Friday, 10 December 2010

Yes2AV or No2AV that is the question

I'm posting on a subject other than the Boycott of the business of the 35 cuts-supporting fat cats today for a couple of reasons.

1. I'm so angry at the scenes I witnessed yesterday outside the home of our 'democracy' where violent thugs wearing police uniforms were assaulting people trying to protect their livelihoods and education that if I think about it any longer longer I'm liable to do myself an injury, and

2. I've been 'tweeting' with people from the YES2AV campaign as I'm genuinely unsure how I will vote, or even if I will vote now that the LibDems have made a virtue of abstentianism, in next May's referendum on changing the voting system. I said I would post up my ideas, as I can't fit them into a 140 character tweet so here they are.

A bit of personal history on the subject.

When I first got involved in party politics in the 80's I opposed PR in all its forms. This was largely because I suspected it was simply a ruse to improve the political fortunes of the LibDems and would do little to improve people's lives.

My position on this changed however when I saw the tories retain control of our local council, of which I was a member, despite having the same number of councillors elected as the combined opposition parties and elected on many fewer votes. The tories then launched an all out offensive against public services cutting everything they could find. Had that council been elected by PR there would have been some kind of coalition formed and extreme behaviour prevented.

So I was turned into a PR convert, but each system of PR I looked at seemed to be devised with the aim of helping one political party or the other. I could not see one that seemed to regard the wishes of the electorate as paramount. I then started to devise my own systems, but more of that later.

The referendum in May does not propose PR, which is the first reason I hesitate to vote Yes. It proposes changing the voting sytem from First Past the Post to the Alternative Vote.

Another reason to hesitate is that it is supported by the LibDems who have shown themselves to be totally untrustworthy. You rarely buy a wreck from the same car dealer twice.

First Past the Post (FPTP) is the system we are all familar with. Whoever gets more votes than any other individual candidate wins. It was devised back in the days when there were rarely two candidates let alone more than two and all the electors could meet in one room. In those days only male landowners could vote. In that context FPTP worked. However we are no longer living in the early 1800's.

The Alternative Vote is where each elector indicated there preference for candidates by listing them as choice 1,2,3 etc. If no candidate receives of 50% of the votes cast the lowest polling candidate is eliminated and the second preferences of their voters added to votes of the other candidates. The process is repeated until one candidate has over 50% support.

Sounds fairer doesn't it, but look at it in the context of UK politics and it sounds like a scam.

The first thing I noticed about AV that I did not like was that this first group of people to have their second vote counted are those who supported the candidate who polled the least. That means those who support the least popular set of policies have their second say before those who come 3rd, 4th or 5th. That seems to favour extremists.

UK Politics is highly tribal. People tend to grow up with a political identity based on social status. For example David Cameron's conservatism was inevitable given his privileged background. He didn't just read Adam Smith and Milton Friendman and decide he agreed with them. He instinctively identified with the politics of his class and rationalised accordingly. The thing is, he is not alone in this, we all do that. We know who is 'on our side' and who is not. Professor Dawkins could probably explain the reasons for this much better than I could as I suspect it's an evolutionary thing linked to the protection of identiable tribal groupings.

Whatever the reason, political allegiance and the perception of others' political allegiance seems fixed. People may change parties, but they rarely change their motives or their principles, if they have any.

So in this context it is easy to see that in a three way contest fought under AV a Tory supporter would put the Labour Party, his historical class enemy, as his bottom choice, and a Labour supporter would do the same with the Tories.

This means the LibDems would pick up the majority of second preferences of whichever other party polled third. It is therefore a simple calculation to see that the LibDems would be favoured to take any seat where a, the winning candidate polled less than 50% and b, they are currently in second place.

(This analysis does not take into account the current suicidal behaviour of the LibDems in breaking pledges and voting against the interests of aspirational parents who want to see their kids go to university.)

This is why I have doubts as to how to vote on the referendum. FPTP is bad and AV is just as bad.

Were this a conversation at this point someone would shout out 'Ok, then what's you're idea' and it would be a fair call.

