AV Referendum: “politics, like life in general, is full of panaceas”

The Guardian’s Michael White is still undecided over AV or not AV ahead of the May 5 referendum.  But in returning to the topic he makes an important point.

In tough times, and easy ones, politics, like life in general, is full of panaceas: joining Europe (or the euro), going decimal, getting rid of the Windsors, putting fluoride into all drinking water, banning page 3 girls in the Sun, promoting complimentary medicine …

In this case the Yes camp claims MPs will be more responsive, more hard-working, more representative if they are elected by “more than 50% of the voters” – by which they actually mean those who turn out to vote. Clegg said it again at the weekend.

As for panaceas they sometimes achieve useful reform, sometimes unexpected consequences, benign or otherwise. But life’s difficult choices remain what they were before. The core case for a Yes vote on 5 May is that up to one-third of voters now repudiate the binary voting tradition – Tory or Labour (formerly Liberal/Whig – of the past. They seek greater pluralism and choice. To deny this is “unfair” and a “wasted vote”.

That’s a powerful claim which impresses me. Systems are designed to meet human needs. Yet I remain sceptical about both the substance of this argument and the extent to which there is an overwhelming case for changing the traditional way of deciding most things – first past the post is a sporting metaphor, after all – just because a lot of people want it.

After all, a lot of people want cheaper petrol, capital punishment, better public services and lower taxes. Not enough people value liberty, itself an elusive concept on which so much else depends.

Read the whole thing.

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  • Dewi

    Strange – this is the only election / referendum in my adult life that i don’t know which way to vote. The proposal ain’t proportional and will a Yes vote delay a decent voting system?

  • Charlie Sheens PR guru

    Good point well made Dewi, but do you really think the forces behind a No vote are really holding out for a proportional system?

    Probably best to vote Yes and demonstrate an appetite for change. Do see how a No vote can advance that?

    Besides all that, it should go (a very small way) to stop asking to people to vote in such as ectarian way, which can’t be bad.

  • dwatch

    “Probably best to vote Yes and demonstrate an appetite for change. Do see how a No vote can advance that?”

    I second that. I see AV still being a FPTP system, only difference being the winner needs 50 plus %.

  • Dewi

    Trouble is I’ve done a bit of analysis and I reckon that under AV it might make things worse, Cornwall the best example. FTFP delivered 3 Tories and 3 Lib Dems – AV I reckon would have delivered 6 Lib Dems. Wales got 8 Tory MPs – AV I think would have delivered 4. It looks like it sort of strengthens regional domination. Where;s Sammy Morse or Nic Whyte when you need them?

  • Lionel Hutz

    The crucial thing about AV is that a first preference vote is a first preference and not just a likely winner. In a three party era at Westminster, how many constituents vote Labour to keep out the Tories or Lib Dems to keep out Labour etc etc.

    In Northern Ireland how many voted Michelle Gildernew to keep out Connor, Dodds to keep out Kelly.

    People can feel confident that they can select their first preference and fall back. It would have a big effect on so called safe seats because voting patterns could become more volitile as a candidates First Preference votes seem to rise or fall

  • stephen J

    To make the case for changing the voting system it is not enough to point out the problems of FPTP. Reformers have to make the case for an alternative system.

    FPTP is not fair because so many votes cast in safe seats are wasted. Every vote should make a difference. For real change we have to look beyond FPTP and AV.

    Direct Party and Representative Voting (DPR Voting) is fair because every vote makes a difference regardless of where you live. It has the advantage of some similarities to the existing system, and advantages over STV.

    Voting is simple, counting is simple quick and transparent, and it works with our existing single member constituencies.

    Taking the point about unintended consequences, it needs thorough academic and political scrutiny.

    google dprvoting or http://www.dprvoting.org

  • “the Labour party NO to AV campaign”

    Does the Labour Party not use an AV form of voting for some of its own elections? That’s a view expressed by the Electoral Reform Society.

  • Neville Bagnall

    Voting systems affect parties directly. The effects on Parliament and voters are secondary effects.

    Right now the FPTP system drives the electoral system towards a duopoly. Even where there are regional parties, they tend to exist within regional duopolies. The same is true for the USA. National duopolies tend to be broad churches or coalitions and formal structures such as primaries (whether open or closed) can help to ensure that the internal divisions are exposed and addressed. The UK does not have such formal structures.

    PR, in its various incarnations, breaks up the duopoly, allowing “purer” parties that reflect a sectoral interest. Coalition construction happens at government formation, rather than within the parties. Which is more transparent and democratic? You can probably argue either way. Regardless, there are more commonalities than typically supposed.

