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I've been thinking about the AV referendum, and one of the things… - Sally's Journal
February 24th, 2011
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I've been thinking about the AV referendum, and one of the things that I've been pondering is why people might be against AV.

andrewducker posted a link to the arguments people are using against AV, and I think it's fairly clear Paperback Rioter is right, and they are mostly rubbish arguments.

So what might actually change under AV, and why might people think that was bad? I think there are [ETA] two three major things:

1) Some people under the current system cast their vote for a party they are fairly certain can't win in their constituency. It's hard to estimate how many votes this is (well, it's easy but lengthy, as there's lots of constituencies in the UK) but 6% of people voted for a party that didn't get a single seat, and I'm sure some of the lib dem voters are in areas where the battle is tory/labour[1], so guessing it's about 1 in 10 voters seems approximately right.[2]

Moving to AV effectively gives these people a vote that counts. Now, putting my cards on the table here, this is the major reason I'm in favour of AV. Every election I am faced with stressing about whether or not to vote for the party I actually want to support, or whether to be pragmatic and pick the best of two evils. So far I've tended towards idealism, on the grounds that maybe everyone is just like me and if we all wake up and vote idealistically the Good Guys will get in[3]. But it would clearly make me more comfortable to have a voting system where I can say 'this is who I want to vote for, but pragmatically A are better than B'

I'm not sure what we can say about these non-pragmatic voters as a group. But I am sure that lots of right wingers probably see them as a group of greens / socialists / lib dems / communists / respect / unions / 'people who will want pretty much anyone, especially labour, before the tory party, except possibly the BNP'[4]. From that point of view, enfranchising these people with a meaningful vote is something that will make your party less likely to win. Now, there's an idealistic question about whether it's better to make democracy more democratic even if it means you're less likely to get the government you want running the country. And I think it is quite common, and even defensible, if not very politically correct or palatable, to actually not want some people to have the vote. I'm not a big fan of democracy myself - I think there are lots of things that if we put them to a straight referendum the Bad Guys would win them (gay marriage, the death penalty, europe) - so I'm glad that we have an elected body of clever people to keep us from our own excesses. Which means I do think that there is a defendable position saying 'look, if a grown adult genuinely wants to cast their vote for the Lincolnshire Independance party I want them as far away from influencing the outcome of this election as possible', (which is more subtle and idealistic than 'this system makes us less likely to win so it's bad', although the two things probably get muddled up)

And if you want to keep these people disenfranchised while on paper giving them the vote, FPTP is much better than AV.

2) Secondarily, there are some people who do vote pragmatically, ie they vote for one of the two parties they think have a chance of winning even though they would prefer to vote for a less popular party. I think these are the great unknown - we can see how many people vote non-pragmatically, because they turn up counted next to the Pirate Party, but as far as I know there isn't very good data on how many people were voting pragmatically and would vote differently under AV. [That surprises me, as it seems an incredably interesting and incredably topical question, and you'd think someone would have done a poll to try and quantify it.]

Anyway, with no numbers, that just creates a lot of fear, uncertancy and doubt that under AV everyone will leap out of bed on polling day, and think 'oh, I've always wanted to vote for the monster raving loony party, now I can do it without wasting my vote' and we will see a huge swing towards fringe parties who aren't actually very good at running the country.

I can see how if you were one of the current major parties a voting system that might encourage a giant swing away from you probably doesn't look like a good thing. But that gets back into 'I don't want to give the people what they want, I want to give the people what's best for them, which is me'. A valid position, but one worth being honest about.

I think I don't actually think this will happen. I think a lot of people honestly think the middle of the road parties are best, and don't secretly want to be ruled by Peace or the Communists. Also, even for those pragmatic voters that are about to jump to their True Love under AV, I think they will jump in too many random directions to actually rock the boat. And also I think if it did happen it might be a good thing. A parliamentary term isn't very long. Give the people what they want, teach them that their vote can make a huge difference (not necessarily a good one) and maybe people will become more engaged with politics.

3) Finally, first past the post is a system that's better for ideologies / political positions that don't tend to split, and AV is better for those that do. If you have the Blue party versus the Crimson party, the Scarlett party, the Maroon party, and the Pink party, then first past the post is going to work better for the Blues, whereas AV is more likely to get a red party in power.