Ok, I have two mutually exclusive solutions.

My First system. d'Hondt Plus.

This is not completely my own idea but does have a twist I've added myself.

The UK uses the d'Hondt system to elect its Euro MPs. Every voter chooses the party of their choice and the number of seats awarded to each party is roughly proportional to the number of votes cast. There is a complex mathematical formula used to determine who gets which seat which can be found here - .

The problem I see with the d'Hondt system is that although voters decide which parties get each number of seats it is the party managers, through a listing system, who decide which of their candidates are actually elected.

I would propose that we change this so that each elector has the opportunity to also vote for each candidate.

Under the system I would propose there would be two ballot papers. The first would be the existing ballot paper where you decide which party receives your vote. The second would list all the candidates individually and you could vote for up to the number of seats available. All Euro seats are multi-member and all Westminster seats would become likewise.

This way voters could express their dis-satisfaction with a candidate without having to change their party allegiance. In the light of the recent expenses scandal people could vote for their party of choice and unelect a perceived crook without voting for another party.

Equally if a voter had a particularly strong view on an issue on which all parties were split, such as say, membership of the Euro, they could vote for pro or anti candidates in all parties and so have their view better represented.

If you supported a minority party and knew your favoured party were unlikely to win any seats you could use your vote to determine which candidates of other parties were elected.

As you can probably imagine party managers would hate this system as it places the power to elect firmly in the hands of the electorate and eliminates safe seats, as no seat would be safe as you could lose it to someone in your own party.

This system requires multi-member seats representing 5 - 8 current constituencies to work.

My second system is more radical, more representative in its results and is a bigger change from the current system. I call this 'All In'

Under the 'All In' system the number of MPs elected becomes less relevant than the number of votes they gained.

The basic idea is that instead of a MP with a majority of 1 being the equal of a MP with a majority of 50,000 votes cast in the House of Commons by MPs are weighted to reflect the number of votes each candidate received.

This changes our democracy from being a 'representational' system to being a 'delegatory' system where each voter decides which candidate to delegate their vote to during the next parliament.

The way it would work would be that every candidate polling more than a threshold figure would be elected, but governments would form on polling strength rather than number of MPs as no party would have a majority in terms of number of MPs but may do so in terms of popular vote.

Votes in the House would be more like shareholders meeting where the voting strength of each MP would be different and would be the number of votes they received in the election.

The downside to this is that unless we combine constituencies into larger blocks we could end up with a lot more MPs, and that might not go down very well. We could of course change their system of remuneration to one of performance pay linked to their number of votes so the power to pay them lies in the hands of the only people whose opinion matters, the electors.

The upside is that if all MPs vote on a piece of legislation it will succeed only if a majority of those whom the electorate cast their votes for vote for it, making parliament more representative of the country.

Both my systems envisage larger multi-member constituencies because I believe this would work better than the current system. I know from experience that someone looking for assistance from an elected representative will rarely go to his or own if they are from a party the elector does not trust. They would rather go to someone from the party they do support even if that means dealing with an MP or councillor from another area. With multi-member seats we are all more likely to end up with someone we voted for.

Let me know your views in the comments.


  1. "The first thing I noticed about AV that I did not like was that this first group of people to have their second vote counted are those who supported the candidate who polled the least. That means those who support the least popular set of policies have their second say before those who come 3rd, 4th or 5th. That seems to favour extremists."

    OK what you need to remember here is that when these people are having their 2nd preference counted, everyone else is STILL having their 1st preference counted. Also at this point the extremist candidate is eliminated.

    And of course it's the VOTERS who put that candidate first who decide where their vote goes, not the eliminated candidate, so the second preferences won't necessarily go to extremist candidates. But wherever those votes end up going, and remember it's entirely up to the individual voters, they will only help another candidate to win, if that candidate has already got a large number of 1st choice votes from the rest of the voters.

    All that happens here is that in the event of a really close battle the winner is decided by asking voters "ok your first choice can't win, so who would you have voted for instead if you'd known that before hand?". That is perfectly fair.

