Opinion: Why the Electoral Reform Society are shooting themselves in the foot

Recently, the Electoral Reform Society has released a study claiming to show how the recent election would have gone under the Alternative Vote (and the Single Transferable Vote). This study has been picked up by The Guardian, The Telegraph and the BBC, who all seem to be presenting the results as scientific fact. However, there are massive flaws in this study, which apart from making it plain bad “science”, very possibly end up sabotaging the Electoral Reform Society’s efforts to campaign for Proportional Representation.

The first problem with the study is its assumption that how people voted under First Past The Post in the recent elections is what people’s first preference under the Alternative Vote would be. However, given that the Alternative Vote eliminates tactical voting, and many people feel forced into voting “tactically” under First Past The Post, voting for the “least bad option”, this is a very flawed assumption. The study then takes pre-election voting intention polling data as people’s second preference under First Past The Post, which makes no sense whatsoever. Potential third and fourth preferences are not taken into account at all. Therefore, while their study shows little difference in seats under the Alternative Vote, the actual outcome had our election been under the Alternative Vote could have been vastly different.

As proponents of Proportional Representation, they appear to be attempting to use this study to campaign against the Alternative Vote because it isn’t Proportional Representation. I can understand that kind of position. However, a recent YouGov poll showed that 49% of people would have voted Liberal Democrat if they thought we could win, or to put it another way, if they didn’t think it was a wasted vote. Without tactical voting, people who preferred the Liberal Democrats over the other two parties would vote for us as a first preference rather than voting for the “least bad option”, with the “least bad option” likely being their second or third preference. A similar poll done in 1993 showed virtually the same thing – 50% of people would vote for us if they thought we could win.

This means that by campaigning against the Alternative Vote out of of Proportional Representation purism, the Electoral Reform Society are shooting themselves in the foot by campaigning against a voting system that could easily lead to the one big party to fully support Proportional Representation – the Liberal Democrats – being elected. Personally, I believe that we should be trying to educate the public, and the media which have picked up this study, about the massive flaws in the study, and the true benefits of the Alternative Vote. Partly because it’s campaigning against a voting system which, while nowhere near perfect, is much fairer than First Past The Post and a big step forward, and partly because it’s simply a horribly poorly done study falsely masquerading as science.

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41 Comments

  • Andrea Gill 17th May '10 - 2:39pm

    It would be really nice to see a poll conducted on this principle, rather than just asking them who they would vote for.

  • I think you’re right to highlight the flaws of the study – but AV is so unpredictable we have no idea what would happen. I’m not sure many voters really have a view on how they’d vote, or who their second/third preferences would be. However, I bet we’d see more Green, BNP and UKIP first choices and very significant transfers from Con-Lab and vice versa – all of which could work against the LDs. At the end of the day, surely we want an electoral system that delivers a result that is generally recognised as fair, rather than just something that might (should a host of brave assumptions hold out) deliver good results for the LDs?

  • paul barker 17th May '10 - 2:51pm

    The one thing we do know is that given different votings systems people vote differently. If we really want to try to see the likely result of Elections under AV the best way is to take a random group of seats & run an election making a range of reasonable assumptions. I have tried doing that & the result is a wide range of outcomes, an increase in LD seats by anything between 30 & 100%. So, if 2015 produces roughly the same vote shares as 2010 we would get between 75 & 115 MPs.
    Its not PR but its better than nothing.

  • Afterthought 17th May '10 - 3:11pm

    Whatever system it should have the following characteristic: there should be no incentive for “tactical” voting. The voter should back what ever candidate / party they feel is best, and whatever proportion of the vote the candidate / party gets, that proportion of power they receive.

    If done right, the Commons can retain its constituency link, and the reformed Lords can be a purely proportional national body.

  • I don’t think that we should be happy to accept AV on the grounds that it’ll be good for the Lib Dems. I support PR because it’s the right thing to do, not because it will benefit my party (although it will). AV can only be accepted as a staging post, and I am glad to see the party re-affirm its commitment to PR on Sunday. Let’s see how this re-affirmation plays out in the commons.