Now, you could argue that political positions with a tendancy to schism into lots of parties should be gently skewed against by our voting system. You could say that if they can't even play nicely together and agree when they're just working with people who broadly agree with them, they're not going to be very good at running a country without falling out and disagreeing and and generally bickering a lot.

I think (although I haven't thought very hard) that political positions that involve the government Doing Stuff [5] are by their very nature more likely to schism than ones that want the government to Butt Out and let the free market do its thing. Because if your policy is 'Give all the forests to the free market' there is fundamentally less room for dissent than 'Manage all the forests ourselves', as that will inevitably lead to the question 'how'.

So moving from FPTP to AV probably means we're more likely to get parties in power whose supporters have historically been split under FPTP. And these might be more left wing.

So there we go, the main three reasons I can think of of why people might actually be against AV. These don't seem to be the debates people are having though.

[1] I can be sure because I'm one of them ;-)

[2] If any of my intelligent readers wants to actually work this out, then I'd be very interested and very grateful.

[3] This is not the place for a diversion on the relative Goodness of the Good Guys.

[4] Lots of these non-pragmatic voters are actually BNP, UKIP, the Christian Party, so it's very unclear whether they're actually more left wing or more right wing. Again, I'd love to see someone do the maths. But my gut instinct is that the right is right and there are more lefties in the non-pragmatic pool.

[5] I wrote 'left wing' positions originally, but then you get into the whole liberal v's socialist thing again.

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From:ylla
Date:February 24th, 2011 12:33 pm (UTC)
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Can pragmatism be extended to preferring a system which generally produces a majority government to one which generally produces minority governments and coalitions?

Obviously there are countries that make it work, but if you haven't experienced it much, you may not be particularly inclined to start.
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From:atreic
Date:February 24th, 2011 12:45 pm (UTC)
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I think that PR is much more likely to produce minority governments and coelitions, but I don't really think AV is any more likely to produce minority governments than FPTP. It's still one winner in each constituency that reflects the majority opinion, rather than a number of winners that reflect the actual political mix. The evidence from Australia, which has AV, is that we have more hung parlaments than them - and I haven't seen any evidence that AV leads to more minority governments. I think Camaron just said it because it's a really good argument against PR and he'd forgotten which voting system he was opposing [or more cynically, because he thought people would just believe him and not think about it]
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From:atreic
Date:February 24th, 2011 12:49 pm (UTC)
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Yes, I think the 'didn't get a single seat' method is OK for back of an envelope, but to get a better measure you'd want to go through each constituency and count all the votes that were going to a party that clearly didn't have a chance based on the 2006 election results. You'd need to define 'clearly didn't have a chance', but I think 'had less than 15% of the vote the year before' would be a fair way of doing it. Because I think there are lots of green and lib dem 'no chance' votes which you miss otherwise.

I agree with you, it's a bit naive to think that just because someone's first choice was, say, green, we can predict which way they'd vote in a tory/labour tie break (assuming they voted at all). But I think that it's fear about these voters and what they would do with their second votes that is really driving a lot of no2AV, so it seems worth at least hypothesizing what they'd be likely to do.
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From:hoshuteki
Date:February 24th, 2011 12:50 pm (UTC)
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I am vaguely confused that you say in your second paragraph that No2AV are clearly right and that their arguments are rubbish. I am myself unsure of which system would be better (more coalition government, less decisiveness, possibility of more representation for extremists?), but, taking one small but persuasive point, I just find the No2AV advertising so hatefully manipulative (especially the one of the baby) that I can't really bring myself to side with them...
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From:atreic
Date:February 24th, 2011 12:53 pm (UTC)
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Sorry, I meant 'paperback rioter is clearly right, the arguements are clearly rubbish'. Will edit.

I don't believe the 'more coalition governments' point (see comment above). I do believe that it enfranchises extreamists, but as I'm an extreamist under that definition I don't really mind.
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From:requiem_17_23
Date:February 24th, 2011 01:14 pm (UTC)
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the right is right and there are more lefties in the non-pragmatic pool.>

I kind of had an impression that Labour had much of the lunatic-Left fringe still attached rather than actually going so far as to vote Socialist, while the Tories lost their rabid-Right to the various nationalist splinter groups, and any portion of the Lib Dems that approached fringe status kind of split off a smaller party like an iceberg. But one always sees political opposition as disproportionately united.

