Opinion: Getting things out of proportion

Finding things to complain about in The Guardian is hardly difficult, but here are two little blemishes that bleed deep:

First we have a quote from editor Alan Rusbridger in 2013, touching on the AV referendum:

They [the Lib Dems] came up with such a weak version of proportional representation that they could not get anyone excited or enthused.

And second, a report from earlier this year on a Guardian staff ballot:

Staff of the Guardian and Observer have voted in favour of Katharine Viner… using the single transferable vote system… [t]he successful candidate is guaranteed a place on the shortlist of three that will go forward to the next round of interviews conducted by the Scott Trust.

Claiming that AV is a form of PR, or that you used STV for what turns out to be a single-winner election, is incongruous at best, and probably just plain wrong. And, of course, the article doesn’t mention that Labour was the party that “came up with” AV as a 2010 election commitment.

If you want to get technical, it is true that AV is essentially STV-1 (STV electing a single member).  But the two names are used distinctly with good reason. STV-1 is a degenerate case, with less complexity and none of the proportionality of its multi-winner siblings. Important connotations of “the single transferable vote system” do not apply to AV, and vice versa. Even if this kind of equivalence was intended, the bold passages still needed qualification in order to make sense to the Guardian’s general readership. It seems far more likely the editorial process just got it wrong.

While these may be relatively minor slips, they are indicative of a deeper problem. The Guardian is one of the few media organs in the UK that gives voting reform half a chance. But even after all the dead and diluted reforms of the Blair years, even after all the coverage of the 2011 referendum, the Guardian still lacks the institutional knowledge to weed out problems like these.

And this raises the question, if you can’t expect the Guardian to get the basic details right, what hope have you got with the rest of the media?

It’s a question that proponents of voting reform need to keep asking themselves.

Because it wasn’t just a few months of un-thought-out campaigning that killed AV in 2011. It was a culmination of multiple factors, including a shameless misinformation campaign that was given undue currency by a pliant media.

Caron demonstrated earlier this week how ineffective and tortuous it can be trying to counter misconceptions after they set root. Advocates of voting reform need misinformation to be greeted sceptically and refuted fast. But is that really going to happen while journalists consider a working knowledge of voting systems to be an optional extra?

* Adrian is a distant observer of UK politics

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29 Comments

  • The Guardian was the only national paper to endorse the Liberal Democrats in 2010. Why do you lot reserve special criticism for it?

  • David Evans 2nd Apr '15 - 10:58am

    And when the party is fighting for its very survival in many parts of the country, “Exactly how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

  • It is not our role to teach journalists or people about voting systems. There should be a campaign organisation to do that. Oh wait there is. It is called the Electoral Reform Society. So maybe they could contact the press when they got things wrong about the voting systems. And they run programmes for schools to teach children about the different systems used in the UK and Europe.

  • Bill le Breton 2nd Apr '15 - 11:29am

    Adrian – Your namesake in Torbay, Adrian Sanders, is fighting for his very existence. According to the latest Ashcroft polling published yesterday he is a few votes ahead of his opponent. His campaign HQ number is 01803 200036 .

    He has been a stalwart of the Party for over 40 years, always wanted to represent his home town, MP since 1997 and before that was the tragic victim of ‘impersonation’ in a Euro campaign – you may recall he had a Literal Democrat stand against him – which led to a welcome change in the law.

    He urgently needs support . As do others – but this is surely the most marginal seat in this election.

  • Eddie Sammon 2nd Apr '15 - 11:50am

    I fail to see what is wrong with counting the votes and awarding the winner to the person with the most. I think it is going to be an uphill struggle to change the voting system. I’m working on alternative reforms, but I am not sure on it yet. I am thinking of a presidential federal structure in order to separate local politics from national politics.

  • Tony Greaves 2nd Apr '15 - 12:19pm

    A curious but amusing diversion from present horrors…

    There was recently a Hereditary Peers By-election (itself a curious and rather ridiculous cul-de-sac in the UK constitution) in which there were two vacancies for Cross-bench “excepted peers” (elected hereditaries). The electorate consisted of the 28 or existing Crossbench hereditaries. The rules say that hereditary peers by-elections are conducted by AV.

    So the powers that be (the Clerk of the Parliaments) decided to have one AV ballot paper. but count it twice! The rule was as follows:

    “One ballot paper was used to elect two peers. Once the first candidate was elected all ballot papers were re-counted to elect the second candidate. In this second count all preferences for the already-elected candidate were transferred to the next preference on the ballot paper. The process was then repeated as per the explanation above.”

