Iain Dale’s voting system confusion

Iain Dale yesterday posted a piece attacking the Alternative Vote system which doesn’t bode well for a well informed campaign.

That’s a shame because there’s a sensible debate to be had – with Lib Dems being the first to admit that the Alternative Vote system isn’t the best of all possible options, though most would rate it as a great improvement on what we have now.

Dale writes

There’s a reason only one other country in the world uses AV. It’s a half way house. It tries to be a PR equivalent of the First Past the Post system, but in reality it is no more proportionate than straight out FPTP, and in some cases can be less so.

It simply isn’t true that only one other country uses AV (Australia, Fiji, Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea). If we want to choose our electoral system based on which is most used elsewhere, the list system would be a prime candidate – and almost no-one in the UK wants that.  I’d hope that the UK could choose a system based on what’s best for us, not what’s most popular elsewhere – though it’s useful to see how a system has worked in other countries in practice.

Dale is right to say it’s a half-way house: that’s the whole point, of course. It’s a compromise between the Lib Dems who favour proper PR with the Single Transferable Vote and the Conservatives who want to hold on to the current First Past the Post system.

The question is whether it’s better that First Past the Post. Supporters of the Yes campaign will argue that it is, and Iain Dale offers no evidence to the contrary.

Dale, oddly, then spends much of the rest of his piece attacking a different voting system – STV. That’s the one favoured by the Lib Dems, but not one that will appear on ballot papers as an option next May.

He finally moves on to attack the list system used for European elections, although he does admit “I realise this is not pure STV“.

Sorry, Iain, it’s not STV at all, and STV isn’t AV.   The list system invites you to rank parties and not even vote for individual candidates.

By this stage, AV has been left far behind but Dale still seems to be under the impression he’s providing arguments to vote against it in the referendum.

He argues that few of us know the names of our MEPs, therefore multi-member constituencies must be a bad thing. If we get to have a referendum on STV at some time in the future, that argument will doubtless be wheeled out.

Supporters of STV will, at that stage, point out that few people knew the name of their MEP back when he or she was elected by First Past the Post. They’ll also point out that there’s a big difference between MEPs elected for a whole region and sitting in a parliament that gets virtually no media attention, and one elected for, say, a London borough who’s parliament is in the news daily.

After spending most of his article attacking the Single Transferable Vote system, Iain Dale concludes by saying

So I will be campaigning against the Alternative Vote. It doesn’t do what it says on the tin, and there may be faults in our existing system, but AV won’t fix it.

There are real debates to be had on the merits or otherwise of Alternative Vote and First Past the Post. It will be a shame if, through either ignorance or a lack of confidence in their own case, the No campaign resorts to this sort of misinformation.

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  • Stuart Mitchell 23rd Aug '10 - 9:58am

    “Iain Dale yesterday posted a piece attacking the Alternative Vote system which doesn’t bode well for a well informed campaign.”

    Nor do the bogus claims from pro-AV campaigners that AV requires winning candidates to gain over 50% of votes.

    I’m afraid this debate is not very edifying from whichever side you look at it.

    For me, if we discount the bogus or irrelevant claims (e.g. the 50% claim, the stepping stone argument etc) then what FPTP vs AV boils down to is: which system most accurately reflects the way most voters think?

  • It looks like the main aim of the anti campaign will be to try and confuse the issue. In an interview on the Today programme last month Daniel Kazczynski (Tory MP for Shrewsbury and one of the leaders of the anti campaign) was going on about how AV would lead to wasted votes because people like him wouldn’t use their second preference. Unfortunately the interviewer didn’t ask him about the number of wasted votes under the present system. Nor did he point out that a vote could only be described as “wasted” if their preferred candidate was eliminated before the final round or the fact that many people under FPTP don’t actually vote for their first choice.

    It’s going to be a tough campaign with a lot of misinformation.

  • “proper PR with the Single Transferable Vote”

    Sorry, but now *you’re* joining the misinformation game here – STV is not “proper PR” at all – doesn’t guarantee any kind of proportionality, and different variants of STV can produce quite different results. Indeed, the “wrong” party can win a majority, as has happened in other countries with STV. In my local authority area, STV would actually end up being less proportional (in some senses at least) than FPTP usually is.

