Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Alternative Vote Referendum - why I am a No

I wasn't going into enter into the AV fray, but having just read this letter from the Yes campaign to Margaret Becket, I am now firmly resolved to vote against the idea.

I see no value in personalising the campaign by targetting the individuals who desire to keep the First Past The Post system. The letter with its confrontational language and extremely patronising tone has got right up my nose.

Who is this Jonathan Bartley that can speak so disrespectfully to such a senior, distinguished and long-serving politician? Is he this man? Or is that a coincidence, someone with the same name?

He comes over like a bully, challenging a kid to a fight in the school yard. And as someone desperate for time in the limelight, sulking because he has not appeared on TV as often as he would like. Well guess what Mr Bartley, it's not all about you!

It is most distasteful and I wish to completely disassociate myself from his campaign, so I guess it's time to put the argument for the no campaign, which I shall now join.

(My friend James thinks I should make it clear at this point that I was already a probable "no" and that Mr Bartley only firmed up my resolve, his letter was not the deciding factor in itself. I couldn't possibly associate myself with the Yes campaign after reading that, even though I was probably not going to anyway. What he did was push me into open debate. Hope that helps)

When someone votes in an election, they are not voting for which Parliament or Coucncil they wish to see, even if they have a view on this, they are electors only for their division. They are voting for the individual they wish to represent them. That person will probably belong to a political party, although they need not. The successful candidate will represent the whole of the electoral division when they turn up in the chamber, and they will make a choice about which if any party groupings they wish to join in with, in order for a ruling group to be formed. Usually in this country that will be based on party lines, although there are parts of the Highlands of Scotland for instance where most people sit as independents.

Indeed that person can choose to leave that grouping if they wish and join another, but they will still be the elected representative of the division.

If more people vote for candidate A, then candidate A should be elected. It is not right to decide that the rest of the electors who did not vote for candidate A, but cast their votes across a range of alternatives, should get the chance to overrule those who did vote for candidate A. If they had been organised enough to coalesce against candidate B and put up an alternative who could beat them, as happened in Tatton in 1997 then fair enough, but otherwise, if you win,  you win.

Are we to say that we dont like Chelsea winning the 2009/10 season even though they got the most points, because they only won by 1 point and so we should redistribute the points won by Man U and Spurs and Arsenal and thus rank the order differently?

Do we tell Usain Bolt that his gold medal wont stand because his margin of victory over the next fastest runner did not exceed the cumulative time of all the other runners? Or that actually we would have preferred the guy that came 4th to have the medal?

The fact remains that unless something is a two horse race, you cannot win 50% plus 1 of the vote

If you want choice and more candidates/runners and riders, you have to accept that the margin of victory will be considerably less than 50%.

There was a scene in Auf Weidersehen Pet in the first series I think, where the lads were choosing what colour to vote the walls in their hut. Barry persuaded them to try alternative voting, a system used if I recall correctly by the West Bromwich pigeon fanciers club, and they ranged their preferences, from white to blue and yellow and green, and there was uproar when they ended up with a "pink" result, despite nobody having voted for it "first".

This is a big problem, it leaves everyone dissatisfied with the end result, because nobody voted for what they got, or very few did. You could get 25% on the first ballot and then get 100% of the second preferences and take the seat, which would leave a lot of people wondering why they bothered. It would turn an election into a campaign for second preferences instead of first ones. If that's democracy, you can keep it!
Voters choose a representative, the representative, along with other similar representatives, make the next choice, about how to formulate a governing body. The proposed system ignores that, it takes away the right of the voter to choose the person they want, gives more strength to political parties against the non-aligned, gives succour to the less popular who could have been first if they had been sufficiently more attractive

First past the post has served this country perfectly well. We had a Tory Government from 79 - 97, a Labour Government from 97 - 10 and now a Coalition, with the LibDems having the post of Deputy Prime Minister and a number of Secretaries of State. How has FPTP been ineffective in giving people what they want?

The Yes Campaign serves only one purpose, to prop up minor parties. Minor parties who cannot win enough support on their won and so want to steal support from others. The Labour Party was a minor party once but it built up the support it needed over 100 years until it could rule for three terms. If minor parties want to rule, I suggest they work on building up their own support.