  • I think we stop calling it a campaign for PR –
    ( with the implication we want PR because WE would do better )
    just call it a campaign against wasted votes

    I think people would prefer it if explained in this way.
    I want John so I vote him #1
    if I cant get John, Sue will be my #2
    if I cant get Sue then Lee will be my #3

    and so on
    just an idea

  • Andrew Wimble 17th May '10 - 4:04pm

    Another important issue is that once we accept that it it is not going to be possible to get Proportional Representation adopted in the current parliment, and giving the ballence of seats ans the mood in both the Tory and Labour parties I think that is the case, at least AV is a step in the right direction.

    Of course AV does not guarantee a proportional result, or even a result that is more proportional than the current system. What it does do however is allow people to vote for their real first preference without feeling that a vote for anyone other than the two main parties in the consituency is a wasted vote. What it also does is get people used to the idea that reform is both possible and desirable. Giving people to see AV in practice may help to increase the support for taking the extra step to real PR next time round and at the very least a referendum will ensure that the whole issue of voting reform is given more focus.

  • Zoltan Gera 17th May '10 - 4:08pm

    Did you actually read the report you’ve linked to? It contains 6 paragraphs citing the problems with this study in the Notes to Editors section.

    It’s not the ERS’s fault If it has been misreported as fact. That’s just stupid and lazy journalists.

  • Andrea Gill 17th May '10 - 4:17pm

    Philip Young – it would be typical what with AV having been in the Labour manifesto, if they then campaign against it!

    I still say do a proper poll with brief candidate profiles like on http://ukpollingreport.co.uk for each available candidate, and get people to rank them in order of preference. Also ask them to mark who they did vote for instead, to compare.

    It’s the only way you get a more accurate results.

  • Paul Griffiths 17th May '10 - 4:34pm

    I agree with YelloSmurf.

    Which may be the oddest thing I have ever typed.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 17th May '10 - 4:35pm

    “The study then takes pre-election voting intention polling data as people’s second preference under First Past The Post, which makes no sense whatsoever.”

    I had to go to the report to work out what you meant by this. Apparently you meant that they used data about people’s second preferences from a ComRes survey last month. The question asked in that survey began “If you were given a second preference vote in the general election, would you give that second preference to …”, so it obviously related to behaviour under a different electoral system, not under FPTP as you suggested.

    As Zoltan has pointed out, the report discusses at length the problems you mention – though in a considerably more balanced and intelligent way.

    It’s absolutely ridiculous to describe this as “a horribly poorly done study falsely masquerading as science”. As far as I can see, it’s as good a study as _can_ be done on the basis of the data that are available. And it is perfectly honest about its shortcomings.

  • Andrea Gill 17th May '10 - 4:42pm

    Would Yellow Smurf’s name have anything to do with this article?

    Charlie Brooker: Never mind the Con-Dem coalition. We want bogeymen and we want them now http://bit.ly/9Pa9PG

  • Paul Dennett 17th May '10 - 5:41pm

    Unfair attack on the ERS for all the reasons outlined above. AV might result in a lot more LD MPs or it might result in a total wipeout. It probably won’t make that much difference – but it’s just as unpredictable as FPTP. AV should be regarded as a staging post, nothing more.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th May '10 - 5:44pm

    Philip Young

    A referendum on AV could well see both Labour and the Tories campaigning against it in favour of the status-quo

    On what grounds?

    Consider:

    Mary and Mungo stand for election to become MP for Blogtown.

    20,000 electors would vote for Mary
    18,000 electors would vote for Mungo

    So, Mary is about to become MP for Blogtown.

    Then along comes Midge just before nominations close. 5,000 electors who still prefer Mary to Mungo prefer Midge even better. So, the result is:

    Mary 15,000
    Mungo 18,000
    Midge 5,000

    Mungo duly declared elected as MP for Blogtown.

    The electorate haven’t changed their views. Mary and Mungo have done nothing.

    So, on what rational grounds can anyone defend the arrival of Midge as candidate causing Mungo to be MP for Blogtown rather than Mary? Mungo has gained no more popularity with the Blogtown electors. Mary has not lost any.

    The only rational reason is that we want a system rigged so that people who like Midge are scared to vote for Midge on the grounds it means Mary might lose. So it’s a system rigged against allowing people to vote as they wish.