    The only systems that build in any kind of proportionality are divisor systems that rely on party lists. Even most of those don’t provide “pure” proportionality, though they are at least based on the principle. Probably the nearest thing to “proper” PR (i.e. a system that is designed purely to ensure that parliamentary representation is as proportional to votes cast as can be mathematically possible given the size of the parliament) would be a Sainte-Lague divisor based on a single national list without any thresholds.

    STV is essentially just another kind of halfway house. Like most preferential systems, it basically does away with the concept of proportionality altogether.

    That is not necessarily a decisive argument against it, of course, but I think if you’re going to write a blog post attacking someone for propagandising about electoral systems, you should be a bit more careful in the claims that you make for your own preference.

  • @Stuart Mitchell

    AV *does* require the winning candidate to secure more than 50% of votes in the final round of voting. The only way this will be less than 50% of voters is if people do not list enough second or third (etc.) preferences. If voters choose to do that then they are essentially abstaining from the later voting rounds.

    In the last General Election only 1/3 of elected MPs secured the approval of more than 50% of voters under FPTP.

  • Aside from the av countries listed, many more use a 2-rounds system which is in practice very similar to av.

  • It is certainly true that AV is not a proportional system. It is preferable to FPTP in many ways, but there is little evidence that it produces more proportional results. So why on earth Clegg and co think it worth pursuing defeats me.
    But there are significant downsides to STV, too. It only works in multi-member constituencies, which are fine in large cities, since it easily argued that Manchester or Birmingham could be represented perfectly adequately (in fact, probably better than under FPTP) by MPs elected in a city-wide STV constituency. But what about rural areas? How big a constituency would you need in the North of Scotland, for example?
    There is a lot of academic research which suggests the Alternative Vote, or AV Plus, as recommended by the Jenkins commission, produces the most accurately proportional result. Since it also offers the advantages of being used already in large parts of the UK, and being compatible with the single-member constituencies which still appeal to lots of British voters, I cannot understand why Lib Dems seem so committed to STV, which is so easy to (mis)represent as a hugely complex system.

  • we should stop calling it AV
    just call it the 123 or first, second, third system

  • Burkesworks – don’t you mean the Tax Dogers’ Alliance?

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Aug '10 - 9:22pm

    Iain Dale’s article gave no arguments aginst AV. This is quite typical of Tory commentators – one rather suspects the problem is they’re numerically challenged so the little bit of maths involved in understanding AV defeats them. If that’s not the case, then they’re dishonest.

    So, we should ask any opponent of AV who talks about lots of things but not the actual mechanics of AV, to answer the question “Are you innumerate or are you dishonest?”.

    AV is not a proportional system, but that’s not the issue. If we’re going to have single member constuituencies and not a proportional system, then that’s how the case should be put – what does FPTP have that makes it better than AV? Anyone arguing against AV must answer that.

    Here what FPTP means – I keep using this example, but it’s at the basis of AV so it should be central to the argument:

    Cuthbert and Dibble are standing as candidates to be MP of Trumpton. 25,000 of Trumpton’s electors prefer Cuthbert to Dibble, 20,000 of Trumpton’s electors prefer Dibble to Cuthbert. The opponents of AV then MUST answer the question – why should it be that Dibble gets elected as MP just because it happens that Grubb is also standing, and 10,000 of those who prefer Cuthbert to Dibble also prefer Grubb to Cuthbert? Why should it be that the presence or absence of Grubb as a candidate makes a difference to whether Cuthbert or Dibble gets elected regardless of anything Cutbert or Dibble do and without the electors of Trumpton varying in any way on their preference of one over the other?

    Now that is really what it is all about. It uses numbers and a bit of maths – shock – so are those opponents of AV who can’t talk about what it really means too innumerate to do so? If they won’t talk about this, the most central thing AV is about – they are being dishonest.

