“Take AV seriously: it has advantages over PR”

One of the common criticisms of the alternative vote is that it doesn’t produce parliaments that proportionally represent the wishes of the people, which is largely true. Such a criticism rests, of course, on the premise that proportionality is the most important facet of an electoral system. However it’s also worth pointing out that there are things that the alternative vote delivers which proportional systems do not, which is the subject of a recent post by John Ashton.

Here’s a sample of what John has to say:

You don’t get far in a discussion of the merits of AV before somebody says ‘AV is nobody’s first choice; it’s not even very proportional’. We seem incapable of escaping the proportional vs majoritarian plane when what we should really be discussing is consensus vs minority rule. AV’s greatest merit is that its incentivises campaigns, policy and government that appeal to the consensus.

And in case anyone’s in any doubt about the value of consensus, consider the full horror of what the Conservatives indicated they would do with an absolute majority: the proposal to cut inheritance tax illustrates my point perfectly. It constitutes an electoral bribe for nine million of the wealthiest people in Britain. It appeals to a section of society at the expense of another – it would have to be offset by further austerity measures. Thank God for compromise then! A huge social injustice was avoided by the need to form a coalition – to reach a consensus with coalition partners.

PR may achieve consensus government, but too often the price is a rainbow coalition, with small parties (with next to no mandate) having the power to bring down a government. AV may not allow proportional representation of small parties, but that is a strength. Any coalitions resulting from an election under AV would consist of two or three medium-to-large parties. That’s a scenario where equal partnership in a coalition is reasonably faithful to the popular vote. Conversely, for a party receiving 5% of the vote to be an equal partner is undemocratic, and that’s a risk with PR, which is solved by AV.

This is only a brief extract, so head over to John’s page to read the whole piece.

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27 Comments

  • So now we’re being told that “greatest merit” of AV is nothing to do with “fair votes” at all, but is that it would force politicians to appeal to the “consensus” even more strongly than they are driven to do now.

    Apart from the bewildering way in with which the pro-AV argument seems to change from day to day (which surely smacks of desperation), doesn’t it occur to anyone that making politicians even more desperate to appeal to the lowest common denominator may actually make our politics worse, not better?

  • This takes the yes argument to new levels of muddle – you like AV because it stops those horrid little minority aprties and yet us no doubters are the anti-progressives………..

  • Kevin Colwill 2nd May '11 - 11:56pm

    “Ever bin to Oz mate?”…Why not hop on a Quantas flight and see how the “consensus producing” AV system operates in the real world.
    As for this country… I might vote 1 Green, 2 Lab, 3 Lib Dem and the Lib Dem beats the Tory to get in. Elsewhere another voter goes 1 UKIP, 2 Tory, 3 Lib Dem and the Lib Dem beats Labour to get in. Not a whole lot of consensus between me and the other voter. In the event of the Lib Dems entering a coalition I’d suggest one of us is still going to feel a tad miffed.

  • It goes without say that AV is vastly superior to the current plurality system (inaccurately labeled “first past the post”) . But it is in no way better than PR. It isn’t even the best way to conduct elections in a single seat constituency. But it’s the best that can will be offered to us in this generation and so it should be supported.

    Democracy means majority rule. AV introduces majority rule within each constituency but not across the nation as a whole. Under AV it will still be possible to form governments with less than 50% of the national vote. Only under PR is the government elected by the majority of the people.

    If you don’t like the idea of coalitions then the democratic alternative is for a majority of the nation to directly elect a Prime Minister. The very worst way to get strong government is by (1) dictatorship, or (2) minority rule of the kind you get with FPTP and AV.

  • By the way, I’m not aware of any coalition in the world in which a party with 5% of the vote is an “equal partner”. In real life coalitions small parties get many less ministers, and less policies agreed to, than their larger partners.

    If a small party has somewhat disproportionate influence then it is because: (1) it occupies the political centre, where public opinion lies, or (2) the large parties have decided to arbitrarily rule other potential partners, even if they are ideologically compatible.