    Let’s have a RATIONAL defence of this from anyone in the Labour or Conservative parties who opposes AV.

    I’m waiting …

  • No Andrea. Smurf was my nickname at school (my surname is Murphy) and I’m a member of the Lib Dems and of the Alliance Party so my political colour it yellow. But thanks for linking to that article. That would have been a good reason to adopt my name if I hadn’t been using it already.

  • John Emerson 17th May '10 - 6:50pm

    “Let’s have a RATIONAL defence of this from anyone in the Labour or Conservative parties who opposes AV.”

    Well, they might point to their Deputy leadership constest which was truely bizarre 🙂

    More seriously, it can eliminate canditates who might have won, say Canditate A gets 40% of first preference, Candidate B get 40% and Candidate C 20%, but all of canditates’ A and B supporter put Canditate C as their second preference. Canditate C would lose. Still he would have most likely have lost under FPTP so no change there. Labour and Consevatives will most likely go for the much easier option of just arguing it creates weak/unstable governments, (and to their supporters will point out they are likely to lose seat over the change).

    BTW nothing wrong with the study although the media’s ‘simplification’ leaves a lot to be desired. Same could be said of most media references to polls. The study does make a number of assumption (none of which were unreasonable) but these were both needed and transparent.

  • Mark,

    I understand that there is a danger that if people like me don’t support AV then we’ll be stuck with FPTP forever, but I also fear that we will be stuck with AV forever if we support it. It is hard to know which way to go. I don’t want to see AV replace FPTP as the stitch-up used to deny people their voice over the composition of parliament. AV can only ever be a temporary solution, and I am worried that it may become permanent.

  • I am also worried that unless we make it clear that AV is only a staging post and unless we put pressure on other parties to deliver PR the issue of electoral reform will become a stick with which to beat the party and we will be accused of sell out.

  • Previous commenters have addressed most of the inaccuracies in this article.

    There is one crucial point I would like to add, though: the Electoral Reform Society has not been campaigning against AV. Speaking as the member of staff who managed our election database and modelling, we are not “PR fundamentalists” and we will not “condemn us to FPTP forever”. None of our recent campaign work has been anything other than supportive of an AV referendum. I’ve emailed Marianne to make this point in more detail.

    Andy White
    Electoral Reform Society

  • David Allen 17th May '10 - 7:15pm

    “I support PR because it’s the right thing to do”.

    A Blairite view! Like Blair, you may be jumping to conclusions.

    PR doesn’t mean proportionate power. In the perfectly proportional Israeli parliament, one MP with 1% of the vote and 1% of the seats can hold the swing vote which decides who forms the government. That is PR, but it’s disproportionate power, and it’s certainly not “fair votes”.

    It is a myth to suggest that there is one unquely “fair” electoral system which everybody should accept as ideal. Instead, the system which one individual will prefer is that system which is best suited to achieve that individual’s political aims. If you believe in strong government, you might favour FPTP for perfectly valid reasons of principle (always assuming, of course, that you don’t just favour it so as to shaft the Lib Dems!) If you favour permanent coalition you might favour STV. If you are not sold on the idea that coalitions should be compulsory, you might reasonably feel that a highly proportional system like STV might not be the best.

    When Roy Jenkins worked up AV+, he made his thinking unusually explicit. Jenkins argued that it should be equally possible for the voters to vote for a coalition or, where there was one very strong party, to give that party an absolute majority. In other words, the voters should choose between consensus government, e.g. for stability, and strong government, e.g. for reform. He pointed out that depending on how many “plus” (top-up) seats you create, you can bias the result, either towards permanent coalition (with a big top-up), or towards single-party government (with a small top-up). Jenkins boldly argued for a mid-range figure which would make single-party and coalition government equally attainable. This was a blatant demonstration of how to adjust the system to get the result you want. But in defence of Jenkins, ALL proponents of particular electoral systems are adjusting their proposals to get the end results they want. Jenkins was only doing this in an unusually honest way, and with unusually noble motives!

    AV isn’t clever like AV+, it isn’t in any sense perfect, it can produce odd results, and it isn’t anyone’s dream system. But, like AV+, it does represent some sort of attempt to deliver proportionate power, not just proportionate representation. it would make coalition government much more likely, but wouldn’t make it inevitable. It would eliminate the “wasted vote”. It would strengthen our cause. Perhaps we should warm to AV, and treat it as a permanent solution, not just an interim “step”.

