent of the majority of voters to represent their constituency, then they have no right to represent them.

So, the alternative vote asks you to rank your preferences in order. If your first preference is eliminated in the first round, then your second preference will count as your choice for who you consent to represent you. It will not be your first choice, but it will be your first choice out of those who are left.

Nobody gets a ‘second vote’, people’s second preferences do count as much as someone else’s first preference because elections are about consent.

I will give a simple example -
There are 9 people in a family deciding where to go on holiday together.
4 choose Iraq.
3 choose Spain.
2 choose France.

Under the absurd rules of FPTP, Iraq ‘wins’. But we can see how absurd the idea that you would have a ‘winner’ when it comes to consenting to where to go on holiday.

Under AV, those who chose France have a second preference of Spain. They compromise on their choice and therefore the result is this -
5 choose Spain.
4 choose Iraq.
Because voting is about consent.

A better solution would be PR. All people would go on holiday where they wish. But that isn’t on the tables.

So PR > AV > FPTP.
In fact, we could show how a referendum with PR as an option would work.
49% vote FPTP
48% vote PR
3% vote for AV
The three percent who vote for AV have PR as their second preference. If the referendum were held under FPTP then FPTP would ‘win’. But elections are not about winners. Elections are about consent.

So although the pro-AV crowd do not get their first choice, they do not consent to FPTP but would be happier to consent to PR instead.

Once you dispel the idea that elections are a race, in which there are winners and losers, the whole idea of FPTP becomes absurd. Because FPTP is the worst democratic system for determining consent. Now, although AV is not PR, it is a superior system to FPTP in determining consent in a single-member elections.

Ultimately, this debate has separated us in to three categories – Partisans, Idealists and Democrats (Pro-Democracy, not the party).

Partisans are arguing for FPTP because they want to see their party rule. They want to deny the ability of consent to ‘fringe’ parties (like the BNP or NF), because they do not want to have to gain followers on the force of their arguments. They want to look at the voting systems and decide which voting system to vote for based on party advantage. They want to give Clegg a good kicking. Or they want to prevent the LibDems from having representatives in seats because they do not like the LibDems. They want non-coalition governments because they believe in one solution – their solution.

Partisanship is the road to dictatorship. Ultimately this is what partisans want. They want to force the system to be set up so that it is them that rule. They want to deny the voice to anybody who disagrees with them. And they want clear ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ because they want to rule, not by consent, but by political force.

There is not much I can say to partisans. All I can say is this -
Please stop trying to pretend that you are interested in democracy.
Please be honest about the fact that you’re going to vote based upon partisan interest.

This is what I like about honest anarcho-capitalists. They may ultimately believe in a sociopathic socio-political system. But at least they’re honest about it. They don’t have to wrap up their arguments in nonsense. They don’t have to argue for ‘trickle-down’ or for how capitalism makes everybody better off. They say ‘I am the Ubermensch. I am for me and me alone’.

So please, I just ask you this, cut out the nonsense. Just be honest and say ‘I am voting for this because I don’t believe in democracy, I just want to hurt the LibDems’ or ‘I want to make sure that Labour win parliamentary majorities next time’ or ‘I want the Tories to rule based on a minority political ideology’.

Idealists are those who do not want AV because it is either not the most perfect single-member political system or because it is not PR.

Idealists are the marxists who refuse to work with social democrats. Or anarchists who refuse to work with libertarians. Simply put, idealists are those who refuse evolutionary progress because it is not revolutionary progress.

But I’d say to them this – if you are against single-member systems (ultimately, you have to be, if you’re for PR), then please do not vote No, as you’ll be voting for a single-member system. You cannot ‘win’ because you’re voting for single-member systems either way. No single-member system is proportional. All single-member systems can be more or less proportional as each other, it is regional politics which affects single-member proportionality.

Politicians will kick PR to the long-grass whichever way we vote in the referendum. Politicians are the master of tautological political myth making.

If it is a Yes, they’ll say we’re happy with AV. If it’s a No, they’ll say we’re happy with no reform.

I’ll only argue this -
Please don’t stand in the way of progress because it is not revolutionary progress.

And finally democrats -
Those who believe in choosing the most democratic system – not because it is to the advantage of their political ideology but because it is the system which is based upon consent.

