Meh to AV?

“I don’t vote, there’s no point.”

“Voting never changes anything”

“The same bastards always get in”

Does that all sound familiar? It does to me. I know a lot of people with the view that voting is pointless and changes nothing. I believe this view is extremely common. But why do they think this? What is the problem really?

Why do people feel that they cannot vote for the main parties? Well as I explained recently, Labour and the Conservatives are actually very close together on the political spectrum. Although claiming to be centre-left and centre-right respectively, I think both are really quite right-wing in their views. Both share the same urge to transfer most public services into the private sector, either through direct privatisation, or through contracts such as private finance initiative. (PFI) Even voting LibDem will not fix this, as economically the LibDems are actually very similar to the Conservatives. As such, their coalition makes a lot more sense when you realise this. (The LibDems are at least different to the others in their policies on the social spectrum, even if no different economically.) These three parties all seem to want to make public services make a profit for private investors, despite the fact that a public service exists to benefit the public, not investors. They also are very biased towards the banks and the financial sector, allowing them to gamble with and profit from our economy without contributing much back through taxes or through providing help to people at the bottom of the pile.

Government economic policy seems geared towards maintaining high house prices to keep middle-class home owners happy. Many people are finding themselves unable to afford their own accommodation as a result, often living with their parents into their 30s. Even after moving out, they are finding that they rely on support from their parents. When a reasonable house costs £150k and up, and a mortgage requires a 30% deposit, what chance has a 20 – 30 year old got of owning one? Younger generations are being told that the money is all gone, (Much of it spent on keeping banks going) and that jobs must be cut, services privatised or cut, the NHS destroyed, education priced out of range, pensions reduced, and retirement age pushed back so far it might as well not happen. Meanwhile, older generations have their houses, their pensions and their early retirements. Pensions and retirements that the young are expected to pay for, despite the fact that there are no jobs. It seems no surprise to me that older generations tend towards voting conservative, they have a lot to lose.

Given that many people would like a change from these main parties, why are they still in power? Here in England our voting system for general elections is a first past the post system. Historically we have only really had two parties vying for power, with a third peripheral party. It may surprise you to know that the two top parties were once the Conservatives and the Liberals, but the Labour party was formed in the 1920s and displaced the Liberals, who later merged with the Social Democratic Party to become the Liberal Democrats. Although we have a number of other parties, such as the Green party, they are often ignored because the voters know that one of the main parties will win, and they want to make sure that the winner is the least-worst option for them. Such “tactical voting” perpetuates the situation where the two main parties maintain most of the power.

Many of the people that don’t vote are apathetic about politics and will largely ignore what happens in elections and government except to complain when they are directly affected. Some of the non-voters are of the opinion that since voting is pointless, the answer is to protest instead. Of course politicians ignore the protests as unrepresentative of voters views because these people didn’t vote! This seems to be a never ending circle. There is a good argument that if people really feel that none of the parties can represent them, or that their party has no chance, they should spoil their ballot paper instead. Although I don’t think spoilt ballots are counted at a national level, the numbers are announced with the results in each constituency. It is possible that if a large number of people spoiled their ballot, it might draw enough attention to these problems.

I think it is obvious that we need a change to our voting system in order to boot out the entrenched political views, and equally obvious that the established parties would not want this change as it would threaten their power. These figures showing share of vote vs share of seats show the problem.

  • Conservative share of vote: 36.48% Share of seats: 47.2%
  • Labour share of vote: 28.99% Share of seats: 39.7%
  • Liberal Democrats share of vote: 23.03% Share of seats: 8.8%

There is clearly something wrong when receiving 23% of the votes means getting only 8.8% of the seats. The problem is really much worse than this since many of the votes for Labour and the Conservatives would have been tactical votes which might not happen if the system adequately represented people.

One of the solutions, and the one many people talk about, is Proportional Representation. PR would change the make-up of Parliament to represent the votes more directly. One of the downsides is that it would break the direct link that we have between MP and constituency. At the moment MPs are an essential last resort for people encountering problems with government and elsewhere. I have personally seen my MP intervene in a situation on two occasions and be very helpful, even though his political views are the opposite of mine. If we were to adopt PR I think we would need to think of some system to replace this very useful feature of our system.

Unfortunately, the Conservatives are absolutely opposed to PR and so offered Alternative Vote (AV) as a compromise to the LibDems when forming the coalition. AV is not nearly as good as PR at evening out the balance of power in parliament, but I believe it is a step forward from FPTP. AV allows the voter to specify a second choice, and more if they wish. Note that it does not force a second choice to be made, and voters are free to only vote for one candidate if they wish. But AV will allow all those people that currently vote tactically to specify their preferred party as their first choice, and their least-worst party as their second choice. Because of the nature of first past the post voting, England contains a number of “Safe Seats” where the MP is virtually guaranteed to always be from the same party. The main parties can for the most part ignore these areas when campaigning. People with opposing views in safe seats feel that their vote is pointless if there is no chance of their preferred candidate winning, and many don’t vote as a result. AV will to some extent address the problem of safe seats by making them require a much larger majority.