  • first, we have to win the argument for multi-member constituencies. We need to better articulate the desirability of common localities and sub-regions electing a block of 4-5 MP’s to speak up for that area.

    People don’t typically live, work and play within a few streets as in Victorian times. Daily we cross constituency boundaries between home, work, school, shops and leisure – without even going that far. These new MMC’s based upon largely local authority areas would give a true and fair reflection of votes to seats.

    And it can’t be right that a Tory voter in Scotland has to hunt down just a single representative. single member constituencies can never yield a representative parliament.

    Win the argument on multi-member constituencies first, the new boundaries, and a reduction in the number of MP’s, and then win the argument for the appropriate voting system.

  • Andrew Suffield 17th May '10 - 8:16pm

    Whatever system it should have the following characteristic: there should be no incentive for “tactical” voting.

    That’s impossible (really, this has been proved). Any reasonable voting system has some scope for insincere voting.

    However, STV makes insincere voting impractical, since you can’t reasonably work out what insincere vote will get the result you want. AV fixes the one major form of “tactical voting” that occurs in the UK in huge amounts, but otherwise doesn’t really stop it from happening.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th May '10 - 9:10pm

    David Allen

    If you favour permanent coalition you might favour STV. If you are not sold on the idea that coalitions should be compulsory, you might reasonably feel that a highly proportional system like STV might not be the best.

    STV is not “highly proportional”, unless you have very large constituencies. Most proponents of it do not suggest that. It would need 10-member constituencies to be highly proportional, but in Ireland they use 3-5 member constituencies. I’d prefer 5 to be at the smaller rather than larger end of the range used, but even so I wouldn’t be looking for a system which represents parties wih 1% support. STV with 5 member constituencies effectively has a local 16% cut off.

    As it happens, I have a student right now (doing it as an MSc project in Computer Science) investigating the possibility of using modern technology to deliver Thomas Hare’s original idea, of which STV is a version cut down to be manageable with a paper ballot. It’s more for interest than because I would serious recommend such a thing, but if it were implemented than that would be “highly proportional”.

    But in defence of Jenkins, ALL proponents of particular electoral systems are adjusting their proposals to get the end results they want.

    No, I would never support an inferior system just because it happens to deliver a result favourable to me. I am sure I am not the only one who thinks like this.

    AV isn’t clever like AV+, it isn’t in any sense perfect, it can produce odd results, and it isn’t anyone’s dream system. But, like AV+, it does represent some sort of attempt to deliver proportionate power, not just proportionate representation.

    AV+ is not clever, it’s very silly. There is almost no reason to use it rather than the superior STV. Top-up systems like AV+ are bonkers because they mean winning a constituency is balanced by losing a list vote, so effective use of them may involve voting for candidates of parties you don’t like on the grounds that’s the best way to get the candidates you like from the list to get elected. AV does not represent any attempt to deliver proportionate power. It’s a “biggest local party wins 100%” system, so just NOT proportionate in any way.

  • paul barker 17th May '10 - 9:23pm

    On Radio 4 just now There was a guy from The ERS coming out with the same stuff & implying that our policy had changed. The program is Material World & its the 2nd item.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th May '10 - 9:31pm

    John Emerson (on what arguments Labour and Conservative may use against AV)

    Labour and Consevatives will most likely go for the much easier option of just arguing it creates weak/unstable governments, (and to their supporters will point out they are likely to lose seat over the change).

    Anyone whose argument on any electoral system is that it disadvantages themselves rather than one based on democracy and fairness should be treated with withering contempt.

    Anyone whose argument for the current system is that it guards against the delivery of weak/unstable governments need only consider the current situation to see that quite obviously is not necessarily so. If producing a single-party absolute majority is really the most important thing an electoral system should do, then the people who argue for that should argue for a system which is actually guaranteed to do that, they should go and look up the Acerbo Law which introduced such a system in Italy in 1923. They should contemplate that in being so attached to single-party rule even when there is not real single-party majority in the country they are employing a mentality more honestly developed and expalined by the person who was Prime Minister of Italy at the time.