    The option of Single or Multi-Member Constituencies does not significantly alter the underlying political leanings of a constituency, but does affect how many parties will be represented in Parliament. In a largely homogeneous state like Ireland, it can be the deciding factor – a 3 seat average constituency size will will favour 2 parties, a 4 seat average will favour 3, etc. When regional variations come into play, it adds another element, changing the lineup of the competitive parties, but not the numbers. In the context of the UK, regional variations are a significant factor and ensure there will always be more than the duopoly represented.

    So will AV change the overall balance of power in the UK Parliament?
    Since the constituencies remain Single Member, I tend to think not.

    However it will change the political discourse to some extent. The voting preferences of the electorate will be more clearly reflected on the ballot paper. There will be fewer “Labour voters”, and more “LibDems going Conservative”, Less “DUP” and more “UUP going DUP”, etc. In marginal constituencies, MPs may be forced to address the concerns of the marginal voters to a greater extent, rather than relying on the inevitable “keep out the other guy” plumping. Having gone on the record, the diversity within the MP ranks of each party will be clearer for everyone to see.

    I don’t think the voting system is a critical element in a democracy, other factors like freedom of information and quality balanced journalism are far more important.

    I remain a fan of STV, in preference to the other systems because, for better or worse, I think we get the politicians we want under it more than with any other system. Whether it produces the ones we need is another question, but one that applies equally to the whole idea of democracy.

    However, you are not getting that option in May. To me at least, the AV system is preferable to FPTP in that it allows the electorate to express their true opinion of the candidates on offer without losing the ability to affect the outcome of the election. In the absence of other structural mechanisms (such as primaries), that transparency and empowerment is a useful addition to the UK’s single member system.

  • Valenciano

    I’d probably have voted for AV if I’d bothered to get around to getting a postal vote but it would have been reluctantly as I don’t believe it’s that much better than FPTP. However if AV loses it will almost definitely kick voting change into the long grass for a generation whereas an AV vote at least demonstrates an appetite for change and its a much smaller leap from preferential voting in single member seats to preferential voting in multi member seats (STV) than it is from single voting in single member seats to STV.

    AV however has serious flaws. It suffers from one strange problem, namely that it lacks monotonicity. Monotonicity is the idea that if a party increases its support its more likely to be elected. While that’s true for FPTP, bizarrely, it isn’t always true for AV.

    Consider a three party situation for example where Lib Dem voters split their second preferences evenly while supporters of Conservatives and Labour give all their second preferences to the LibDems.

    The voting intention before campaigning is
    CON 40%
    LAB 31%
    LD 29%

    With both AV and FPTP that leads to a Conservative win.

    However imagine that the Conservatives select a local candidate from the Labour area. In doing so, they manage to gain 3% of Labour votes, leaving the result as

    CON 43%
    LD 29%
    LAB 28%

    Under FPTP, no problem but under AV, Labour are now the last party instead of the LibDems. They get eliminated and their second votes push the LibDem ahead of the Conservative. So by increasing their support the conservatvies have actually decreased their chance of winning.

    It’s not difficult to imagine that in a Northern Ireland context. What if you have say

    SF 40%
    APNI 31%
    UUP 29%

    Is it worthwhile for the UUP candidate to bust a gut to overtake the Alliance, knowing full well that this will ensure a Sinn Fein win instead of an Alliance win?

    For this reason, it’s not really even true to say that AV eliminates tactical voting. If you have a situation of

    SF 40%
    APNI 31%
    UUP 29%

    where Alliance votes split evenly, wouldn’t it be better for the UUP to arrange that some of their supporters give their first preferences tactically to Alliance to ensure a defeat for Sinn Fein?

  • Valenciano

    Sorry last example should read

    SF 40%
    UUP 31%
    APNI 29%

  • I’m not sure why White is rabbiting on about panaceas when FPTP and AV are not so very different voting systems for single member constituencies. The Don’t Really Knows may still play a key role in marginal constituencies. The notion of candidates perhaps having to reach out to a wider audience does seem to me to be a positive move.

    Stephen J, DPR looks interesting. A discriminating voter might like a party’s policies but reckon that their local candidate is a total pillock. “In each constituency it will be possible to compare the votes cast for each candidate with the votes cast for each party.” It might deliver more independents as well as more independently minded candidates. It would be interesting to know the balance between a successful candidate’s personal appeal and the attraction of the party policies linked to a candidate. For example, in Moyle, a SF councillor has allegedly been deselected on the grounds of age. Apparently SF HQ in Belfast is struggling to find a replacement – two have apparently dropped out for different reasons. If the current councillor has a strong personal following he might well look at SF#3 and decide to throw his hat into the ring and run as an independent.

