The Ken and Boris show: a Guardian letter

Not for the first time, the Guardian has gone at a letter submitted by me with a hacksaw, or perhaps an axe, before publishing it (here) on 29 April 08:  but better an amputee than nothing at all, I suppose. 

Anyway, just for the record, here's the text as submitted:

The modest complexities of the electoral system for the London mayoral elections on Thursday, plus widespread distaste for some aspects of Ken Livingstone's personality and record, shouldn't obscure the realities facing voters (Ken, with all the caveats, April 26).  Boris Johnson, lacking  concrete policies, experience of administering anything, and attention to detail, and with his many reactionary views, seems likely to be a disaster for London if elected.  His election would also boost the Tory Party's prospects at the next general election.  Livingstone is the only candidate capable of beating him. 

Under the preferential system of voting, unless either Livingston or Johnson gets 51 per cent or more of the first preference votes, in which case he's elected (which is unlikely), all other candidates apart from Livingstone and Johnson will be eliminated, and any of their second preference votes cast for Livingston or Johnson re-allocated to them: so the outcome will probably depend on which of the two gets more second preference votes from the rest of the field.  Whatever the merits of the LibDem and Green and some other candidates, a vote for any of them except Livingstone (or Johnson!) will be wasted.  So will second preference votes for any of the other candidates. 

If your first preference vote is for Livingstone or Johnson, there's no point in casting a second preference vote for anyone else, because neither of those two will be eliminated.  A first or second preference vote for any of the other candidates, or a failure to vote at all, amounts to a vote for Johnson, because withholding your vote from the only candidate who can beat Johnson must boost Johnson's chances.  The inescapable conclusion is that if you don't want Johnson as mayor, the only rational course is to vote for Livingstone, regardless of what you think of him, preferably as your first preference but failing that as your second.  (I have no connection whatever with the Livingstone campaign.)

The Guardian's version does have the benefit of brevity, so perhaps it's clearer: but quite a lot is sacrificed — I would think that, wouldn't I? — and I regret the syntactical blunder introduced into the second sentence of the Guardian's version.  However, I hope the general thrust has survived.

The LibDem candidateA comment on my recent Ephems post on the subject accuses me of "peddling the line that ‘only Ken can beat Boris,’ [which is] the way that Ken tries to squeeze out Brian Paddick’s vote."   I'm puzzled by this.   The statement that "only Ken can beat Boris" is surely an incontrovertible statement of fact, not a 'line';  and if acknowledgement of the fact has the logical effect of "squeezing out" the votes for Paddick, the Liberal Democratic Party's candidate, that's just too bad for Mr Paddick.  Even if Brian Paddick had fought a scintillating, constructive and inspiring campaign, which unfortunately for him he hasn't, it would still be the painful truth that a first preference vote for him is a wasted vote because he can't avoid being eliminated as soon as the first preferences have been counted:  and a second preference vote for him is even more conspicuously irrelevant, since he will have been eliminated before the second preferences can be re-distributed.  

It's not his fault that he's going to come third, and that only the first two will survive to receive the other candidates' second preferences (or at any rate those second preferences given to Livingstone or Johnson).  As Leo Durocher is supposed to have been the first to say, nice guys finish last — or, what is the same thing in this case, third.  Paddick himself, while ritually pretending to believe that he's going to be elected mayor, implicitly acknowledges that he's going to come third (or worse) and thus get eliminated, when he recommends that those who give him their first preference votes should give their second preferences to whichever of Livingstone or Johnson they think the less appalling.  Paddick's second preferences will only get re-distributed when Paddick himself has been eliminated.

(If I'm wrong and Paddick turns out to have come first or second by winning more first preference votes than either Livingstone or Johnson, thereby avoiding elimination and surviving to receive his second preference votes from the other candidates, I shall have the doubtful satisfaction of being in excellent company as I wipe the egg from my face;  and in that event, I shall keep a close watch on the sun in case it starts to set in the east after all these years.)


3 Responses

  1. MatGB says:

    it would still be the painful truth that a first preference vote for him is a wasted vote because he can't avoid being eliminated

    Brian, that's palpably false and in a partizan nature that's beneath you. It's misleading statements like this that are partially the cause of his low poll rating.  I'll give you poor campaign, and yes, 2nd pref for him is probably irrelevent (which is why Ken has said he'd give it, naturally), but saying a first pref is a waste? Saying that voting for him first is helping Boris?

    You know the voting system better than that. A first preference vote for Brian is showing that you prefer him to the other two.  The YouGov figures released today show that if enough of those that prefer him would actually vote for him instead of anti Ken/anti-Boris then he'd get enough 1st prefs to eliminate Ken.