    The most important thing is it's not an advantage to a voter to have their 2nd preference counted first. It's a disadvantage from the voter's point of view because everyone else is getting their first choice counted and they're only getting their 2nd choice. But it's still more than FPTP offers the voters.

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  4. "This means the LibDems would pick up the majority of second preferences of whichever other party polled third. It is therefore a simple calculation to see that the LibDems would be favoured to take any seat where a, the winning candidate polled less than 50% and b, they are currently in second place."

    For anyone, libdem, or anyone else to win a seat they'd need to have a very good number of 1st choice votes. If they depend on 2nd choice votes of an eliminated party that means they've done better than that party on 1st choice votes, and it also means that the majority of combined first and second choice votes prefer them to the alternative. That's fair. That's a result that means the majority of voters is happy with the eventual winner. Many will have put them first, some second, but either way, they're viewed in a positive light compared to all alternatives.

    Just because a candidate has more first preference votes than any other individual, it doesn't make it unfair for them not to win. In cases where AV differs from FPTP in outcome it shows that having the support of the largest minority is not the same as having a majority.
    The only way any candidate can win under AV is by being preferred to all other candidates with their holistic views taken into account.

    Say you have a tight battle with the first preferences being split 33% Conservative 32% Labour and 28% Lib Dem. In each case you simply don't know which of the parties are disliked the most. AV will show that.

    Let's say after all the other candidates are eliminated the split is something much closer like 34% Conservative 32% Labour and 34% Lib Dem. At this point Labour is eliminated and their votes are transferred.
    Either Conservative or Lib Dem will win. Neither would be the first choice of Labour voters, but Labour votes were in a minority so it's fair to consider what their voters prefer out of the remaining candidates. It might not seem like much of a choice to make, it's at least as good a choice as you get to make under FPTP.

    Now then, whoever wins out of these two remaining parties will have been preferred to the other party by the majority of voters. By this point wondering how far down the preferences is less important. The voters had the opportunity to vote for their own first choice and were free to do that without wasting their votes. It's come down to which two candidates have done best so far, and which of those two are most preferred by all of the voters. That is the fairest way to elect in a single-member constituency.

    Whoever doesn't win out of these two Lib Dem and Conservative might complain that a seat they could have won under FPTP was handed to the other party by the Labour voters. But under FPTP parties ENCOURAGE voters to do exactly that. They say "vote for us. voting for your first choice will just let the other party in." Now you don't have to do that. You can vote for your first choice AND have a say about the more likely winners.

    Supposing the Lib Dems win the seat, the Conservatives might complain because they initially got more first choices than anyone else. The answer to that is that they had a core vote that was larger than any other minority, but it was still a minority, and a larger number of voters than those who voted for them, particularly didn't want them. The MAJORITY view won.

    What you have to remember here is that voters views cover a whole spectrum, and there's a positive end and a negative end and both are equally important. A voter's view is far too sophisticated to be represented faithfully on a FPTP ballot. A preferential ballot such as AV (or most forms of PR as well) carries much more information and does a much better job.

  5. Ben, you make some good points and thanks for contributing them.

    Tactical voting is a big issue with me as it is the only reason my current MP ever gives for voting for him. He's a Libdem and won the seat in 97. There were new boundaries but prior to that the area had been blue going back as far as you like. 'Labour can't win Here' is his only message and it's clear that a lot of Labour voters vote tactically Libdem to stop the seat becoming blue again.

    I wonder how they feel now that he's a junior minister in a tory-led government. I suspect he has lost most of their votes already. Whether that is enough to change the outcome is not yet known.

    If I thought AV was a stepping stone to proper PR, like in either of the system I described in my post, I would support it wholeheartedly. I just feel that it is a sop to prevent real change.

    The thing that gets me though is both campaigns are fronted by toxic people. The LibDems are tainted on the Yes side, and some of the No people are the worst tory non-thinkers around.

    So still unsure, but edging towards Yes tentitively.