  • stephen J

    @ Nevin,
    Yes, in DPR Voting a candidate cannot rely on the party label to get elected. Similarly a really popular MP could still be re-elected even if his/her party had become very unpopular.
    It is difficult to guess how significant this would be but it would seem certain to change the relationship between the MP and the Party, and the MP and the constituents.
    @Neville Bagnall
    Would you agree that another practical downside of multimember constituencies (compared with smaller single member constituencies) is that it is harder and more expensive for an MP to cover the ground both to meet constituents and to campaign. With STV and 4, 5 or even 6 competing parties the size of the constituency will influence the result, the proportionality and the size of the ballot paper.
    Re STV and the politicians we want, DPR Voting gives the voter the freedom to elect the best candidate regardless of party label and the comparison between STV and DPR Voting is an interesting one..

  • Dewi

    I do get the point about behaviour and 1st preferences cf FPTP choice changing with the introduction of AV but I still think it will consolidate regional dominance – I think you’ll have more red seats in red areas and more blue seats in blue. I think that’s a logical consequence of the system as majorities under FPTP for isolated Red or Blue seats tend to be lower in areas generally represented by the oother side. That can’t be good.

  • Valenciano

    Stephen, thanks for the DPR link, I read it and while it’s an interesting suggestion it still has serious flaws. The biggest one is that any number divided by zero still equals zero. If a party wins no seats in the House of Commons their supporters are still unrepresented and it’s much more likely with a single member system that parties will be unrepresented than under any multi member system. Weighting MPs votes in the HoC in no way alters that.

    The comparison with STV page also contains statements which are dubious or just plain wrong. For example that under STV “Counting is a complex process that requires computers.” Nope. Counting is done by hand in all of Ireland.

    “STV favours, or works better with, a three party system.” Says who? There’s been a four and half party system in Northern Ireland for quite some time without any problems. If anything, it’s the single member systems which cause the problems and function best with two party politics (since at least then MPs are supported by the majority.)

    “With DPR Voting, tactical voting is redundant.” Not true. If I was (God forbid) a well clued up UKIP voter, I’d know full well that there was very little chance of UKIP winning any constituency seats and therefore there’d be no point at all me giving them my “national” vote, so I’d probably have to give that tactically for the Conservatives.

    “There are no wasted votes. Every vote will make an actual difference.” See previous example. If I vote Socialist Party for the constituency seat and socialist party nationally and they win zero seats, my vote has just been wasted.

    “Boundaries and constituency sizes are not important to the way the (DPR) system works.” They are. If my party has support only in one particular area and that area is divided up so that my party wins no seats, I’m disenfranchised.

    “It would be hard for Independent MPs to be elected because many votes will still be cast for a party label.” Hasn’t been the case in Ireland where more independent MPs have been elected than in the UK.

    Above all though, the system is flawed because of the vote weighting stuff. My local MP might be massively popular but because of the number of MPs elected for his party nationally is large, he only has 0.5 votes on behalf of a constituency of 70000. The MP next door narrowly won but because his party didn’t win so many seats, he casts four votes on behalf of a constituency the same size as me. That effectively gives voters disproportionate weight overall. Seems unfair and arbitrary to me.

  • stephen J


    Thanks for your post.
    Re small party representation:
    With DPR Voting, a small party has a better chance of having one of their candidates elected as a constituency MP, for example if they have a locally popular or charismatic candidate. The party vote determines the voting power of each party, so the party label has less influence on how people use their representative vote to elect their MP.

    However if that did not happen, and only if that did not happen, a small party could still have one MP by ‘automatic representation’, provided they polled votes in excess of the threshold level.

    If they polled enough votes nationally to exceed a preset threshold level, they would have one MP elected to the Parliament – the designated party leader – with a vote weight value of 1.

    The threshold level to trigger this situation would, I suggest, be set to include parties with significant support like UKIP, but not so low that every small group could count on getting an MP.

    I wouldn’t imagine more than one or two MPs being elected in this way.

    Re comments on STV
    Counting: – thanks for putting me right on this but my reason for this comment was that simple counting systems for STV are flawed because the way votes are transferred and counted can influence the result. To remove the flaws more complex counting systems are required which need computers. I realise there are many ways of conducting an STV count.

