Friday, 29 April 2011

AV, yes or no?

As I hope you will all be aware we get a referendum on the 5th of May on changing the voting system used to elect MPs to the house of commons. The choice we are getting is one between First Past The Post (FPTP) and the Alternative Vote (AV).

Somehow I haven't been surprised at the appalling amount of misinformation on AV thrown about by both  the YES and NO campaigns along with the majority of major news organisations, so I'm going to try and explain both systems here so that you at least can make your own decision based on the facts, rather than some spurious arguments put out by political parties.

(N.B. If you think you already understand the voting systems then please feel free to skip that part of this post, the same with debunking various myths put out by both campaigns)

FPTP

Hopefully, all those of you who have voted before know how the system works but for the purposes of comparison and for those new to voting I'll explain it anyway.

Under FPTP you go to the polling station. You will be given a list of possible candidates, one for each party plus any independents standing. A standard list might look like the following:


Party
Candidate
Your vote
Labour
A
X
Green
B

UKIP
C

Liberal Democrat
D

Independent
E

Conservative
F

Scottish National/Plaid Cymru/ Democratic Unionist (depending on where you live)
G














You would simply place an X next to the candidate or party you want to be in power. The ballots are then taken away, counted and whoever gets the most votes wins.

AV

You get the same list. However, instead of a simple X you have the option of ranking the parties/candidates in order of preference. So, for instance, maybe you just want the Labour party in power, so you put a 1 next to their candidate and leave it at that (those of you who are observant will realise that this means you can still vote in the same way under AV as you did under FPTP, no-one is forcing you to change).


Party
Candidate
Your vote
Labour
A
1
Green
B

UKIP
C

Liberal Democrat
D

Independent
E

Conservative
F

Scottish National/Plaid Cymru/ Democratic Unionist
G













Or maybe you quite like the green party, but if they don't make it (as is likely unless you live in Brighton) you don't want your vote to be wasted so you put a 2 next to the Liberal democrats but if they don't make it either you would prefer the conservatives to Labour so you put a 3 next to the conservatives.

Party
Candidate
Your vote
Labour
A

Green
B
 1
UKIP
C

Liberal Democrat
D
 2
Independent
E

Conservative
F
 3
Scottish National/Plaid Cymru/ Democratic Unionist
G














The number 1 votes are then counted up. Let's assume this constituency has 50,000 votes cast. The "first round" therefore might look like this:


Party
Total number 1 votes
Labour
 15,000
Green
 2,000
UKIP
 1,500
Liberal Democrat
 7,000
Independent
 500
Conservative
 21,000
Scottish National/Plaid Cymru/ Democratic Unionist
 3,000












If any party had got 50% of the number 1 votes (25,000) they would have won. However, no party managed this so we go to "round 2". In round 2 the party with the smallest number of votes is "eliminated" and their number 2 votes are given to the other parties. In this case the independent has the lowest number of votes so they are removed. The votes for the independent are looked at again, if a second preference was indicated then the vote is given to their second preference, if not then the vote is removed. So, at the end of round 2 we might get a result like this:


Party
Total votes 
Labour
15,100 (+100)
Green
2,050 (+50)
UKIP
1,500
Liberal Democrat
7,250 (+250)


Conservative
21,050 (+50)
Scottish National/Plaid Cymru/ Democratic Unionist
3,050 (+50)












Still no party has 50% so we repeat the process. UKIP are now the smallest party so they are removed and their votes redistributed. So at the end of "round 3" the votes might look like this:


Party
Total votes
Labour
15,100
Green
3,100 (+1,050)


Liberal Democrat
7,250


Conservative
21,250 (+200)
Scottish National/Plaid Cymru/ Democratic Unionist
3,300 (+250)












Still no 50% so the process continues until one party manages to achieve a majority of votes:


Party
Total number 1 votes
Labour
15,500 (+400)




Liberal Democrat
8,000 (+750)


Conservative
22,000 (+750)
Scottish National/Plaid Cymru/ Democratic Unionist
4,500 (+1,200)













Party
Total number 1 votes
Labour
16,300 (+800)




Liberal Democrat
8,200 (+200)


Conservative
25,500 (+3,500)














The conservatives have managed to nudge their vote over the 50% mark so they win this constituency.


Which one should you be voting for?

Before we get into the real differences on which you should be basing your decision I'm going to first debunk all of the myths and lies put out by both the YES and the NO campaigns.


Arguments made by the NO campaign

  • AV is complicated
  • AV is expensive
  • AV is unfair
  • AV gives some people more votes than others
  • AV results in more coalitions
  • AV would let extremist parties in
  • AV would let extremists decides who wins elections
  • AV is only used by 2 other countries
  • AV means the "winner" loses or Vice Versa
Is AV complicated?

AV is a little more complex than FPTP but not by much. All people need to know to understand AV is they put a "1" by their favourite, "2" by their second favourite and so on until there are no more candidates they would like to win. So yes, 1,2,3 is a bit more complicated than just 1, but it's not exactly very hard to understand. Personally I think that people in this country are not idiots and that saying AV shouldn't happen because the public is too stupid to understand "1,2,3" is frankly insulting.

