A last word on AV: Letter to a mathematician

Dear *****,

I hope you saw my tweet:

Maths Prof D Broomhead demolishes some AV myths, eg that AV ends need for tactical voting and that AV or PR can be fair: http://j.mp/f3NPpX.

You’re a mathematician in your spare time, or were:  has the Prof got his maths right?  Looks convincing to me, but then maths gave me up as ineducable at age 14 or thereabouts (my age, not maths’).

In any case it irritates me to hear tactical voting dismissed as a culpably negative feature of First Past the Post.  Under both FPTP and AV, if the party you really like has no realistic chance of winning either the relevant seat or the general election, and if you want your vote to influence the outcome of the election (however marginally), then the rational thing to do is to vote in such a way as to maximise the chances of election of the candidate who does have a chance of winning the seat, whose party does have a chance of forming a government, and whom you prefer to all the other candidates with a chance of winning.  To vote for (or give your first preference to) a candidate with no chance of winning the seat is pure self-indulgence and achieves nothing except to make a gesture and allow your favoured candidate and party to feel very slightly less bad about losing.

I remember that in the Labour Party leadership election under AV my inclination was to make a gesture by giving my first preference to Diane Abbott, whose views and policies were the closest to mine, and then my second preference to Ed Milibrother who, along with D Milibrother, did have a chance of winning the leadership.  You persuaded me that this would be a risky thing to do since it implied a bet that Diane would be eliminated at the first or a very early count, causing my second preference to be transferred to Ed M, whereas if some other candidate or candidates were eliminated before Diane, my second preference wouldn’t get to be redistributed, and meanwhile the second preferences of (e.g.) Ed Balls and/or the other one whose name no-one now remembers would be reallocated, probably mainly to the wrong Miliband, perhaps in sufficient numbers to put David M past the 50%+1 mark before my second pref for his little brother could be counted — thus frustrating the outcome I wanted and causing my votes and preferences to be wasted.  So I gave my first pref to Ed Miliband, and (since it was obvious that he would come either first or second and that his second prefs would therefore never be redistributed and counted) didn’t bother to register a pointless second or lower preference at all.  Sorry about that, Diane.

Then too I wish the Yes side would stop saying that AV is a Good Thing because it will “make MPs work harder” (they work much too hard cultivating their constituents as it is, at the expense of their primary jobs at Westminster) “to reach out to all shades of opinion and not just to their own party faithful” — i.e. to trim their policy pronouncements and commitments to attract second preferences from candidates certain to be eliminated early in the counts, such as the BNP, the Monster Loonies, UKIP, the England Firsters, and other sinister or frivolous groups of the far right.   Is that really what we want?

And I wish someone in the Yes camp would admit that no single party ever, in modern times, gets the support of anything like 50% of the whole national electorate, and that therefore it’s inevitable, under any system, that most candidates in a general election won’t get the support of 50% + 1 of the votes in their constituencies either (tactical voting is never likely to take place on a sufficient scale to affect this logical reality).  This means that the claim of AV that in order to be elected they will all have to win the support of the majority of their constituents’ votes must be false.  Of course it’s made to look plausible by pretending that the second and third etc preferences of voters who gave their first preferences to some other candidate are of equal weight as indicators of ‘support’ to first preference votes, which is patently false.

I liked this letter in the London Review of Books:

The Problem with AV

Whatever Ross McKibbin may say, opponents of AV are not ‘cave dwellers’ (LRB, 18 November). AV maximises the votes of extremist candidates, since anyone voting for them knows their second preference votes will still count, while the second preference votes of the last candidate to be eliminated have no impact on the result, though as many as 40 per cent of the votes may be affected. In constituencies where the Labour and Lib Dem candidates are the leading contenders, for example, only the second preferences of Conservative, UKIP and BNP supporters will matter. It is possible, however, that if their own candidate is defeated, Labour voters would prefer to be represented by an ‘honest-to-God’ Tory than a ‘pragmatic’ Lib Dem. The second preference votes of the last candidate to be eliminated should take precedence over those of the least successful candidates. Under the standard counting procedure, AV is demonstrably less democratic than first past the post.