    I believe that this was an ad hoc invention of a new voting system!!! (unless someone knows better).

    For the record the by-election was caused by the retirement (under the Steel Act) of Lord Chorley (a prominent Alpinist in his younger days) and Lady Saltoun of Abernethy (a Scottish hereditary – hence the ability of the peerage to pass through the female line). The persons elected were Lord Thurlow on the first AV count, and the Earl of Kinnoul on the second. There were 18 candidates of whom 8 got no first preferences (The Earl Lloyd George of Dwyfor got one). 36 votes were cast. The whole thing was quite bonkers.

  • Tony Greaves 2nd Apr '15 - 12:20pm
  • matt (Bristol) 2nd Apr '15 - 12:37pm

    Erm, Tony, crikey!

    Can we term it Two-Person-Inconsistently-Transferrable-SIngle-Vote?

  • g writes:

    > The Guardian was the only national paper to endorse the Liberal Democrats in 2010.
    > Why do you lot reserve special criticism for it?

    I am not a member of the LDV editorial team, nor even a Lib Dem party member.

    I bring attention to these two passages because they relate to voting reform and come from a news organisation that is relatively sympathetic. I do have some other issues with The Guardian, but they’re not pertinent to this article and not serious enough to stop me reading it.

  • ANyway, one of the consequences of PR is diverse coalition governments, what are we then to make of Nick Clegg criticising these?
    http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/apr/02/nick-clegg-rainbow-coalition-reject-messy-government-general-election

    You can’t have PR, then reject the consequences of multiparty government!

  • Bill le Breton writes:
    > Adrian – Your namesake in Torbay, Adrian Sanders, is fighting for his very existence….
    > His campaign HQ number is 01803 200036 .

    The international rates on my mobile are prohibitive, and I wonder if Mr Sanders wants to risk being impersonated again?

  • Philip Thomas 2nd Apr '15 - 12:48pm

    @Eddie Sammon. FPTP makes a degree of sense if there is only one post being elected to (a Presidential election, for example).
    When you split the country up into 650 different constituencies, it makes much less sense. Hence the situation in this election where UKIP are predicted to get 15% of the votes and .15% of the seats.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 2nd Apr '15 - 12:53pm

    G, the point is we don’t have PR and if we did, coalitions would be a lot easier to form as we’d get roughly the parliament we asked for. If Westminster was elected by PR, Lib Dems would have around 140 MPs and all the extra influence in a coalition that would bring.

    I agree, though. You could have a situation where more than one party has to work in coalition although that hasn’t happened yet in Scotland.

  • Tony Greaves writes:

    > I believe that this was an ad hoc invention of a new voting system!!!

    If I am reading your summary correctly, it is functionally the same as conducting two separate AV votes consecutively, (assuming that each voter will have the same relative preferences for the same candidates in both ballots). Perhaps it was just a quick way to save people writing out two ballot papers.

  • Eddie Sammon 2nd Apr '15 - 1:11pm

    Thanks Philip. There are positives and negatives to STV, so I’m just trying to make the opposing case to knock it down the priority ladder. However I think other democratic reforms are very important.

    Adrian, a well informed article.

  • Alex Sabine 2nd Apr '15 - 2:24pm

    Indeed, Philip. It also makes much less sense when it looks increasingly unlikely to deliver the main virtue cited by its proponents: a clear winner and a stable majority government.

    All electoral systems are flawed in one way or another; they are good and bad at delivering different things (eg strict national proportionality/constituency link/clear outcomes/transparent accountability). In my view STV with multi-member constituencies does the best job of reconciling these different desiderata. But the pertinent issue now is that FPTP can no longer be relied on to deliver the thing that it is supposed to be best at delivering, and which has a certain obvious appeal (a simple, clear and immediate result).

    At the height of the two-party system it unquestionably did that, whatever its other drawbacks. Since 1974 it has been living on borrowed time; the successive stonking majorities for Thatcher and Blair now look almost like an aberration, the last hurrah of FPTP perhaps – with the SDP split from the Labour Party in the 1980s and tactical anti-Tory voting in 1997 and 2001 amplifying the winning party’s true support and masking a growing vote/seat disjuncture.

    Both main parties have lost large chunks of their former voting base and seem to have little idea of how to win it back; hence this campaign’s unedifying slugfest to see who has the largest residual core vote and can get into pole position for the post-election machinations. Despite the attempt by Cameron and Miliband to present the choice in quasi-presidential terms – “it’s him or me” – and to warn voters of letting the other party in if they cast their ballots for the party they actually want to vote for, it looks like multi-party politics is here to stay, and uniform national swings now look like a quaint relic.