    Anyone whose argument against electoral reform, is essentially “I don’t understand the mathematics”, which seems to be quite a common argument used by Labour and Conservative people, and actually seemed to be the Conservatives’ argument when it was discussed in the Commons recently, should stand down from any serious political post. I mean that seriously. STV is not so hugely complicated that it is beyond human mastery, and I would expect anyone who aspires to senior political office to be perfectly capable of grasping how it works and on that basis forming an intelligent argument against it if they are against it. If their level of innumeracy and lack of logical reasoning ability is such that they can’t understand STV I just do not want such a person doing any sort of work on my behalf which involves budget management or the use of numbers and logic, and that rules out most of what an MP should be doing.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 17th May '10 - 11:15pm

    “They should contemplate that in being so attached to single-party rule even when there is not real single-party majority in the country they are employing a mentality more honestly developed and expalined by the person who was Prime Minister of Italy at the time.”

    Can’t be bothered to Google it, but wasn’t it Benzino Napaloni?

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th May '10 - 10:25am

    stephen J

    Don’t underestimate the objection to STV that the maths is too complicated. The problem is not that I don’t understand it. We all need to be able to understand it if a system is to be described as democratic. The system, and the mechanism for deciding the winner need to be open transparent and accessible to all. You can’t expect people to trust a system they don’t understand.

    This is perhaps a cue for the only acceptable Irish joke, which is based on the acknowledgement that the Irish are, on the whole, much cleverer people than us. Here it is, for those who don’t already know it:

    Seamus applied for a job as a labourer at a local building site. The foreman wasn’t too sure about Seamus’s experience, so he decided to ask him a simple test question: ‘What is the difference between a girder and joist?’
    ‘That’s easy,’ replied Seamus, ‘Goethe wrote Faust and Joyce wrote Ulysses.’

    They can manage STV, so why can’t we?

    At any rate, if you think FPTP is nice and simple, try going out and explaining to people how it is that it is possible for party that wins the most votes not to win the most seats. It’s hard, most people who aren’t aware of electoral issues are surprised when you tell them the current system does not on the whole deliver a number of seats to each party proportional to their number of votes. There are some Tory MPs, poor dears, who apparently genuinely believe the discrepancy is caused by constituencies not having an exact equal number of electors. So, the mechanics of FPTP may be simple at one level, but they certainly are not at all other levels.

  • Matthew,

    OK, STV tends to have a cut-off which discriminates against very small parties and in that sense if not highly proportional. However, it is reasonably proportional in seat allocation to larger parties such as the Lib Dems, and hence more “generous” to us than AV or AV+.

    You claim that your support for STV is not because it happens to favour us, but because of other more “purist” considerations – which you might perhaps like to spell out for us. Well, perhaps you personally are highly objective and capable of making this distinction effectively. However, an awful lot of people aren’t. One doesn’t often see politicians dying in the ditches to fight for reductions in their own power!

  • John Emerson 18th May '10 - 5:04pm

    “Anyone whose argument on any electoral system is that it disadvantages themselves rather than one based on democracy and fairness should be treated with withering contempt.”

    I was only playing devil’s advocate, and obviously they will turn the argument around the other way, saying the lib-dems only want AV because it helps them.

    To be honest I am somewhat indifferent to a change to AV. It will not change the more fundemental problem difference of vote share to seats. On the positive side it will within the constituency provide a somewhat more detailed allocation of voters’ preference (at the price of simplicity). On the negative, it can lead to canditates more concerned about losing votes (or rather 2 and 3rd place preferences) than actually trying to be more positive. Hence having ‘winners’ who no-one much wanted but who no-one really hated.

  • “given that the Alternative Vote eliminates tactical voting,”

    It doesn’t. It just moves it around. Sure, if you’re a LibDem and want to keep the Tories out in a Labour-Conservative marginal, you can sincerely use your first preference for the LibDems and use your second pref for Labour. But elsewhere, say in a three-way marginal, a Conservative voter might vote Labour to ensure that the LibDems come third and their votes are split between the two main parties, allowing the Conservative in, rather than voting Conservative first and seeing the Liberals mop up enough Labour votes to win. AV still works on the plurality principle, but applies it to the bottom rather than the top – the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated, even though they may be preferred to all other individual candidates.