Bill Myers

LRB 2 Dec 2010  http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n23/letters#letter16

Lastly (almost), I wish the Yes camp would stop banging on about AV being so much “fairer” than FPTP, as if the whole debate were about which system will most often produce a house of commons that most accurately reflects in its composition the spread of political opinion in the electorate.  Actually the main purpose of a general election is to produce a government that can govern, govern long enough to be able to rise above short-termism, and govern in accordance with its pre-election promises and policies (not only those in the manifestos) so that it can be held to account.  Other objectives of a general election are to elect a house of commons that can sustain an elected government in office, hold it to account, make it change course if it errs, and in the last resort throw it out.  None of these functions requires a mathematically accurate correspondence between numerical support in the country and numbers of MPs of the different parties.  To produce, sustain and when necessary dismiss a government it makes very little difference whether the biggest single party has a majority of ten or a majority of fifty.  If, as will more often happen under AV, it has no majority at all, and the country has to be governed by a cobbled-together coalition or a minority government at the mercy of a majority opposition, then many of these vital functions can’t be performed at all.  Let the candidate with more votes than any other win the seat, and let the party with more seats than any other form a government.  It’s fair, it’s simple, and it almost always works.  Vote No to AV, which neither produces more proportional representation nor ensures durable and accountable governments!

Oh, one other thing (sorry!):  please, you worthies of the Yes camp, stop arguing that because AV rarely produces hung parliaments in Australia, it won’t produce more hung parliaments than FPTP here either.  This is fallacious because Australia is to all intents and purposes a two-party state (the third party is in permanent coalition with the main party of the right and they effectively fight elections together as a coalition — right, John?).  So there is no medium-sized third party holding the balance of power in a more proportional system, whereas our LibDems, struggling to win as much as one fifth of the national vote and currently threatened with virtual wipe-out, would certainly gain votes and seats from both the Conservatives and Labour under AV and would therefore be more often in a position to choose which of the Tory and Labour leaders to put into No. 10 Downing Street — a choice that ought to be made by the biggest single group of voters, not on the whim of Mr. Nick Clegg, nor of any other single politician.

Best wishes for a good referendum,


7 Responses

  1. John Miles says:

    Some of the Yes Brigade aren’t really voting for AV,  it’s just that we’re  fed up with  FPTP.
    You seem to find it difficult to understand, but we actually like the idea of hung parliaments and coalition governments – for all their obvious faults – and a little bit of compromise.

    Brian writes: Thank you, John. I don’t know on what basis you assume that if I don’t agree with you on a particular issue, it must be because I can’t understand it. Your own understanding of the implications of AV is brought into question by your admission that your principal reason for supporting it is that you’re “fed up with FPTP” — a bit like saying that you’re going to vote for the BNP because you’re fed up with the Tory-Libdem coalition. Not all change is automatically for the better, even if its advocates seek to score points and discredit opposition to it by labelling it “reform”.

  2. Clark says:

    Miles, seconded. The current system is obviously both broken and stuck in its dysfunctional state. We, the voters, have been offered no chance to change it, until this referendum. No, AV is not the system I would prefer, it has some of the failings described above, but I will vote for it in the hope of freeing up the stuck, broken system. I think that AV’s similarity to STV makes it a decent step in that direction.

    But if it’s maths you’re looking for, consider this. Candidate T supports deregulating the financial markets, laying off public employees, reducing benefits and cutting back on education. Candidate D supports mild financial regulation, trading off public employment in favour of education, and maintaining benefits. Candidate L supports raising tax on finance to increase spending on public employment, education and benefits. The first preference votes come in with T getting 40%, while D and L both get less than this. So under FPTP T would get elected. But D’s primary voters are more likely to cast their second preference to L, and L’s primary voters are more likely to cast their second preference to D. T basically stands on his own with his uncompromising capitalist policies. More voters oppose that than support it. It seems that AV would return a result that less people would object to, and that seems fairer to me.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Clark. I have two reservations about your hypothetical example. First, it’s an illusion to suppose that there’s any parliamentary electoral system which allows an individual voter to vote on the basis of a particular policy commitment of any candidate or candidates. And since the primary purpose of voting is to influence the choice of government that emerges from the election, the semi-personal views of any particular candidate are, or should be, secondary in determining whom you decide to vote for. Most people rightly vote for the party which in a broad-brush way they prefer to any other, without necessarily endorsing every single one of its policies or promises.

    Secondly, I think you score an own goal by admitting that under AV the successful candidate is likely to be the one whom “less [the fewest] people would object to”, as distinct from the candidate who wins more votes than any other. Heaven preserve us from a parliament of bland, non-committal politicians who are all things to all men, have no deep-seated principles or opinions, but to whom the fewest voters can find any reason to object! Advocates of AV claim as a virtue of the system that MPs (they mean candidates) will have to “reach out to” voters of all political opinions in order to try to gain their second and lower preferences. But the earliest second preferences to be redistributed will always by definition be those for candidates to whom the fewest voters in the constituency gave their first preferences, and these will normally be the candidates of extreme or frivolous parties such as the BNP or the Monster Raving Loonies (because these will come bottom at the first few counts and thus be eliminated). Do you really want the candidates of the serious parties to be forced to trim their policies, promises and proclaimed principles so as to attract the second preferences of people who have voted in the first place for the BNP or loud-mouthed louts in funny hats? I don’t!