    On the other hand a small party may have no bargaining power at all if (1) it occupies the political fringes, or (2) it is considered persona non grata by the establishment (like Sinn Fein in the Irish parliament or Bloc Québécois in Canada).

  • Old Codger Chris 3rd May '11 - 12:57am

    I must have entered a parellel universe. Under the heading “LIb Link: Chris Huhne – Why Progressives Must Unite to Vote Yes” Nick Thornsby quotes the anti-FPTP points made by Huhne and others which, unfortunately, also apply to AV and to all non-proportional systems. On the same day, here is Nick quoting with approval an argument that AV is actually better than PR.

    Yes PR is highly likely to result in coalitions. Coalition governments, like single party governments, may be good, bad or a bit of both. At least the present government, unlike its immediate predecessor, wasn’t handed a Parliamentary majority on 35 percent of the vote.

    I think what most true reformers want is SEMI proportionality. It’s entirely possible to devise a system which gives a winner’s bonus to the most successful parties at the expense of smaller parties – the smallest of which can be excluded altogether. This can be done while eliminating the nonsense which (as mentioned in the Chris Huhne piece) disenfranchises Labour voters in the south and Conservatives in Scotland. And it can be done without imposing a percentage quota of votes, which could never be fairly applied across the four “nations” of the UK.

    It’s already done here in the UK by using the d’Hondt method which works well provided the number of seats per constituency isn’t too great (which is the problem with the London Assembly list). I hasten to add that I don’t like the Closed Lists used in the UK, but the d’Hondt method can be used without Closed Lists.

    I’m sure that UK voters would hand out a good thrashing to any small party which either reneged on its word and entered a coalition it had previously argued against, or held a larger party – and the cause of stable government – to ransom with its demands. That’s what happened to the once fairly successful New Zealand First party.

  • Kevin Colwill 3rd May '11 - 1:01am

    @ Modicum…Is AV is “vastly superior”…Won’t change much in a safe seat will it? It won’t really change much in a two way marginal except shift focus from who gets first preferences to who gets the no-hopers second, third, fourth or whatever preferences. Is the handful of fourth preferences that tip a candidate from 49.9% to 50.1% really such a massive democratic mandate? – I don’t think so.
    I hope you’re wrong about this being a once in a generation chance for change in our voting system because it’s been seriously bungled and any change looks about as likely as a UK win in the Eurovision song contest.
    I’m not, incidentally, against coalitions in principle. If you support fair votes you must be prepared for coalitions as the norm.
    My point is that coalitions under AV are as likely to leave voters feeling “stitched up” as the present coalition.

  • John,

    You say that rather than coalitions formed in smoke filled rooms you want to “allow the people to choose where the point of consensus lies.”

    That’s fair enough. But do you really think that aggregating the result of 600 single seat constituencies is the best way to find that “point of consensus”? Single seat constituencies just create parliamentary majorities by accident, because it’s the electoral boundaries that determine the result, not the national vote. That problem doesn’t go away if you switch to AV.

    If you want a single, consensus party of government the only democratic way is to find the best single winner electoral method, and then chose the government in a national vote.

    The way I see it both single seat constituencies and PR have flaws: PR is majoritarian, but the will of the majority has to be mediated through the negotiations of politicians. The flaw of single seat constituencies is that they just aren’t majoritarian. AV is a big step forward from the plurality system that’s all that can be said for it.

  • Kevin Colwill 3rd May '11 - 1:32am

    @John…Under a PR system, say a variant of the party list, were coalitions are the norm a party like the Lib Dems would be required (hopefully by your own sense or moral obligation) to spell out your intentions towards the other parties. You’d not get away with the coy, coy stuff you have in the past. We the voters would be some idea of how scenarios would pan out…or I’d darned well hope we would!
    I’m not sure that driver would be there under AV; the temptation would still be to wack out bar charts only this time you’d claim second preferences would be wasted on Tory/Labour. (lol) Any coalition that resulted would have the stitch up factor writ large.

  • Kevin Colwill,

    “Is the handful of fourth preferences that tip a candidate from 49.9% to 50.1% really such a massive democratic mandate?”

