Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Does AV give extremists more votes than moderates ?

In my recent post criticising the ‘Alternative Vote’ (AV) system, I explained why the system is unfair, and why it effectively privileges voters for fringe parties over those voting for mainstream parties. I argued also that AV effectively gives them more votes. Defenders of AV such as Norm Geras and Alex Massie deny that this is true. However, the pro-AV camp appears to be making two, contradictory arguments in defence of the system: 1) that it does not give those voting for extremist parties more votes than moderates; and 2) that it does, but that this is a good thing.

Hence, The Independent newspaper defends AV on the grounds that

‘the curse of the first-past-the-post system – the argument that a vote for a smaller party is “wasted” – would be eliminated at a stroke, because the second preference votes of lower-placed candidates would be reallocated if the first count failed to produce a clear winner. The public will be able to vote for the person they want to represent them (as their first preference) without having to agonise about whether they are effectively disenfranchising themselves if they choose a candidate representing a smaller party.’

Under the present First-Past-The-Post system, each voter has one vote and a choice over how to cast it: either they can express their unhappiness with mainstream politics by voting for a fringe party, in the knowledge that the fringe candidate has no chance of winning, or they can vote for a mainstream candidate whom they may or may not actually like but who does have a chance of winning. Because they only have one vote, they cannot do both. Under AV, however, they can have their cake and eat it.

Thus, a BNP supporter wishing to express his disgust at what he feels is the failure of mainstream politicians to keep the hordes of job-stealing, council-house-queue-jumping foreigners out and the pesky, halal-munching, integration-avoiding Muslims downs, but who when push comes to shove would generally vote for the Tories since they’re at least a bit tougher on immigration than Labour, could now do both: he could cast his vote for the BNP candidate and thereby boost the BNP’s share of the vote nationally, in order to send out a clear message to the decadent, unpatriotic liberal elite running the country that the silent majority is angry with the way things are, AND could then have his vote transferred to the Tory candidate; a vote that will then count just as much as a first-preference Tory vote from an actual Tory supporter.

I call that having two votes instead of one. Someone voting with their first-preference vote for Labour or another mainstream party, by contrast, has done just one of those things. The Labour voter has voted for a party with a chance of winning; the BNP voter has voted for a party with a chance of winning AND boosted the votes of another, fringe party that has no chance of winning, but that will undoubtedly claim greater legitimacy and make political capital the more votes it gets. So AV would provide a definite incentive to vote for a fringe party while putting a mainstream party as your second choice, so as to make the most of your vote.

Responding to my last post, which used an example to show how supporters of the fringe party would receive an unfair advantage over the supporters of the mainstream party because the system redistributes their votes first, Norm has given a counter-example of what he suggests is an equally unfair result under the existing system:

‘In Lower Zogby by the Fen 35 people vote Tory first, 33 vote Labour first, and 32 vote LibDem first. But the Labour voters would prefer the LibDem to the Tory, and the LibDem voters would prefer the Labour candidate to the Tory. As is, with first-past-the-post, the preferences of 67 out of 100 people to have a candidate elected other than the Tory are nullified, where with AV Labour would win.’

Certainly, there are unfair aspects of the existing system, and unfair results possible under it. I’m not convinced that the example Norm cites is particularly unfair, since it involves, after all, the candidate who won the most votes winning. But if one concedes that it is unfair, then it is unfair in practice; in that particular instance, the LibDem and Labour candidates have split the left/liberal vote and allowed the Tory to win. In another instance, it might be an anti-Labour majority that is split between the Tories and the LibDems. The AV system, however, privileges the voters for fringe parties in principle, since if you are a fringe-party supporter, the system will always work in your favour – or at the very worst, will never work against you. The First-Past-The-Post system is fair in principle but unfair in practice; the AV system is unfair in principle.

Having said that, Norm’s example points to a genuine pragmatic argument for voting for AV, one that has been made by Timothy Garton Ash, Polly Toynbee and others: the fact that under the existing system, the liberal portion of the British electorate is split between the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, bestowing a structural advantage on the Conservatives, and that the way to end disproportionate Conservative success at the polls is to abolish First Past the Post. This argument appears much weaker after last year’s general election: the Conservatives failed to win under First Past the Post, but were rescued by the Liberal Democrats; instead of joining with Labour to form a centre-left government representing Britain’s ‘natural liberal majority’, the LibDems gave the non-victorious Conservatives a parliamentary majority to implement a radical Thatcherite programme for which they had no popular mandate. AV would make more such Con-Dem coalitions likely.

My solution for the electoral split in the centre-left, is for the LibDems to experience electoral meltdown at the next general election and effectively to disappear as a significant party. Instead of which, AV would breathe life into the discredited and moribund LibDems, empowering future Nick Cleggs to play kingmaker between Labour and the Conservatives after future elections. AV would exacerbate the split in the centre-left, not make it go away.

Visit the ‘No to AV‘ campaign site.

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Saturday, 2 April 2011 Posted by | Britain, Marko Attila Hoare | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Alternative Vote system – a ‘Cunning Plan’

On 5 May, British voters will vote in a referendum on whether to replace our existing ‘First Past the Post’ voting system for parliamentary elections with the ‘Alternative Vote’ (AV) system. I had not previously examined the implications of AV and had no prior ideological bias for or against it. But having now had a chance to look at how AV would work, I am literally dumbfounded that our great democracy is under threat of being lumbered with this cruel joke of a voting system.