    Of course, what the opponents of AV are REALLY about, is stopping the likes of Grubb from standing, or forcing people who really want Grubb not to vote for Grubb for fear of splitting Cuthbert’s vote. FPTP works by FORCE to stop people voting as they really want, it means they must vote for one of two limited options for fear that to do anythig else will “let the other lot in”. The case for FPTP is that democracy should be trampled upon because democracy is a bad thing, instead we should have a system which forces people to vote for either the Lords or the Masters, for fear if you vote for anything else you get the Lords in if you preferred the Masters or you get the Masters in if you preferred the Lords.

    I don’t want a system where the Lords and Masters tell us we can only vote for them, that’s why though AV still is “local majorities only get any representation” it is better than FPTP.

    As I said, that’s what it’s really about, so look at how the opponents of AV are talking about all sorts of other things in the hope of hiding that. Sadly, theLords and Masters have a lot of money and power to use to spread their dishonesty, so it’s highly likely many people will vote on what the Lords and Masters say this is about rather than what AV is about.

    It would be nice if we had some sensible people putting the case for AV in clear terms to try and show up the dishonesty of the opponents. I note, however, that Nick Clegg is putting forward the person who ran our general election campaign which managed to lose so much of the support we started off with.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 23rd Aug '10 - 10:10pm

    “AV *does* require the winning candidate to secure more than 50% of votes in the final round of voting. The only way this will be less than 50% of voters is if people do not list enough second or third (etc.) preferences. If voters choose to do that then they are essentially abstaining from the later voting rounds.”

    That’s a nice bit of sophistry, but the fact remains that winning candidates would _not_ necessarily need 50% of the votes cast.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 23rd Aug '10 - 10:13pm

    “But proportional voting lets people vote for the candidate they want to see win, rather than the least worst of the top two.”

    Should that read “preferential voting lets people …”?

  • Nik Darlington 24th Aug '10 - 7:56am

    You mention the other countries using AV. Quite frankly, Britain shouldn’t be taking lessons in functioning democratic voting from Hong Kong and Fiji!

  • @Matthew Huntbach

    Excellent analysis. And a good strategy to boot. The question isn’t is AV the solution to all the worlds ills, the question is, and only is, is AV better than FPTP. You’re comments are written in too passive a style to be persuasive, but they can be easily re-jigged to make a positive argument in favour of AV. If the leaders of the Yes campaign take your advice, I think we will be fine.

  • James Elsdon-Baker 24th Aug '10 - 3:00pm

    Sadly we will have to get used to people in the NO camp spreading confusiong as to what the different voting systems will be. This serves their purpose as people will end up wanting to stick with what they know or understand. Rather than getting stuck into complex debates, it’s better just to focus on it being a way to give people more choice and to change the parliment that resulted in the expenses scandal.

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Aug '10 - 5:39pm


    If the leaders of the Yes campaign take your advice, I think we will be fine.

    I think I should change my middle name to Cassandra.

  • There is far too much talk about proportionality, which usually refers to proportionality as between political parties.
    That is not the most important issue. What matters is fairness to the voters, and the extent to which their wishes are represented in parliament.
    The real advantage of STV in Multi-member Constituencies (STV-MMC) is that it gives the voters greater power to vote for the people they want, not just the party. It greatly reduces the power of the party machines to decide who should be MPs, and even improves the chances of genuinely popular local independent candidates to be elected.
    As a result, the composition of the House of Commons would be more likely to reflect the real spread of opinions in the country than it ever does under FPTP, or would with AV. STV-MMC also almost completely does away with the scandalous concept of the ‘safe seat’ – which is what really endears FPTP to Labour and the Tories, whose MPs have over 400 of them between them – forget all this rubbish about the ‘constituency link’; all over the country, people at local authority level live in wards which have more than one councillor, and it seems to work.
    AV is a (very) slight improvement on FPTP, in that every MP would have the support in some degree of at least half those who voted in their seat, but it still has most of the drawbacks of FPTP, and in some circumstances can produce even more distorted results. In 1997, for instance, it is likely that under AV T.Blair would have had an even bigger majority.

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