    In a preferential voting system, there are no wasted votes. That's the whole point of having one.

    A first preference vote [for anyone but Ken] is a vote for Boris according to your actual letter.  That's palpably not true. Unfortunately it appears so many Londoners believe this that Brian's an also-ran by default.

    Given the polls are likely to be off anyway, the best way to defeat Boris is Brian first, Ken 2nd, unless you're partisan pro-Ken in which case Ken 1st Brian 2nd just in case Ken does get knocked out (which I think is now unlikely). It's not just me that thinks that, whoever is behind Stop Boris says the same.

    Combined poor campaign and media meme of "two horse race" has killed the third option off–at the beginning I'd have put money on Ken vs Brian in the second round, had no clue Boris could possibly do so well.

    Brian writes:  Mat, aren't these intemperate accusations of falsehood and misleading statements a bit excessive?  I don't see much difference between your analysis and mine.  You agree with me that Livingstone and Johnson will almost certainly come first and second (in whichever order) on first preferences:  that all the others, including Paddick, will thereupon be eliminated: and that those, including me, who want to 'Stop Boris' advocate either (1) giving their first preferences to Livingstone (and second preferences to anyone or no-one since they won't be re-allocated) or else (2) first preference to whoever you prefer to either Livingstone or Johnson, in the knowledge that they won't win, and second preference to Livingstone (see e.g. this, which may be the website you were referring to).  Your sole point of disagreement seems to be that if things had been different and if people like 'the media' and me (and about ten million others) hadn't predicted that the Labour and Tory candidates would come first and second in an unpredictable order, the LibDem candidate might have beaten one of them into second place.  Well, you may be right about that;  I don't know.  It's pure speculation.  And it's not, I suggest, a basis for accusing me and numerous others of 'peddling' falsehoods and being (presumably deliberately) misleading. 

    I repeat: a vote for a candidate who you agree will be eliminated when the first preferences are counted is a wasted vote.  The choice is between Livingstone and Johnson.  Responsible voters have a duty to acknowledge that reality, however unpalatable, and to act accordingly.  By all means give your first preference vote to Paddick if you want to make a gesture that's unlikely to affect the outcome of the election, provided that you make sure to give your second preference to Livingstone.  If you fail to do that, the effect of what you do, or refrain from doing, is to boost Johnson's chances of winning — a gruesome prospect for all Londoners, and especially for the least well off.  That's all I'm saying.  Does that make me 'partisan'?  You bet!

  2. Aidan Boustred says:

    Surely any of the following would have the same effect 1) Ken only 2) Ken then Brian or 3) Brian then Ken. Either way it will end up as a vote for Ken in the second round.

    The only way it could hand the election to Boris is if
    BO1 + BO2 > BR1 + BR2
    and BO1 + BO2 < K1 + K2
    and BR1 > K1

    In other words if Brian eliminated Ken in the first round, but his total votes were fewer than Ken's total votes, then it would give Boris the win through a weaker second round candidate. For this to occur, Ken would need more second round votes than Brian by a greater margin than he was beaten by in the first round, and this margin would have to be critical in beating Boris. It's possible, but very unlikely.

    I think it would have been a much better election if candidates had been able to use a single transferable vote and candidates had been eliminated one by one. This would have reduced the chance of statistical oddities like the one above, and voters could have simply put the candidates in order of preference – a far more straightforward decision and a clearer declaration of intent.

    Brian writes:  This is all water under the bridge now, of course, and it looks as if London is about to be delivered into the delicate hands of Mr Johnson, who is probably as astonished to receive it as anyone else.  But Aidan, I wonder if your ingenious equations aren't unnecessarily complicated?  The original version of my letter as submitted to the Guardian concluded:

    A first or second preference vote for any of the other candidates, or a failure to vote at all, amounts to a vote for Johnson, because withholding your vote from the only candidate who can beat Johnson must boost Johnson's chances.  The inescapable conclusion is that if you don't want Johnson as mayor, the only rational course is to vote for Livingstone, regardless of what you think of him, preferably as your first preference but failing that as your second…. [Emphasis added.]

