Opinion: Fairer votes – the Pret A Manger test

There are lots of ways to make the case for a fairer voting system for electing MPs, but I think I may have come up with the most novel. I was in the staff kitchen at work the other day when colleagues starting chatting about the referendum, triggered by a newspaper article about it. They were split between the YES camp and the NO camp, both drawing on what seemed like standard arguments deployed by both campaigns.

I started trying to win over the antis, but wasn’t really getting anywhere. Then a thought occurred to me. I was peckish at the time, about to head out to buy something for a very late lunch. It was the sort of time in the afternoon when the range of sandwiches at the nearby Pret A Manger starts to dwindle – maybe they’ll have run out of smoked salmon, BLT, chicken avocado or whatever else.

“I’ll buy everyone here a sandwich from Pret. You can choose what you want using either first-past-the-post, or the alternative vote. If you choose first-past-the-post then you get one choice and if it’s run out then you get nothing. If you use the alternative vote then you can, of course, let me know what you want ideally, but if they’ve run out of it you can let me know what you want as a second and third choice.”

You’ll be unsurprised to learn that they all decided to use the alternative vote, and I think this little exercise won over the sceptics too.

Of course if you meet someone who wants a less sandwich-based explanation of how the alternative vote works, I can heartily recommend this video that Jonathan Wallace shot of me setting out the case for change and explaining how the alternative vote works. Take a look:

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29 Comments

  • Malcolm Todd 9th Apr '11 - 5:18pm

    Hm. I’m afraid this video was almost enough to persuade me to vote for FPTP…

  • Andrew Suffield 9th Apr '11 - 6:51pm

    Yes, because choosing who you will give a mandate to govern, to act in your name, is exactly as trivial as the decision over what mechanism will best provide a tasty sandwich for lunch.

    That is special pleading

  • Unless we are electing 30 million MPs (i.e. one per a voter), then that is a really bad and misleading comparison.

  • Of course if you only really like one of the sandwiches on offer, or perhaps are allergic to all bar one choice the example breaks down.

    Perhaps only three were on offer:

    Sandwich 1 had previously offered a joyous experience that actually turned out to be sour (Labour)

    Sandwich 2 had a few bits of filling you could just about stomach but wouldn’t let any of your favorite bits anywhere near it’s coveted bread. It also contained some bits that if swallowed could actually do you serious harm (Tory)

    Sandwich 3 offered what you wanted. OK after last eating it it has led to some heartburn but hopefully the current dose of antacid is going to fix that.

    If you can’t have Sandwich 3 you’ll probably put up with a bag of crisps as the other two just ain’t worth it…..

    In other words you still end up with bugger all for your vote. Gary Streeter will be my MP next time around irrespective of the outcome of this referendum. My vote will be wasted as will thousands of others. AV is not a stepping stone to PR, Clegg has as good as admitted that we cannot hold another referendum in the near future. I don’t want my vote to count for the party I dislike the least, but for the party I like the most.

    I suggest you forget Pret a Porter and go to a better sandwich shop that has what people actually want on offer.

  • I think this attempt to equate the election of a single representative for 60-70,000 people with an individual choosing which sandwich he or she prefers deserves some kind of prize for the most bizarrely spurious analogy in the referendum campaign so far. And that really is saying something!

    What the “Yes” camp really needs to explain is how AV, which on balance is a LESS proportional system than First Past the Post, is in any sense “fairer” or “more democratic” – considering that Lib Dems have been telling us for decades that the criterion of electoral fairness is proportionality. Unless someone can explain that paradox satisfactorily, I shall be voting “No.”

  • Andrew Suffield 10th Apr '11 - 4:55am

    Unless someone can explain that paradox satisfactorily, I shall be voting “No.”

    You’d be doing that anyway. It’s what your leader told you to do.

  • “My leader”?

    As I’m a former Lib Dem who isn’t attracted to any of the other parties, who on earth is that supposed to be?

