Sunday, 7 November 2010


Ok, some more politics. It's been a while, I apologise but you know, work and stuff.

There will be a referendum on the 5th of May 2011(baring any last minuite changes). The question as currently in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill 2010-11 is:

At present, the UK uses the “first past the post” system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the “alternative vote” system be used instead?

It is very early in the campaign, so far FPTP is leading by about 42% to 32% but the arguments so far have been rather poor. Here are some of the more interesting ones. Ones, that is, that are either unbelievably stupid or potentially slightly valid. But first, my aim: to consider which option is most likely to produce good liberal (small l, not lib dem) non-extremist government that reflects the will of the population well and which can lead the country in a fair and transparent way.

System 1: First past the post

You walk into the polling station. You tell the person behind the desk who you are, prove you are allowed to vote and they hand you a list of all the candidates running in your local seat (this will be the surrounding 100,000 people or thereabouts, normally this is a small area of your city or a good tract of country).

You go up to the booth, put a cross against one candidate and fold it in half, you then put your ballot paper into the bucket and go home.

That evening people count the votes and the candidate who has more than the others wins. If two or more candidates get exactly the same number of votes (this has happened but is fantastically rare) then one is picked at random. This person becomes the MP.

System 2: AV

You walk into the polling station. You tell the person behind the desk who you are, prove you are allowed to vote and they hand you a list of all the candidates running in your local seat (this will be the surrounding 100,000 people or thereabouts, normally this is a small area of your city or a good tract of country).

You go up to the booth, put a 1 next to one candidate, 2 next to another and so on, numbering as many as you like, and fold the ballot paper in half, you then put it into the bucket and go home.

That evening people count the votes, if one candidate has more 1st votes than everyone else combined they win, if not the lowest ranked person gets eliminated. Anyone who voted for this person now counts as having voted for whomever they ranked 2nd. If this doesn't get one candidate with more votes than everyone else combined then repeat knocking off the person in last place at each step.

Argument 1: One man one vote

(Of course it's one person one vote but whatever).

Under AV people get more than one vote, if your candidate looses you can vote a second time. So much for democracy.

This would be funny if it wasn't for how mad an idea it is. The reason why one person one vote is a brilliant slogan is that the principle is clear, nobody should be able to count for more in any election than anyone else. This is of course not violated by AV. Under AV EVERYONE has multiple votes. In each round each person counts for exactly one vote, in each round the person that vote goes to may change but each person's share of the total votes is exactly the same. This is at best a rather childish misunderstanding of the system, at worst it's just plain mad. To make it very explicit, under both systems at every stage each person who votes counts exactly as much as everyone else.

Argument 2: People are stupid

AV is new and complicated and I dont understand it and it's too hard to most voters and *brain melts*.

At first glance this seems a fair criticism. The average voter is very stupid it's true. However, I'm fairly confident that even the most brain-dead of Daily Mail readers will be able to fathom the complexity of ranking candidates in order given 4 years of public education adverts. And if they cant be taught the subtle art of counting, then maybe just tell them it's the same as FPTP but you put a 1 not a cross.


It's not right to expect someone to choose between all the candidates, this would mean they would have to be electoral nerds who could compare the fishing policy of the Radical Uzbeck Liberation Party and The Scottish Senior Citizens Unity Party, and they would have to make very unplitable decisions ranking people they despise equally.

There's a small hole in this logic. People are already expected to choose between all the candidates, if the candidate is so bad at campaigning that all voters dont at least know something about them then they wont be elected under any system. Nobody is compelled to vote for any candidate, so if some candidates are so repugnant you cant vote for them at all simply dont, simple as that. As for the problem of not being able to distinguish between all the parties, nobody is obliged to vote for all parties. Let us consider a fairly typical seat, there are around 3 parties that are seriously in the running and a fair number of fringe parties

Argument 4: It's not 50%

If people dont use all their votes then people can win with less than 50%, YOU LIED.

Yes, you're quite accurate that it is possible for less than 50% of those who cast votes to vote for the winner in the final round. This can happen if the final votes are very close and if a lot of people have no preference at all for the last two.

For example if the votes in round 1 are:

A: 2000 B: 2500 C: 1000 D: 600 and D's voter's have no second preferences.

In round 2:

A: 2000 B: 2500 C: 1000 and C's votes split 50%/50% behind A and B.

In round 3

A: 2500 B: 3000

B wins with 55% of the votes cast in the last round. However the number of votes cast for B in the last round was only 49% of the votes cast in round one. This means that AV supporters have lied in saying you need 50% to win.

Well. No. It means that they've assumed that people are counting the right group. If we count the people who voted in the last round, those who expressed a preference between the two candidates, then the winner did get 50%. It's just a question of which group counts, those who dont vote for any of the final candidates are treated, in this sense, just like those who dont vote.

Though just a final point. This is a vote between AV and FPTP. It is logically impossible for someone to win with a lower percentage of the vote under AV then under FPTP. So even if you want to count all voters in your percentages you still get that FPTP is better.

Argument 5: Ed Milliband

Ed Milliband only got in 'cause of the Unions rigging AV, and as he's basically Stalin AV is terrible.

If you dont like Ed Milliband being leader of the Labour party (I personally do but whatever) then AV is not the thing you should worry about. You should worry about the mad triple election system whereby the affiliated organisations (not just trades union of course) get the same vote as MPs/MEPs get the same vote as members of the party. If you go to the official figures and run the election again with only the votes from the party counted then exactly the same order of elimination occurs and David wins. Same with the MPs/MEPs. So your problem is not with AV, it is with the affiliated organisations. And as they dont exist in general elections you dont have a problem using AV there.