The thing that worries me about a fairer electoral system is that if it increases representation of fringe parties (and if it doesn't, it isn't fair...) then some constituencies end up with a representative who doesn't get taken seriously. An MP's first and oldest duty is to promote and protect their constituency's interests. If that MP spends the rest of the time loudly being part of what most people see as a lunatic fringe, then people aren't going to listen to them when they turn around and stand up for the interests of the fraction of the British people that they and only they represent.

I'm perfectly aware that some MPs have been in this position under the current system, mentioning no visitors to Iraq. But the difference was that it wasn't their duty to do that, the way it would be the duty of a Monster Raving Looney Party[1] MP to behave like a lunatic in public.

I mean, the logical consequence of the line of reasoning I espouse above looks to me to be advocacy of a system with constituency MPs who were the Westminster spearhead of their local authority, and a PR-elected upper house which made national policy and elected the prime minister... but nobody could straight-facedly propose that level of government reform in the Commons and walk away with a political career, let alone sell it to the parties or the country.

[1]insert offensive fringe party here, I do not intend to start a debate on what that is
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From:atreic
Date:February 24th, 2011 01:20 pm (UTC)
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I think your worry boils down to 'you should give people what they need, not what they say they want', which is a defendable position, but a bit of a sad one that shows quite a low opinion of our voters. I don't think we will get increased representation of fringe parties under AV, because of the one-person one-constituency link. I think we might under PR, but then the constituency would have more than one MP, so if one of them was an embarressing waste of space that would be less bad.

I also think that the world has changed a huge amount, and that there isn't really 'constituency interests' in the way there used to be. I think that pensioners in Coventry and Cambridge have far more in common as a group of citizens than the citizens of Coventry have with each other... but I could be wrong, and I only see this from a very privileged view point!
From:vyvyan
Date:February 24th, 2011 01:25 pm (UTC)
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I'm surprised more hasn't been made of Ed Miliband being appointed leader after 4 rounds of AV; David was marginally ahead of him in all previous rounds - it was pretty exciting to watch coverage at the time, I thought. (Results round-by-round here.) Very clear example of AV giving a different outcome from FPTP.
From:emarkienna
Date:February 25th, 2011 12:24 am (UTC)
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I'm also amused that more hasn't been made of David Cameron only becoming the Tory leader because of AV (or a similar system, at least). Under FPTP, he would have lost.
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From:naath
Date:February 24th, 2011 01:45 pm (UTC)
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Pragmatic voters>

We also don't know how many people who voted, say, Green would NOT do so if they thought that doing so might actually make the Greens win (if you are in a Tory safe seat you can send a "you SUCK" message to Labour by voting Green or Socialist, but you might not actually mean "the party I picked is one that I actually like and want to win", but under AV you might have to think about whether you actually wanted them).

So I don't think we have any idea who would get how many votes under AV...

Mostly I'm annoyed at Cameron being all "we don't want a government of second choice"... dude was not my first choice (or even my second choice). He (well, the Tories) didn't even get 50% of all votes; so he was the second-or-subsequent choice of most voters (The Conservatives of course have been the actual second choice of many or even most of those whose first preference is not Conservative). At least with AV we get to find out what people's second choices actually are.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:February 24th, 2011 02:47 pm (UTC)
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He was, however, the first choice of more voters than anybody else (36.1% of the popular vote -- Labour was the first choice of 29% and the Lib Dems only of 23%). Which is I think the point.

S.
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From:realdoll
Date:February 24th, 2011 01:58 pm (UTC)
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I just don't have a major enough problem with the current system to warrant spending so much time and money on it rather than important stuff.
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From:atreic
Date:February 24th, 2011 02:12 pm (UTC)
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Oh, I can see that as an argument for not running round having a referendum[1], but given we are running round having a referendum one may as well vote for the best of the two systems that are being offered.

[1] Although I entirely disagree, because I think the current system is hugely sucky and broken, and I think 'how we decide who decides about important stuff' is at least as important as the actual important stuff.
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From:ashfae
Date:February 24th, 2011 02:19 pm (UTC)
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...hang on, how do you know andrewducker? World is too small again! =)
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From:atreic
Date:February 24th, 2011 02:27 pm (UTC)
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I don't think I do really know andrewducker, but he has good LJ debates and posts really great links, and I can't remember if I friended him first or vice versa. Huzzah for internet friends, that's what I say :-)
From:ptc24
Date:February 24th, 2011 04:10 pm (UTC)
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The one thing that interests/worries me is this:

Under FPTP, you get a limited choice of candidates, which means that you have to weigh up the factors that are important to you when you cast a vote. A party can pick up votes by choosing policies that a small group of people are strongly in favour of, and a large majority are ever-so-slightly against. Furthermore, small parties can influence the policy of large parties by offering policies that will draw voters away from the large parties.