Is AV expensive?

The NO campaign claim that AV will cost £250 million. This is based on the spurious assumption that AV would need electronic voting machines. None of the countries that use AV use electronic voting machines. In fact, Northern Ireland uses a voting system called STV for its elections, which is a lot more complicated than FPTP and even they don't use electronic machines. If we get AV we won't need electronic voting machines in order to use it so this is just an outright lie. The NO campaign also say it would cost £26 million to "educate" people about the new system. Firstly, I don't think it's that hard to educate people about a system which only requires them to put a 1,2,3 on a ballot paper and secondly, is £26 million really too high a price to pay to decide who controls a government budget of around £750,000,000,000? Somehow, I think deciding who controls the budget is worth spending only £33 out of every £1,000,000.

Moreover, does anyone think that democracy should be avoided just because it is expensive? If we really cared about cost why not just have no elections? The last general election cost £80 million according to official figures (and that's not counting the millions parties spent on adverts, printing etc.) so if cost were a decent argument against voting systems, why not scrap FPTP while we're at it and save even more millions? Democracy is priceless and to try and put a price on it is to trample on the achievements of all those who have fought and given their lives over the centuries so that we can have the privilege of being able to choose who governs us. This is not the kind of thinking which is going to help this country move forward.

Is AV unfair? (will it give some people more votes than others)

Not really. If I go into a fish and chip shop and order cod and chips, but they're out of cod so I order a steak and kidney pie, but they're out of those, so I order scampi instead, I haven't had 3 meals have I? Under AV votes might move around but they're still only one vote at the end of the day. Your vote will still make just as much difference as anybody else's.

Will AV result in more coalitions?

Not necessarily. Since Australia started using AV they have had 43 parliaments and only 2 coalitions. Some coalitions lasted for more than 1 parliament but even if we count by election cycles, only 1 in 6 Australian elections resulted in a hung parliament (where no party had a majority of seats, like the last election). However, in the UK, since 1900, we have had 28 parliaments of which 5 have been hung parliaments. In other words, we have FPTP, the Australians have AV, and yet we get more hung parliaments (and have had the same number of coalitions) than they do. Obviously, Australia is not the UK but either way there is very little evidence to back up a claim that AV means more coalitions. 

Would AV let extremist parties in?

Definitely not. Much as I don't want to stoop to the level of either campaign, the BNP wouldn't be supporting the NO campaign if they thought AV would help them get into Westminster. In order to win under AV you need 50% of a constituency to vote for you. The point about extremist parties is that they appeal strongly to a small group of people but are generally thought badly of by the large majority of relatively moderate people. Extremists are most likely to win under FPTP where they might get a split vote between the big parties allowing them to win with only 25-30% of support. Under AV they would need 50% of people to not disapprove of them and that is not something that happens with extremist parties. 

Would AV mean those who vote for extremist parties get to decide who wins an election?

It is true that if you vote for unpopular parties your party will get knocked out sooner so your vote will move around more but suggesting that those who vote for fringe parties are somehow less trustworthy voters is a bad argument to make. We live in a DEMOCRACY! The point about a democracy is that all people are equal. To suggest that some people's votes are bad for democracy (which is essentially what the NO campaign are saying) is the kind of thinking used to justify withholding the vote from women or ethnic minorities or other 'untrustworthy' groups of people. Hopefully you will all see why that is not the kind of thinking we should be using in a modern democracy.

AV is only used by 2 other countries. Doesn't this mean it's a bad system?

For reference, the 2 countries are Australia and Papua New Guinea. AV might only be used for parliamentary elections by these 2 countries but it's used in a lot of places. For example, the conservative party use AV to decide who stands as a candidate in elections. They use AV to decide who should be speaker of the house of commons. David Cameron himself became leader using AV (he actually came second in the first round of voting). AV is used by large corporations for shareholder votes, it is used by trade unions on strike ballots and for leadership elections, it is used by businesses, charities and a wealth of other organisations. Even X-factor effectively uses a form of AV to decide the winners. You may never realise it but AV is used in a lot of places so the idea that "no-one else uses it" is ridiculous.

Also, since when did popularity mean a system was good? Should we believe in Christianity just because it is the most popular religion? Should we all buy a Volkswagen beetle just because it is the best selling car in history? There was a time when the "popular" belief was that the world was flat, that women shouldn't be trusted with the vote and that Hitler was a great leader for the German people. Popularity is one of the worst arguments to use when you're trying to make a decision as important as this one.

Does AV give victory to the loser?

No. AV simply redefines who we decide is the winner. It is quite true that somebody who would have won under FPTP might lose under AV but that's the whole point. Deciding which system produces a better winner is what the whole referendum is about. The logic used by the NO campaign assumes that FPTP is the best system (that the "winner" under FPTP is always the most worthy "winner"), so the argument the NO campaign are making here is essentially "FPTP is better because we have already assumed that it is".

