Feb 202011
 

Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer today has written a fairly ridiculous article in which he complains that FPTP supporters spend too much of their time being negative about AV, and uses the second half of the article to be negative about supporters of FPTP.

But let’s pass over this lack of self-awareness and give him a bit of credit; he does lay out succinctly what are supposed to be the advantages of AV:

I do think it would be a fairer and more appropriate electoral system for contemporary Britain. It will be a worthwhile improvement if MPs have to gather some form of support from at least half of the voters. The parties will be impelled to engage with more parts of the country than just a minority of marginals and it will pay MPs to connect with more parts of their constituencies.

I’d like to address these points a bit more seriously than I did yesterday.

First: the claim that AV is more appropriate for contemporary Britain. By Rawnsley’s lights this may well be the case, but what is so different about contemporary Britain? If AV is appropriate now for the reasons he gives, it has always been appropriate, and FPTP is a bastard system that has always been unfair and unrepresentative. And if this is true of FPTP in Britain, it is true of FPTP everywhere and at all times. Rawnsley does not address why, then, most democratic countries use FPTP.

Second: that MPs will have to gather support from at least half the voters. This is probably right, for certain values of ‘support’ and ‘half.’ For one thing, nothing in AV necessitates that an MP will have the support of half the constituency electorate; only that s/he will have the support of half of those who actually voted. If we examine, for instance, the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election in January, we see that less than half of the electorate turned out. Already we are not going to have the majority of voters represented.

Furthermore, if we redistribute the votes from all but the top four parties (Lab, Lib, Con, UKIP) to Labour, for the sake of simplicity, their share of the votes cast goes from 42.1% to 49.3%—not enough to win under AV.

Now we have to play a little game. Which party would UKIP voters place as their second preference? Probably Conservative. If we distribute the UKIP votes to the Conservatives, our top three totals are as follows:

Labour: 49.3%
Lib Dem: 31.9%
Conservative: 18.6%

Still no majority. So we have to redistribute the Conservative votes to their second preferences, and the UKIP votes to their third preferences. I have a difficult time believing that either of these groups of voters would choose Labour as anything but their last wish, although some might have chosen parties already eliminated in earlier rounds. However, let us say that most of these votes would go to the Lib Dems next, so we’ll add another 15% to the Lib Dem share, giving us:

Labour: 49.3%
Lib Dem: 46.9%

Um, crap. We’re on our last two candidates. We’re certainly not going to start fiddling around with the second preferences of the Lib Dem voters, as that would be utterly absurd. But if we don’t, then we don’t have a candidate with at least 50.1% of the votes cast. So AV does not necessarily deliver MPs support from at least half the voters who voted.

Now obviously this is a rough and dirty calculation, that doesn’t take into account tactical voting. There may have been Conservatives who voted Lib Dem in the hope of keeping Labour out, as the Lib Dem candidate very nearly won in the general election. But that still doesn’t solve the problem that the Labour candidate, even if you very generously allow all of the smaller-party votes to them, would most likely not have achieved a 50.1% majority under AV. What happens in that case? A run-off, which would be less fair even than FPTP, since it would deny a good 50% of the voters to select a candidate they truly agreed with and thereby restrict voter choice even further? Who knows.

Third: the claim that AV would impel parties to engage with more of the country than just marginal constituencies. This, I fear, is a silly belief. Seats are ‘safe’ because a majority of the voters in those constituencies firmly and regularly support one party. Let us examine what is generally considered to be the safest seat in Britain: Bootle in Merseyside, which has been held by the Labour party since 1945. In that time, the Labour candidate has never won with less than 50% of the votes. The closest was in 1955, when the Labour candidate won with 52% of the vote. Since then, the Labour share has been well over 60%, once even as high as 83%. Other parties in Bootle simply do not have a chance, nor would they even under AV. This seat is not ‘safe’ because FPTP delivers a skewed result in which some people’s votes don’t count. This seat is ‘safe’ because the vast majority of voters there like Labour. And the fact that it’s ‘safe’ doesn’t appear to affect voter turnout; turnout in Bootle is no worse than anywhere else on average.