With AV, you have more credible candidates to choose between, so that effect doesn't apply so much; it's much easier to treat issues independently, and so you get a step closer to what you'd get under direct democracy, where each issue has majority support, although who's in the majority in each case may differ.

Thus, FPTP and the avoidance of referenda etc. can give more power to minority groups. One of those minority groups is of course "the rich", which in my case is an argument to vote for AV (and this I think might explain some opposition to AV from conservative quarters), but I worry that we might be losing a beneficial effect on other minorities too.
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From:robert_jones
Date:February 24th, 2011 04:26 pm (UTC)
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Off the top of my head the following seem to be arguments against AV:

It may not be any more proportional than FPTP. It seems to be hard to get a clear handle on this, not least because 'proportional' gets a bit fuzzy around the edges, and it depends on specific voting patterns. Certainly it would seem to make it harder for fringe parties to get elected, e.g. it seems plausible that Caroline Lucas would not have been returned under AV. Of course that's only an argument against it if you support PR.

It seems well arguable that we should give more weight to people's first preferences than to subsequent preferences. By its nature AV will result in MPs being returned who have received fewer first choice votes than at present. It is not clear that this is a win for democracy.

It's hard enough to get people to express a prefence for one candidate in an election. It's asking a bit much for people to rank all the candidates in order of preference. In particular, I don't believe this would produce the same result as actually holding a run-off between the two leading candidates.

It will favour centrist candidates, who can take second preferences from those on either side, and therefore reinforce an already regretable tendency for all the main political parties to converge to the centre.
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From:atreic
Date:February 24th, 2011 04:35 pm (UTC)
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Proportionality: I don't think it is going to be more proportional than FPTP. I think proportionality is a good thing, but I don't think it's what this bit of voting reform is trying to fix. I am very very happy we have a green MP, but actually I think if more people in Brighton would rather have (a specific) someone else than have Caroline Lucas, then it seems good if the outcome of the election reflects this.

I think you're right that a system where there was some sort of weighting, or a system where the run off was actually run, would be from a pure point of view better. I guess that's a trade off between 'how much difference does this actually make' and 'how much faff does it cause'. Interestingly if we run an AV election, we'll be in a much better place to look at how much difference it would have made as we'll then have data on voter preferences...

I think 'it's asking a bit much to get people to rank the candidates' is another permutation of the 'people are too stupid to vote using AV', which I don't really believe, although maybe it is true.

I think it will make centrist candidates more likely to win seats than the current system (like you say, I'm not sure Brighton would have happened), but it will give fringe parties a greater share of the initial vote, which will help the centrist parties see much more clearly which way they should drift to get votes. So I think it will actually encourage political movement from the main parties... but that might be optimism.
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From:robert_jones
Date:February 24th, 2011 04:33 pm (UTC)
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Picking up on some other points in the post:

Moving to AV effectively gives these people a vote that counts.

They already have a vote that counts. Their vote gets counted along with everyone else. It's just that more people voted for another option, so that option prevailed. The nature of democracy is that you can't always get your way. It seems to me to be a really disingenuous argument for PR to say that votes cast for parties who didn't win are some how wasted.

But that gets back into 'I don't want to give the people what they want, I want to give the people what's best for them, which is me'. A valid position, but one worth being honest about.

On the contrary, that seems to be a position which almost requires one to be dishonest about it.
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From:emarkienna
Date:February 25th, 2011 12:44 am (UTC)
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I think the root of the problem in those examples is that the parties with the "good" point of view don't really care about them - there exists a party in the coalition strongly holding the "bad" point of view, without anyone willing to counter them. Also if party C have less seats, it's unclear they will have much clout. To take an example where the "extreme" position is in my opinion good, the Lib Dems have more liberal views on drug laws, but it seems impossible that they would have got that in a coalition with either Tories or Labour - the best they might do is to oppose any further criminalisation (if party C have the same number of seats - well, I'd argue they have reasonable popular support to implement some of their policies, whether they're extreme or not, whether I like them or not; but I still think they'd have a harder time getting a deal on extreme policies).

