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Tomorrow is the day of the AV referendum, and I know some people are still making up their minds how to vote. I've explained my own reasons for supporting AV in a previous post. But if you're still unsure today, allow me to put the case for the Alternative Vote in the clearest way I can.

Basically, First Past The Post is fine for binary decisions: e.g. Cake or Death? But if Chocolate is offered too, the 'We just want to live!' vote may be split, allowing Death to win. (Unlikely, of course, but who knows? There may be a lot of suicidal people living in your constituency.)

In the real world, FPTP was fine in the 1950s, when most voters were making a binary choice. In 1951, 97% of people voted either Conservative or Labour – so most MPs (94%, to be precise) were able to win a clear majority of support in their constituency. But in 2010, only 65% of people voted Conservative or Labour. Our votes are now spread across a wider range of parties – and the result is that two-thirds of MPs in the House of Commons today hold less than 50% of the total vote in their constituency. They've secured the largest minority, but do they have the support of the majority? We don't know, because FPTP doesn't check that.

At its worst, FPTP has allowed BNP candidates to be elected in some council seats because the majority non-BNP vote was split. Someone on Facebook posted this image of the results from Coalville ward in Leicestershire:



But it's not the only case of its kind. See also Mixenden in Calderdale, Mill Hill in Blackburn, or Fenside in Boston, Lincolnshire.

The extremist nature of the BNP means it isn't hard to imagine that the majority of the voters in these wards did not actually want a BNP councillor. But because the non-BNP-supporting majority spread their votes across a variety of other candidates, that's what they got.

The wider point about FPTP is that any candidate who wins on less than 50% of the vote may be just as loathed by the majority of their constituents as (we can guess that) these BNP councillors were. But FPTP doesn't check up on this by probing the views of the split majority. AV resolves this problem by eliminating trailing candidates one at a time, bringing split votes for similar candidates back together, and identifying a majority consensus. Put simply, it is a way of double-checking that the result which we would have had under FPTP really reflects what the majority want.

There's another issue here, too. One thing which the council seat examples above have in common is that each seat was won by a BNP candidate standing in that ward for the first time. (You can tell because the percentage swing to the BNP in each case is identical to their total share of the vote). This effectively means that the non-BNP-supporting voters in these wards were taken by surprise. They must have seen a BNP candidate on their ballot-papers, but they didn't know how many other voters were going to support them. If they had known that the BNP candidate stood a real chance of winning, a lot of them would probably have switched their support from the candidate they really supported to another candidate whom they thought would have a better chance of defeating the BNP. That is, they would have voted tactically.

UK voters have got so used to employing tactical voting to compensate for FPTP's flaws that we practically think of it as part of the system. (Page 9 of this paper shows that 23.6% of people vote tactically when they believe it is an appropriate strategy). But it's a very imperfect fix for the split votes problem. For it to work properly, all voters would have to have full information about the intentions of their fellow voters. The BNP candidates standing for the first time are a particularly extreme example of why this isn't always the case. But of course no voter ever has a really complete picture of how other people are going to vote when they cast their own ballot.

What's more, when people vote tactically, they are actually defining for themselves a hierarchy of at least three distinct preferences:
  1. The candidate they really want to win, but don't believe can do so.
  2. The candidate they don’t like as much as number 1, but whom they think has a real chance of winning.
  3. The candidate they can't stand and would take almost any other option rather than see them win.

In other words, a tactical vote under FPTP is essentially a second preference vote, based on the voter's (probably imperfect) understanding of other people's voting intentions. But AV can take the tactical voter's preferences into account formally and systematically, and in the light of a full and perfect knowledge of all other voters' similar hierarchies.

You can't decide to whether vote for the candidate you really support or the one you think can actually win? Maybe you don't even know how your favourite candidate is really going to perform, anyway. What if they could beat your most hated candidate – if only you dared to vote for them? And just how many people in your constituency are planning to vote for the Absolutely Loathsome Party, anyway?

None of this is a problem under AV. The AV system automatically takes account of your first preference for as long as that candidate remains a viable option. It then switches you to your second preference at exactly the point when other people's votes render your first preference non-viable. You don't have to second guess anybody - and even if a new candidate is standing, or an existing candidate performs surprisingly well or surprisingly badly, AV will still ensure that only a candidate who has demonstrated majority support can win.

So if you want a system which:
  • Ensures that each constituency elects an MP whom the majority of the voters there really support.
  • Prevents widely hated candidates from winning because the majority vote against them was split.
  • Allows people to express their preferences honestly, without having to make (imperfect) guesses about how other people will vote.
  • Deals with those preferences systematically and in the best interests of the individual voter, no matter what other voters do.
...please say Yes to AV this Thursday.

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Comments

( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
ms_siobhan
May. 4th, 2011 08:06 am (UTC)
I'll be voting yes tomorrow - mostly on the basis that if Camerwrong is so anti-something then it must be a 'good thing'. We must be in a ward that no change is expected in as I don't think we've had any canvassers coming round and the usual forest worth of election literature has become 4 pages from the tories, labour, lib dems and alliance for green socialists. I don't think we got a copy of the government leaflet explaining about the referendum either.
strange_complex
May. 4th, 2011 09:37 am (UTC)
I don't think we got a copy of the government leaflet explaining about the referendum either.

That's depressing, and I'm afraid true for quite a large number of people, too. I got one, as well as targeted mailings from both the No and Yes campaigns, but I know that not everyone did.