I’m not going to spend my whole afternoon trying to discover whether these facts are similar for all ‘safe’ seats, but I imagine they probably are. In which case, even under AV, I have a hard time believing Labour would bother directing its campaign effort at Bootle. Labour is in no danger whatsoever of being ousted from Bootle.

Parties will always campaign the hardest where they have to work the hardest to get elected, and I see no reason to think this would not also be the case under AV. It seems that the real complaint here is that parties don’t engage on a broad national level during election time, which is a pretty bizarre complaint if you ask me. A particular candidate need only bother engaging with the voters in his own constituency anyway; they’re the only ones who can vote for him. If his party as a whole focuses its campaign efforts elsewhere, that’s between him and his party, not between him and his voters. AV won’t solve this.

Fourth: AV will pay MPs to connect with more parts of their constituencies. If this is true, then MPs are damned stupid and there is simply no saving them. What candidate does not try to get the largest share of the vote possible? What candidate does not, already, try to increase his existing majority? In short, what candidate is not trying his damnedest to win? Show me this person. No, really: show me.

AV, therefore, is not a solution to minority majorities, safe seats, or MPs who don’t give a damn about the voters. It does not even make every vote ‘count,’ as there is still only one winner. At best, it is an opportunity for those who feel unrepresented by any major party to give their support to the candidate they dislike the least, and a chance to indicate that a vote for a party doesn’t necessarily equate with wholehearted support for that party.

But FPTP already permits people to send these signals. And send them the voters do. What, then, is the advantage of AV? That we would have a better way of quantifying these signals?

I mean, imagine how this would pan out. My MP is Chuka Umunna. Here is how he won:

Labour: 42.8%
Lib Dem: 35.8%
Conservative: 18.3%
All others: 3%

Let’s assume the Conservatives all give Lib Dem as their second preference (I have a hard time believing any real Conservative voter would choose Labour anything but last.) Under AV, it’s therefore possible that Chuka Umunna would have lost. But could anyone then claim that Chris Nicholson was supported by more than half the voters? No. A true statement would be that Umunna was supported by less than half the voters. Since the FPTP vote already delivers this message, there is no need for AV to send the signal. Another true statement would be that more than half the voters preferred someone other than Umunna. Again, we can see this from the FPTP vote. But why should this mean Nicholson deserves to win, when clearly more voters actively want Umunna than passively reject him? Those 42.8% of people who really want Labour are effectively disenfranchised by the fact that the Conservatives get to vote twice. How is this ‘fair’?

Or let’s examine it another way. Lots of people vote Lib Dem for tactical reasons—in the case of Streatham, probably as a vote against Labour. Under AV, the theory goes, people wouldn’t need to do this. Suppose a third of those Lib Dem votes were actually Conservatives in sheep’s clothing. Under AV, our first-preference result might look like this:

Labour: 42.8%
Conservatives: 30.1%
Lib Dem: 24%
All others: 3%

Let’s be generous and say that of those 24% of voters whose first preference is the Lib Dems, a third choose Labour second and two thirds choose the Conservatives. In which case Chuka Umunna wins, and AV delivers a result absolutely no different from FPTP: Chuka Umunna becomes MP for Streatham. Everything else an AV vote might tell us is academic.

If I studied the results from every constituency in the 2010 general election, I could probably show this again and again: AV would deliver an obviously unfair result, or one exactly the same as FPTP, or one where nobody manages to secure more than half of the votes. The more marginal the seat, the more likely an unfair or inconclusive result; the safer the seat, the less difference AV would make.

FPTP means that a candidate can win with less than half of the votes. Admittedly this is not great. But at least it means he was wanted by more voters than any other candidate was. At least it means every voter had exactly one vote of equal weight. Why should we reject this system for one in which some people’s half-hearted second preferences are held equal to others’ whole-hearted first, and may not even then deliver a conclusive result? That is not ‘fair’. That is the bastard system.

  12 Responses to “A positive approach”

  1. most democratic countries use FPTP.

    Is that true? I would be very surprised if it was.

    What candidate does not try to get the largest share of the vote possible?