If I had to vote in a local election using AV, then I would naturally vote for Labour, followed probably by Green and then maybe some fringe left party, and would vote LibDem last, because that's how I feel about them. (I would not of course vote for the Tories or the BNP even assuming they stood) And a LibDem voter would probably vote in a similar way to me, but in with 1 and 4 reversed. So the beneficaries in that scenario would be the minor Green Party. But would my vote for them be a positive endorsement? No not really, it would be a vote against the LibDems. And that is a ridiculously way to organise representation. That the winner is someone you "least loathe" rather than "most want".

It's winning the arguments we should be aiming for, FPTP makes you work for your votes, and win hearts and minds. Whereas AV is like picking a football team in the school playground, "We'll have Smith and Jones, sir, anyone but Bloggs".

Don't fall for it

Louise Baldock has been a political campaigner for 19 years and an elected representative for over 4 years, under FPTP.

edited as further thoughts struck me


scouseboy said...

I'm voting no also.
The alternative vote system would disenfranchise people in the North, who traditionally vote Labour. Under AV we would nearly always have a Tory or Con Dem coalition government. The people in the North would then question is their vote worth casting. The Labour vote would be diluted. It would also create an even wider North-South divide than currently exists. I note that even the Tories do not want AV. Guess who does? The Fib Dems. They are the only ones to gain from AV. I agree with Louise, don't fall for the AV trick.

LondonStatto said...

The fact remains that unless something is a two horse race, you cannot win 50% plus 1 of the vote

You can, but you can't guarantee it.

Louise Baldock said...

Hi LondonStatto, you are right of course, I dont quite know what I was trying to say there. I won with 62% of the vote, from memory, and there were five candidates.

Jack said...

I disagree with your assessment as a whole, but let me focus in particular on two of your points:

1) You suggest the Green Party would benefit by being the second choice of both you as a Labour voter and a Lib Dem voter. But that's only true if the Green candidate has done better than Labour. Your vote will only leave your Labour candidate if that candidate is behind the Green candidate-- meaning that your candidate has lost. In that case, don't you want your second choice to defeat your last choice? If not, why not?

2) This speaks to the fact that AV makes candidates work harder than first past the post. You as a candidate have to fight hard for first choices and will lose if not doing well with them. But you also have to fight for second choices and thereby take more voters seriously.

Louise Baldock said...

Hi Jack, thanks for joining in.

Do I want my second choice to defeat my last choice? That rather depend on the election and the Parties and candidates standing, there may not be much between them. I might conceivably find them all unsatisfactory and there may be only shades between them.
I might be asked to choose between the lesser of two evils.

I have seen elections before using AV where candidates ask for second preferences and more or less gloss over first preferences. I find it unedifying.

I dont agree that AV makes candidates work harder than FPTP. I would like to see your evidence for that. This has not been my experience, which goes back at least 16 years in terms of Parliamentary selections using this method.

Ben Donnelly said...

How does your experience of working with just one system give you any insight on a comparison between the two?

There are only two ways to determine how AV would improve on FPTP.

1) The most effective way would be to change to AV and see what happens. Then we'd really know.

2) But since we can't do that before the referendum that just leaves examining things from first principles. There's little point in using any information or data from First Past the Post elections as they aren't AV and they won't tell us very much about AV. All you can do is set out various example cases and run the maths.

The way I see it, First Past the Post is a system designed for choosing between exactly two candidates. That's where the name comes from. There's an actual post and it's at the 50% mark, there for one or the other of the two candidates to pass. AV is just a modification of First Past the Post that makes sure there's still a post at 50% when there are more than two candidates. There are even fairer, more thorough methods such as Condorcet, but AV does the job well enough, and certainly better than First Past the Post which doesn't do it at all.

Any other objection to AV would come from a Proportional Representation point of view, but those same objections apply equally (or even more so) to First Past the Post, and one thing we CAN be certain of, a No vote in this referendum will be an endorsement of First Past the Post, killing off any Proportional system as much as it would AV.