    3 party preference
    The number of parties is linked to the size of the multimember constituencies.
    3 member constituencies with 5 parties contesting makes it hard for the smallest party.
    5 member constituencies with 5 parties contesting requires quite a big ballot paper and, in some areas, very big constituencies.
    The larger the number of members in the constituency the better the proportionality.
    The larger the number of parties the poorer the proportionality.

    I agree that FPTP is a two party system, but DPR voting isn’t.

    Tactical Voting
    Your point about tactical voting is answered by my comments on small party representation. With DPR Voting, your vote can only help the party you vote for. It cannot have unintended consequences.

    Wasted Votes.
    No. Your vote will not be wasted and will still make a mathematical difference since by voting for party A, the percentage of the nationwide vote of every other party will be reduced.

    This is true for all parties who win at least one seat.
    Even UKIP would have a better chance of winning one representative under DPR Voting, assuming that they have at least one outstanding candidate.
    Even if you vote for a party that has enough support to qualify to be on the ballot paper, and exceed the automatic representation threshold, but no candidates capable of winning on merit, you are not disenfranchised on two counts. You have one MP to speak for the party and your vote has made a difference to the result.

    Independent MPs
    Yes, you might well be right that more independent MPs would be elected. That would be up to the voters.

    Vote weighting.
    It is neither unfair nor arbitrary.
    Insisting that every MP has an equal vote is dubious since
    a) There is nothing equal about the extent of their support in the election either in terms of votes cast, or majority.
    b) The votes cast in a conventional electoral systems are converted into voting power in the parliament by way of the intermediate process of selecting constituency MPs. At this point, the distribution of votes cast in the constituencies for the different candidates is lost from the calculation, and it is only the winning MPs who influence the party’s voting power in the commons.

    All the evils of electoral systems such as safe seats, marginal constituencies, wasted votes and disproportionality are the consequence.

    The weighted vote is an equal share of the party’s voting power in the parliament entrusted to each of the party’s MPs.
    This applies in any parliamentary division except when all parties agree on a free vote.

  • Andy J

    ‘They seek greater pluralism and choice. To deny this is “unfair” and a “wasted vote”.
    That’s a powerful claim which impresses me. Systems are designed to meet human needs. Yet I remain sceptical about both the substance of this argument and the extent to which there is an overwhelming case for changing the traditional way of deciding most things’

    It’s good to read Michael White taking seriously the arguments on both sides and not being hurried into a decision.
    I hope it gives time to expose the most widely circulated and least often challenged assumption about ‘first-past-the-post’.
    How many times recently have we heard about our traditional representation system? Surprising, for a system that didn’t appear until 1834, after what we probably could call a tradition of 2-member constituency representation in England going back to 1276.
    Surprising also to me is that in a country which values so much its tradition of seeing both sides to a question, the single-member system, which reduces a constituency to a single view, is not more widely regarded with suspicion and distaste. And that people who bemoan the loss of open-minded debate can think of every possible explanation for it but that gradually all MP’s have acquired this local monopoly.
    Two-member representation at least made it possible for the two main differing views in a constituency to be both represented. It could not guarantee it, because at the time two MP’s also meant two votes, so the biggest voting party could effectively choose both of them. Also as the vote was not transferable, you had to guess how many MP’s your party could get, leading to haphazard results.
    The first election where single-member divisions were general was 1881. The two party leaders of the time had spotted that the new single-member constituencies, a few of which had existed since 1834, were a very effective tool for keeping awkward people – or independent-minded and less easily bullied people – out of parliament.
    Two and three member representation only finally disappeared from Britain in 1951. Along the way Churchill praised it, as did Barbara Castle who argued she could never have been nominated as a Labour woman without it.
    Single-member local monopoly continues to hamper diversity of representation in every way. AV, another single-member system, can only restrict it still more, since it raises the threshold of votes required. Just because AV is seen as a way to shut out the BNP from the Labour heartlands which it now appears to threaten, we shouldn’t assume it’s a good idea.
    Ireland was not pacified by excluding people whose opinions others might find objectionable – on the contrary, it was by actively seeking them out and giving them representation. Listening was the policy: the electoral tool was STV, a multi-member system.
    So what’s the history of using this AV system, designed for single posts like president or chairman, to elect whole parliaments and assemblies?
    Sadly, the crucial information, and the main conclusions, based on 100 yrs of experience of AV in Canadian provinces and Australian states, have been deleted from the Electoral Reform Society’s website, just when we need them most. They have been salvaged, though, and av2011.co.uk is where you can read them.