Saturday, 23 April 2011

Some Bad Arguments in the AV Debate

One of the features of the Alternative Vote debate – a common element of many modern political arguments – is that politicians (on both sides) keep making the same bad arguments. Despite the fact that these are regularly debunked, they keep resurfacing as if nothing had happened, a clear sign that certain messages are intended to be hammered home, regardless of their veracity. That these counterarguments are so regularly ignored, despite the fact that anybody involved in these debates must have heard them numerous times suggests flagrant cynicism and duplicity. Anyway, these are the arguments that really irritate me:

A. Arguments from the No Camp

AV will help extremist parties like the BNP

Any sort of claim about what will happen under AV is suspect because it involves trying to guess people’s second preferences and how these preferences would affect results in different constituencies. It is possible that AV could help the BNP, I suppose because BNP sympathisers would no longer see supporting them as a wasted vote. However, as numerous people have pointed out it is extremely unlikely that AV would gain the BNP seats in parliament. Under AV, as I have already argued, the winning candidate is the one that fewest hate. In most constituencies, there are more voters who would prefer any alternative to a BNP MP, such is the hatred for the party. As long as this is the case, the BNP cannot win under AV. If it were not true, the BNP would win even under FPTP. Yet under FPTP, the BNP can capitalise on a split vote, and take a seat based on a strong core vote of a minority of constituents. So AV appears to make BNP success less likely.

Even if it were the case that the BNP would profit under AV, this still remains the worst argument in the history of arguments about electoral systems. To show this is the case, just replace ‘BNP’ with any other party name. Arguments like ‘X is bad because it benefits Labour’ or ‘Y would help the Conservatives get in’ are unacceptable because it is fundamentally undemocratic to rig the system to produce a desired outcome. If people vote for the BNP, the BNP should do better. If you don’t agree, you clearly don’t like democracy and have no place debating democratic systems.

This argument is much like the one about the BNP, though slightly less clear cut. Once again it depends on predicting how the AV system will affect electoral results, which involves a lot of guesswork. Once again, the No campaign seem to have got their guesswork wrong. Their prophecy is fairly unambiguous: “AV leads to more hung parliaments, backroom deals and broken promises like the Lib Dem tuition fees U-turn. Instead of the voters choosing the government, politicians would hold power. Under AV, the only vote that really counts is Nick Clegg's. We can't afford to let the politicians decide who runs our country.”

However, as this article points out, it is more complex than that. The Political Studies Association has estimated the results of past elections had they been held under AV: “Contrary to some claims, AV would not lead to permanent hung parliaments and coalition governments. Of the last seven elections, only the most recent would have delivered a hung parliament – just as under FPTP. By boosting the Liberal Democrats, however, AV does increase the likelihood of hung parliaments a little. Some simulations suggest a hung parliament in the close election of 1992.”

Though the link between AV and hung parliaments is more plausible than the link to the BNP, both arguments are invalid for the same reason. It is fundamentally undemocratic to rig the system to produce a desired outcome, whether that outcome is success for a particular party or ensuring a majority.

AV gives some people more influence than others

The argument seems to be that since some people’s lower preferences are counted but not others, those people have more effect on the ultimate result than others, violating the sacred dictum of ‘one person, one vote’. This is clearly nonsense. For a start, if the preferred candidate of those voters whose second preferences weren’t counted had been eliminated they would have supposedly have more influence, so there is no systematic bias.

But the truth is that nobody’s preferences count for any more than anyone else’s. If your first preference wins, that preference is taken into account at every round of voting. In effect, it is as if there is a fresh round of voting every time a candidate is eliminated, and it is presumed (surely uncontroversially) that people would vote for the same candidate if they can. If we consider these distinct rounds as different elections, we see that every person has one vote and one vote only in each round.

B. Arguments from the Yes Camp

AV means all MPs will have the support of over 50% of the electorate

The first thing to point out is that getting a vote from 50% of the electorate is not the same as having their support or confidence. This is obvious when you consider that some of these votes could be people’s fourth or fifth preference. Getting 50% of the final vote under AV means nothing more than that 50% thought that at least one person would make a worse MP than you.

Worse still, there is no guarantee that winners under AV will in fact get over 50% of the voters. If a substantial number vote only for candidates knocked out in early rounds of the count and fail to express lower preferences, then the threshold of victory will be reduced. As an illustration, twelve of 31 Scottish local authority elections carried out under AV have produced minority winners.

