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.


  1. Your argument that voting NO because AV will cause more hung parliaments is undemocratic is just, plainly, SHITE. People have the democratic RIGHT to NOT prefer systems of government that will give more hung parliaments. This is the pure ESSENCE of democracy. Not all sytems of government are to be preferred and if people prefer not to have a system that gives them more hung parliaments, then that's democracy in action. It's clear from simulations (which aren't very hard to do, really) that AV WILL give more hung parliaments. Hung parliments by their very definition lead to back room deals, and governments such as we have now. Equally bad examples include the last Irish government, and, more than likely, the newly elected Irish government.
    It's not undemocratic to HATE this and to vote for a system that will produce fewer such governments.
    Oh, things could be worse than AV, easily. Do some research into the current Irish system (which basically none of the Irish seem to understand as there are about 10 different steps for distributing votes after the first round) or the current Australian system, where the back room deals seem to be an integral part of the system.
    First rule of politics or sport: you always change a losing game. But "first past the post" is only a losing game for minority parties, which are, by definition, losers!

  2. Democratic procedures can produce undemocratic outcomes, or facilitate undemocratically motivated actions. For example, the popular vote could elect a party who actively campaign to end electoral democracy: 'One person, one vote,once'. A less extreme example might be the democratic decision to give certain functions to appointed officials e.g. voting for a party who will delegate setting the interest rate to the central bank.

    I think you are probably right that I have overstated my point, and on reflection it probably doesn't 'invalidate' the hung parliament argument, as I have claimed.

    However, I think I do still have a point. When I say that voting no to AV because you think it will produce more hung parliaments is undemocratic, I mean that it is not motivated by a concern for democracy. If you are motivated solely by democracy (which seems kind of a good motivation in a referendum about electoral reform), the only question you will ask yourself is 'Which system will best represent the will of the people'. The hung parliament argument doesn't do that.

    I'd be interested to see these simulations: most of the stuff I have read suggests that hung parliaments are increasingly likely in the UK, and that changing to AV will have minimal effect on this.

    I don't know a great deal about Irish politics, so I can't really comment on those governments. But having lived under eight years of coalition government in Scotland, and almost a year of a coalition UK government, I have to confess I can't see the problem. I have lots of problems with the current administration, but its lack of democratic legitimacy isn't one of them.

    Also, having just cast my vote in the Scottish parliamentary elections, where seats are allocated according to the arcane d'Hondt system, I have to say that as a voter I'm not that concerned that I don't fully understand the procedure. As long as the act of voting is straightforward enough (which it is in Ireland: you just number your preferences), I don't see anything wrong with complexity behind the scenes.