    Thanks again.

  6. Regarding the step to PR, it would be unfair to say that AV automatically leads to PR, but what it does do is reward the efforts of all those who have been campaigning for a reform for so long, most of whom really want PR. They won't stop and give up after the referendum, whatever the outcome. But, after a yes vote, they will be spurred on and encouraged, having seen what hard work can achieve. On the other hand, after a no vote, those in favour of keeping FPTP, will declare the referendum as an endorsement of the current system by the people, and that will be all they need to close the lid on any reform for a very long time. They certainly won't say "whoops, culpa nostra, we offered you the wrong system, let's have another referendum on PR instead".

    Also, people like you and I who are very interested in reform would carry on campaigning regardless, but most people who are galvanised and sympathetic now would not, for a second time. They'd see a no vote as a massive blow and they would give up thinking "what's the point?" As many already have when it comes to voting for anything, largely thanks to FPTP.

    Here's a blog post I wrote on this point a few weeks ago.

  7. Just one more point, the Lib Dems may support the Yes Campaign but they aren't fronting it. Yes to Fairer Votes is a grassroots campaign with voters of all parties and none at the forefront. Of course Lib Dem support is welcome, but we place no more importance on it than we do on support from UKIP, Greens, about half the Labour party and a good few Conservatives. Key to the Yes campaign is that it's not about party politics, but about the voters being able to have their say, ending jobs for life and making MPs accountablr and hardworking. If you don't like the lib dems, and you can't deny there are presently plenty of reasons not to like them, you can punish them under a fairer voting system. Under FPTP you can punish them, but you can't punish bad MPs of other parties very easily, and MPs of smaller parties get punished whether they deserve it or not. On the other hand, good MPs have nothing to fear from AV as it rewards them for reaching out beyond their core voters and listening to the majority.

  8. You make valid points. I have put a tweet asking if the No campaign also want to comment. You can see that so far they have not.

    Thanks for you contribution to the debate.

    What do think of my proposed systems by the way?

  9. What benefits do your supported systems offer over and above the Single Transferable Vote - which puts the power of selection and election firmly in the hands of the voters?

  10. Well enfranchiseme2 I believe that either of my systems would produce a result where power is shared in a way that is more proportinal to each party's level of support, and so is better than STV in that way.

    STV would be preferable to AV or FPTP but it still relies on someone casting a vote for someone that they don't really want to win but who is marginally less objectionable than someone else. That's not really an endorsement of the candidate.

  11. you said: "The first thing I noticed about AV that I did not like was that this first group of people to have their second vote counted are those who supported the candidate who polled the least. That means those who support the least popular set of policies have their second say before those who come 3rd, 4th or 5th. That seems to favour extremists."

    You only have your second vote counted after your first vote has been eliminated.
    The one thing that AV doesn't do is "favour extremists" in fact it protects our democracy from them. In order to get elected a minimum of 50% of voters have to vote for you. Under First Past The Post their is no minimum this means that in a constituency with 7 candidates running it is possible for the winner to have as little as 16% of the vote. That's why the BNP don't want AV because they know they could never "steal" an election due to a split vote.

  12. Thanks for your response Yes Tonbridge.

    You're right to say a second vote doesn't count until after a first vote has been eliminiated, but my point was that the second preferences of the voters of the least popular candidate are then counted and given equal weighting with the first preferences of all the other candidates. At this point none of the other voters second preferences have been considered, only those of the candidate who came last.

    I see what you are saying about AV disfavouring extremists, but one person's extremist is another person's free thinker. What AV seems to do is push politics into an increasingly crowded centre ground, and frankly we have enough grey centre-ground, desperate not too offend, professional politicians. Give me someone who speaks their mind any day even if I disagree with what they say.

    AV seems to me to be designed to assist the LibDems in seats where they are currently second by allowing the supporters of whichever party is in third (Labour or Tory) to vote tactically LibDem on a second preference, or to enable LibDem voters, where they are third to be kingmakers. I can't see what if offers anyone else.