You're right about Camerwrong (great name!), too. Turkeys don't vote for Christmas, and we can be pretty sure that any MPs who are campaigning against AV are doing so because they know it will make life more difficult for them. Ergo, it will give us, the voters, more power. What's not to like? :-)
the_alchemist
May. 4th, 2011 11:59 am (UTC)
I suspect you may be joking in your last paragraph, but I got a letter from the 'yes' campaign making the same points, so I'm going to argue against it anyway.

We are not at war with our MPs - they are the people we elect to represent our views, and therefore it is not the case that anything which gives them less power gives us more power.

MPs already work extremely long hours.* If they have to spend more of their time campaigning for votes, it would make them less able to do the very important parts of their job that are not big vote-winners, like much of the casework they do on behalf of their constituents (of course SOME of this is popular, and gets into the local papers and so on, but much isn't) or work they do on behalf of the country as a whole.

(Plus can we assume that the MPs voting for AV are doing so because it'll make their lives easier?)


* The letter I referred to was headlined: "do you want to make your MPs work harder?" to which my answer was a resounding "no". I want parliament to be accessible to a wide range of potential MPs, including parents, people with caring responsibilities and people with disabilities. I do not want the workload to increase, and in fact would prefer it to decrease.
ms_siobhan
May. 6th, 2011 04:36 pm (UTC)
Latest: We lost our long standing lib dem councillor Brenda Lancaster and now have a brand spanking new labour one called Rebecca.

But good news was - no BNP candidates in our ward this time, nor UKIP or english democrats and tories still in third place :-)
burkesworks
May. 4th, 2011 08:47 am (UTC)
Brilliant post Penny. Would that the "woo woo BNP" faction among a certain mindset on the left would read this and take it on board; I'm sure they don't like lining up alongside the Tories and the likes of Blunkett, and this ought to remove any reason to do so.
strange_complex
May. 4th, 2011 09:39 am (UTC)
Cheers! Feel free to pass it on anywhere you like - I've kind of ruled myself out of doing that, because I don't want my full real name associated with my LJ, and my Facebook and Twitter accounts are both under my real name. But anyone else is very welcome to share it.
the_alchemist
May. 4th, 2011 11:40 am (UTC)
I don't get why anyone would choose an electoral system based on the the fact that it disadvantages one (very small) party they happen to hate, however understandable that hatred is. It may be that in the future a party I strongly support is in the same position as the BNP currently.

"But the BNP is 'extremist' and you would never vote for an extremist party" doesn't work as an argument. 'Extremist' is a silly, meaningless propaganda word, and besides, some of my views *have* been labelled that way, which presumably means that I might one day support a party with 'extremist' views.

I'm going to vote 'yes', but most things I've seen telling me why I should have been primarily based on arguments I disagree with (with the ones I agree with either missing altogether or tucked away in the small print or under lj cuts) which has sort of undermined my confidence in it all.
venta
May. 4th, 2011 11:07 am (UTC)
I don't know if you've seen it, but I was amused at this "look how simple AV is" flowchart this morning :)

http://www.anthonysmith.me.uk/2011/01/17/how-complicated-is-the-alternative-vote/
sir_didymus
May. 4th, 2011 11:36 am (UTC)
Ok, that diagram has pretty much convinced me =)

I'll vote yes to it.
gair
May. 4th, 2011 02:23 pm (UTC)
You actually had me with the Condorcet thing, except that I can never remember the word 'Condorcet'.
strange_complex
May. 4th, 2011 02:31 pm (UTC)
I saw someone somewhere recently who was obviously trying to talk about the Condorcet criterion, but like you couldn't quite remember the word, and plumped for 'concordat' instead. I thought it was a lovely example of an eggcorn - he knew roughly how it was spelt, and that it was something to do with agreement and consensus, but just didn't have it quite right!
ladyguinevere83
May. 4th, 2011 06:22 pm (UTC)
You've changed your name since I stopped paying attention to LJ! :) (I logged on to read your thoughts on Dr. Who actually!)

Interesting that you picked Coalville to demonstrate... it's right near where I work, and one of my friends is a district councillor (Cons) in one of the neighbouring areas, and he was moaning about the BNP just this morning! He's come across a few BNP voters when canvassing, who are only thinking on national lines, rather than local... for local elections.

Local elections can sometimes throw up some unexpected results because of the low turnout. For example, in my old ward, we had one election where the only people that bothered campaigning at all were the Green Party and they campaigned well. And they ended up with two seats. The area I'm in now is heavily Labour.

Originally I was undecided on AV, but I'm gradually leaning closer and closer to it to the point it's highly likely I'll vote yes :)
strange_complex
May. 9th, 2011 11:21 am (UTC)
Hi, nice to hear from you! Yes, I have changed my LJ name - hope it didn't cause too much confusion. I never really liked the old one, so decided it was time to do something about that.

Obviously we know the result of the AV referendum now, and I'm disappointed (although not hugely surprised) at how it went. Even worse, I also lost the very lovely local LibDem councillor whom I'd also been campaigning for, so I'm feeling pretty gutted between the two of those.

Anyway, thank goodness the BNP seem to have completely collapsed this time round, hardly putting up any candidates and losing most of those they already had. So that's one good thing at least!
strange_complex
May. 9th, 2011 11:23 am (UTC)
Hi, nice to hear from you! Yes, I have changed my LJ name - hope it didn't cause too much confusion. I never really liked the old one, so decided it was time to do something about that.

Obviously we know the result of the AV referendum now, and I'm disappointed (although not hugely surprised) at how it went. Even worse, I also lost the very lovely local LibDem councillor whom I'd also been campaigning for, so I'm feeling pretty gutted between the two of those.

Anyway, thank goodness the BNP seem to have completely collapsed this time round, hardly putting up any candidates and losing most of those they already had. So that's one good thing at least!
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

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