It would be absurd for me to expand on the final group. It is self-explanatory.

And there are my thoughts.

But ultimately – Be honest.
You don’t need political myth-making (otherwise known as spin) if your arguments hold merit.

(Note: If tingedfringe reads this and would like to take proper credit for the above, please contact me using the form on the Contact page.)

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The party leaders and the AV campaign

The UK Av referendum campaign is in full swing now, as the May 5 vote date creeps ever closer.

Labour leader Ed Miliband and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg are campaigning for the Yes side, while Conservative Party leader David Cameron is firmly opposed to AV.

For readers not following this campaign very closely (or at all), you would think that having two of the three leaders of the main parties would be a boon to the Yes side. However, that isn’t the case. Nick Clegg’s personal unpopularity in the UK (some would argue he’s the most hated figure in UK politics at the moment), has created some problems for the Yes side. There was a very public spat recently when a Yes rally was almost called off because Ed Miliband did not want to share the stage with Clegg. The event finally did go ahead, with former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy taking part. I’ve previously posted that many people who would normally vote for AV are planning to vote no because they see this as an opportunity to punish Clegg for reneging on manifesto promises and/or entering into coalition with the Conservatives.

The No side is using Clegg’s unpopularity to further its cause, with repeated references to “President Clegg” deciding who will form the government after each election held under AV.

David Cameron has had a smoother ride the few times he’s publicly spoken out against AV. Cameron recently warned that AV would make Britain’s democracy “less strong” and quoted Winston Churchill, who once said of AV would allow “worthless” candidates to win elections. In his first speech against AV, on February 18, Cameron has argued that (emphasis added):

It’s not so much that the winner has half the electorate behind them……as that by virtue of a weird counting system, they have crawled over the finishing line.

And isn’t this the point?

This backing is not actual approval. It’s passive acceptance.

It can mean someone who’s not really wanted by anyone winning an election because they were the least unliked.

It could mean that those who are courageous and brave and may not believe in or say things that everyone agrees with are pushed out of politics…

…and those who are boring and the least controversial limping to victory.

It could mean a Parliament of second choices.

We wouldn’t accept this in any other walk of life.

Can you imagine giving the gold medal to someone who finishes third?

No. Of course not.

And we shouldn’t accept it with our democracy either.

A number of bloggers and commenters like to point out that the problem for Cameron is that he owes his position as leader of the Conservative Party to a system similar to AV. This isn’t exactly true – the Conservatives don’t use any form of preferential voting in their leadership campaigns. They simply have separate ballots, eliminating the last place candidate each round, until there are only two candidates remaining. No votes are transferred. It is true, however, that Cameron was not the first choice for party leader on the first ballot – he came second out of four candidates and remained the 2nd choice on the 2nd ballot. It was only on the run-off vote between Cameron and David Davies (which was conducted separately by postal ballot) that Cameron emerged as the winner. Another AV opponent, Mayor of London Boris Johnson, was elected under AV, however. If we are to take Cameron at his word, then Johnson won the mayoralty because he was the second choice, boring, not controversial, the least unliked, passively accepted, and owes his victory to a “weird counting system”. Or, in the words of Winston Churchill, he’s a worthless candidate.

The Alternative Vote is being used by the UK House of Commons to elect Committee chairs. This reform, adopted at the end of the previous Parliament before the election, was used for the first time last fall, and by all accounts has worked well. Committees are functioning smoothly, churning out reports and scrutinizing legislation – I don’t recall anyone arguing that any of the Committee chairs are somehow worthless, second rate or only passively accepted. Perhaps the committees are functioning as well as they are because the chairs are the most acceptable choice to the largest number of their fellow MPs rather than potentially more partisan and divisive figures appointed by party whips.

Nick Clegg hasn’t remained silent on the issue, despite his popularity issues. Like Cameron, he made his inaugural speech in favour of AV on February 18 (which you can read in full here). Clegg admitted to the Independent that he told Cameron he talking “complete bilge” after Cameron defended FPTP during Prime Minister’s Questions on March 9. However, he has been very low-key, with most of his pro-AV statements made during media interviews such as the Independent article or during Deputy Prime Minister’s Questions (today was a prime example of that).