Under AV, voters would not just give one vote to one candidate, but would list candidates in order of preference – putting ‘1’ for their first-choice candidate, ‘2’ for their second choice, etc. In the likely event that no candidate received an absolute majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest such votes would be eliminated from the contest, and their voters’ second-choice votes would then be added to the total votes of the other candidates. If there were still no candidate with an absolute majority, the candidate who now had fewest votes would then be eliminated and their votes redistributed, and so on until one candidate had achieved over 50% of the votes.

This system would increase the voting power of voters who vote for fringe parties such as the BNP or Respect, and disadvantage those voting for moderate, mainstream parties. Those voting for the fringe extremists would be likely to have their votes redistributed to their second, third or further choice; those voting for the mainstream parties would be much less likely to. Effectively, supporters of unpopular extremist parties would be given more votes than supporters of popular moderate parties.

To illustrate this, imagine a hypothetical constituency with 100 voters, being contested by four candidates from the following parties: Labour, the Conservatives (Tories), the Liberal Democrats (LibDems) and the British National Party (BNP). To win, a candidate would ultimately have to achieve 51 votes [NB I am aware, of course, that real constituencies have more than 100 voters, and that the distribution of votes is likely to be more complicated than what follows; this is a simplified but representative model of how AV would work].

In the first round of voting, the outcome is as follows:

Labour: 40 votes – second-choice votes to LibDems

Tory: 29 votes – second-choice votes to LibDems

LibDem: 16 votes – second-choice votes to Tories

BNP: 15 votes – second-choice votes to Tories

The BNP candidate, as the lowest-ranking, is therefore eliminated and their votes transferred to their voters’ second choice – in this case, the Tory candidate, whose votes would therefore increase to 29 + 15 = 44 votes. Since still no candidate has a majority, the next lowest candidate – the LibDem – is eliminated and their votes transferred to their voters’ second choice – again the Tory. The Tory candidate thus has 44 + 16 = 60 votes, therefore an absolute majority, and wins the election.

The system is grossly unfair at every level:

1) It is the lowest-ranking candidate alone whose votes are redistributed. It privileges those voting for the lowest-ranking candidates, and penalises those voting for the more popular candidates.

Why shouldn’t it be the highest-ranking candidate whose votes are redistributed ? In the example above, this would mean the Labour candidate is eliminated, and their 40 votes transferred to the LibDem, who would then have 16 + 40 = 56 and would win the election. The Labour voters, who actually voted for the candidate with the most first-preference votes, would therefore at least have their second-choice candidate win. Yet under AV, the BNP voters – not the Labour voters – would have their second choice win.

Why should this be so ? I have not yet heard any attempt at justification from the pro-AV camp.

2) AV pretends that a candidate who might not even have a plurality under the First-Past-The-Post system, actually has an absolute majority. It’s a con-trick.

In the example above, the Tory candidate who won only 29 out of 100 votes, therefore 11 fewer than the Labour candidate and 22 short of an absolute majority, is given a ‘majority’ through the second-preference votes of the BNP and LibDem voters. This ‘majority’ is gained because only the second-choice votes of the BNP and LibDem voters count. If everyone’s second-choice votes counted, the result would be as follows:

Labour: 40 first-preference votes and 0 second-preference votes = 40

Tory: 29 first-preference votes and 31 second-preference votes = 60

LibDem: 16 first-preference votes and 69 second-preference votes = 85

BNP: 15 first-preference votes and 0 second-preference votes = 15

Under AV, the Tory candidate wins because they receive the second-preference votes of the BNP and LibDem voters, but the LibDem candidate doesn’t receive any second-preference votes, even though they received many more of them than the Tory. Were all second-preference votes to be treated as equal, the LibDem would win. Of course, the LibDem candidate only has 85 out of 200 total first- and second-preference votes – not an absolute majority. But this is more than the Tory candidate, who has 60 out of 200. The latter is a smaller percentage than the Labour candidate received of the first-preference votes. Yet the pro-AV camp would have us believe that the Tory candidate actually has an absolute majority of 60 out of 100 !

There is simple justice to the existing system: the candidate with the most votes wins. Under AV, a candidate who comes second or third might win, just because the votes are redistributed in an arbitrary and unequal way. In the example above, the Tory would win, even though 71 out of 100 voters preferred another candidate.

If, under the existing voting system, the British people don’t already feel politically disillusioned and disempowered, replacing it with AV would make sure that they do.

And all this is leaving aside the still more important reason for voting against AV – the overriding need to kick Nick Clegg. I’m not joking. We’re only voting on AV because of the back-room deal that Clegg struck with the Tories to enter government, at the price of ditching his pre-election promises and betraying his voters. And Clegg only wants AV because it would boost his party’s share of the parliamentary seats. It beggars belief that we are actually in danger of having our voting system ruined, just so an unprincipled politician can receive his pay-off. And this despite the fact that even Clegg described AV as a ‘miserable little compromise’ !

Visit the ‘No to AV’ campaign site.

Thursday, 31 March 2011 Posted by | Britain, Marko Attila Hoare | , , , | Leave a comment