  3. Clark says:

    Brian, thanks for the reply.  Your first objection can be refuted merely by substituting parties for candidates in my hypothetical example.  It also highlights one of the major failings of our electoral system; you’re advocating that people should vote not for the best candidate, but for whichever candidate stands for their preferred party.  You wrote “Heaven preserve us from a parliament of bland, non-committal politicians who are all things to all men, have no deep-seated principles or opinions”, but this is just what we’re already seeing; attractive young “empty suits” chosen by party PR departments and “parachuted in” to safe-seat constituencies.

    Your second “objection” is really an argument for changing the voting system.  I’m not “admitting” that I vote against rather than for parties; it’s something I’m stuck with, as I know only too well.  There are millions of others like myself; we vote tactically.  I’d much rather vote for someone I really believed in, but then I would be splitting the anti-Tory vote.  This is why I want STV, so that my vote really counts towards the policies I support.  STV is not on offer, but AV is a decent step towards STV.

    Yes, the extreme or frivolous candidates get eliminated first, so their votes get redistributed first, but these are (by the rules of AV) the smallest number of votes.  The leading candidate would have to be very close to 50%+1 for the Monster Raving Loony votes to swing his/her election.  Candidates would do better to support policies with broad appeal than to pander to the fringes. 

    The very existence of the Monster Raving Loony Party is probably a side effect of FPTP.  Essentially, such a vote is a protest vote or a vote of despair.  The Loonies are clearly a parody of the pointless shouting, jeering and heckling that has been going on in the Commons all my life, which is in turn a symptom of the two-party system where both sides have already agreed to disagree before the “debate” even begins.

    You ask “Do you really want the candidates of the serious parties to be forced to trim their policies, promises and proclaimed principles so as to attract the second preferences of people […]?  You presumably haven’t heard the popular joke: Q: How can you tell when a politician is lying?  A: You can see his lips moving.

    Your reasons for preferring a strong government flow from the days when Labour really represented the workers, and from Labour’s great achievements in education, the NHS, and our old Public Utilities which we loved to hate but which now look far preferable to BT and E.ON.  But those days are long gone.  Since then we’ve had eleven years of strong but disastrous leadership from Maggie, and ten of Blair with his 4000 new laws and war based on lies.
    Come on Brian, change sides and support AV.  Yes, AV will bring more LibDems into the House, and that is good, but not because I support LibDems.  In time, it would bring in independents and Greens, too.  The traditional tribal, rhetorical debating style where everyone has made up their minds before anyone speaks is an anachronism that  Tory and labour have continued indulging in well past its sell-by date.  It’s high time we diversified the complexion of Parliament.  The quality of debate would be forced to rise if there were MPs in the House that had to be persuaded.

    Brian writes: Thank you again, Clark. I have no illusions about the poor quality of many of our MPs, and I am all too familiar with the old chestnut about knowing that an MP is lying when you see his lips move; and I share your distaste for the yah-boo circus display in the house of commons at PMQs and some other occasions. But I think it’s wrong to dismiss politicians as a breed out of hand; I believe that few of them deliberately lie and that the vast majority are in politics in the belief that they can do something to improve the lives of ordinary people — which in many cases they do. The poor quality of many MPs is due, I believe, to: the wholly inadequate salaries that we pay them, the now absurdly stringent rules on allowances, the terrible working hours and strains on marriage and family life and disruption of having to maintain two homes, the inadequate research facilities, the fact that we expect them to be untrained and unqualified social workers in their constituencies as well as carrying out mostly dreary routine work as MPs at Westminster, the unavoidable subservience to the bullying and blackmailing of the party whips, the risk of never being appointed to ministerial office if they show any sign of independence, the uncertainty about being re-elected (and problems of starting another career if defeated at a future election in middle age), the low esteem in which politicians are almost universally held — as exemplified by ‘jokes’ about them all being liars — and the knowledge that the executive has acquired almost unlimited powers over what can be done in parliament, leaving most MPs as lobby fodder most of the time. All these factors tend to deter really able people from choosing politics as a career, and this means too many second-rate people becoming MPs, which further deters the best and the brightest from entering politics, and so on in a vicious circle.