Labour leader Ed Miliband is in a rather unique situation among the party leaders – many in his party don’t support AV, even though the party promised a vote on AV in its election manifesto. While there are a handful of Tories who support a move to AV, most of the party, like Cameron, back FPTP, while the Lib Dems are all squarely in favour of AV (although they’d probably all prefer a more proportional system, such as STV). Miliband, however, is at odds with a significant number of his caucus and other supporters, such as the trades unions. Miliband was elected leader of the party via AV; his brother David was actually the first choice among MPs and party members, but Ed moved ahead among members of trade unions and affiliated organisations in Labour’s electoral college voting system. Given Miliband’s less than stellar performance thus far as party leader, this might explain in part why many in his party aren’t keen on AV.

In short, it it would seem that Clegg’s participation in favour of AV is more of a plus for the No side, while Ed Miliband’s credibility is somewhat undermined by the fact that he can’t get most of his own caucus to support an initiative that was part of the party’s manifesto and that they all campaigned on during the last election. Cameron certainly isn’t hurting the No campaign – but isn’t helping his own credibility by repeating some of the more highly debatable claims of the No side, notably that switching to AV will cost £250-mn  and that AV will lead to constant hung parliaments. On the face of it, having the party leaders involved is perhaps more of a hindrance than a help.


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Reasons for voting Yes or No to AV

The UK referendum on adopting the Alternative Vote (AV) is fast approaching, with the vote taking place on 5 May, 2011.

What I have been finding quite interesting are the comments from readers on various articles and op ed pieces about why they plan to vote Yes or No to AV. I’ve managed to identify the following main reasons for voting for each side.

Main reasons given for a Yes to AV vote:

  1. because they think AV is a good idea/somewhat of an improvement over FPTP
  2. not that keen on AV, would prefer STV or some other form of PR, but it’s the only option on offer
  3. see this as a chance to maybe move to further, better electoral reform in the future
  4. the tactics used by the No2AV side have put them off so much, they’re going to vote yes because of that
  5. AV is opposed by David Cameron/the Conservatives, the BNP, Lord Prescott, Margaret Beckett and some other senior Labour members, therefore that’s reason enough to support it

Main reasons given for a No to AV vote:

  1. FPTP is better/the best system
  2. AV will lead to perpetual coalitions/too much power to Lib Dems
  3. don’t like FPTP, but don’t like AV either
  4. want to punish Nick Clegg

If we look more closely at the reasons people seem inclined to vote Yes, points 2 and 3 are often very closely linked. Indeed, I wasn’t certain if I should list them as separate reasons. I don’t know that I’ve actually read a single comment from someone completely endorsing AV as the best option, or their preferred option out of all of the various voting systems. Most acknowledge that it’s only, at best, a marginal improvement over FPTP, and almost all would prefer a different system, with STV seeming to be the most popular. But what almost everyone voting Yes agrees on is that since they aren’t being offered any other options, AV does at least represent a small change, and there is strong hope that if AV is adopted, this will open the door to the possibility of further reform to a more proportional system down the road.

The last two reasons I’ve listed for a Yes vote are the most amusing. As I’ve blogged in the past, the No2AV camp is using some highly suspect claims against AV in their campaign for the No vote. Chief among these is that AV will lead to perpetual coalitions (which isn’t true), and that switching to AV will cost well over a hundred million pounds, money which could be better spent on the armed forces or healthcare. The cost figures are, to say the least, rather dubious, since they include the cost of the referendum itself, and hundreds of pounds for electronic vote counting machines – which there are no plans to buy, and for which there is no need. AV ballots can be counted by hand, and are in the jurisdictions that use AV. These highly questionable claims and the posters used to promote them have turned off a lot of, if not pro-FPTP, at least undecided voters. Any article against AV that appears on the ConservativeHome website, for example, is flooded with comments from people decrying these tactics and saying that while they were initially either going to vote no or were undecided, the No2AV tactics have pushed them into the Yes camp.

Similarly, quite a few more “progressive” voters point to the fact that those opposing AV are the Conservatives and BNP, and that alone is justification for voting Yes.

For those in the No to AV camp, many, particularly Conservative Party supporters, simply want to hang on to FPTP because they believe AV will equal constant hung parliaments (see above) and they want the Conservative Party to win an outright majority. As I’ve stated, there is nothing to support the claims that AV will lead to more hung parliaments – if anything, it could actually lead to larger majorities than a party might have achieved under FPTP. Hung parliaments are as likely to occur under AV as they are under FPTP, as occurred last year, and as has occurred in Canada three times since 2004.