I believe that AV will encourage a great many more people to vote since it can potentially add a lot more weight to their votes. In the end, I don’t think it even matter whether AV is really better than FPTP or not. If introducing AV encourages more people to vote, I don’t see how it could be worse than FPTP. I’ll be voting Yes to AV.

One Man, One Vote: demystifying AV

This article is by Julian Yon and originally appeared on his blog here.

Ankh-Morpork had dallied with many forms of government and had ended up with that form of democracy known as One Man, One Vote. The Patrician was the Man, he had the Vote.” (Mort, Terry Pratchett)

I am again writing in response to a specific concern raised on Twitter. The context is the forthcoming referendum to decide whether the UK should adopt AV (the Alternative Vote system, also known as Instant Runoff Voting) for its general elections.

It is worth dispensing with a red herring before continuing. AV is not a way of achieving Proportional Representation, and it does not try to be. Therefore all arguments relating to PR are moot. There are no PR options in this referendum, and therefore a vote for or against AV is not a vote for or against PR. The only other option being offered is FPTP (First Past The Post), the non-proportional status quo.

I’d also like to dispense with the “AV is complicated” myth. Offer a typical 5 year old strawberry, chocolate and vanilla ice cream. Ask her which one she likes most. Then which she likes next best. And then which she likes least. Chances are she can answer you without much difficulty. My daughter (who is far from typical and has significant learning difficulties) can manage it. This is how you vote in an AV poll. You don’t need to know exactly how the votes are counted (not that it’s hard) in order to cast your vote.

AV is a system for minimising “wasted votes” while, in the context of a general election, maintaining the strong constituency link which has often been used as an argument for FPTP. It is used for electing an individual person to a single seat, and therefore has no bias against independents. The intention is to eliminate tactical voting and “safe seats”, by ensuring that every vote is counted and that a majority is required to win.

AV is not flawless. It is probably the smallest and simplest improvement that could be made to our existing system. Taken alone, it falls short of what many campaigners for electoral reform would have liked to have seen. However, it is an improvement. It is somewhat harsh to have to vote for a “lesser of two evils”, but this is what is on offer. Neither outcome guarantees further reform, and this may be the only chance we get for a generation. Because of this, I will try to keep my examples simple. It’s easy to get hung up on small details when the way we elect our MPs is only one of things wrong with our constitution.

So, what is a “wasted vote”? Put simply, it is a vote that is correctly cast but cannot make a difference to the outcome of the election. They happen under FPTP because it is designed for two party elections. In that simplest case the two systems are equivalent. Either A or B will get >50% of the vote[1], and win with an outright majority. Every person’s vote has an equal weight and a direct effect on the outcome. One man, one vote.

It starts to go wrong when we allow a third candidate to stand. As long as that candidate has some support, there is the possibility of a democratically incorrect outcome due to wasted votes. The probability of such an outcome depends on the circumstances of the election, but it can happen in both marginal and “safe” seats.

Let’s pretend there are three candidates, imaginatively named A, B and C. People go to the polls. The results come in. A has 41%, B has 31%, C has 28%. Under FPTP this is a win for A, but no candidate actually has a majority. There are many different political situations which can lead to this outcome, and not all of them give A a democratic mandate. AV provides a way to differentiate between these situations.

In order to highlight just how badly wrong FPTP can theoretically be, let’s say that B and C are two candidates with very similar manifestos. This is the notorious “split vote”. If B was not in the running, every one of B’s supporters would vote for C, giving a win with 59%, a clear majority. And vice versa. By the accident of two people standing on the same platform, the minority candidate wins the seat.

The important way that AV differs from FPTP is that it insists on a majority to declare a win. This is achieved by taking second (etc.) choice votes into account. But, crucially, each vote only counts once. Nobody gets multiple votes. Here’s how it works (but you don’t need to know this to vote):

It’s Friday afternoon, and the teacher has promised the class something special. But they must choose collectively which activity they want to do. The teacher puts signs up in each of the corners with a letter that represents each activity, and the children have to gather under the signs. For argument’s sake, these made-up children are not influenced by their peers’ choices.

They gather as follows: 11 under A, 10 under B, 6 under C and 4 under D. There is no majority, but there is a loser. The teacher removes the sign for D and tells those 4 children they’ll have to choose again. One heads to B, and the others to C.

We now have 11 for A, 11 for B and 9 for C; still no majority. The teacher removes the sign for C, which is the new loser. Five children move to B, and the rest to A. Now there are 16 votes for B, which is a majority, and the decision has been made.

Now of course, only in fairy tales would children not be influenced by their peers. But this is where AV is actually simpler than the above example. You’re not asked to choose again, you get to vote in private, and you cast your vote once. All you have to do is write your order of preference, and let the ballot counters do the rest. They will play out this algorithm, taking your choice into account. One person still has one vote, just like in the two party FPTP, but as minority options are eliminated that vote is transferred to your less preferred candidates, in the order you specify. The winner will have a majority, and therefore a mandate.

If you have any trouble understanding the mechanism, remember that you’re only casting the vote, not counting it. It’s just like choosing your favourite ice-creams. A five year old can do it.

[1] As a tie in a large-scale election is statistically extremely unlikely, I will assume it cannot happen.