Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Alternative Vote doesn't have the X Factor

It appears that the AV campaign is losing momentum, but there's still a danger that apathy could foist a voting system upon us for which there is precious little popular enthusiasm.  In today's News Letter I argue the case against AV and (I'd imagine) show up my woeful ignorance of popular TV talent shows!

UNLIKE a majority of the population I don’t watch X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent. Though I’m led to believe the finals of these shows follow a time-honoured principle. In my opinion it’s rather a good one. 
As I understand it, the viewers vote for their favourite act, all the votes are totalled and the performer who tops the poll is declared the winner. As simple as that. It’s a highly effective voting system: it gets the job done and, most importantly, it’s fair. 
In this case, what works for light entertainment also works for politics. In the UK we use the First Past The Post (FPTP) system to decide Westminster elections. At the House of Commons each constituency is represented by just one member of parliament. So, when it comes to polling time, each elector casts a single vote for their preferred candidate and the person who claims most votes wins. 
It mightn’t be very complicated, it mightn’t offer much for political anoraks to get their teeth into, but it works tremendously well. And it takes a particularly perverse brand of logic to conclude that the current system is anything other than scrupulously fair. 
Still, that’s what the proponents of Alternative Vote (AV) must attempt to prove in the run up to May’s referendum on Westminster election reform. 
We’ve got some experience of AV in Northern Ireland, where it operates in council and assembly by-elections. Effectively it’s the unloved cousin of Proportional Representation, allowing the voter to vote on down the ballot paper, rather than simply mark an X against his or her favourite candidate. 
In multi-seat constituencies, where more than one winner is declared, that makes a certain amount of sense. In a single seat constituency it means that all the votes are counted and, unless someone has garnered at least 50 per cent of the total, the bottom candidate is eliminated. The second preference in all the ballots that were cast for the loser are then distributed among the remaining contenders. The process continues until the 50 per cent ceiling is breached and a winner can be declared. 
The pro-AV lobby maintains that their system ensures everyone’s voice is heard at the ballot box. Actually it ensures that some people’s voices are heard more often than others and it’s likely to be the people with marginal or extreme views whose voices are heard most of all. 
For much of the 20th century pro-democracy campaigners demanded ‘one person, one vote’. Under AV, if you plump for the most popular candidate you still get one vote. In contrast, in Great Britain, an extremist who casts their first choice for the BNP is likely to have their vote counted and recounted a number of times. In Northern Ireland it could be a dissident republican who gets a second, third or fourth opportunity to have their say. 
Why on earth should one person’s fifth choice carry as much weight as another person’s first choice? It’s patently absurd and it will result in candidates who have come second or third in the poll overtaking more popular rivals and taking seats in parliament. 
There are plenty of proportional voting systems in the world, the Northern Ireland Assembly being just one example, but only three countries use AV: Fiji, Australia and Papua New Guinea. That statistic cuts to the heart of the matter - AV imposes a proportional voting mechanism on an un-proportional parliamentary system. 
Even its current proponents aren’t genuine enthusiasts. They see it as a transitional arrangement on the way to full PR. Unfortunately, if they get their way, we’ll have to live with a system which no-one wants. There is a debate to be had about the merits of PR as against FPTP, but AV is nobody’s baby. 
The Liberal Democrat, Roy Jenkins, assessed AV in a report for Tony Blair’s government back in 1998. He was forced to acknowledge that it is “even less proportional” than the current Westminster system. He also conceded that it could make the outcome of elections “dangerously unpredictable”. Now his party mates advocate AV as a great advance for the UK’s constitution. 
It’s not a great advance. AV tinkers needlessly with a system which works perfectly well already. It’s a brainchild of politicians, for which there is no real demand. The big danger is that people won’t be sufficiently motivated to get out and vote against it, simply because they see only an obscure debate taking place around an obscure new election method. 
But the referendum does matter, because the clarity and fairness of our electoral system is at risk. No amount of warped logic can win the day for AV but apathy just might.


slug said...

Technically I am not sure you are quite right about X Factor.

The series goes over a number of weeks and the bottom candidate is eliminated each week. Then people vote again the subsequent week. Its like how the HoC Speaker is elected-"successive ballot".

That is much more similar to AV than to first past the post because candidates are eliminated sequentially from the least popular up, and preferences are transferred.

The only difference (with AV) is that (i) people don't write down all their preferences at once and (ii) on the final week in X factor there are three standing and the most popular of those three are elected.

Overall then I would argue that X factor is very much closer to AV than to FPTP.

Chekov said...

slug - you'll notice that I specified the final of these competitions. Therefore I think I'm in the clear!

slug said...


Yes I did notice that after posting. Fair enough.

One of the reasons I am attracted to AV is that there are so many safe constituencies in UK politics. AV reduces their number.

Under FPTP a fairly small number of marginal constituencies determine elections. AV would make more constituencies (and more voters) relevant.

Anonymous said...

I have to say, as Slug implies but is too polite to say outright, you couldn't have chosen a worse parallel!

You can't just choose the final of X-Factor - the point is that the competition as a whole takes the form almost exactly of an ongoing run-off vote - AV in other words.

The fact is that voters already opt for candidates other than their first preference in FPTP elections. Gildernew was not many SDLP voters' first preference, but since they preferred her to Connor they gave her their X-vote; likewise many Greens voting LibDem (though not any longer, I suspect), many Labour or LibDem supporters voting for their second preferences against the Tories around the turn of the millennium and so on. All this "tactical voting" for what is not actually the voters' first preference is a charade which AV would stop. Under AV, we'd know what the people - all the people - really think.

It won't happen, I suspect, because the public rarely votes for change in referendums. If the LibDems understood people as well as they understood theory, they would've realised that! Selling out on tuition fees in return for a referendum they were bound to lose, whatever you think of those issues, was extraordinarily bad politics.

Chekov said...

AV reduces the number of safe constituencies by a surprisingly small degree. 291 safe seats would be unchanged. In any case, instability at the expense of fairness is hardly a cardinal virtue.

slug said...

Know it's off topic. But I see "Unionist Lite" is closed and not taking comments.

I wanted to say:

O'Neill - if you're reading this - thanks for all the blogs, I thought Unionst Lite was a great read.

Anonymous said...

I thought that Jimmy Spratt was not FPTP's biggest fan, AFAIK he and his supporters have complained about "vote splitters" and and Mr McDonnell being elected on "a minority of the vote"

One person I suspect really loves FPTP is David Davis, who won the first round of the Conservative Party leadership election and under FPTP would now be its leader.

Wildgoose said...

There is a simple alternative to Alternative Vote, namely "Approval Voting".

This is a version of FPtP in which you vote for ALL of the candidates of whom you approve. Whoever gets the most votes wins.

Mathematically, there is no fairer system when electing a single candidate. It's easy to understand, easy to implement.

No wasted votes and no agonising over what order candidates are placed in. You can vote against a candidate by voting for all the others, or vote strongly for a candidate by voting for them alone.

Simple and effective - so why wasn't this the option chosen?