I am sufficiently out of touch (or perhaps simply part of the wrong generation) that when I saw that somebody on Twitter had described my previous post as “a prime candidate for tl;dr” I didn’t know what it meant. In case you didn’t either, it stands for “too long; didn’t read”. I realize that it was a bit long for a blog post: my defence is that (i) I thought that it would be mainly read by mathematicians, who are more patient than your average reader (if you want to know why, try reading a university-level mathematics textbook), (ii) I found that I had a lot to say and wanted to justify it carefully, and (iii) I tried to make it easy to skim-read by dividing it into sections and having slogans that summed up my points.
But the post has been read far more widely than I expected, which makes me think, with referendum day approaching rapidly, that I might be able to reach more people if I wrote a shorter version — I fully understand that not everyone has the time or inclination to read a 10,000-word essay. Of course, I have to compromise on the justifications, but they are there in the long version (which I would prefer you to read if you have the time and inclination). Another advantage of writing a second version is that it enables me to take account of some good points raised in the responses to the first. (If I don’t take account of yours, it doesn’t mean I didn’t think it was good.) One general criticism made by a couple of people was that I didn’t spend any time debunking bad arguments made by the YES2AV campaign (though that was before I wrote the supplementary post). I’ll try to put that right here, though it seems to me that the bad YES2AV arguments tend to be weak and unconvincing, whereas the worst of the NO2AV arguments are actually wrong.
A quick remark before I get going. I read an interesting article in the Guardian about the opinion polls, which are still suggesting an easy victory for NO2AV: they show a split of roughly 60 to 40 amongst people who say they are certain to vote. However, the article also said that the percentage who say they are certain to vote is much higher than most people believe will actually turn up to vote. This gives me a small straw-clutching hope. It seems to me that people who say they want to vote no to punish Nick Clegg can take that sort of view only if (i) they would have voted no anyway or (ii) they don’t actually care one way or the other about voting reform. It seems possible that people of the second kind will be less inclined to feel that it is important to vote. I don’t offer this as a completely convincing argument — perhaps there are lots of people who think that AV is a small improvement but in the end won’t make much difference, and perhaps they too will decide that it’s not the end of the world if they don’t vote. But leaving that aside, a low turnout is predicted, so your vote has more of a chance of making a difference than it might have. If you’re reading this, please, whatever your views, do go and vote. (That sounds admirably balanced, but it isn’t really: I think most people who read this post are sympathetic to AV, so if my plea makes any difference then it ought to favour the YES side.) One final thought about this is that even if NO wins as expected, the smaller the margin of victory, the more chance of getting the politicians to reconsider voting reform at some future date.
I thought about how to write this and eventually decided that a good way of keeping it short would be to write it in the form of a dialogue. The two characters are Q, who has lots of questions, and A, who provides answers. I’ve managed to get it down to about 3700 words (compared with 10000 for the previous one), which is longer than I hoped, but still a substantial shortening. If it’s still TL4U then scroll down to the bottom, where the whole thing is reduced to a series of soundbites.
Q. Can you explain what the two voting systems are that we shall be choosing between on May 5th?
A. Certainly. In both systems the country is divided into constituencies, and each constituency sends an MP to parliament. Under the First Past The Post system, or FPTP, each voter in any given constituency puts a cross by one candidate and the candidate with the most votes wins.
Q. That’s nice and straightforward.
A. Indeed it is.
Q. And what’s the other system?
A. It’s called the Alternative Vote, or AV. Under AV, you don’t just put a cross by one candidate, but rather you put all candidates in order of preference.
A. No. Of course it’s not likely that both those two parties will be standing in your constituency, but in general you can put down as many or as few preferences as you like.
Q. I see. Well, that’s fairly simple too, but how are the votes actually counted?
A. You have a series of rounds. In each round, if a candidate has over half the votes, the contest stops and that candidate is elected. If no candidate has over half the votes, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and there is a new round. And in each round, your vote goes to the candidate who is highest on your list out of those still in the race.
Q. Is that it? I was told it was hard to understand.
A. I think all that means is that it is harder to understand than FPTP.
Q. Hang on, what happens if I haven’t expressed a preference between the remaining candidates?
A. Then you don’t get a vote in that round.
Q. Isn’t that a bit unfair?
A. No more unfair than the fact that people who don’t vote at an election … er … don’t get a vote.
Q. I think you may have oversimplified AV. Isn’t there something about the voters of the least popular party getting their votes redistributed first?