The last two reasons commonly given by those voting No to AV are more interesting. There are many who don’t like FPTP, but don’t like AV either – like many of the Yes voters, they would prefer a more proportional system. But unlike their Yes vote counterparts, because no other system is being offered, they plan to vote No to AV. Their No vote is not an endorsement of FPTP, but a rejection of both.

There are also an awful lot of readers who comment that they plan to vote No because they see the failure of the referendum as a chance to punish Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats for entering into a coalition with the Conservatives and/or for reneging on key pledges contained in their election manifesto. Normally, many, perhaps even most, of these voters would vote Yes because they do support electoral reform, but their disgust with the Lib Dems, and in particular Nick Clegg, is stronger. There is a strong belief among many of these voters that if the Yes vote fails, the Coalition will fall apart because the Lib Dems, having failed to achieve the one thing they apparently hoped to achieve by entering into a coalition, will pull out. This view, in my opinion, is naive. The Lib Dems are at all-time lows in public opinion polls and for that reason alone, I can’t see them wanting to pull the plug on a stable coalition government, which would then leave the Conservatives in a minority situation and perhaps force an early election. Also, the Lib Dems are not huge fans of AV – the party officially endorses a move to STV. I remain to be convinced that many Lib Dems will be particularly heartbroken if AV fails.

There is a danger for those who plan to vote No for petty reasons such as wanting to punish Nick Clegg, or even for more principled reasons – such as holding out for a truly proportional system. A successful “No” vote will be viewed as an endorsement of FPTP. There won’t be any distinctions made between people who voted against AV because they love FPTP and those who don’t like FPTP, but voted no because they wanted something other than AV, or those who voted No because they’re mad at Nick Clegg. It will most likely close the door on any other attempts to move toward electoral reform for years to come because opponents will point to this referendum and argue that the people have already spoken and they want FPTP.

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AV does not cause hung parliaments

While I have resisted blogging about them, I have been regularly reading a variety of columns and articles on the May referendum on the Alternative Vote. One thing in particular continues to baffle me: I simply do not understand why so many AV opponents believe that AV will lead to more hung parliaments and thus make coalition government the norm in the UK.

This “fact” is repeated almost every single time anyone posts anything against AV, and I’m including reader comments on articles in this. A recent example would be this column by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian in which he writes:

The case against AV is that it would increase the likelihood of a hung parliament and uncertain government. Voters must sit for days (or in Belgium months) and await the smoke from the party conclaves. This in itself weakens any electoral mandate and devolves power from voters to the political establishment. It is elitist. It also usually leads to unstable administrations as minority coalition partners wax and wane in support and, usually, decide to cut and run when the going gets tough. Every country is different, especially those that are complex confederacies, but many people in Germany, Italy, Belgium and Denmark scream for the clarity of a two-party system, with governments in or out.

As opponents of AV are fond of pointing out, AV is used in only 3 jurisdictions, and the only one anyone ever discusses in any detail is Australia. Yet, if one is going to use Australia as the main example of how AV works, then the argument that it leads to more hung parliaments falls apart immediately. The UK, and also Canada, have had more hung parliaments using FPTP than has Australia using AV. It’s not AV that leads to hung parliaments, but the growing breakdown of two-party politics in countries like the UK and Canada that still use FPTP.

There have been five hung parliaments in the UK since the beginning of the 20th century. There have been 12* hung parliaments at the federal level in Canada since Confederation. Australia, which introduced AV in 1919, has had two hung parliaments under AV.

The overwhelming reason why Australia has had far fewer hung parliaments is because unlike Canada and the UK, Australia really does have a strong two-party system. From 1901 to 1910, when it used FPTP, no party had a majority in the House of Representatives, as there were two competing non-Labor parties. As a result, there were frequent changes of government, several of which took place during parliamentary terms. The 1910 federal election was the first contested by the Commonwealth Liberal Party, the result of a merger between the Protectionist Party and the Free Trade Party. The new party lost to Labor, but this marked the first majority government in Australia since the inaugural federal election in 1901. If anything, AV in Australia has reinforced the two-party system, making it far more difficult for smaller parties to win seats.