    Pretty much any candidate in a safe seat. If somebody expects to get 60% of the vote, there’s no point pushing for more. Any effort would be better spent ensuring that the core vote turns out, rather than pushing for 70%. There is also a risk that, by pushing for extra votes outside the core vote, the candidate risks alienating the core vote and if you expect to have enough votes to win anyway, what would be the point?

    It is only under more esoteric systems, such as the random ballot, that candidates have a serious incentive to push for 100% of the vote.

    FPTP means that a candidate can win with less than half of the votes. Admittedly this is not great. But at least it means he was wanted by more voters than any other candidate was. At least it means every voter had exactly one vote of equal weight. Why should we reject this system for one in which some people’s half-hearted second preferences are held equal to others’ whole-hearted first, and may not even then deliver a conclusive result?

    What about people’s half-hearted first preferences under FPTP?

    The argument rests on the assumption that, under FPTP, people go out and vote for the person they really want, but, of course, in reality, that doesn’t happen. People will tend to make a judgement about which candidates have a chance of winning and vote for the one out of that group which is preferable to them. In that respect, FPTP is just as bad as, if not worse than, AV, when it comes to delivering a compromise winner.

    • I doubt many candidates are as sanguine about what share of the vote to expect as you seem to imply.

      And no, the argument for FPTP does not rest on the assumption that people vote for the person they really want. It rests on the assumption that everybody is permitted one choice, and permitted the privacy to make that choice for whatever reason they deem fit. Their reasons are their privilege. To assess and reassess the preferences of some voters until more than half of the ballots are allocated to one candidate makes a mockery of the idea of equal franchise. It is a slap in the face to those whose first-preference candidate ultimately loses, because many of the other voters whose candidate lost will have had their ballot counted a second time for somebody else. And what happens to those who choose all of the small parties as their early preferences? As those small parties are eliminated from the running, those preferences are skipped, so it’s entirely possible that such a voter could see his ballot allocated to the candidate of his last preference, if he has numbered all his selections. Unless such a voter wants to see his precious vote go to his most loathed candidate, he will have to ‘make a judgment about which candidates have a chance of winning’ and make his choices accordingly.

      If your complaint is that people frequently have to vote half-heartedly, I suggest you refer your concern to the parties themselves rather than the system used to choose between them. AV just slaps a plaster over the gaping wound that is the lack of real electoral choice in this country. I’m sure the party fanatics in this country believe there is a world of difference between e.g. Labour and the Conservatives, but from where I’m sitting, they look suspiciously similar.

      The ultimate strength of FPTP, which AV utterly lacks, is that it means one person, one preference, for whatever reason at whatever intensity, win or lose. You take the same chance as everybody else, whether you vote with your conscience or not. If it doesn’t produce the result you want—if it doesn’t let you effectively vote against candidates—that’s the price you pay. Whatever the system, in the end there’s still only one winner, and everybody who preferred somebody else is shit out of luck.

      • To assess and reassess the preferences of some voters until more than half of the ballots are allocated to one candidate makes a mockery of the idea of equal franchise.

        No it doesn’t. Every voter has the option to have one vote in each round of counting. Perfectly equal.

        If your complaint is that people frequently have to vote half-heartedly, I suggest you refer your concern to the parties themselves rather than the system used to choose between them.

        I won’t do that, because I can see that the primary problem is having a disfunctional system like FPTP, where people are often faced with a choice between voting for a smaller party that they really want and in all likelihood, see their vote have little impact, or pick from two or three large parties that they may not particularly like, but view as being the only likely winner. It is a system which encourages stagnation and discourages people from voting outside the established mainstream.

        AV just slaps a plaster over the gaping wound that is the lack of real electoral choice in this country. I’m sure the party fanatics in this country believe there is a world of difference between e.g. Labour and the Conservatives, but from where I’m sitting, they look suspiciously similar.

        Of course they are suspiciously similar, but that’s the natural consequence of having a valueless system like FPTP.

        The ultimate strength of FPTP, which AV utterly lacks, is that it means one person, one preference, for whatever reason at whatever intensity, win or lose.

        I don’t see why that should be viewed as a strength. To be honest I find your whole argument quite bizarre. You, quite rightly in my opinion, highlight the lack of electoral choice, but go on to say that the strength of FPTP is that it creates the conditions which make that lack of choice almost inevitable.