There's also the question of defining "extreme" - if the other major parties would happily trade away banning gay marriage, then as much as I might support gay marriage, it sadly evidently isn't extreme to those other parties.

Not that AV is more likely to give coalitions, this is an issue more likely with PR systems.
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From:emarkienna
Date:February 25th, 2011 12:18 am (UTC)
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There is the example of UKIP, as an economically right wing party that's separate from Conservative. Indeed, this would be a reason why Tory voters (as opposed to the Tory politicians themselves) perhaps ought to favour AV too. UKIP do support AV, though who knows if they're actually get through above the noise of the anti-AV Tory claims.

(I find UKIP's page on AV rather amusing - they reluctantly give their support to AV, whilst moaning that it will benefit the Lib Dems. They also then moan that the Lib Dems support AV, because it benefits them, and even though they prefer AV, when that's what UKIP do themselves in this very article.)
From:(Anonymous)
Date:February 25th, 2011 12:44 am (UTC)
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I would hope that most Tory voters would realise that encouraging mad single-issue parties like UKIP who are not competent to run the country is not a good thing, and that if UKIP actually wanted to have any relevance they should stop splitting the vote, merge into the Tory party, and try to influence its position from within (while gaining the benefit of actually having a party machine that can come up with a coherent economic policy, for example).

First-past-the-post helps punish mad single-issue parties and force them to combine into larger parties with properly-thought-out policies and an actual chance of running the country. AV would give succour to smaller parties, so you'd end up with more of them, they'd probably get a few more seats, and that would make a hung parliament more likely.

So that's another reason to stick with first-past-the-post.

S.
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From:half_of_monty
Date:February 26th, 2011 03:34 pm (UTC)
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Unfortunately I'm coming into this argument late; I wasted the half the day out in the cold trying to convince the good people of North Oxford to vote yes, rather than staying in in the warm trying to convince the people of Sally's f'list.

And I'm afraid, I'm not going to go through and read all 85 comments (are there any in particular I should note?)

Anyway: Point 1 and footnote 2. I've already done this calculation, and 1 in 10 is way off; the answer is that 1 in 4 voters cast their vote for a party unlikely to win.

This is calculated using the rough measure that your party is very unlikely to win if it's not coming first or second in the constituency. So I downloaded the electoral commission data and calculated the number of votes cast for neither the winner nor runner-up, in a constituency by constituency basis. In many constituencies it's more than 1/3, and in one it's over 45%.

The relevance of these numbers, is that these are the voters whose vote currently doesn't count at all, but would be counted under AV[1].

I personally think an electoral system that disenfranchises 1/4 of people who vote is a problem.

Now, you express this as actually being a reason to be against AV. Why? I'm not going to go with "some people don't deserve a vote" and I think it's bad for our engagement with the political process to know that, even if we listen to the news every day and read all the manifestos, we can vote tactically or not get counted.

You think it might be a problem because it may be the case that the vote tends to be split on one side of the historic divide more than the other (though see Tories and UKIP). I would argue that, if things can be seen in simplistic terms of left and right, and if one side is in a clear majority but their vote is split, then that one side should still win. AV helps us to calculate the best candidate from that side.[2]

Looking at your point 2: note that fringe parties won't win if most people think they're barmy or hate them. You have to get majority support (not necessarily first preference, but support) to win. So if there was some lovely local independent, say, who everyone liked but thought there was no point in voting for, they would have little chance under FPtP but a good chance of winning under AV. This is a good thing, surely!

Anyway, much as I would love to, I'm really not going to sit down here and read the other 85 comments; better go and update our site!


[1] Well, it's a rough measure, because you don't eliminate all but two parties at once. But it's the best measure we can make, especially given the counterfactual problem that we don't actually know how many first preferences would change under AV.

[2] Not that I claim that AV is the best preferential system; for axiomatic elegance, you can't beat the Condorcet system. Unfortunately that is extremely complicated and lacking transparancy and will not be widely used until the Geek do inherit the Earth. In any case it's not on the referendum ballot paper. AV finds the Condorcet winner a lot more often than FPtP does.
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From:atreic
Date:February 26th, 2011 11:26 pm (UTC)
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For the record, I entirely agree with you on all points. But I was finding it very hard to see why anyone could actually not want AV, and I think (and hope!) enfranchising those 25% will lead to some changes in who wins elections in our country, and I think that is understandably a negative point for those that think it's a good thing that the people who currently win win.
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