    Lets call those candidates (a) 50.1% and (b) 49.9%. In your scenario a majority of the voters prefer (a) to (b). That’s the point that matters. In my view we should take what the voters say seriously. If a voter has filled out his ballot paper we shouldn’t suppose that he hasn’t thought through his lower preferences or doesn’t mean what he says.

    The fact that the handful of voters you mention prefer a lot of other candidates to both (a) and (b) doesn’t tell us anything. It might just mean that a lot of similar candidates are running and that they have split the vote.

    Opponents of AV like to claim that a fourth preference must be for a candidate who the voter doesn’t “really” want or who is an inoffensive or “compromise” candidate. This is nonsense. No voting system is capable of reading the mind of the voter and discerning his motivations. The only thing the voter has actually told us is that he prefers (a) to (b). The rest is supposition.

    The best we can do in an election is to let the voter tell us as much information as possible (not just a crude first preference). We should then listen to what the voter is saying on the ballot paper and assume he means it.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd May '11 - 11:47am

    Kevin Colwill

    As for this country… I might vote 1 Green, 2 Lab, 3 Lib Dem and the Lib Dem beats the Tory to get in.

    If you were living in one of those parts of the country – large parts of southern and rural England for example – where the main challengers in the election are the Tories and the LibDems and Labour comes a distant third, you are forced anyway to vote LibDem in order not to “split the vote and let the Tory in”. Why do you think it is good to be forced to make this tactical decision?

    Elsewhere another voter goes 1 UKIP, 2 Tory, 3 Lib Dem and the Lib Dem beats Labour to get in. Not a whole lot of consensus between me and the other voter.

    There are parts of urban Britain where Labour and the LibDems are the main challengers, and the Tories come a distant third, so the same argument applies.

    In the event of the Lib Dems entering a coalition I’d suggest one of us is still going to feel a tad miffed.

    So you think voters are less miffed in a system where they are forced to cast their only vote for a party they dislike but dislike less than another party, or where by showing by their public vote what they really want they end up getting what they least want?

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd May '11 - 12:03pm

    Modicum

    Opponents of AV like to claim that a fourth preference must be for a candidate who the voter doesn’t “really” want or who is an inoffensive or “compromise” candidate. This is nonsense. No voting system is capable of reading the mind of the voter and discerning his motivations

    The Tories would be my fourth preference under AV. But giving my fourth preference to the Tories means in effect that if I went to the polling station and the only candidates standing were Tory, UKIP and BNP, I’d vote Tory. Just because it’s a fourth preference does not mean it’s a weak preference, far from it, if the only candidates standing were Tory, UKIP and BNP, I’d be passionate that I’d want the Tory to win.

    AV just gives the effect of FPTP if those candidates who were unlikely to win never stood in the first place. A constituency where my fourth preference Tory vote got counted would be one where LibDem, Labour, and Green had so little support that it wasn’t really worth their standing. Denying me AV is like denying me the vote just because I don’t really like any of the candidates. This is what politics is all about – you don’t get all your own way, you have to compromise, you have in the end to go for what may be your fourth or so preference but you support it passionately because what you prefer better isn’t liked by many other people, and what many other people do like is what you find worst still than your fourth preference. FPTP tells me either I must shut up and completely deny what my real feelings are, or that I have no right to express what I want from whatever earlier compromises give me as realistic choices when my most faviured choice is not available.