        • We could probably argue about whether it is the parties or the electoral system that depresses choice for ages. Given how wildly parties and their views have diverged in the past, however, I don’t think you have much of a case when you say that FPTP causes lack of choice.

          However. If you are claiming that AV encourages people to vote outside the mainstream—which I also understand to be the case as well—you might want to take your case to the people at Yes2AV, who are busy reassuring people that AV locks out ‘extremist’ (i.e. small) parties. Why change to a system in which votes for small parties end up turning into votes for the Big Three anyway? It’s hardly worth the effort.

          There are many problems with the way Britain is governed, but I don’t think the method of voting is one of them. The absence of real ideological debate, the apathy of the electorate in response to the unaccountable executive, and the parcelling out of sovereignty and decision-making to people and institutions not elected by the British people are not the fault of FPTP, nor will they be addressed by AV.

  2. We could probably argue about whether it is the parties or the electoral system that depresses choice for ages. Given how wildly parties and their views have diverged in the past, however, I don’t think you have much of a case when you say that FPTP causes lack of choice.

    I would have thought that it was self-evident that FPTP causes lack of choice. It’s fairly logical that the incentives created by the system will result in reduced choice, but, even working on an anecdotal basis, European Elections, using a different electoral system, have a more diverse participation and outcome, in spite of the fact that it is the same parties taking part.

    Why change to a system in which votes for small parties end up turning into votes for the Big Three anyway? It’s hardly worth the effort.

    Because it would remove the disincentive to vote for small parties, which would create a greater chance of small parties becoming big parties.

    The absence of real ideological debate, the apathy of the electorate in response to the unaccountable executive, and the parcelling out of sovereignty and decision-making to people and institutions not elected by the British people are not the fault of FPTP, nor will they be addressed by AV.

    I don’t agree on the first two, but in any case, I wouldn’t see that as a reason not to improve the electoral system. Just because it isn’t the only problem doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be addressed.

  3. First: the claim that AV is more appropriate for contemporary Britain. By Rawnsley’s lights this may well be the case, but what is so different about contemporary Britain? If AV is appropriate now for the reasons he gives, it has always been appropriate, and FPTP is a bastard system that has always been unfair and unrepresentative. And if this is true of FPTP in Britain, it is true of FPTP everywhere and at all times.
    You ask what’s so different about contemporary Britain, and the answer lies in the fact that the national vote nowadays tends to express a variety of viewpoints. The UK tends to alternate between being a two-party reality and a three-party one, in terms of most of the vote, and nowadays it’s a three-party one. In the 1950s, pretty much everybody voted Conservative or Labour, so most MPs were elected by most voters in their constituencies, but nowadays, with the vote being split between a few parties, only a third of MPs are so elected.

    Rawnsley does not address why, then, most democratic countries use FPTP.
    It’s simply false to say that most democratic countries use FPTP. FPTP may well be the most commonly used form of democracy in the world, but even this this is a mere accident of history. It’s obvious that all that’s happened is that countries once ruled by Britain inherited Britain’s electoral system even as they became independent, though some, such as Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and South Africa have since shaken it off.

    Look at Europe, for instance: of the 27 countries in the Union, only the UK uses FPTP, and outside the Union, none of Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, Andorra, Slovakia, Croatia, Bosnia, Albania, FYROM, Ukraine, or Turkey use it. That’s 37 democratic countries in Europe who don’t use it, and just 1 that does. And of the 37 that use it, three briefly adopted it and then abandoned it when they realised how inadequate a mechanism it was for reflecting the will of the people.

    Second: that MPs will have to gather support from at least half the voters. This is probably right, for certain values of ‘support’ and ‘half.’ For one thing, nothing in AV necessitates that an MP will have the support of half the constituency electorate; only that s/he will have the support of half of those who actually voted. If we examine, for instance, the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election in January, we see that less than half of the electorate turned out. Already we are not going to have the majority of voters represented.

    You’re right that there’s no guarantee that everyone will vote, but I don’t think she should be refusing to take steps in the right direction simply because they lead merely to improvement, and not to perfection. Politics, as is often said, is the art of the possible.