    In this context FPTP looks, in the cant phrase, ‘unfit for purpose’. Its main beneficiaries in this election are likely to be the SNP, with their concentrated geographical support; and the main victims UKIP, with their substantial but widely dispersed support.

    The extreme disproportionality, combined with the likelihood of an inconclusive result for the second general election running, might well reopen the debate about electoral reform (hopefully this time of a more fundamental kind). It is one of several ways in which this election could herald a period of greater political and constitutional turbulence and possibly the further fragmentation of parties and allegiances.

  • “And this raises the question, if you can’t expect the Guardian to get the basic details right, what hope have you got with the rest of the media?”

    Or rather, if the sophistoes at the Guardian don’t understand how these systems work, what chance did the general public ever have? Especially when BOTH sides in the referendum were putting out blatant misinformation, not just the No side, as has been discussed here endlessly before.

    This is one of the reasons why I don’t like STV, or indeed any form of transferrable voting, in multi-member elections. You can have PR without transferrable votes, as the German system proves, and you can do so in a way that anybody who understands FPTP (which is pretty much everybody) can understand also.

  • Alex Sabine wrote:

    > The extreme disproportionality, combined with the likelihood of an
    > inconclusive result for the second general election running, might well
    > reopen the debate about electoral reform (hopefully this time of a more
    > fundamental kind).

    There is the tiniest glimmer of a hope that constitutional questions might force one of the larger parties to shift in concerted favour of voting reform, (all in self interest, mind).

    Past experience, though, makes me pessimistic. A lengthy reform process engineered to fade or fail seems to be the pattern. In this regard, this possible second opportunity for reform may end up feeling like it came too soon after 2011.

  • Stuart wrote:

    > This is one of the reasons why I don’t like STV, or indeed any form of
    > transferrable voting, in multi-member elections. You can have PR without
    > transferrable votes, as the German system proves, and you can do so in a way
    > that anybody who understands FPTP (which is pretty much everybody) can
    > understand also.

    I get what you are saying about numerical rankings making systems harder to understand. In that regard the campaign against AV may have done more damage than is realised.

    However I would also add that, operationally speaking, all proportional systems (that I am aware of) can be understood to use some kind of vote value transference. It may be more helpful to think of numerical ranking as being one particular way to facilitate transference.

  • Eddie Sammon wrote:

    > Douglas Alexander touched on this the other week when he said a lack
    > of awareness of political issues is a threat to democracy. It is our
    > responsibility to take information seriously. And to be honest.

    …but that was in another thread. Sorry, Eddie. I couldn’t resist the temptation to quote you out of context.

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Apr '15 - 10:14am

    Hi Adrian, sorry I am baffled. What is the point you are trying to make? That I have been quoting people out of context? Who and where? Everyone can be quoted out of context unless we are going to start copying and pasting whole speeches all the time.

    Regards

  • No, Eddie, I’m not trying to criticise you or reflect negatively on your remarks (nor do I have any reason to think you’ve been quoting people out of context). When I read what you wrote in the thread on the debate I thought that last bit (about taking information seriously and debating honestly) was quite relevant to this thread too. By reproducing it here *I* was potentially placing it out of context, which I felt obliged to mention. The only subtext was that decontextualisation in this context would be an irony, and that was directed by me at me.

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Apr '15 - 12:59pm

    Ha, oh sorry Adrian! Got to be on the defensive with politics sometimes. 🙂

    Thanks for the article. As I said, it is well informed. I didn’t spot The Guardian getting the definition of their own internal elections wrong!

  • @Anthony Tuffin
    The claims you make for STV sound good. I promise I will follow your link and give this a great deal more thought. (Sometimes web forum posts can achieve such a result!)

  • I like the German hybrid (but overall proportional) system of Mixed-Member Proportional/Additional Member System is a good one as it combines the British-valued constituency representative with proportionality. I do think that if STV were the only option presented to the British people in a referendum there is a chance it could be rejected as the AV referendum seemed to strongly indicate the British have an aversion to any electoral system involving preferential voting. Most Britons want to have an EFFECTIVE vote for their first choice of a party. If REAL electoral reform is ever to come to this country then the system proposed will have to be simple to understand by an electorate which isn’t well informed as to electoral systems and one that can be seen to benefit ALL parties ON BOTH THE LEFT-WING AND THE RIGHT-WING of politics as then a referendum on the subject will maximize the numbers of people potentially voting for it.

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