A. Yes there is, but that is to do with the implementation of AV rather than with AV itself. Suppose at the end of round one the least popular party is the BNP. In round two, everyone gets to vote between all the parties other than the BNP, who have been eliminated. So everyone who voted for a party other than the BNP can still vote for their first preference, while BNP voters must switch to their second preference. Since we have already counted all the first preference votes, there is no point in counting them again (though, if we were feeling perverse, we could). Since the only information we do not have is the second preferences of the BNP voters, that is all we need to count in this round. And so it continues.
Q. I have some more questions about AV, but first I’d like to ask why it’s called the Alternative Vote?
A. I don’t know. It’s a pretty bad name. But why do you think First Past The Post is called First Past The Post?
Q. It’s a horse-racing metaphor: the first candidate to get past the post, so to speak, wins the race.
A. OK, how does the metaphor work? In particular, what is the post?
Q. Well, it’s … er … hmm … I’m not sure.
A. The most obvious “post” would getting half the votes. So, weirdly enough, the metaphor “first past the post” is a better description of AV than it is of FPTP.
Q. Can I go back to the BNP question? I’ve been told that a disadavantage of AV is that some people, including BNP supporters, get more votes than others.
A. I’ve just explained how the system works. Did anyone get more votes than anyone else?
Q. I suppose not. But why in that case do people say that they do?
A. There is a confusion that some people have, and the NO2AV campaign is actively encouraging it. (David Cameron, with a first in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford, presumably understands AV well enough to know that he is talking poppycock when he talks about some people having more votes than others. It seems that when you are campaigning in a referendum, explicit dishonesty is allowed.)
First off, under AV each voter gets one ballot paper. So in that sense, obviously enough, nobody gets more than one vote.
Secondly, in each round, everybody gets exactly one vote counted (unless they have ceased to express preferences, but if so then that was their choice, and they presumably don’t care who wins out of the remaining candidates).
There is something that some people get more of than others. If you vote for an unpopular party, then more of your preferences will be taken into account. But think what that means. If only one of your preferences is taken into account in a given round, then you get to support your first-choice candidate. If four of your preferences get taken into account, then your first-choice candidate is eliminated, followed by your second-choice candidate, followed by your third-choice candidate. It is ridiculous to call this having four votes: it is having one vote that reflects lower and lower preferences as the rounds go on. A system that gives BNP supporters more “votes” in this sense is clearly a good system — sensible mainstream candidates get to support their first preferences and BNP lunatics have to make do with lower preferences.
A better word than “vote” in this context would be “disappointment”. If you vote for unpopular parties then you get more disappointments. It’s not unfair, and it’s not exactly an advantage for the BNP …
Q. I’ve seen advertisements that say that under AV the candidate who comes second or third can win. That sounds pretty ridiculous.
A. It would be if it were true. Under AV the candidate who wins is the candidate who is first under the rules of AV. Under FPTP the candidate who wins is the candidate who is first under the rules of FPTP. Sometimes the systems give different answers. If we were used to AV we would think it highly odd that under FPTP a candidate that 65% of the constituency hates can win with only 35% of the vote. We might say, “Under FPTP a candidate can be declared the winner without having won!”
Q. Yes, but that would be a silly argument.
A. True. It would be exactly as silly as the argument that under AV the candidate who comes second or third can win.
Q. OK, but why not just stick with the system we know, which seems to have served us pretty well.
A. It’s not so much whether it has served us well in the past that matters, but even in the past it is debatable whether it has served us well. It is a wildly non-proportional system. For example, in 1983 Labour got about nine times as many seats as the SDP/Liberal Alliance, when their shares of the vote were 27.6% and 25.4%, respectively. And the Conservatives, on 42.4% of the vote, got 61% of the seats, a landslide majority. In 1951, the Conservatives came second in the popular vote and got a majority. And I’m not just picking out extreme examples. Go and have a look at the UK General Election results over the last century or so and you’ll see that the number of seats parties gain has very little relation to the share of the vote they obtain.
Q. I see. So AV is a more proportional system.
A. Er, actually no. In fact, some have even suggested that it is less proportional.
Q. OK you’ve got me now. What could possibly be better about it?
A. Under FPTP there are two distorting effects. One is the lack of proportionality, which AV does little to address. The other is the fact that it often makes good sense under FPTP to vote for a party that is not your favourite party. The most common example of this is if your favourite party is the Lib Dems and in your constituency the Lib Dems are in third place to Labour and the Conservatives. Under these circumstances, the only chance you have of actually influencing the result is to decide which you prefer out of Labour and the Conservatives and vote for that party. So in that sense a vote for the Lib Dems is a wasted vote.