    • I don’t think it’s really that inadequate a mechanism for reflecting the will of the people. Admittedly I haven’t done the research, but a quick glance at the last couple of decades does seem to suggest that the party forming the Government is usually the party with the most votes nation-wide. (Though even this, I suppose, is not an argument that carries much water with a supporter of AV.)

      I certainly would not oppose improvement of any sort in the methods by which this country is governed, but I simply don’t see that AV is an improvement. At best it appears to be a lateral change.

  4. It |is true that the party forming the government is usually the party with the most votes nation-wide, though this is not always the case.

    In 1951, the Conservatives won more seats than Labour, despite receiving fewer votes, and in 1974, Labour won more seats than the Conservatives, despite receiving fewer votes, and in both cases the less popular party wound up forming the government. What’s more, it hasn’t been the case that any party has received most of the votes nationwide since 1931, when the Conservatives got 55% of the vote and 76.4% of the seats, with similar feats having been achieved in 1900, 1886, and regularly before 1880.

    I’ve said that only a third of MPs are elected by most voters in their constituencies; it wasn’t always like this, but nowadays we’re stuck with a two-party system for a multi-party reality. The reality now is that most British voters vote for losing candidates rather than winning ones. In a typical constituency, 35% of the electorate won’t vote for whatever reason, 34% will vote for losing candidates, and only 31% will vote for winning ones. Surely this needs reforming.

    I don’t think AV is the best possible voting system, and I say that as somebody who’s elected representatives using AV, PR-STV, FPTP, and PR-D’Hondt (which I really dislike). I do, however, think it’s a better one than FPTP, and I think we should be wary of making the perfect an enemy of the good. While not perfect, I believe AV to be more likely to return a more representative representative assembly than the current British system, and I also believe that changing the system, even in so mild a way, could help change mindsets, so that people might be more willing to countenance other changes without fearing the apocalypse.

    And, of course, if we don’t like it, we can change it back. That’s the beauty of democracy.

  5. Re: low turnouts. For years I’ve thought that two changes, which could be applied to AV and it’s siblings or FPTP, would shake things up there. I’d say that people who don’t vote fall into two categories: the ones who dislike all the choices fairly equally and the ones who just can’t be arsed. The first lot – and at the last UK election I was among them – are likely to be brought back to the polling stations if ballot papers had a box to mark rejecting all candidates, which would probably need to be made more meaningful than a simple protest. I’d suggest that if the eventual ‘winner’ turns out to be None Of The Above or whatever suits the voting system used then all candidates really are rejected and a by election is automatically triggered for, say, four weeks time. The parties would of course be free to put up the same candidates though it might be a bit of a gamble. How long the process would continue if the electorate kept on rejecting all candidates is something else but I reckon there should be a point, perhaps as early as the second mass rejection, where it’s accepted that the voters simply do not want to be represented at all. And why shouldn’t it be possible to vote for not having a representative? Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath did, sort of 😉

    As for the don’t cares, Apathy Party, whatever you want to call them, a majority failing to vote at all could also be seen as a rejection of all candidates. So why not treat it as such and tell everyone to come back in five years? If more than 50% stay away even with the option to put an X next to None Of The Above or a zero next to all candidates or whatever then why not simply declare the seat not won and vacant for the duration of the Parliament. If that motivates people to turn out in greater numbers next time then great, and equally if they decide that actually life without an MP really isn’t any different except they know there’s one less snout at the trough then the idea might actually catch on. One thing that here is how many well known MPs would have had to go to the Job Centre after the election. I haven’t checked last year’s but in 04 the rejects would have included Frank Field, Sion Simon, Clare Short, Gorbals Mick, Diane Abbott, John Prescott, Alan Johnson, Hilary Benn, Gerald Kaufman, Hazel Blears, David Blunkett, Kate Hoey and Shaun Woodward. Most of them would have been given the flick back in 01 as well, along with Margaret Hodge, the Harperson, Malcolm Rifkind, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, James Purnell and David Millitwat. If applied to by elections as well that troughing bastard Jim Devine would never have had the chance.

    Not that any of this advance the AV vs FPTP debate so apologies for the slight topic detour.