Argument 6: AV isn't PR

Simulations have shown that AV can be even less proportional than FPTP in many cases, in the 1997 election it would have given Labour and even bigger majority.

It's important not to overstate this, in most elections AV comes out more proportional than FPTP. But it is true that according to some simulations AV can come up with a result that is not proportional, even less so than FPTP.

Then there's two question:

If you want the commons to be proportional you ask yourself if AV is the start of a series of gradual reforms eventually arriving at STV or some other PR system of your choice.

If you dont want the commons to have PR you have to ask can you stop things at AV or do you need to stop it before then.

Personally I think that AV can be settled on, I personally dont think that AV inevitably leads to STV, no matter what PR campaigners may want to think, and that if there is a change after AV has come in it may just as easily be back to FPTP.

I am very happy with this. I dont want the commons to be proportional. But you'll have to give me a moment to explain why.

I like proportional chambers, if you're going to have a democratic chamber then all other things being equal you want it to reflect the population as well as possible (that's the point of democracy). So if I was setting up a one-chambered system I would have some form of PR in it. However it's a little remembered fact that there are two chambers in the British houses of parliament.

At present the house of Lords is untenable and unsustainable. The lords are chosen by the PM with no oversight and no limits on how partisan they can be. This must and will change. Within the next decade the Lords must be tackled. And when this happens most likely it will be changed into a (largely) democratic chamber, it's overwhelmingly likely this will be by some form of PR. (Indeed the sacred coalition agreement says this).

If you're gonig to have a two chambered system then the second has to be there for a good reason. and mirroring the first is not a good reason. It must represent a different part of society (as with the old house of Lords representing the aristocracy) or represent different levels of society to even up representation (like the senate in the US). But fundamentally it must be different. So if you're going to have a PR lords you cannot have a PR commons. I would not vote for that. So I'm quite glad AV isn't PR, it's not supposed to be.

Argument 7: My own party

I support party X and I want to vote for/against AV because it will help/hinder my party.

I have two points, first point is really dont trust what you believe. How people react to the lib dems next election is a totally unknown quantity, and that will dramatically change the political landscape. So the predictions of what AV will do to your party are almost certainly wrong.

Second point is fuck you. This is really important. How we are represented in parliament really matters, and if you want to mess around with that for narrow party political advantage then frankly I dont want to discuss politics with you because I dont trust your judgement. It's fair enough to ask will this enhance the left or the right or will it promote fringe parties or single issue parties, but asking does it help my individual party, that's not democracy.

Argument 8: It's too expensive

AV will cost more to implement because it's a more complicated system.

Ok, so we save the few million a year by firing one of the 41 admirals, rear admiral and vice admirals, not really a problem.

Argument 9: The election night

AV is so complicated it could take days to do, we wouldn't have an election night special any more.

First off this is factually wrong. It's not that hard to count AV votes, just separate votes into piles according to first votes and count them, Houghton & Sunderland South has repeatedly proved that this can be done within an hour, then split up the votes for the loosing candidate and repeat. Assuming there will never be more than 5 rounds (in most constituencies there will be at most 3) (and remembering that the later rounds are easier to do as there are far fewer votes for the loosers) the time taken to get the result will not be more than 3 times longer. This means many constituencies will have the count done on elections night, it will extend longer into the morning than normal, but if there's anything that David Dimbelby et al are good at it's stalling for hours on end.

Second off, this is a silly objection.

Argument 10: The Bill

AV was brought in by a rotten bill that's going to gerrymander the seats and cost us a fortune, so I'm voting no.

You realise you cant stop the referendum from happening by voting no right? If anything that's gong to cost more in processing time. Now as it happens the changing of seats isn't gerrymandering, it's fixing an existing problem in the constituencies but that's irrelevant to the debate at hand.

Argument 11: split voting

By having AV you can vote for who you really want without worrying that your vote wont matter.

This is the only positive argument for AV and the only argument that matters at all in this debate. The only difference between AV and FPTP is what happens to tactical voting. Nobody has only one preference, everyone has at least some level of distinction between candidates. Now suppose I have a favoured candidate who isn't likely to win, under AV I can give them first preference without worrying that I've wasted my vote.

If they get knocked out I can vote for someone else instead and not waste my vote, I can influence the final battle between the two top candidates. But the fact that everyone is thinking that means it's more likely that my candidate will get lots of first preferences, so it's more likely that they will win.


  1. Very well put. I'd just like to add to point three that ranking candidates in AV is actually EASIER than choosing just the one. When you only have one choice you have a difficult decision to make, which starts with considering your preferences and then is overcomplicated by having to choose between voting for what you want and voting tactically. In AV you consider your preferences and put them on the ballot without any such pressure and is therefore easier to do.

    The other thing is, the last line of point 4, shouldn't that be "you still DON'T get that FPTP is better" ?

  2. Excellent article, flawless analysis. Sadly all the No camp can respond with is smears and innuendo!

  3. Good to see more quality analysis of the issues. Well done!

    I have yet to see any worthwhile analysis from the No campaign.

    The FPTP vs AV campaign really should be based on educating the public, so they can form a rational judgement, so far I have only seen this from the 'Yes' side of the debate.


Feedback always welcome.