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Now that my conference paper is done and I am less ludicrously busy, I'm turning my attention firmly back towards the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign. I've written a fair bit on this journal about my involvement with the campaign, but I haven't yet said very much about why I'm so convinced that a change to AV is worthwhile. I did use the example of the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election back in January to explain why I think AV enhances the dialogue between voters and prospective candidates, which is certainly one good reason for making the change. But there is much more to say than that alone.

I could, of course, write a long rambling post which attempted to cover all of the reasons why I am supporting a change to AV - not to mention the many, many things which are wrong with FPTP (not all of which AV will fix), or with the No to AV campaign. Believe me, there are plenty of arguments to go into, and I've used most of them during the 1000 or more phone-calls which I've now made for the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign. But many of them have also been rehearsed elsewhere. In the more personal context of my own journal, I've decided instead to whittle things down to the single strongest argument which is convincing me to support a change to AV, and focus on writing about that.

So, are you ready for this?

The most straightforward, truthful and accurate statement of why I am campaigning for a Yes vote in the May 5th referendum?

OK - here we go:
The Alternative Vote is better than First Past the Post at identifying the Condorcet winner in each constituency election contest

That really is my genuine, number one reason for supporting the change. To me, it's the most persuasive argument. Unfortunately, it also isn't an argument I can use when campaigning. That small percentage of the population who have read up on the subject and know what the Condorcet criterion is might well nod sagely and agree with me - and believe me, I've been hanging out with a lot of those sorts of people in the context of the campaign! But most people would just greet me with a blank look. Should you wish to know more, however, read on...

The basic concept of a Condorcet winner is pretty simple, actually. The Condorcet winner is the candidate in an election contest who would beat any of the other candidates in a straight head-to-head competition between just the two of them. It is a measure of popularity, which identifies the candidate whom the majority of the electorate prefer to any one of the other options.

When there are only two contestants in a race, FPTP of course identifies the Condorcet winner by default. Whoever comes first in that scenario is clearly preferred by the majority of the electorate. It ain't rocket science, and it worked perfectly well in the 19th century. But this is the 21st century, and we now live in a multi-party democracy where only 65.1% of the votes cast at the last General Election were for the two largest parties.

The fundamental problem with FPTP is that where election contests feature more than two candidates, its ability to identify the Condorcet winner becomes distinctly unreliable. It still can, and does, do it in plenty of constituencies. But its ability to do so reliably is badly compromised when two or more candidates run on a similar platform, and thus attract the support of similar voters.

I usually steer clear of examples which involve real political parties when I'm campaigning for AV. I believe very strongly that this is an issue which should be decided not on the grounds of partisanship and party advantage, but on what gives the voters the strongest voice and makes our elected representatives most accountable. But in this case, an example based on real-life political parties can help to show how easily FPTP can fail at identifying the Condorcet winner, because we all have a pretty clear idea about how preferences would be likely to transfer between the parties involved. The example I'm going to use is obviously hugely simplified, but I think it can stand as representative of much more complicated situations which are happening regularly all over the country. The numbers are taken from p. 62 of this book (which is excellent, and which I hope to review here shortly), but the text is mine.

Let's start by imagining a simple election contest with only two candidates: Conservative and Labour. We'll start out with a relatively narrow margin between the two, as follows:
Conservative 52%
Labour 48%

So far, so good. FPTP successfully identifies the Condorcet winner - the candidate whom the majority prefer. The Conservative candidate is elected.

Now let's insert a third candidate into the same scenario. It's 1993, UKIP have just formed, and they field a candidate in the same constituency. The existing preferences of the electorate haven't changed - a majority still prefer the Tories to Labour. But they now have more options. Let's say 10% take up the new option, and vote for the UKIP candidate. Of those 10%, most will be former Tory voters, because both parties are predominantly Eurosceptic. So we'll take 8 out of the 10% from the former Conservative vote, and imagine that the remaining 2 are former Labour voters who have strong enough views about the single issue of the EU to change allegiance. That seems realistic enough, right? Result:
Labour 46%
Conservative 44%
UKIP 10%

So the Labour candidate now wins. But he or she is not the Condorcet winner. We've already seen that in the absence of an option to vote UKIP, a majority of voters in the constituency had expressed a preference for the Conservatives - and this means that the Labour candidate could not have beaten the Conservative candidate in straight a head-to-head race. In fact, the Labour candidate hasn't become any more popular in his or her own right than in the previous election. He or she has simply benefited passively from the introduction of a new option, which a minority of voters preferred to the existing options. Meanwhile, the Conservative candidate could still beat either the Labour or the UKIP candidates in a head-to-head contest. But he or she is not getting the chance to demonstrate that breadth of popularity under the FPTP system.