Lee Griffin said...

What get's right up my nose is "arguments" like these...

"It's winning the arguments we should be aiming for, FPTP makes you work for your votes, and win hearts and minds. Whereas AV is like picking a football team in the school playground, "We'll have Smith and Jones, sir, anyone but Bloggs"."

Really? So no-one under FPTP picks a candidate that they *think* will win, though they have no assurances, because they don't want a specific other candidate to win?

And indeed, do you think that it's fair that, if you're right, that you support a system that essentially disallows people from voting with the reasons and intentions that they wish as an individual searching for the right representative for them?

If a voter isn't voting in "the right way" for you, then their votes are wrong, are they?

FPTP makes you work for your set amount of votes. If you know your core, and your opponents core, you only have to fight for the measly percentage in the middle. AV means you also have to show what you offer to your opponents core vote as well. How's that for working hard?

"Do we tell Usain Bolt that his gold medal wont stand because his margin of victory over the next fastest runner did not exceed the cumulative time of all the other runners? Or that actually we would have preferred the guy that came 4th to have the medal?"

Bolt's win only shows how good he is at running fast (and in analogy, how much individual support a candidate can garner), not necessarily how enjoyable he is to watch run or how much he may enthuse others to run. These kinds of silly and irrelevant analogies just don't work.

"They are voting for the individual they wish to represent them."

Precisely, and for some people the individual that they wish to represent them may not just be one individual. They may prefer one, but they may also like another, or another after that...what they may not want is to be lumbered with a candidate they cannot abide.

I urge you to read this: and understand why your decision (based rather rashly on a single person's actions?!) is one that ensures we'll never know if the person we're sending to office isn't more hated than they are loved.

Louise Baldock said...

Ben, I have been running AV elections, and voting in them, for 16 years, as part of the LP selection process for Parliamentary candidates, and latterly for the leader, for European candidates etc. I have seen some truly ridiculous results that left absolutely no-one satisfied, not even the successful candidate, because, far from feeling that they carried a mandate, they felt like the whole thing was a fudge - and they didn't feel they had the true support of the majority.

Clearly FPTP does not require only two candidates, and clearly the bar is not set at 50%+1, as an earlier contributor pointed out, you can win with 65% or 29% or any figure you like, in a ballot with as many candidates as you like.

I have no problem with the idea that a no vote will kill of PR because I am not a fan of it anyway.

Lee - please try not to get personal in your arguments, they lose a lot of weight if you do, and the leader of the YES campaign has already been criticised for this. We can either debate this sensibly, or not at all. You may choose to disagree with my arguments, but to belittle them is to lose a lot of ground.

It seems that where we disagree is about how much weight we give to an individual voter, rather than the mass of voters, or the political parties.

For me, a vote is the province of an individual, in a secret ballot. They cast only one vote, whether or not they are permitted further preferences if their initial vote does not garner the same support with other voters. And they can only elect one representative - their own.

So yes I base my views on a single person's actions.

Because that is how democracy works in this country.

One voter, one vote, one representative.

I am curious about this notion that voters like candidate A and candidate B and possibly candidate C too. In my 19 years on the doorstep I have yet to meet anyone who said I would vote for your candidate (or someone else's) but I quite like the other guy too and I shant mind if we end up with them or even a third alternative. And I have never met a single soul who said to me, I wish I could vote for more than one, or I wish I could order them. And I have probably knocked on 25000 doors (and made 5000 phone calls).

For the majority of people in my experience, they want only candidate A, and if they use their alternative vote, it is because they suppose they must as it is provided for. I have met lots of people who choose only to vote for their first preference, and ignore the rest.

I have met lots of political campaigners who want AV so that it benefits their Party, but none who want it so that they themselves can utilise it. It is about Parties seeking more power for themselves.

Shouldn't our focus be on the elector? Rather than the Party? Remember what I said about elections where only Independents are elected? Would there be such a clamour there? That would be the ideal place to use it, if it was worthwhile using, but it is not the place where the argument is focussed.