Proponents of FPTP assert that its main advantage is that it returns strong, decisive election results, and Jenkins is no exception:

Because yielding a clearcut and stable administration is the dominant requirement of democratic election, I opt for the electoral system that most delivers it, which has long been first-past-the-post. In crude historical terms, it has served Britain well. It clearly leaves Liberal Democrats on the sidelines, but we are talking about choosing a government, and the Liberals have never come first or even second in popular votes since they handed the torch of leftwing representation to Labour a century ago. Votes for Liberal Democrat candidates are not “wasted”, as some claim, but failed.

However, in Canada and the UK, what has been happening, despite both countries’ use of FPTP, is the breakdown of the two-party system in favour of multi-party politics. In Canada, this is further complicated by the increasingly regional support of the main parties. This is what is causing hung parliaments to happen, despite the fact that FPTP is used. The trend away from the two traditional parties, Labour and Conservative, is expertly explained in this post by Patrick Dunleavy.

Whether AV, if adopted in the UK, will slow this trend remains to be seen. However, if hung parliaments continue to occur even with the adoption of AV, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the same results would have been returned under FPTP. It is not the voting system that is responsible for these outcomes, but the fact that multiple parties contest each election, and that increasingly, more and more voters are giving their support to these other parties.
*The 2nd Canadian Parliament was a minority for 56 days under prime minister Alexander Mackenzie after he took power from Sir John A. Macdonald following the Pacific Scandal. However, this event is generally not counted because Parliament was not in session when Mackenzie took over and he immediately called an election in which he then won a majority.

On a related note, ABC’s Antony Green addresses claims that AV leads to lower voter turnout.

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More thoughts on AV from down under

(Note: Not the information you’re looking for? I do try to help people as much as I can and regularly monitor key word activity on this blog to see what is bringing people here. If this post doesn’t answer your questions, please consider contacting me with details regarding what information you’re looking for, including context (i.e. if it relates to something currently in the news). I might be able to answer your question(s), or at least direct you to a site that might provide more answers. I will reply to you by email, and if it’s a very interesting question, I may even write a proper blog post about it. You may also be interested in this post for a summary of the most common questions being asked about AV.)

Antony Green has written a couple more blog posts correcting some of the misinformation being spread by the No2AV side in the UK. Green, as I’ve previously mentioned, is a expert on elections and voting systems who writes for Australia’s ABC website.

In this post from February 24, Green attacks an academic paper entitled “What is Wrong with the Alternative Vote? Electoral Reform Briefing Nr. 1, August 2010″ written by Monica Thelfall and updated in November of last year, following the Australian general election. The author’s main criticism of AV seems to be focused on it taking longer to count the votes: “AV fails the test of simplicity since even the Australian government cannot execute the full count in time to announce it on the night of the poll.” Green rightly explains that this has nothing to do with AV per se, but more a reflection of the size of the country when compared to the Britain. Of special interest to Canadians, Green uses Canada as an example of a country using FPTP where final vote tallies are also delayed by a few days.

In a February 26 post, Green again looks at the anti-AV side’s claim that a majority of Australians want to get rid of AV. Green again concludes that what Australians really want is not a return to FPTP, but rather, to no longer have to rank every single candidate on their ballot paper.

In a post from March 1, Green confronts the claims that vote counting machines are used in Australia, or even necessary under AV.

And finally, this post has nothing to do with any claims made by the No2AV side, but is still interesting reading. Australian elections have one of the highest rates of spoiled ballots. Green looks at this problem and offers up some simple solutions to address it – the main one being adopting AV, optional preferential voting (what the UK is proposing). This article will appeal mostly to die-hard electoral reform fans, but Green makes these issues fully accessible to anyone.

I’d also recommend reading the comments posted by readers. Green frequently replies to questions asked by readers in their comments, so there is often more to be learned in the comments as well.

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If FPTP is so great…

The referendum campaign on the Alternative Vote is in full swing in the UK. A recent poll showed the yes side with a 10 point lead (40% for, 30% against), but a large number of undecideds (30%) could easily nullify that.

While anyone who favours true electoral reform is bound to be less than enthusiastic about AV, given that it is not proportional and only marginally fairer than FPTP, many are still supporting it because they hope it might be a stepping stone towards true proportional representation. What is certain for many is that if the AV referendum fails, it is doubtful that another opportunity to vote on electoral reform will come by any time soon.

