Thursday, 21 April 2011

The 2011 Referendum - The Alternative Vote

This is a post I've sort of been meaning to make for a while, because it's a reasonably serious point of debate and I generally enjoy writing about this sort of stuff. I even made notes on a piece of paper so I don't miss out things that I've wanted to put as I've slowly mapped this post out in my head over the last week or two.

I'm going to write most of this in a fairly blunt, matter-of-fact way, but I'm actually still slightly on the fence on the issue, and my opinions are definitely not dead-set in their current state. I'd genuinely like it if people would put comments and start debate, either on the blog or on the Facebook link, because I usually find that discussing things with various people is usually the best way I can ever properly understand my own underlying views on the matter. Plus there may be things I say on here which are just incorrect because my sources or memory have failed me, in which case I'd be happy to hear corrections.

This is going to be fairly text heavy, so I'll start with an image to set the tone somewhat (both in terms of content, and in that the image is also text-heavy):

A while back I signed up to a petition somewhere for voting reform to the Single Transferable Vote system, which gives fairly proportional representation in parliament to the number of votes each party got. If your party got around 10% of the votes in the country, they should get around 10% of the seats.

Somehow this show of support for voting reform, and the handing over of my email (albeit my email address mostly reserved for spam) meant that I got bombarded with emails fairly regularly which are pro-reform, even though this current referendum is not for a change to the STV system, but for the Alternative Vote system.

The issue with the current voting system is that it narrows down people's opinions into a single vote. As explained by this graphic relating to Canadian politics, you can get a majority unhappy with the elected party, even though they got the highest number of votes, because the majority were split between multiple like-minded parties. I do believe that it is a fundamental flaw of the first past the post system, and I think it's an issue which was seen in the 2010 UK election. A Labour-Lib Dem coalition would probably have been more satisfying for the majority of people, because the parties were far more similar politically than the Conservatives and the Lib Dems were. At the very least it would have resulted in the Liberal Democrats backtracking far less on various key campaign policies and promises they'd made before the election.

The thing is, while the Alternative Vote is an election reform of sorts, it doesn't actually solve the issue. The studies suggest that had the Alternative Vote been used in the last election, the results would have been pretty much identical. For those too lazy to click a link, I'll give you the graphic containing the final results:

Now I question the accuracy of the method they've used to generate those statistics, and I'm not sure it takes into account the mentality of the last election being under the current voting system where a vote for a minority party is essentially a wasted vote, and reflects how people would actually vote under a new system, but if those results are to be believed they're fairly damning evidence that the Alternative Vote system won't really change anything. In the last election the Liberal Democrats were hyped to potentially have their best run in years, and under an AV system they still would apparently have only got a quarter of the seats that the Conservatives got, which is hardly breaking out of a two-party system.

Still, it's an improvement, right? Surely any reform is better than no reform at all? Well I'm not so sure. There are other consequences of the AV system, and they're not all positive, especially if you hold a fairly low opinion of the general public.

For starters, almost as an aside, I question the referendum itself. Going on speaking to quite a few people who I would consider adequately represent an average voter fairly well (including members of my family), there are quite a few people who don't really understand what the referendum is about. That could be just down to lack of information, or lack of clear information, but if people don't understand what exactly the differences between the voting systems are, then the referendum seems somewhat shallow. Is there some sort of quorum in place for this referendum to actually give a valid result?

What's also really not helped this is that the propaganda from each side is really not particularly brilliant. The leaflets against AV are particularly bad, which annoys me a fair bit because the fact that the groups pushing against AV are using such retarded arguments to try and persuade people doesn't mean that there isn't sound reasoning (in my opinion) why AV isn't a great idea.

I've also seen both sides use the BNP card, which is especially irritating to see. The anti-AV groups point out that AV might give more votes to extremist parties like the BNP, and the pro-AV group have pointed out that Nick Griffin is against the Alternative Vote and claimed this is because he knows it gives the BNP less chance of getting seats.

Now, I by no means support groups like the BNP, but I also find it really worrisome that groups involved in issues like this, essentially pushing their view of how democratic voting should be undertaken, would miss such a horrific flaw in the principle that you shouldn't pick a voting system based on how it does or does not allocate seats to extremist parties. If enough people vote for the BNP for it to merit seats in the House of Commons, then it should have seats in the House of Commons. End of argument. If you don't like the idea of people being able to vote parties like the BNP into a position of political power, then don't back democracy (I personally don't back democracy, but that's a different issue). You can't have things both ways.

My main issue with AV (this is also something of an issue with STV) is that it needs people to rank candidates. There are a number of reasons why this is a bad idea.

The first problem with ranking a bunch of stuff is that it's actually quite difficult. To take an example totally out of politics, try ranking the twenty Premiership teams in order of how much you like them. Sure, you can easily pick out the ones you like (Liverpool) and the ones you don't (Man Utd, Everton), but in the middle you're generally left with a mix of stuff you're mostly indifferent to, and it's hard to rank that stuff. Try ranking a group of common colours in order of preference. Or famous people. Picking out the ones you like and dislike is easy, but there's inevitably going to be a sizeable group in the middle which you don't really care about enough to place some in front of others.