    I wish I could understand any of this. I wish I could understand why the Electoral Reform Society has changed its mind about AV’s unsuitability as a means of electing an assembly. I wish I could understand why Liberal Democrats suddenly don’t believe in proportionality any more. For heaven’s sake, so far from AV being a stepping stone to proportional representation, we now have Nick Clegg telling us AV is still going to be in place “long after the names of Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have faded in the memory.” God forbid!

    I wish I could understand why what passes for debate about electoral reform has to be conducted at such a breathtakingly low level. On another thread there is actually a video showing a baby supposedly responding to the usual misleading platitudes of the “Yes” campaign – this time converted into baby talk! “More power to your votey-wotey?” What an insult to the intelligence.

  • Paul Kennedy 10th Apr '11 - 9:05am

    I don’t accept that AV would produce a less proportionate result.

    What I do know is that AV is fairer because it is a better approximation than FPTP to what people actually want (by actually allowing them to express a preference between the different candidates and have their vote counted in the contest between them).

    It’s true that many people vote tactically to get round the unfairness of FPTP and try to get to the same result as the final round of AV (ie try to predict which sandwiches will be left at the end).

    But they have imperfect knowledge (not helped by politicians and the right-wing press), so often get it wrong eg at the last election many people in Oldham were persuaded to vote Tory “to get rid of Gordon Brown” when they actually needed to vote Lib Dem, and the same with people voting Labour “to keep Cameron out”.

    FPTP is unfair because it is easier for foreign billionaires to rig the result by pouring money into 50 ‘marginal’ constituencies, while the rest of us might as well stay at home. If our political system were a market, it would be reported straight to the competition authorities.

  • Mark

    Evidently you missed the comment I posted last night. What I should like someone to explain is outlined in the second paragraph.

  • Paul

    You say you don’t accept that AV would produce a less proportional result, but apparently that’s what the projections have shown for 3 out of the last 4 general elections. The worst case was 1997, in which the projected Labour majority would have been 231 instead of 179 (with two thirds of the seats on 43% of the vote) and the Tories would have been the third party in the House of Commons, despite polling nearly twice as many votes as the Lib Dems. I don’t understand how a supporter of proportional representation could view that as “fairer” in any sense.

    I think if you don’t accept those projections, you might at least explain why.

  • Andrew Suffield 10th Apr '11 - 12:04pm

    I’m a former Lib Dem

    If all the people who say that had actually ever been in the party then it would have won the last election.

  • @Chris

    “AV, which on balance is a LESS proportional system than First Past the Post”. It’s not. All projections have shown that it’s more proportional in most elections but CAN be less proportional when one large party is extremely unpopular outside its core voters. So, essentially more proportional for all recent elections except 1997.

  • DunKhan

    You seem to have the opposite problem to Mark. Presumably you responded to my comment of last night before reading the more recent discussion.

    As I said, projections for 3 out of the last 4 elections indicate that representation under AV would have been LESS proportional than under FPTP.

  • Mark

    Sorry, but I’m still not sure from that what your position is.

    Is it:
    (a) That you accept AV is on the whole less proportional, but that this defect is outweighed by the points you’ve labelled (b-d)
    or (b) That you don’t accept it’s any less proportional?

  • Old Codger Chris 10th Apr '11 - 4:44pm

    Stuart Bonar – “If you use the alternative vote then you can, of course, let me know what you want ideally, but if they’ve run out of it you can let me know what you want as a second and third choice.”

    And if you get your second or third choice it may be at the expense of a greater number of customers whose first choice was something different entirely, but that’s just hard luck on them. They can probably get what they want at another sandwich shop down the road, failing which there’s always tomorrow.

    Or – in political terms – the greater number of voters who have lost out because of your, and others, second or third preferences, have no chance of getting what they want for probably four or five years.

    Just as well Stuart’s analogy is rubbish or there’d be a lot of hungry people.

  • “My view is that on conventional measures, AV is more proportional most of the time …”

    Then the question is, what is that view based on, and how do you reconcile it with the projections showing that AV would have been less proportional in 3 out of the last 4 elections? If you believe that those projections are incorrect, what exactly is your reason for doing so? And can you point to other projections that back up your belief that AV is more proportional most of the time?