  6. However, let us say that most of these votes would go to the Lib Dems next, so we’ll add another 15% to the Lib Dem share, giving us:

    Labour: 49.3%
    Lib Dem: 46.9%

    Um, crap. We’re on our last two candidates.

    I have no clue how you’ve managed to create a system where only two remaining candidates can both have less than 50% of the vote. When there are only two candidates left: by definition one of them has at least 50% of the vote.

    Either your maths has slipped a gear, or you’ve simply zeroed out those who didn’t express a second or third preference. That is not how AV would work. Those who don’t vote in subsequent rounds are treated as the equivalent of having not voted (which they effectively didn’t).

  7. First: the claim that AV is more appropriate for contemporary Britain. By Rawnsley’s lights this may well be the case, but what is so different about contemporary Britain? If AV is appropriate now for the reasons he gives, it has always been appropriate, and FPTP is a bastard system that has always been unfair and unrepresentative. And if this is true of FPTP in Britain, it is true of FPTP everywhere and at all times. Rawnsley does not address why, then, most democratic countries use FPTP.

    Arguably, FPTP as a system has always been a bastard system. The difference is that it was kinda-OK decades ago because people overwhelmingly voted either Labour or Conservative. You now have seats where people are winning with less than 1/3rd of the vote.

    Second: that MPs will have to gather support from at least half the voters.

    You’re not wrong. It’s not always going to deliver 50%. But would we rather have 45% support or 30% support?

    Third: the claim that AV would impel parties to engage with more of the country than just marginal constituencies. This, I fear, is a silly belief. Seats are ‘safe’ because a majority of the voters in those constituencies firmly and regularly support one party.

    You’re missing the fact that FPTP encourages people to gravitate towards one of 2 parties. Many UKIP voters won’t vote UKIP – they’ll vote Conservative because they consider that Labour can’t win, so would rather pick Conservative. Problem is that if everyone thinks that way, the Conservatives get in. This is known as Duverger’s Law.

    All the evidence of political systems supports this. In the US and the UK we’ve basically had 2 parties in power for around 100 years. In countries like Italy and France which use non-FPTP systems, new parties can gain representation far more quickly (Berlusconi’s Forza Italia won at its first election).

    Fourth: AV will pay MPs to connect with more parts of their constituencies. If this is true, then MPs are damned stupid and there is simply no saving them. What candidate does not try to get the largest share of the vote possible?

    This is all related to Duverger’s Law. I didn’t get a Conservative visiting my house, despite living in a reasonably marginal constituency. The parties now have data about each street from which they can determine if you’re likely to go Con, Lab, LD or whatever. If you’re in a “Conservative area”, they know you’re most likely to vote Conservative to keep Labour from winning rather than UKIP because you think they’re better. So, they actually work on a relatively small number of voters that they consider are likely to switch.

    This is also why there’s a fag paper’s width between Labour and Conservatives. They’re basically focussing on those voters who might switch who are basically lower middle class voters.

    If I studied the results from every constituency in the 2010 general election, I could probably show this again and again: AV would deliver an obviously unfair result, or one exactly the same as FPTP, or one where nobody manages to secure more than half of the votes. The more marginal the seat, the more likely an unfair or inconclusive result; the safer the seat, the less difference AV would make.

    The problem is that you don’t really know how people would vote, because the system affects how people vote.

    Now, if you look at what happened in the Barnsley By-Election, UKIP came 2nd. This is partly no doubt to do with the Conservatives being in power. But what’s also important is that people on the “right” knew that their vote wasn’t going to prevent there being a Conservative government, so could vote for who they really wanted instead.

    What you have to understand is why the 2 main parties are against AV: It’s because there’s a possibility that other parties can come along and take their jobs and their power. Labour know that in some areas, they could find themselves defeated by a more old fashioned socialist party, and Conservatives know they could lose some seats to more traditional small government parties.

  8. Sorry, please replace with the following:

    You’re missing the fact that FPTP encourages people to gravitate towards one of 2 parties. Many would-be UKIP voters won’t vote UKIP – they’ll vote Conservative because they consider that UKIP can’t win, so would rather pick Conservative. Problem is that if everyone thinks that way, the Conservatives get in. This is known as Duverger’s Law.

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