This, to me, is why looking for the Condorcet winner is important, and a better measure of popularity than simply who gets the most votes in a single-round contest. FPTP doesn't bother to ask any more questions after that first round - but I suspect that in this scenario, both the Conservative and the UKIP voters would agree that it should. One common complaint against AV is that it can mean the person who 'comes second' can win. But the 'second' place which people are usually thinking of when they make this comment relates to the results as they would be ranked by FPTP - i.e. under first preferences alone. The complaint rests on the assumption that FPTP always ranks candidates correctly in the first place. But my whole point is that I don't think it does.

Meanwhile, AV is much better equipped to cope with multi-candidate scenarios like the one we're using here. In fact, what it basically does is work sequentially through the candidates in a series of head-to-head contests, peeling away the least popular candidates one at a time until a final winner emerges.

If we take the same example above, and now treat it as a set of first preferences, AV would recognise that no candidate has yet demonstrated conclusively that they are the Condorcet winner. That's what the 50% line which AV uses is all about. It represents a majority, and if you can achieve that in the first round, then you clearly are the Condorcet winner. You have beaten not only every other candidate individually, but every other candidate collectively. Well done! But if no-one has done that - as they currently don't in 2/3 of parliamentary constituencies - then AV probes the views of the electorate more thoroughly than FPTP can before deciding on a winner.

In our example, AV would tackle the Conservative and UKIP candidates first, since - on first view at least - those are the two least popular candidates in the field. AV holds them up against each other and effectively asks the electorate - OK, which one do you prefer out of these two? The answer is obviously the Conservative candidate, so the UKIP candidate is eliminated. What the process of elimination is actually doing is removing obvious losers in the popularity stakes stage by stage.

Once that's done, AV then allows the collective opinions of the whole electorate to be consulted again about a second pair of candidates. Here, there's only one pair left, so the question is now simply whom the electorate prefer out of the remaining Labour and Conservative candidates. Those who've expressed a first preference for either of them have already told us what that is, so those preferences can remain in place for the second round. Meanwhile, those who initially voted UKIP also get to comment on this round, using their second preferences. These are now re-allocated to the remaining candidates, and the result should be that the Conservative candidate wins - now the clear victor of two successive head-to-head contests with the other candidates.

In all fairness, it needs to be said that AV is not 100% perfect at identifying the Condorcet winner either, and Wikipedia provides an example of how it can fail when one candidate enjoys broad support, but still comes third in the first round. But it is very obviously a great deal better at doing so that FPTP, because the whole point of it is that it works through the candidates on a head-to-head basis, clearing the field of the unpopular candidates, and allowing the remaining contestants to demonstrate the true breadth of their popularity.

So to me, that basic goal of identifying majority consensus is what AV is all about. FPTP can allow MPs to be elected by the support of the largest minority, even if a majority of their constituents actively loathe them, because the views of that majority are never properly tested. AV insures against that by thoroughly examining people's relative preferences, until it has found a deep, broad seam of support which a majority can agree on.

As far as I'm concerned, that is a much more meaningful measure of popularity in an election contest. From a theoretical perspective alone, it seems more democratic to me - and certainly much fairer than the bizarre results which FPTP can yield when dealing with more than two candidates. Meanwhile, by dint of requiring majority support, AV also:
  • Rewards candidates who are prepared to reach out and appeal to a wide range of voters, including those who aren't planning to put them as a first preference. This should mean that it favours moderate candidates campaigning on a positive platform, and punishes extremists who simply slag off their rivals.
  • Makes the real opinions of the electorate much clearer by removing the obfuscating effects of tactical voting. That was the point I was making in my Oldham East and Saddleworth post, but I think this postcard makes it rather nicely, too.
  • Makes some seats contestable which currently aren't, helping to mitigate against the current culture of political parties targeting all their efforts on swing voters in marginal seats, while largely ignoring the views of those who live in safe seats. Of course, the same strategy will still be used, but if a higher proportion of seats are marginal, then a higher proportion of the electorate should find that their opinions are being listened to.
  • Makes it harder for MPs who don't do a good job of representing their constituents to get re-elected, because they won't manage to do so if they have alienated a majority of their constituents.