This leads to a strange situation where it might even be the case that everyone likes the Lib Dems best, but everyone judges that they don’t have a chance — and their judgment is correct because … enough people judge that they don’t have a chance that they decide not to vote for them even though they like them.
Under AV, if you like the Lib Dems best and Labour second best, you put the Lib Dems top and Labour second. If everyone secretly liked the Lib Dems best, then the Lib Dems get elected. If in fact it was correct that the Lib Dems were the least popular party they get eliminated and your vote, instead of being wasted, is cast for Labour.
So the big advantage of AV is that it encourages you to express your true preferences. In a funny way, FPTP is like AV in the following sense: if you support the Lib Dems and think they will come first, then you eliminate them yourself and write down your second preference. But the difference is that you have to play a silly and unfair guessing game under FPTP because you don’t actually know how the Lib Dems will do.
Q. So AV is basically a stitch-up to help out the Lib Dems.
A. I don’t see how you can call it a stitch-up, given that it takes account of people’s actual preferences rather than the vote they reluctantly make after trying to guess other people’s preferences. (This point is made crudely but effectively here.) Up to now it would certainly have helped the Lib Dems more than any other party. But there are plenty of seats where Labour or the Conservatives come third and their voters face a similar unnecessary dilemma.
Q. OK, so what would the effect of AV be?
A. That is difficult to say with any certainty, because we do not know how much people’s votes under FPTP have been a true reflection of their political preferences, and we also don’t know other important factors such as how much the Lib Dems have been damaged by their role in the coalition. So I’ll talk in more abstract terms.
Suppose you are in a constituency where there are two fairly similar parties and one very different one. And suppose the candidates from the two similar parties get 30% each and the candidate from the different party gets 35%, with other candidates getting the remaining 5%. Then 60% of voters want one kind of party and 35% want the other, but it’s the 35% who win the election.
To make it more concrete again, imagine you had to vote for a kind of biscuit. 35% want cheese biscuits, 30% want milk chocolate digestives, and 30% want plain chocolate digestives. Then 60% want chocolate digestives but under FPTP will end up with savoury biscuits.
This is not just a hypothetical situation: it happens all the time. For instance, there are many constituencies where the Conservatives win because the left is split between Labour and the Lib Dems. (Things may get more complicated at the next election now that more right-leaning people have taken over the leadership of the Lib Dems, but certainly this has been a good description of a lot of constituencies at a lot of elections in the past.)
Under FPTP, if you have two fairly similar parties, they both suffer. Under AV, this is no longer the case. See this article for a description of how this awkward feature of FPTP has been manipulated in Russia. See also this video, which does a good job of making the point I’m making here. Or if you haven’t got time for the video, then have a look at this poster.
Q. Let me rephrase: what would be the likely effect on the numbers of seats for the major parties if we switched to AV?
A. In the short term, the Lib Dems would probably gain a little, but this might well be more than cancelled out by the amount they would lose as a result of their current unpopularity. If, as many expect, the Lib Dem vote collapses, then the outcome of AV would not be all that different from the outcome of FPTP. But assuming that they eventually recover, the longer-term outlook is probably that the Conservatives would get fewer seats, and Labour and the Lib Dems would get more. That assumes that by and large Labour voters would tend to put Lib Dem candidates second and vice versa. If that assumption turns out to be false, then all bets are off. Also in the longer term, once people start to realize that voting for smaller parties they like is not wasting their votes, the share of votes for such parties will probably go up.
Q. David Cameron says that FPTP makes it easier to get rid of unpopular governments.
A. He probably regards the Conservatives in the 1980s as popular. But there are plenty who would disagree with that assessment, and they won four elections in a row, always with the support of a minority of voters. In 2005, soon after the Iraq war, Blair was pretty unpopular after his lies about Iraq. As a result, his share of the vote dropped to 35.2%. The result: a comfortable majority and the coronation of Mr Popular himself, Gordon Brown. In fact, AV makes it easier to get rid of unpopular governments because those who are against the government do not get their vote split.
Q. You said earlier that in the short term AV probably wouldn’t have all that much effect on the outcome. In that case, why bother?
A. Two reasons. One is the practical fact that AV could well have a substantial effect in the medium or long term. The other is the matter of principle that a system that doesn’t put any pressure on you to vote tactically (that is, to put one party ahead of another party that you prefer) is more democratic.
