A last word on AV: Letter to a mathematician
I hope you saw my tweet:
Maths Prof D Broomhead demolishes some AV myths, eg that AV ends need for tactical voting and that AV or PR can be fair: http://j.mp/f3NPpX.
You’re a mathematician in your spare time, or were: has the Prof got his maths right? Looks convincing to me, but then maths gave me up as ineducable at age 14 or thereabouts (my age, not maths’).
In any case it irritates me to hear tactical voting dismissed as a culpably negative feature of First Past the Post. Under both FPTP and AV, if the party you really like has no realistic chance of winning either the relevant seat or the general election, and if you want your vote to influence the outcome of the election (however marginally), then the rational thing to do is to vote in such a way as to maximise the chances of election of the candidate who does have a chance of winning the seat, whose party does have a chance of forming a government, and whom you prefer to all the other candidates with a chance of winning. To vote for (or give your first preference to) a candidate with no chance of winning the seat is pure self-indulgence and achieves nothing except to make a gesture and allow your favoured candidate and party to feel very slightly less bad about losing.
I remember that in the Labour Party leadership election under AV my inclination was to make a gesture by giving my first preference to Diane Abbott, whose views and policies were the closest to mine, and then my second preference to Ed Milibrother who, along with D Milibrother, did have a chance of winning the leadership. You persuaded me that this would be a risky thing to do since it implied a bet that Diane would be eliminated at the first or a very early count, causing my second preference to be transferred to Ed M, whereas if some other candidate or candidates were eliminated before Diane, my second preference wouldn’t get to be redistributed, and meanwhile the second preferences of (e.g.) Ed Balls and/or the other one whose name no-one now remembers would be reallocated, probably mainly to the wrong Miliband, perhaps in sufficient numbers to put David M past the 50%+1 mark before my second pref for his little brother could be counted — thus frustrating the outcome I wanted and causing my votes and preferences to be wasted. So I gave my first pref to Ed Miliband, and (since it was obvious that he would come either first or second and that his second prefs would therefore never be redistributed and counted) didn’t bother to register a pointless second or lower preference at all. Sorry about that, Diane.
Then too I wish the Yes side would stop saying that AV is a Good Thing because it will “make MPs work harder” (they work much too hard cultivating their constituents as it is, at the expense of their primary jobs at Westminster) “to reach out to all shades of opinion and not just to their own party faithful” — i.e. to trim their policy pronouncements and commitments to attract second preferences from candidates certain to be eliminated early in the counts, such as the BNP, the Monster Loonies, UKIP, the England Firsters, and other sinister or frivolous groups of the far right. Is that really what we want?
And I wish someone in the Yes camp would admit that no single party ever, in modern times, gets the support of anything like 50% of the whole national electorate, and that therefore it’s inevitable, under any system, that most candidates in a general election won’t get the support of 50% + 1 of the votes in their constituencies either (tactical voting is never likely to take place on a sufficient scale to affect this logical reality). This means that the claim of AV that in order to be elected they will all have to win the support of the majority of their constituents’ votes must be false. Of course it’s made to look plausible by pretending that the second and third etc preferences of voters who gave their first preferences to some other candidate are of equal weight as indicators of ‘support’ to first preference votes, which is patently false.
I liked this letter in the London Review of Books:
The Problem with AV
Whatever Ross McKibbin may say, opponents of AV are not ‘cave dwellers’ (LRB, 18 November). AV maximises the votes of extremist candidates, since anyone voting for them knows their second preference votes will still count, while the second preference votes of the last candidate to be eliminated have no impact on the result, though as many as 40 per cent of the votes may be affected. In constituencies where the Labour and Lib Dem candidates are the leading contenders, for example, only the second preferences of Conservative, UKIP and BNP supporters will matter. It is possible, however, that if their own candidate is defeated, Labour voters would prefer to be represented by an ‘honest-to-God’ Tory than a ‘pragmatic’ Lib Dem. The second preference votes of the last candidate to be eliminated should take precedence over those of the least successful candidates. Under the standard counting procedure, AV is demonstrably less democratic than first past the post.
LRB 2 Dec 2010 http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n23/letters#letter16
Lastly (almost), I wish the Yes camp would stop banging on about AV being so much “fairer” than FPTP, as if the whole debate were about which system will most often produce a house of commons that most accurately reflects in its composition the spread of political opinion in the electorate. Actually the main purpose of a general election is to produce a government that can govern, govern long enough to be able to rise above short-termism, and govern in accordance with its pre-election promises and policies (not only those in the manifestos) so that it can be held to account. Other objectives of a general election are to elect a house of commons that can sustain an elected government in office, hold it to account, make it change course if it errs, and in the last resort throw it out. None of these functions requires a mathematically accurate correspondence between numerical support in the country and numbers of MPs of the different parties. To produce, sustain and when necessary dismiss a government it makes very little difference whether the biggest single party has a majority of ten or a majority of fifty. If, as will more often happen under AV, it has no majority at all, and the country has to be governed by a cobbled-together coalition or a minority government at the mercy of a majority opposition, then many of these vital functions can’t be performed at all. Let the candidate with more votes than any other win the seat, and let the party with more seats than any other form a government. It’s fair, it’s simple, and it almost always works. Vote No to AV, which neither produces more proportional representation nor ensures durable and accountable governments!
Oh, one other thing (sorry!): please, you worthies of the Yes camp, stop arguing that because AV rarely produces hung parliaments in Australia, it won’t produce more hung parliaments than FPTP here either. This is fallacious because Australia is to all intents and purposes a two-party state (the third party is in permanent coalition with the main party of the right and they effectively fight elections together as a coalition — right, John?). So there is no medium-sized third party holding the balance of power in a more proportional system, whereas our LibDems, struggling to win as much as one fifth of the national vote and currently threatened with virtual wipe-out, would certainly gain votes and seats from both the Conservatives and Labour under AV and would therefore be more often in a position to choose which of the Tory and Labour leaders to put into No. 10 Downing Street — a choice that ought to be made by the biggest single group of voters, not on the whim of Mr. Nick Clegg, nor of any other single politician.
Best wishes for a good referendum,