  • Patrick Smith 18th May '10 - 9:12pm

    This article by Marianne Ibbotson is one of the most important and most stimulating contributions to the onward debate until the Referendum on AV takes place in the Country that was integral to the `Coalition Agreement for Liberal Democrats.

    It is important to grasp the nettle, that in order to drive a wide AV media and public debate forward, over the next year or two, there has to be a way of simplifying the benefits of change to a Fairer Voting for all, by dint of putting AV into law, for the next General Election, on May 7th 2015 .

    I do not think for one moment that AV holds all answers to the current unfairness in the high number of wasted votes cast in all General Elections.

    Any legislated on `Fair Votes’ change is actually bound up and will then create permanent change in voting choices and behaviour in how voters vote in future Elections.But importantly,it will also enshrine a new political culture of shared responsibility and compromise on Manifesto commitments in Government.I support this new political culture.

    I also believe that it possible for a new voting culture to move the UK Parliament out of the darkness of the world of the backwoods Ya Bo supporters.The new light will shift things forward into a more closely contested and `Fairer Votes’ General Election result next time and can succeed in finding better policies for the governance of the Country.

    The question remains will the current `Coalition Government’ be capable of bringing the much required stable and coherent Government and respond to the `Economic Deficit’, better than any single Party?

    I personally am very optimistic on this question but the proof of the pudding is always in the eating.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th May '10 - 10:28pm

    David Allen

    OK, STV tends to have a cut-off which discriminates against very small parties and in that sense if not highly proportional. However, it is reasonably proportional in seat allocation to larger parties such as the Lib Dems, and hence more “generous” to us than AV or AV+.

    You claim that your support for STV is not because it happens to favour us, but because of other more “purist” considerations – which you might perhaps like to spell out for us.

    The purest form of proportional representation is surely to say that to get elected you need 50,000 votes (or whatever is the quota). You can let people drift around a bit, they may find the person they want already has the 50,000 votes and so is already elected so they go to someone else, or the person they want doesn’t look like they ever are going to get 50,000 votes so again they go to someone else. Otherwise you just let the people decide who they wish to represent them, the people themselves doing the clumping into 50,000s.

    Other electoral systems are just degenerate forms of this, where instead of letting the people decide to go for whoever they want, you place restrictions on them. Why do you want to place a restriction such as “You can only go for someone else in the same party as your first choice, we won’t let you switch to someone from another party” or “we will only offer you this small range of people standing in your town, we won’t let you decide you like none of them so transfer your vote to support someone standing in the next town”?

    AV+ is bonkers, as I said. First you have the consituency vote, where you are forced to choose between the small range of people, no switching to somoene better standing next door. Second you have the top-up list vote, where you are forced to accept the list order as given. Thirdly, you find it’s pointless voting for your own party in the constituency vote, because it’s the list votes which determine the balance of seats, so if your party wins the constituency, it loses a list seat. Best thing is to vote for the “I can’t believe it’s not a LibDem” candidate in the constituency vote, who is just like a LibDem but isn’t a member of the party. That way, when the “I can’t believe it’s not a LibDem” candidate wins the constituency, there’s no loss of LibDem top-up list seats. So, the system can be rigged by de-coupling who stands at constituency level with who stands at list level. Just invent a new party which to all intents and purposes is yours, but legally isn’t.

  • David Allen 19th May '10 - 6:18pm

    Matthew,

    OK, so your particular view of the perfect system is that representation should be perfectly proportional. That’s arguable, but there is no philosophical principle to prove that it is uniquely correct.

    A Viking might believe that the champion in battle must be the strongest leader with the largest number of supporting warriors, so that FPTP is the perfect system. His view is also arguable. It just depends on what you believe most matters when you elect a government.

    My particular view is that power, not representation, should be proportiionately allocated. So I like AV+, I admire Roy Jenkins’ clear logical approach, and I like the fact that he was able to recognise the different objectives of different groups and devise a rational compromise between them. Even simple AV doesn’t look too bad when viewed in this light.

    Now, you may not like my criterion for “perfection”, or indeed the “Viking” criterion. But these world views are not “bonkers”. They are just different from your world view!

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