    But the relevant point here is that none of this has anything to do with the electoral system, and personally I don’t believe that a change to AV would have the slightest effect on a single one of these negative factors. It’s a complete irrelevance which would make the generally low standard of government which we endure even lower, with the reduced likelihood of single-party governments with a clear agenda and unambiguous accountability to the electorate. I understand the appeal of coalition governments and fuzzy politics with a broad appeal to the vaguely amiable amorphous middle ground, but I much prefer clearly defined political positions and parties which present a clear choice to the voters, instead of encouraging them to try to evade it by fastidiously numbering choices between a multitude of little groups fragmented by the electoral system. But that’s not everyone’s view, obviously. The idea that FPTP is so awful that any change at all must be for the better seems to me both sadly mistaken, and ultimately lazy.

  4. Clark says:

    Brian, has your mathematician friend attempted a dynamical systems analysis of the UK electoral system?  I believe that the FPTP system subjects voters to “positive feedback”, the result of which is to produce periodic big swings interspersed with gradually reducing majorities – ie, for all our claims about “democracy”, it is the system’s structure that dominates its behaviour rather than any “will of the People”.  Anyone interested can read my discussion with Evgueni about this, and lots of other discussions as well, on this Craig Murray thread:

    Brian writes: Thank you once again, Clark. I’m afraid you’ve lost me on positive feedback and dynamical systems analysis. The kind of swings and reducing majorities that you describe seem to me to reflect natural changes in public opinion as people gradually become disillusioned with the governing party (largely their own fault for having harboured illusions in the first place) and eventually turn to the opposition party in the hope that it will do better, starting the same process all over again. But I enjoyed the exchanges on Craig Murray’s blog to which you supply a link (especially the Bentham quotation!).

  5. Clark says:

    Brian, our posts crossed.  Here’s my reply to your follow-up above.
    Yes, I too see some worthy people in the Commons, though not enough of them, and yes, there are many reasons for the poor quality of debate.  I argue that about half of the problems in your first paragraph are directly attributable to the two-party system itself.  This is why I’m supporting AV vs FPTP – I’m hoping that it will weaken the dominance of the parties by diversifying Parliament.
    AV is far from being my preferred system.  I’ll be voting for it out of desperation.  The current system is stuck, entrenched.  A referendum on AV vs FTPT is all we’ve been offered.  So just as I would if I were trying to free a rusted bolt, I’ll accept whatever movement I can get, apply some lubricant, work it in, and then try to get the bolt to move a little bit further…

    Brian writes: Well, Clark, we’ll have to agree to disagree about the root causes of the many defects in our parliamentary system, about which Churchill’s hackneyed comment on democracy is relevant, unlike the electoral system. I haven’t noticed that comparable countries which practise various forms of PR get a better class of politician as a result, and Australia, as one of the tiny handful of countries practising AV, unquestionably gets even worse.

    The idea that a move to AV as a result of the referendum will pave the way to yet another change in the electoral system (presumably to PR), meaning another referendum on the voting system, in your or my or our children’s or grandchildren’s lifetimes, strikes me as far-fetched. Whichever way it goes, I can’t see another stab at changing the electoral system for a generation. The only way that it might become possible is in the context of a move to a full UK federation, with full internal self-government under a parliament and government for England as well as the other three UK nations, and a written federal constitution which would inevitably open up opportunities for multiple changes in just about everything. Sadly, I think all that is even more unlikely. I’m afraid you’re probably stuck with your rusted bolt, with or without a tiny hint of movement.

    By the way, despite the opinion polls, I shan’t be at all surprised if on 5 May there’s a narrow majority in favour of AV. Those who take a deeply cynical view of our politics and politicians — i.e. probably the majority of the electorate — and whose political philosophy stops at “a plague on both or all your houses” are likely to vote for a change, in the (mistaken) belief that any change can only be for the better, while those who are bored stiff by politics and don’t give a fig about the electoral system are unlikely to vote in the referendum at all. I hope I’m wrong.

  6. Clark says:

    Brian, the swings and reducing majorities seem natural because they are natural – to a two party dominated, FPTP system.  Change the system and the dynamics will change.  It quite surprises me when Labour supporters sing the praises of FPTP.  The system will inevitably return a Tory government eventually, and they do much harm when they gain power.
    The Australian system is not directly comparable with the AV system proposed for the UK because (1) voting is mandatory and (2) ranking every candidate is mandatory.  This warps the lower preference votes, and the coercion spawns resentment of the system.

  7. John Miles says:

    A bit like it, maybe.
    But not all that like it.