    The logic of this still seems to me beyond dispute.  There was never the slightest risk of Paddick (or any of the other candidates) beating either Johnson or Livingstone into third place on first preferences:  so not to vote for Livingstone either as first or second preference was bound to boost Johnson's chances.  So long as you gave Livingstone at least your second preference, it didn't really matter who got your first preference:  unless it was Johnson, all the rest were going to be eliminated anyway, either all together or, if the system had been slightly different, one by one.  But it looks almost certain that Livingstone has lost for several reasons:  the unpopularity of the Gordon Brown government, itself aggravated by the global economic down-turn, including rising food and petrol prices;  the feeling of many people that Livingstone's eight years as mayor were long enough and that it would be interesting to have a change (politics as entertainment for those with a low boredom threshold);  votes cast by those who didn't like some aspect of Livingstone's character or that of his associates and/or who thought Johnson's performances on Have I Got News For You amusing (election as reality TV personality contest or as some kind of morality calculus);  the effect of vested interests in Johnson's success (rewards for the owners of the vitriolic Evening Standard such as the franchise for distribution of its free sister paper);  and (semi-legitimate but misconceived) right-wing dislike of Livingstone's left-wing flamboyances, a few of which sometimes verged on generally harmless silliness.  But ordinary simple boredom was probably the main factor.  Remember why Aristides the Just got himself 'ostracised' (i.e. exiled) from Athens?  (Reminder here.) 

    The sole issue was always which of the two was likelier, on the evidence, to run London better.  There was always only one possible answer to that question.  Unfortunately too many of the London electorate either got the answer wrong, or (more likely) answered the wrong question.  Well, that's life, I suppose.

  3. Ken says:

    A side comment on the outcome of the election.  It seems likely (= it's just my guess) that a contributing factor was simply a dislike, on the part of at least some of the electorate, of anyone – however admirable – serving more than two terms. (One of several aspects of the US constitution that has attractions).  And didn't Livingstone himself give the impression of being less than whole-hearted in his campaign?  Not only did he make clear he regarded Johnson as a more formidable opponent than he had faced before – which can't have done Johnson any harm – but, genuinely or not,  he didn't appear to be in good health. 

    It's rash to judge Livingstone on superficial impressions, but is there anything in the belief that he was happy to lose this time – that his priority is to be mayor at the time of the 2012 Olympics, and that he reckoned (probably correctly) that his chances of achieving that would be increased by not being mayor during the next four years?

    Incidental question.  What was the formal process by which Livingstone was adopted as Labour candidate this time?  Was there any other contender?

    Brian writes:  Interesting comments: thanks, Ken.  I'm sure you're right that many people deserted Livingstone because they thought he had been mayor for long enough.  The idea that serious elected officials should take it in turns to run governments and cities on a sort of quick-revolving merry-go-round strikes me as bizarre and wrong-headed, but I realise that it's widely shared.  I saw Ken Livingstone at a local meeting (attended by about 70 to 80 people, predominantly Asian and including many OAPs such as me) three days before the election and was reassured to find him vigorous and fluent as ever, concentrating on his plans for the future (if re-elected) rather than on the past.  He paid tribute to the Labour Party which had given him the fullest possible support:  "I couldn't have asked for more."  I gather that earlier in the campaign he had been suffering from bronchitis and had largely lost his voice.  At this meeting he would only predict that the result would be very close and that it could go either way:  but I think the subtext was that by then he expected to lose, for all the obvious reasons.  Whether deep down he wanted to lose, it's impossible to know.  I don't think anyone in whose blood politics runs as richly as it does in Ken Livingstone's ever really wants to lose an election, although I suppose on a certain level the prospect of some leisure time must come as something of a relief.  He's over 60….

    I don't think he will stand again for mayor when Johnson's term ends:  I assume that this is the end of his career at the summit of politics.  My understanding is that Johnson will be the presiding host at the 2012 Olympics which will take place before the next mayoral election — a bitter pill if so for Livingstone who put so much into the campaign to bring the Games to London, not because he has the slightest interest in sport but because he saw it as a one-off opportunity to regenerate a sizeable area of London and to extract very large amounts of money for the purpose from central government, despite the mutual loathing between himself and Gordon Brown.  In this as in many other far-sighted ambitions he was successful beyond most people's wildest dreams, including probably his own.  Politics will be much duller without him;  I suspect that the fascination with Johnson will soon wear off.

    I have no idea how the candidates for mayor are selected, nor how Ken Livingstone won the Labour nomination again:  presumably it was a foregone conclusion ratified by the party leadership.  Who took the daft and doomed decision to make poor Frank Dobson run against Livingstone for mayor 8 years ago?  According to Wikipedia, —

    Dobson was manoeuvred by the Labour Party leadership into announcing his resignation in order to stand as Mayor of London in the inaugural elections. He managed to beat Ken Livingstone in the Labour Party's internal selection, helped by an existing electoral system that tended to favour him and no requirement for affiliated trade unions to ballot their members. Livingstone then fought the election as an independent, and Dobson came third, only just ahead of the Liberal Democrat candidate.

    I'm putting some thoughts about the background to Johnson's victory over Livingstone in a new post.