In other words, at a local level AV (or indeed any system which is better at identifying Condorcet winners than FPTP) really should do exactly what the Yes campaign are saying it will do - give voters more of a say, and ensure more accountable MPs. It won't, of course, save the world, or deliver the fairer representation at national level which a properly proportional system could. In fact, Alan Renwick shows on pp. 68-70 of the same book which I referenced above that over the last seven elections AV would probably have delivered results which were on average almost equally disproportionate to those delivered by FPTP - although the disproportionality would have manifested itself in slightly different ways. But the improvements at a local level are enough to make it obviously preferable to FPTP as far as I'm concerned.

So that's me, and those are my real reasons for voting Yes to AV. As I've said, they aren't necessarily the reasons which are most effective in an actual debate. For most people, saying that I prefer AV because it is better at FPTP at identifying the Condorcet winner in each constituency is meaningless. And even if they're prepared to listen to me explaining it, I still have to acknowledge that that will only achieve a relatively modest improvement in the electoral system, and that AV isn't perfect at identifying the Condorcet winner itself anyway. But nonetheless, that is an honest statement of what is convincing me.

What's really important when I debate the issue with people on the phone is that my own core of conviction is solidly in place. From there, I can leave all talk of Condorcet winners behind, and concentrate on the arguments which are actually accessible and persuasive. It's nothing like as difficult as this post might make it appear. :-)

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Comments

( 43 comments — Leave a comment )
venta
Apr. 13th, 2011 08:16 am (UTC)
I've been kind of struggling with the concept of AV since I read Guido Fawkes on the Isleworth mock-election a while back.

I pretty much agree with everything you say (and I rarely agree with Guido ;) but it does worry me: what if the electorate simply refuses to buy in to the second preference concept? If - as happened in the mock election - a good percentage of people only express a first preference you risk getting a no-result. Which isn't good for anyone.

I kind of assume that the AV system being proposed has a solution to this, but I haven't worked out what it is yet...
maviscruet
Apr. 13th, 2011 08:30 am (UTC)
If everybody failed to use there second choice - all that would happen is we'd get first pasty the post by default. The lowest candidates would be eliminated - until two remain and which ever is left with the majority of the remaining votes wins which would exactly mirror there first preferences so first past the post....
(no subject) - venta - Apr. 13th, 2011 08:44 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - maviscruet - Apr. 13th, 2011 08:51 am (UTC) - Expand
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myfirstkitchen
Apr. 13th, 2011 08:37 am (UTC)
Lots of people in the Labour leadership election only expressed a first preference. When I've been talking about AV in my mum's constituency (a Tory constituency), those who understand it mostly said they would only put a first preference down as they don't want ANY of the others or the others they'd be happy with would go out first round. E.g. the Tory voters don't want to put LD second, some of them would be OK with UKIP but don't see any point. The Labour voters don't want to put LD second either, some would be happy with Green or an independent or Socialist Labour, but since they'd go out first round and Labour wouldn't, no point expressing a preference. The Lib Dems I spoke to said they'd put a second preference down, so did the Greens - unsurprisingly - but the former expected to pick up more second preferences from Labour votes than they actually would. Basically only those voting outside the big two wanted to put a second preference, now that most Labour voters actually would not be happy with a Lib Dem compromise candidate and lots of Tories don't like them either.

That to me is a big problem with AV, even though I'm voting for it. People from parties outside the big two get it and want it, people like me (if I get to move) who want their vote to count even if they live in a stronghold for another party get it and want it, the vast majority don't buy in to the second preference at all. The damage done to public perception of the Liberal Democrats doesn't mean people want to spite Nick Clegg by voting against him on AV, they also don't feel like they HAVE a second preference any more if they are a Big Two voter. They'd rather waste a vote on a party that can't win in their constituency than use it on a compromise candidate to block the other Big Two party, either tactically or using an AV second preference.
(no subject) - myfirstkitchen - Apr. 13th, 2011 08:39 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - maviscruet - Apr. 13th, 2011 08:55 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - myfirstkitchen - Apr. 13th, 2011 08:58 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - burkesworks - Apr. 13th, 2011 10:13 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - xipuloxx - Apr. 13th, 2011 11:29 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - myfirstkitchen - Apr. 13th, 2011 11:41 am (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - myfirstkitchen - Apr. 13th, 2011 01:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kissmeforlonger - Apr. 13th, 2011 02:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - myfirstkitchen - Apr. 13th, 2011 02:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - strange_complex - Apr. 13th, 2011 03:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kissmeforlonger - Apr. 13th, 2011 06:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
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maviscruet
Apr. 13th, 2011 08:40 am (UTC)
God that Guido piece is repelent.... The comment thread made me feel dirty.
strange_complex
Apr. 13th, 2011 08:55 am (UTC)
As others have already said, there's no risk of a non-result. The worst that can happen is defaulting to what is basically a FPTP-style result, with little or nothing in the way of reallocations of votes. And to me, that's not a problem, because the whole point of AV is that it reflects the will of the electorate more accurately. If people genuinely only have a first preference, then that's how they should vote, and the outcome should reflect that.
burkesworks
Apr. 13th, 2011 10:08 am (UTC)
Paul Staines - I refuse to call him "Guido Fawkes" for the same reasons that I don't refer to Stephen Yaxley Lennon as "Tommy Robinson" - is the acknowledged expert in manipulating and/or making up news stories to suit his agenda. It's very odd how he's kept shtumm about MPs' expenses and "duck houses" all of a sudden.