The Yes side is campaigning on the simple, direct slogan “Yes! to fairer votes“. The No side, sadly, but not surprisingly, is campaigning on fear, misinformation and outright lies. In recent days, many columns have appeared in various media advancing rather questionable “facts”. Topping that list is claim that switching to AV will cost British taxpayers over £250 pounds. This figure includes the cost of the referendum itself (about £90 million) and the rest coming from the cost of vote counting machines (£130 million) and voter education and awareness (£26 million). The big problem here is that there has not been any indication anywhere from any official source that the UK will start using vote counting machines if AV is adopted. The Bill does not call for the introduction of vote counting machines, nor has the government or the any other official body. Thus this purported cost is based on – what? An assumption? A wild guess? Wishful thinking?

Case in point is this blog post by the president of the No to AV campaign, Matthew Elliot, which appeared in the Spectator. Elliot writes “Likewise, electronic vote-counting machines are whenever AV is used in the US – As the head of the American pro-AV group, FairVote.org, admitted: “the use of machines is just a given” in the USA and ‘special software is required’.” Sadly for Elliot, the head of the American pro-AV group, Rob Ritchie addresses this point in the comments section:

Matthew Elliott utterly distorts what I said in my talk in London last month about the rise of the Alternative Vote in the United States. No American jurisdictions has gone from a hand-tally to machines because of AV. I said that “machines are assumed in the United States” because we already use voting machines for nearly all our elections, most of which use first-past-the-post.

What I also said very clearly is that one of the issues that has slowed the rise of AV in the United States is that many current machines can’t do it — but that this would not be an issue in the UK because you do hand tallies and it’s quite easy to do AV tallies by hand.

Another favoured argument against is that AV isn’t used anywhere but Australia, Fiji and Papua-New Guinea and that two of those places, one being Australia, want to get rid of it. This too is incorrect. There was a report commissioned in Australia reviewing the voting system and it found that there was significant support for a more proportional voting system – but no one wanted to ditch AV for FPTP.

An equally ridiculous op-ed piece by Simon Heffer in the Telegraph barely merits consideration. Heffer’s main argument against AV is that it is a “recipe for coalitions”, which is completely unsubstantiated. Heffer comments on the poll findings showing a 10-point lead for the pro-AV side and notes “The poll findings are a paradox, since the Coalition itself is increasingly unpopular.” In other words, how could people support switching to AV, which Heffer claims will lead to perpetual coalitions, when the coalition itself is increasingly unpopular? Perhaps someone should point out to Mr. Heffer that it’s the coalition’s policies that are unpopular, not the idea of coalition per se. Even a Tory (or Labour) majority government that was introducing the types of cuts the coalition has would find itself losing popular support.

Heffer also writes “AV could have the perverse effect of securing a landslide for one of the two main parties, with the damaging effects on the parliamentary process that we saw between 1997 and 2005.” Granted, this is true – AV isn’t proportional, and so it won’t address one of the key problems of FPTP – parties winning a huge majority without majority support. But it certainly won’t make this problem any worse than it already is, and might, in fact, improve things marginally since candidates will have to secure 50% of the vote to win their seats. Many commenters on various articles like to point out this ingrained unfairness of FPTP – parties winning a majority of seats with sometimes less than 40% of the popular vote. Defenders of FPTP dismiss this by saying “they got the most votes, therefore it’s fair”. However, FPTP can lead to even more perverse outcomes. At least twice in Canada, at the provincial level, a party has finished second in total votes cast, yet won more seats than the party that finished first in terms of popular vote (Quebec 1998, New Brunswick 2006). In another instance, again in New Brunswick, one party did win a majority of the popular vote, 60%, but also won every single seat in the legislature. How is that fair? There have been many other instances at the provincial level of one party winning a grossly disproportionate number of seats, with the opposition parties reduced to sometimes only one seat.

ConservativeHome has an article about the launch of the anti-AV campaign’s posters and leaflets. I am quite heartened that many of the readers are thoroughly blasting the mistruths and fear-mongering depicted in the No campaign’s media. This is also true of the commenters on the Matthew Elliot piece on the Spectator site. I’ve not bothered to read through the 350+ comments on Heffer’s piece in the Telegraph to see how they swing.