AV would have made the expenses scandal less likely

This argument appears to have two premises:
1. There will be fewer safe seats under AV
2. MPs in safe seats are more likely to be corrupt
As far as premise 1 goes, it is certainly the case that MPs who rely on a strong core support of less than 50% of the electorate will have to woo new voters to keep their positions. However, certain MPs may be more secure if they can attract many second preferences. So, for example, many Lib Dem MPs with relatively small majorities may have their position strengthened if they know both Conservative and Labour voters will put them second. Moreover, over 200 MPs already get over 50% of the vote, so AV is unlikely to have any effect on them. On balance, it seems plausible that AV will cut the number of safe seats, but hardly dramatically.

As for the link between safe seats and expenses, Nick Clegg’s claim that “Research suggests that MPs with the safest seats were much more likely to have been exposed by The Daily Telegraph” is certainly true. However, it is misleading because ‘exposed by The Daily Telegraph’ is not the same ‘made excessive expenses claims’. The study that Clegg cites was carried out before the full extent of expenses repayment were made public. More recent research suggests no statistically significant relationship between repaid expenses and the size of an MP’s majority.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Some Thoughts on the Alternative Vote

Much has been said and written already about the 5th May referendum, when British voters will decide whether UK Parliamentary elections should be carried out under the First Past the Post (FPTP) or Alternative Vote (AV) system. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have already summarised the case for and against the change surprisingly well. Here’s my perspective, though, and possibly a different way of looking at the matter.

The first thing to get clear (at least for the purposes of my discussion) is what the AV vote is not about. One of the problems of the British electoral system is that voters are (or at least think they are) being asked three questions, but are allowed to give only one answer. Under the current system, we vote for an MP, an individual to represent our local area in parliament. We do not, in fact, vote on which party should be in government. Nor do we vote on which person should be Prime Minister and run the country. The three questions are constantly conflated, but under FPTP we only have a say on the first.

Certain reforms would address this problem. Proportional Representation would mean that voters are asked at the polls which party they want in government. Mixed Member P.R. would split the questions of constituency MP and national government and ask both separately. A separate Presidential election would allow voters to choose the leader of the country.

Nothing this radical is involved in the switch to AV. AV asks the same question as FPTP: ‘Who do you want to be the MP for your constituency?’ This means that all the discussion about the effects of AV on the proportionality of parliament or the possibility of coalition government seems to me to miss the point. John Prescott has claimed that AV is a good system for electing individuals (it was the system under which he was elected deputy leader of the Labour party), but a bad one for electing governments. But neither FPTP nor AV are about electing governments, they are systems for electing individual MPs. It is on their merits for this purpose that I’ll try and compare them here.

Comparison is difficult, not least because the economist Kenneth Arrow has long since demonstrated that there is no such thing as a perfect electoral system. Under different circumstances, different systems best reflect the popular will. This can be illustrated with a couple of examples.

Example A: Socialist Split


A. Black (Conservative)              40%               B. Brown     60%

B. Brown (Democratic Socialist) 35%               A. Black      40%

C. Green (Social Democrat)        25%

The left, true to form, has split, dividing almost equally between the Social Democrats and the Democratic Socialists. Their division stems from some obscure point of doctrine, so there is little substantive difference between them. However, the rift is too bitter to be patched up. Nevertheless, the socialists are all adamant that they would prefer a socialist representative (of any stripe) to a dreaded Conservative. In this case, the FPTP seems clearly to misrepresent the views of the constituency, producing a Conservative MP to stand for a majority of socialists. AV, by contrast would allow the social democrats to use their second preferences to keep the Conservative out.

Example B: Genuine Third Party


A. Butcher (Socialist)             45%                  B. Baker      55%

B. Baker (Conservative)          35%                  A. Butcher    45%

C. Smith (Liberal)                   20%

Suppose that the Liberal supporters are genuinely liberal, with no real sympathy either for the Conservative or the Socialist. On balance, most of the liberals are more scared of the Socialists, and so their second preferences give the election to the Conservative candidate. In this case, it seems that the FPTP result is better, fired by the positive vision of the Socialist supporters rather than the ambivalence of the liberals.

This example is not straightforward, and many people may have a different intuition that the AV result is preferable. However, these conflicting intuitions seem to get to the heart of the dispute. To put it crudely, FPTP gives victory to the candidate that most people like; AV to the one that fewest hate. AV is for those who fear that a vocal minority can sneak someone despised by the others into power. FPTP is for those who reject this conservative line of thought.

FPTP is best when people vote for a candidate they want to get in; AV when they vote against a candidate they want to keep out. The trouble is that we can never know in advance whether more people are casting their votes for or against politicians.