Q. So AV spells the end of tactical voting?
A. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but it’s pretty close to the truth. Here’s a situation where tactical voting could in theory come into play. You have a constituency where the Conservatives are polling 35%, Labour 30%, Lib Dems 30% and UKIP 5%. You support the Conservatives. You’re pretty sure you’ll pick up almost all the UKIP second choices, which will get you to 40%. But you still need another 5%. You’re pretty sure you’ll be more likely to get those from Lib Dems than from Labour supporters. So it becomes more important to you that Labour beats the Lib Dems than that the Conservatives do well in the first round. So it actually pays you to put Labour as your first choice, even if they are in fact your third choice.
Q. Doesn’t that even mean that the Conservative candidate should ease off a little bit in the hope that a few voters will back Labour?
A. It could indeed. But it’s worth stressing that this sort of situation is quite rare, and that in practice one wouldn’t know enough about people’s voting intentions to know that one was in it. And if the Conservative candidate eased off, would those votes go to Labour rather than the Lib Dems? You’d have to do the easing off rather skilfully …
One other point about this. There have been actual elections under AV where this phenomenon has taken place. One example is a mayoral election in Aspen Colorado. It was noted afterwards that one party would have won if it had transferred some votes to its main rival. This was felt to be so unjust that they changed their system (not, I hasten to add, to FPTP).
But mayoral elections are not the same as general elections. The occasional anomalous result in one constituency is very different from the entire decision about who takes power being anomalous.
Also, anomalies occur the whole time under FPTP. Going back to the biscuits example, it could easily be that 60% prefer milk chocolate digestives to cheese biscuits, and 60% prefer plain chocolate digestives to cheese biscuits, but under FPTP it’s the cheese biscuits that are chosen.
Q. Look, you understand how AV works and so do I, but the fact remains that not everybody would understand the full implications of how their votes are counted. Isn’t that profoundly undemocratic?
A. It’s not ideal. But one should get this in perspective. Go back and look at my explanation of AV. It took four sentences of which the first was, “There is a series of rounds.” Anyone who wants to can take the trouble to understand this. Even so, I take the point that quite a lot of people will not in fact fully understand how their vote is counted. This does not, however, allow the people who do understand to get an unfair advantage: under AV it hardly ever pays to do anything other than put the parties you like in order of preference.
I have heard an interesting suggestion that the Lib Dems did considerably worse in the last election for London Mayor than they had done in the preceding opinion polls because people didn’t understand that putting them as first preference was not wasting their vote. This suggests that it would be important to explain to people that under AV there was no longer any need for tactical voting.
A final word on the subject of complication: have a look at this amusing flowchart produced by someone called Anthony Smith.
Q. I’ve also heard it said that AV helps the BNP.
A. Well, I’ve explained how it doesn’t give them more votes than other parties, just more disappointments. However, it does give them the opportunity to express their political preferences more accurately than they can under FPTP. For instance, one can vote BNP and still have a say in who wins out of the Conservatives or Labour. So it gives BNP voters more say than they have now.
Q. Isn’t that terrible?
A. No. It gives BNP voters more say because it gives all voters more say than they currently have. Was it a mistake to give women the vote because the BNP gets more votes as a result? Obviously not: all parties get more votes as a result, and the BNP probably benefits less.
Q. Some people suggest that AV will lead to a different kind of MP.
A. I would take all such claims with a huge pinch of salt. NO2AV campaigners say that it will lead to candidates who are bland and inoffensive, while YES2AV campaigners say that your MP will work harder and be more honest with their expenses. Well, for starters it will make no difference in safe seats where the leading candidate typically gets over 50%. It will also make little difference in marginal seats, where under both systems candidates have to reach out to floating voters or voters from other parties. In a seat that is safe because the opposition is split, it is not clear what will happen. Under AV it might become safe for another candidate. Or it could become a marginal seat. But do you really win a marginal seat by being bland? I don’t think so.
As for the expenses scandal, it’s true that it led some people to think that the whole system needed changing. But what needed changing were … er … the rules about expenses. The scandal could just as easily have happened under AV. I think connecting the two was a tactical blunder by the YES2AV campaign: people can see through it easily.
Q. One thing that confuses me is that the yes campaign says you need over 50% of the vote and the no campaign angrily claims that this is false. What’s going on?
A. Under AV, you need over 50% of the votes cast in the final round. This means that if a lot of voters have not expressed a preference between the remaining candidates then the final winner may not have 50% of the votes from those who voted in the first round.