It’s also heartening to frequently read many comments by readers stating that the fear-mongering and lies being spread by the anti-AV side are pushing them to vote Yes. There are still several weeks to go in this campaign assuming the government can get it passed by the required deadline – the Lords are still playing hardball with some amendments. I expect the No side to further ramp up its rather ludicrous claims.

I could go on picking holes in the anti-AV arguments, but I think what is most striking is that I’ve yet to see one single column or op ed piece simply extolling the virtues of FPTP. If FPTP is that great, tell people why. Defend it against the various studies and arguments pointing out how unfair it is. Campaign in favour of your voting system of choice, not by spreading half-truths and outright lies about AV. If the No to AV side can’t properly defend FPTP, why should anyone else?

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Mentioning Canada wasn’t a good idea

I’ve been looking over the No to AV website this morning, and had a good laugh when I read their section on why FPTP is better than AV.

The reasons provided, six in all, are:

  • It creates strong governments
  • It excludes extremist parties
  • It’s fair
  • It’s simple to understand
  • It’s cheap
  • It’s the most widely used system in the world.

It was this last point that had me laughing, because they name some of the countries which use FPTP, and include Canada in the list. I think that by including Canada, they’ve essentially undermined two of what they probably think are their strongest “pro” points.

FPTP creates strong governments. You’d never know that by looking at what’s been happening in Canada over the course of the past seven years. There has been a general election at the federal level in 2004, 2006, and 2008, and each one has returned a hung parliament, which resulted in minority government (one Liberal, the rest Conservative). A lot of people expect another election this year. Almost everyone expects another hung parliament.

It excludes extremist parties. I know in the UK this is a reference to the BNP, but in Canada, FPTP has allowed the Bloc Québécois to become a permanent fixture on the federal scene. The BQ isn’t the same sort of extremist party as the BNP, but they are a party dedicated to the independence of the Province of Quebec. It’s largely because of the dominance of the BQ in Quebec that Canada is stuck with hung parliaments over and over again, because none of the main federalist parties can win enough seats in that province to win an outright majority. Only a move to a proportional voting system would reduce the BQ’s stranglehold on Quebec seats – FPTP gives them a number of seats that far exceeds their actual popular support in that province. Besides, if AV would make it that much easier for the BNP to win seats, why is the BNP campaigning against it?

I can’t be bothered to address the other points listed – if those are the best arguments in favour of FPTP, that’s rather sad. My previous post links to one of many studies that clearly demonstrates that FPTP fails any sort of possible fairness test you can put forward. The argument that FPTP is simple to understand simply means that opponents of AV think people are too stupid to be able to rank candidates in order of preference – heaven knows none of us ever indicate preferences in other areas of our lives. And maybe implementing AV might involve some costs, however, if the result of that is slightly fairer election outcomes, I think it’s a worthwhile investment.

And as for FPTP being the most widely used voting system – that’s not necessarily a selling point. Macdonald’s is probably the most widely frequented fast food chain – that’s hardly a ringing endorsement of people’s eating habits or the quality of their food. Just because it’s commonplace doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be improved upon.

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Worst of both worlds

As the pro- and anti-AV campaigns in the UK properly get underway with the launch of websites (the Yes side here, the No side here) in anticipation of the May referendum, I would like to take this opportunity to plug an excellent critique of the First-Past-the-Post voting system that recently appeared on the British Politics and Policy at LSE blog.

Despite its most unwieldy title (“In 2005 not a single MP was returned with active majority support amongst their local citizens. The UK’s ‘First Past the Post’ voting system no longer works – it is the worst of both worlds“), the blog post itself, authored by Guy Lodge and Glenn Gottfried is a scathing indictment of FPTP – as if we needed yet another one. However, since so many seem still so attached to FPTP and consider it the best voting system out there, I suppose we do still need more articles explaining in minute detail why FPTP no longer works in the UK (or Canada, for that matter).

I will point out that the article does not in any way endorse AV, it simply details exactly why FPTP is unfair, unsuitable, archaic and increasingly unlikely to return majority governments in future UK elections, if current voting trends continue. So even if you’re not a fan of AV, I’d still encourage you to read this post, since it is in no way a paen to why AV is so much better (in fact, AV gets only a couple of passing references).

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