Now AV doesn't require you to rank all the candidates, but that doesn't mean that a fair few people won't try to anyway, either because they don't understand that they don't need to, or because they feel obliged to, or because they want to push a particular party into last. This leads to votes which are poorly thought through and are basically random, which are probably one of the worst issues with western democracy, because each random vote essentially cancels out a proper thought-out vote.

I follow politics a fair amount, and I'd struggle to compile a full ranking. Obviously parties like the BNP would be at the bottom, and the Conservatives would be pretty far down, and Labour and the Lib Dems (not so much) would be at the top. But in the middle it gets hazy. This isn't even because I don't know much about the parties involved - it's just that I have mixed opinions of their manifestos. I don't agree with the UKIP stance of pulling the UK out of the EU, but at the same time I agree with their policy of investing in nuclear energy. There are things I back the Green Party on, and then there are things I don't. I'm not just being asked to figure out which party I agree with most, but now I'm being asked to gauge and rank parties which I agree with partially and in fairly equal amounts. It's not straightforward.

And that's me, as a person who did actually read a fair bit into the different parties and candidates in the last election (admittedly, it was that or revision). There are a hell of a lot of people who will understand pretty much nothing about any of the parties outside of the main two or three. This is fairly understandable, because the media focus is almost entirely on those parties, and the TV debates and election build up on the whole won't give you much information about the minor parties. You'd have to go looking for that info on your own accord.

As shown in the analysis before, it's still going to be primarily a two-horse race under AV, and it's not fundamentally going to change anything in the result, which is why I don't see the point of it. It's not that I think it's confusing (anyone who can't understand how to vote under AV frankly doesn't have it together enough mentally to deserve a vote, in my opinion), more that it's just somewhat pointless and a fairly unhelpful compromise between first past the post and STV which doesn't actually fully address the problems in the current system. We're better off holding out for STV than enforcing change for the sake of it, and just because we can.

The other thing I don't particularly like is the way it will affect politics. I don't see more coalitions being a problem - if they happen they happen, but more the way that pre-election campaigning could shift from solid stances to just trying to piss off as few people as possible and not really making a solid manifesto and outline. And it's still not going to change the fundamentally broken way in which people decide who to vote for. The media will still be mostly shit. You'll still get people voting based on how bad things were or were not under the previous administration (it doesn't matter that the Conservatives backed the war in Iraq at the time, or would still have given us the exact same economic crisis - they're all black marks on Labour's record), and you'll still get shadow cabinet members proclaiming that they'd definitely have done it better if they were in charge (because hindsight of outcomes and public opinion is a wonderful thing). And you're still going to get people voting because they can, or feel obliged to, even though their entire knowledge of political issues and politicians comes from the likes of The Sun and The Daily Mail.

Ultimately though, I don't see what great benefit AV brings to what is, and will almost certainly remain, a two-party system. When minority parties, and even the Lib Dems, are as far behind the main parties as they are, then you're not going to see much change. Sure, people can now vote for independent candidates without knowing they're wasting their vote on a candidate destined to lose, because they always have their second preference marked, but that still probably won't help the independent candidates win enough votes to get a seat, and it will be a long time before that mentality is appreciated enough for that to change.

While the focus is still on Labour and the Tories, the first choice for most people is going to be one of those two parties, and as a result all the support for minority parties is still going to be wasted. Sure, you can put them down as a first choice more confidently now, but they still won't get a seat, and all you're gaining is the opportunity to state whether you'd rather the Labour or Conservative party were in charge. Which I guess is a better system, but it still feels like a shoddy compromise when nationally those parties are getting enough votes as a percentage to merit a couple of seats in parliament, and they end up with none. A compromise that pisses off the fewest number of people is not how democratic representation should work.

So I'm still somewhat unsure on the AV issue, even after collating all of my thoughts on the matter into this huge-ass post. If I were to vote right now, I'd say it would probably be against AV, but fundamentally my reasons for that are that the general public aren't engaged enough in politics and informed enough (I mostly blame the media) to make a proper decision during elections, and I feel that AV will just compound all the things I already see as being completely wrong with western democracy as it currently operates. And I'm not sure if thinking the system itself is broken is enough of a justification for voting against what is possibly an improvement (a negligible improvement in my opinion, but an improvement nevertheless) to the broken system.

So yeah, interested to hear other people's thoughts on the issue. Perhaps they'll push me one way or the other.


  1. I’m edging towards AV because it allows me to express my political preferences better but I can see how it will confuse. Tell you what, if I vote one way that gives you the perfect excuse to vote the other…
    Random voting – surely nearly all Conservative votes are random votes (well they seem like such nice chaps…)

  2. You'd think that, but there seem to be enough Conservative voters floating around in Cambridge who genuinely do just back the whole mindset of screwing over the poor for the benefit of those who already have plenty of dosh.

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