  • Kevin Colwill 3rd May '11 - 2:54pm

    @ Matthew Huntbach… does AV change the electoral math’s in a two way marginal? The stark reality is it doesn’t, rank order all you like but one of two parties will win. You can make a little principled stand and vote for no-hope candidates but, face it, those votes gets binned. I’ll give you they’re counted but don’t pretend they really count for anything more than wearing a badge that say’s, for example, “Green voting Lib Dem”.
    The only issue that matters is where you rank the potential winning parties.
    AV is smoke and mirrors, pretending to offer exactly what it can’t. I’d prefer real PR via a version of the multi-member constituency party list system. It has flaws but at least votes for minority parties would genuinely have a chance of counting rather than simply being counted before being tossed in the bin.
    In all events, at risk of repeating myself and getting moderated, I believe anything that encourages a vote/preference to block a candidate you don’t like rather than support one you do is dangerous. It’s bound to leave more people feeling more “stitched up” in the event of a coalition government.
    The Lib Dems have spent a generation or more saying “only we can beat Labour/the Tory here”. When you get into bed with either party some of those who bought your message will feel stitched up. I don’t see AV changing that.
    A party list form of PR has problems but it doesn’t have the core problem of “I cast my vote/2nd/3rd/4th preference for the Lib Dem to keep out the Tory and now look!!”
    Anyway, all academic…no AV, no PR, just a coalition I unwittingly helped create. Them’s the breaks!

  • Matthew Huntbach,

    Well put.

    I think a lot of this debate is based on a fundamental misunderstanding about what it means to put a list of candidates (or a list of anything else) in an order of preference.

  • Old Codger Chris 3rd May '11 - 6:38pm

    It’s not unreasonable to expect voters to make up their minds as to which party’s overall package of policies they like the most (or hate the least).

    OK, second preferences may be acceptable. But third and fourth preferences? Seriously?

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th May '11 - 10:16am

    Old Codger Chris

    OK, second preferences may be acceptable. But third and fourth preferences? Seriously?

    For the sake of those who find logical argument hard to comprehend, or more than a few lines hard to read, let me repeat myself. It could well be the situation that my fourth preference was for the Tories. Just because that’s my fourth preference does not mean it’s not a preference I very much care about. I would passionately want it to be counted if my earlier preferences had been eliminated and it was left at Tory v. BNP or UKIP.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th May '11 - 10:47am

    Kevin Colwill

    The Lib Dems have spent a generation or more saying “only we can beat Labour/the Tory here”. When you get into bed with either party some of those who bought your message will feel stitched up. I don’t see AV changing that.
    A party list form of PR has problems but it doesn’t have the core problem of “I cast my vote/2nd/3rd/4th preference for the Lib Dem to keep out the Tory and now look!!”
    Anyway, all academic…no AV, no PR, just a coalition I unwittingly helped create.

    So, what do you expect the LibDems to do? Mount a military coup because the people didn’t elect a LibDem government? The fact is that the people of this country, combined with the distortional representation system, voted to give us a Parliament out of which a Conservative-dominated government was the only realistic possibility. And, if the opinion polls are right, the people of this country are tomorrow going to reaffirm their support for the distortional representation system which made a Conservative-dominated government inevitable in May 2010.

    That is democracy, you sit back and accept what the people voted for, even if it’s not what you like. If more people had voted LibDem so there were more LibDem MPs and fewer Tory MPs, then a Labour-LibDem coalition would have been possible, and even if there was still a Tory-LibDem coalition formed, the LibDem influence would me much stronger due to there being more LibDem and fewer Tory MPs and due to the LibDems being in a position to be able to form a different coalition if the Tories did not give in more. But it didn’t happen that way, and the British people are about to vote in a way that says they don’t want it to be that way, they want the largest party to have complete government control even if it doesn’t have a true majority.

    So, stop moaning. And if you don’t like the coalition we have, at least don’t vote for the system that gave it to us, which is what you will do if you vote “No” tomorrow. Even the “miserable little compromise” of AV would have shifted the Tory-LibDem balance in Parliament in 2010 to make a Labour-LibDem coaltion viable and so to greatly strengthen the hand of the LibDems. But you have said you intend to vote “No”, so you are therefore giving a vote of confidence in the idea that the LibDems should have been so weakened and the Tories so strengthened by the electoral system which a “No” vote supports, that the current coalition was the only possibility.

  • Let your yes be YES! and your no be NO!…. There is enough bureaucracy in this bloated wasteful government… We don’t need to add the evil of further bureaucracy to the voting our system…. We need to simplify and return to common sense principles.