  • Mark

    That’s not really much of a counter-argument, is it? I mean obviously, the finding that AV would have been LESS proportional in 3 out of the last 4 elections is entirely consistent with it being MORE proportional in the other one – which was 2010, the one you cite.

    Is it safe to assume that you don’t actually know of any reason to distrust these projections?

  • Stuart,

    How many different types of sandwich did you come back with, how many’s first choice were they, and how long was the queue at the counter by the time you’d figured it out? 🙂

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Apr '11 - 11:22am

    Paul Kennedy

    FPTP is unfair because it is easier for foreign billionaires to rig the result by pouring money into 50 ‘marginal’ constituencies, while the rest of us might as well stay at home. If our political system were a market, it would be reported straight to the competition authorities.

    OK, but how is AV going to change this? How are the many safe Conservative and Labour seats going to change just because there’s AV?

    The problem with the Yes-to-AV campaign is that it’s full of waffle about how it will make our MPs work harder and will end the safe-seat mentality that leads to MPs abusing the system because they think it’s a job for life, but it does no explain HOW it will do that. The consequence of the Yes campaign making a deliberate decision to base its case on waffle – I learnt at the London Liberal Democrat conference on Saturday that it had agreed not to make concrete arguments based on the mechanics of AV because it felt people would switch off to them – is that the referendum campaign becomes just the waffle from the Yes side against the waffle from the No side. The waffle from the No side is designed to make people feel scared, and that works well in difficult times. If all we’re doing is waffling about what we suppose, without concrete arguments, will be the benefits of AV, we just look like typical politicians who make grandiose claims about the supposed results of their policies, but people are so suspicious of that.

    The reason AV ends the “safe seats, job for life” mentality is that it ends the reasoning “got to vote for X to keep out Y” reasoning, where X and Y will always be the biggest two parties in the area, so in most places Labour and Conservative, but in a few Conservative and Liberal Democrat, and very occasionally Labour and Liberal Democrat, and of course other patterns outside England. How it actually forces MPs to pay more attention to their voters is because it makes it much safer for an independent challenger to stand, someone whose politics is broadly similar to the MP but who is challenging them on grounds of poor performance. People may vote for the independent safely knowing it will not “let in” another major party candidate, because if the independent challenge does not come off their vote will transfer to the MP they didn’t like although his party is the one they favour when it comes to a party choice. So it works both to stop the vote being split if an independent stands as it would be under FPTP, and also to end the argument that leads people to feel they must stick to the major parties for fear of splitting the vote, so making it more likely an independent if one stands can get somewhere. Even if the safe-seat MP still wins in the end, it allowed an electoral demonstration to be made of local concern about that MP without the “don’t split the vote” worry.

    So why can’t we say this? Why can’t the “Yes to AV” campaign make a big thing about how FPTP forces people to vote for one of the two biggest parties in the area, while AV makes it free for them to vote for independents and so on without fear it will “split the vote”? I’m sure if it did, it would be a big vote winner. But I fear the politicians at the top of the Yes-to-AV campaign don’t want to go down that route because, after all, they are party politicians.

  • .. and when you got to Pret you found out that the Tories had Gerrymandered the sandwich cabinets, and alas, all that were left were Blue Cheese Sandwiches – which nobody wanted 😉

  • @Chris – the whole concept of a result being “more proportional” or “less proportional” in the elections you mentioned is based on the number of first preference votes cast, no? I’m not sure comparing the inferred result of a mythical AV election in the UK is particularly edifying. Both FPTP and AV are non-proportional systems. It’s possible to imagine scenarios in which both have results far from the distribution of (first choice) ballots cast.

    That aside really the only important differences are:

    1) FPTP is easier to organise and to calculate and report on the results.
    2) AV eliminates the “spoiler effect” whereby the entrance of a third candidate into the election can dramatically change the result by “stealing” votes from a mainstream candidate.

    In my opinion, (1) is not a serious con, but (2) is a pretty big pro.

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