Re Condorcet - you know it's right, and I know it's right, but the big question is how to convince Joe Sixpack that it is?
maviscruet
Apr. 13th, 2011 08:33 am (UTC)
Thanks - that's not a concept I've come across before and it's very helpful. Well I can see it's not useful door stopping I can certainly use it in my next pub debate.... My current tactics is to say first past the post allows you say who you like bestest in the world - while av allows you to show who you hate most.......
strange_complex
Apr. 13th, 2011 09:14 am (UTC)
Cheers. I think it's a really useful way of articulating what 'popular' or 'majority consensus' actually means, and identifying it successfully. But your line about it taking on board people's dislikes as well as their preferences is another much simpler way of saying basically the same thing.

Some people object to that, too, of course, saying that it's a travesty that AV can elect the 'least hated' candidate. But for me, thinking it through in terms of Condorcet winners and losers makes it much clearer that 'least hated' is not actually a bad thing. And I don't think that in practice people can win even under AV just by being bland and non-objectionable, either. They do need to win a hefty chunk of first preferences to start out with, before they can start benefiting from second preferences.
xipuloxx
Apr. 13th, 2011 11:39 am (UTC)
I'd have thought that, while talking about Condorcet criteria might cause people's eyes to glaze over, it would be simple enough to explain how AV allows them to help keep out candidates they really dislike even if their favourite doesn't win.

In NI, there have been cases where (for example) the two main Unionist parties have had to agree not to contest certain seats against each other in general elections because of the risk of splitting the vote, allowing the SDLP or even Sinn Fein to get in. And of course, for those of us who support smaller parties like the Alliance, it would be nice to be able to vote for them without feeling that you've thrown your vote away!
strange_complex
Apr. 13th, 2011 11:44 am (UTC)
Oh yes, absolutely - and that's what I do in other forums. In fact, I've just put up a public-facing blog posts which gives examples of some of the clearer, easier arguments which I use in real debates. I just wanted to put my real reasons on record somewhere, so that the people whose opinions really matter to me (i.e. my friends) would know where I'm actually coming from.
kissmeforlonger
Apr. 13th, 2011 12:33 pm (UTC)
I'll be voting for AV, though I'd much rather have STV, for a number of reasons:

- I am almost always voting for a minority party in Council elections, partly for representation reasons and partly to stop them losing their deposit

- my vote in the general election is tactical. I'd much rather express a completely honest first preference and then use my second preference to say 'in the likely case that my preferred person doesn't win, this person will do I guess' ;-)

- we used STV for student union elections and there was rarely a surprise in the outcome; if anything it made the result clearer in exactly the way you describe. But people did get to express their genuine preference. This may come as a nasty shock to politicians who seem to believe they are the only ones who make choices for pragmatic reasons, and the poor ignorant electorate just vote for whoever their dad voted for, or whatever.

Personally I would feel more committed to an electoral system which produced an overall fairer and more representative result than FPTP, *even if it's the same*.
strange_complex
Apr. 13th, 2011 12:46 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I'd rather have STV too. But my second preference is AV. :-)
(no subject) - kissmeforlonger - Apr. 13th, 2011 12:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - xipuloxx - Apr. 13th, 2011 01:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
qiheming
Apr. 13th, 2011 08:22 pm (UTC)
great post as usual!

secretshadowss
Apr. 16th, 2011 11:48 am (UTC)
Thanks so much for taking the time to type all this out, I feel much more informed, so much more accessible!
strange_complex
Apr. 16th, 2011 08:08 pm (UTC)
Thanks - glad to have helped!
( 43 comments — Leave a comment )

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