  • Stuart Mitchell 4th May '11 - 7:22pm

    “And in case anyone’s in any doubt about the value of consensus, consider the full horror of what the Conservatives indicated they would do with an absolute majority: the proposal to cut inheritance tax illustrates my point perfectly… Thank God for compromise then! A huge social injustice was avoided by the need to form a coalition – to reach a consensus with coalition partners.”

    Lib Dems often make this claim but it simply isn’t true. The coalition agreement explicitly and specifically leaves the door open for the Tory inheritance tax cut, just as soon as the £10,000 income tax threshold has been reached.

    Expect George Osborne to drop this particular political bomb in the Lib Dems’ lap in March 2015.

  • Kevin Colwill 5th May '11 - 1:12am

    @ Matthew Huntbach… I want to be able to cast a positive vote for a party I want. Not make a pointless first preference that won’t count for anything.
    Take your example about ranking the Tory above the BNP. It ‘s only valid if you’re voting in BNP/Tory marginal. In the real world the BNP will be kicked out in an early round .
    Your real choice under AV, as under FPTP, is only ever going to be between the parties that could win…and as I don’t know a Westminster seat the BNP could win I think you’re saved from having your preference for the Tory ever counting.
    Replay your example using less emotive parties like Labour and Tory and you see one of the great flaws of AV. It gives the illusion of handing you the chance to make a principled vote when it actually formalises tactical voting, albeit the tactical use of lower preferences.
    On the broader point…Of course you’re very right to say my preferred option at the last election; Labour win or Labour/Lib Dem (why not Green too) Coalition didn’t happen because the Tories did way better than anyone else. I accept that…it’s called a defeat.
    Of course I could say…2010 was a one off created by House of Commons maths combined with a global economic crisis. The Tory/ Lib Dem coalition was the only way forward but the Lib Dems are still basically a party of what we old folk used to call the left and I’ll be safe voting for them.
    Only I don’t actually think that. I don’t think too many senior Lib Dems think that. I think you have very much more common cause with socially liberal Tories than with Labour, or indeed Greens when you look at their economic analysis.
    I’m the fabled left of centre voter who don’t want to vote for you guys anymore. – and I don’t want you as a second or third preference that ends up being my “real” vote!!!

  • Kevin Colwill

    In a two-way marginal the will of the majority should determine which of those two candidates is elected. That doesn’t usually happen under FPTP.

    If more voters in two-way FPTP marginals voted tactically then we wouldn’ t really have a problem. Every MP would be elected with 50%+ of the vote. In practice that doesn’t happen. So there is value in using AV to ensure that the winner has majority support, by allowing those who would refuse to vote tactically under FPTP to express a preference between the two electable candidates.

    It’s also the case that not every marginal constituency is a two way contest. There are 3-way or 4-way marginals, in which it is impossible to know how to vote tactically. AV is also valuable then. FPTP is particularly unsuited to the multiparty environment in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

    However AV does not “formalise tactical voting”, although I understand why it looks that way through the lens of the current system. If you rank the candidates in your sincere order of preference then by definition that is not tactical voting.

  • Kevin Colwill 5th May '11 - 7:45pm

    @Modicum…. I thank you and other users of this site for your indulgence and I’m sorry if I couldn’t resist the odd canter around the paddock on my high horse.

    My conclusion, for what it’s worth, is that
    1) A fair vote for me has to mean a positive vote for my party/candidate of choice.
    2) I want my vote to count if it’s adding to a huge majority and I want it to count if I’m voting for a minority party (as long as it had some significant support).
    3) The ability to have a second, third or fourth choice counted would not in my mind amount to huge plus.

    I, therefore, came to the conclusion that I can only make principled support of a change to some form of open party list in multi-member consistencies.

    That still left me with a decision about whether I should support AV for Machiavellian reasons- who it would benefit, who it would hack off, would there be a greater chance of my political view of the world prevailing. I found that there was no compelling case to support a move to AV for those reasons either.

    Faced with the choice on the ballot paper I found the case for change not made and voted NO.

    I was always going to vote NO but engagement in the debate here has made my no vote way more intellectually robust…although I know of at least one poster who’ll still regard me as deluded or, worse, Tory!
    .

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