I return to my original point, if minor parties want more representation then they need to win the arguments for their policies with voters, not find a back door route.

Thanks for joining in, both of you.

James said...

Part 1)

A well written article. I would like to point out that I am a supporter of the Yes campaign, as although I realise the limitations of AV, I believe it to be superior to FPTP for at least 3 reasons:

1) voter choice, 2) providing a mandate, 3) partizan reasons.

1) Under FPTP a person is 'supposed' to select the candidate they most want to win. However, in many cases, they select the candidate they judge to be the most likely to stop the candidate they least like from winning. This is called 'tactical voting' and is felt by many to be insincere and undesirable. Under AV, tactical voting still exists, but is massively reduced by the ability of voters to make a far more nuanced set of judgements about candidates.

2) Any system which allows a party to win 55% of the seats, as Labour did in 2005, with the support of only 20% of the electorate, is surely undemocratic? AV can provide a mandate by ensuring that every MP has a much greater level of support in their constituency. I am aware that AV can skew results still further, which is why I believe that the AV+ system advised by the Jenkins Report can help to alleviate those problems.

3) I believe that if we switched to AV, Labour would be able to pursue its programme more effectively over time, as we would spend more time in government. It is possible (indeed probable) that the Lib Dems will be decimated at every level nationally, but over the next 10 or 20 years will return to their former polling strength (it took 22 years for the Lib Dems to go from 7% to 29% in the polls last time). Indeed, I believe that as we see more voters voting with their conscience for their first preference, we will see gains in support (if not in parliament) for fringe parties. This is not something to worry about however, as even if coalitions became more usual, any coalition of the left (Labour, Greens, Far Left, [Lib Dems!?]) would almost certainly have Labour as its lynchpin. We could also see more conservatives finally branch off and join UKIP as they will finally be able to garner support from conservative voters who will be able to give first preferences to UKIP and second to Conservatives.

James said...

Part 2)

After having read the 'patronising' letter, I believe it has an aggressive, but not a totally unreasonable or disrespectful tone. The letter raises some good questions and from a strategic point of view is clearly trying to shift the frame of the debate away from the shortcomings of AV (of which there can be no doubt) but towards asking why we would choose FPTP ahead of it.

Unfortunately, in Britain, we have no ability to elect our head of state or indeed to directly elect our head of government. Thus most voters in Britain are sophisticated enough to know that even if they do not like the local candidate of a party they do support, they can only get the head of government they want by voting for a local candidate they dislike.

Perhaps really this is indicative of how insignificant a question the AV debate actually is: of the three 'branches' of political power, the commons, the lords and the monarchy, we can only influence one of them, and even then only in an indirect way. However, if increasing representation and democratic accountability is our goal, then we should not give reactionaries the opportunity to say 'the people had a chance to vote for reform and rejected it'. I fear that a vote against AV will be construed by the forces of the status quo as a vote against any modernisation of our antiquated system.

In conclusion, the only arguments I would concede with AV are that it can be less proportional than FPTP, that it can result in consensus candidates winning over conviction candidates (not always a problem, but worth mentioning), and that reallocation of votes under AV is not perfect - some tactical considerations can still come into play.

So finally, I would ask you to tell me who deserves to win this (not uncommon) election?

Labour - 34%
Lib Dem - 25% (2nd pref: 13% Labour, 9% Conservative)
Conservative - 35%

How you answer this question is essentially the benchmark of how you view politics.

All the best, Jay.

Stella said...

To Be blunt, despite the worthy arguments of the chattering classes here. 99.9% of the public could not give a fig about the sort of constitional naval gazing that is going on.

The Tories must love the attention being taken away from their savagery.

If this Av vote where held on a standalone (none local elction) day would estimate a turnout of between 5 and 10%. Nuff said

Really, Matron? said...

Tut, tut Louise - you'll have to do MUCH better on this one, sweetie.

You don't seem to be able to write "I'm voting no because AV is strongly identified, and heeavily pushed for by, the Lib Dems who I pathologically hate" and instead you've gone for an incoherent ramble even a fellow Labour supporter (above) is struggling with.

Tut, tut.