Arguments made by the YES campaign
  • AV means MPs will have to work harder to get support
  • AV will end "jobs for life" A.K.A. "safe seats"
  • AV will mean an end to tactical voting
The YES campaign have made rather fewer claims, mainly because a lot of their effort has gone into trying to counter all the arguments made by the NO campaign. In that sense they have made most of the claims the NO campaign have made, in opposite, so I'm not going to repeat them.

Will AV mean MPs work harder?

Not really. As someone who's gone out canvassing for elections before I can say that MPs (and just about any local candidate for that matter) generally tend to try to reach every voter they can anyway. Under AV they would need more to swing to them but it's difficult to see how this would involve any more work than what they do at present, except that they might have to try and broaden their appeal a bit more.

Will AV mean an end to safe seats?

This one's definitely false. "safe seats" are where there is such overwhelming support for a party (generally at least 50%) that even a massive swing to the opposition wouldn't lead to the encumbent MP being ousted from power. Since 50% still gives you a victory under AV, safe seats where more than 50% will definitely vote Labour or Conservative (or in some very rare cases liberal democrat) will win outright anyway with just the number 1 votes. Safe seats will still be just as safe as they ever were, regardless of whether we get AV or FPTP.

Will AV mean an end to tactical voting?


This one's a bit trickier because, if you think about it, AV should remove the need for tactical voting. If your heart is green but you'd prefer the conservatives to Labour, under AV you could vote green first and conservative second; safe in the knowledge that even though the greens will probably be eliminated early on, your vote will still count in deciding which of the big parties get into power. So, you might expect AV to mean a lot less tactical voting. However, if you look at Australian elections then there still seems to be just as much tactical voting there as we get here. AV may remove the need to vote tactically but, unfortunately, there isn't really a lot of evidence to say that people change their behaviour as a result.


So, what should I actually be thinking about?


The differences between AV and FPTP aren't actually very great. AV will make it harder for extremists to get into power but they didn't really manage it under FPTP anyway. Safe seats will still be safe, tactical voting (if Australia is anything to go by) will still be prevalent and politics will probably continue as usual. What I'm trying to say here is that this referendum is not about AV or about FPTP.

The question on the ballot paper may be "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?" but this is not what the referendum is really about. The actual question the referendum is asking is 'do you want to change the voting system?' or, at least, that is how it will be read by politicians. If we get a NO vote we'll almost certainly keep FPTP for another couple of decades. If we get a YES vote there is a chance that further reforms will be offered because it will be seen to be something the public want.

The question you should be asking yourself is this: Do I want a more proportional system? There is no right answer to that question. FPTP delivers "strong, stable government" (well, most of the time anyway) whereas proportional systems deliver a system where politicians have to compromise and reach a consensus based on the actual support of the public. It would be wrong to say one system is inherently better than the other. Some people prefer strong government, others prefer more voter choice and consensus. Both the YES and NO campaigns have spent the last couple of months peddling lies, myths and petty arguments in order to try and sway your opinion. I (hopefully) have given you the facts to make up your own mind.

Please vote on the 5th of may and don't vote either way just because of your party loyalty. This referendum is far more important than that. Have a good think about it. Make up your own mind and let your voice be heard on the 5th of May because you probably won't get another chance to do so for a long time to come.

4 comments:

Brian said...

You point out that AV won't end safe seats but appear to buy into some of the more subtle myths perpetuated by the No campaign in your explanation of this point.

Firstly, two-thirds of MPs don't currently get 50% of the vote, but many of these may currently be regarded as safe. For example, an MP may have 40% of the vote, with other candidates at 20% or below. Under FPTP, this would probably be regarded as a safe seat, such is the lead, but may well not be under AV. As you say beforehand, MPs will have to broaden their appeal.

Secondly, and perhaps more crucially, that an MP currently gets more than 50% of the vote in no way means that their seat would be safe under AV since many of their votes might be tactical rather than genuine first choices. Given the freedom to vote for their first choice candidate knowing that it won't be wasted, it may be that the candidate with the most votes won't get 50% initially. Although they may still get elected, it may not be with the same majority as when people felt they had no choice but to vote tactically, second-guessing others' votes in the process.

Finally, given that people may feel they have more of a say with AV, if not with their first choice then with their second or third, this may increase turnout, particularly among those who dislike their safe-under-FPTP MP.

Zak said...

You may have a point there. I guess AV might mean that some of the seats which are relatively safe now might not be as safe under AV but generally, I would suspect that very safe seats are safe mainly because they have a very high proportion of supporters who would still vote for the party regardless of which system was used.

As to higher turnout, I find it difficult to believe people would feel they had more of a say under AV, mainly because it's still one vote at the end of the day but I suppose it cannot be ruled out.

BillyBob said...

You say a safe seat is one where people vote overwhelmingly for the same party. This is not true. Where I live is considered a safe seat and far less than 50% of people voted for the incumbent in the last election. Seats can be considered safe if the opposition to the incumbent is highly fractured between two or more parties. AV will go some way towards giving the voters in these kinds of constituencies more say, so I am voting YES.

Captain PhingerSpex said...

I hope you do go into politics, and that you can maintain your idealism. Great blog, I like what you're doing here.