It seems unlikely that this will be a major factor, since the parties that remain in the final round will almost always include big mainstream ones. But one can imagine situations where it occurs. For instance, perhaps at the next election there will be constituencies where the two front runners are the Tories and the Lib Dems, and where large numbers of Labour voters will be disgusted with both parties and will therefore not express a preference between them.
See this nice comment for a convincing argument that this 50% question is perhaps not all that important.
Of course, even if the winning candidate does get over 50% of the votes cast in the final round, some of these will be lower-preference votes, so it wouldn’t be entirely reasonable for the candidate to claim the support of half the electorate. In this respect, the YES2AV campaign is misleading. That’s a shame, because there is an important point here that is true. Currently, there are several constituencies where the winner can win by relying on core support (of, say, 40% of the electorate). Under AV, such candidates will need second-choice votes too, so they will have to appeal to a broader section of the electorate.
Under FPTP, you can be elected with 35% of the vote even if 65% of the electorate is bitterly opposed to everything you stand for. Under AV that is impossible.
Q. I’ve been told that AV means the end of safe seats.
A. It doesn’t. But it does mean a smallish reduction in the number of safe seats. And in the longer term, if AV has a substantial effect on the way people vote, it could lead to a larger reduction. But there are likely to be areas of the country that are solidly Labour or solidly Tory for a long time to come.
Q. Doesn’t AV lead to more coalitions and therefore political instability and weak government?
A. It probably would lead to a mild increase in the number of coalitions, though some dispute this (and so do others). Do coalitions lead to instability? Yes in some countries (e.g. Israel and Belgium) and no in others (e.g. Germany and Switzerland). It is very hard to predict whether coalitions would be stable in this country if they became more normal. Some would welcome a politics of compromise and an end to the polarization and lurches from one side to the other that we have at the moment. Others think that having a single party free to make unfettered decisions is more important than having a government that represents a majority of the population. There is room for legitimate debate here.
Q. Hmm … I see some sense in these arguments, but I feel so betrayed by Nick Clegg that I’m not sure I want to do what he wants me to do.
A. So you’d rather do what David Cameron and George Osborne desperately want you to do? Don’t confuse Judas with Satan.
And now for the really short version.
1. FPTP is unfair because it is very far from proportional.
2. AV is probably no more proportional than FPTP.
3. However, FPTP is also unfair because it puts pressure on large numbers of people not to vote for their favourite party. Under AV you don’t have to worry about wasting your vote. The right voting strategy is almost always to put the candidates you like in order of preference.
4. Under AV, everyone gets one ballot paper, just as under FPTP.
5. In each round of an AV count, everybody gets exactly one vote. It goes to their highest ranked candidate out of the candidates still left.
6. Under AV, if you vote for unpopular parties you don’t get more votes — you get more disappointments.
7. Under First Past The Post, there is no post. (FWIW, under AV there is.)
8. Under AV, the person who would have come second or third under FPTP sometimes wins.
9. Under FPTP, the person who would have come second or third under AV sometimes wins.
10. In so far as AV helps the BNP, it also helps everyone else. (The same could be said of women’s suffrage and votes for 18-year-olds.)
11. Anomalies can occur under AV.
13. Anomalies in a very small number of constituencies are very unlikely to affect who gets the power nationally.
14. AV doesn’t make your MP any more bland and inoffensive than FPTP.
15. AV won’t make your MP work harder.
16. AV wouldn’t have made any difference to the expenses scandal, which is in any case yesterday’s news.
17. AV might possibly lead to more coalitions but will not lead to a state of permanent coalition.
18. AV makes it easier to get rid of unpopular governments.
19. You think FPTP makes it easy to get rid of unpopular governments? Just look at the figures for 1987 and (especially) 2005.
20. Whatever system is in place, the Lib Dems will get a kicking at the next general election.
21. The Conservatives like FPTP so they can exploit the split on the left and often get a majority of seats with a minority of votes.
22. It is hard to predict what will happen in the future, but in the past AV would mostly have benefited the Lib Dems and Labour at the expense of the Tories.
23. It’s not true that bringing in AV would cost £250 million. The correct figure is more like £25 million (which is needed to explain to people that when the ballot paper asks them to put the candidates they like in order of preference, then they have nothing to gain by not doing so).
24. The outcome of the referendum will affect us for decades. Whichever way the vote goes, Nick Clegg will be forgotten about after five years. David Cameron and George Osborne want you to vote no and Ed Miliband wants you to vote yes.