For and (mainly) against AV: a dialogue
A letter of mine opposing AV (the Alternative Vote electoral system) prompted an exchange with an AV fan which explores some of the arguments, good and (especially) bad, for and (especially) against. This is my letter to the Guardian that started it all:
BB: There are cogent arguments against AV, but the main one being used by the luminaries of the No campaign, Lord [formerly John] Reid, William Hague, Margaret Beckett and Sir Malcolm Rifkind, among others, isn’t one of them. Their claim that under AV some voters will have more votes than others is nonsense. All the valid votes are counted again at every recount. Those giving their first preferences to the two candidates who come first and second, and who are therefore never eliminated from the next recount, don’t get their second and lower preferences redistributed and counted, but that’s not a disadvantage: their first preferences continue to count right to the last round.
The No to AV campaign needs to focus on the real objection to AV, i.e. the fallacy in the only serious claim for it, that AV, unlike First Past the Post, ensures that all MPs have the support of the majority of their voters. But this is simply not so. An MP whose majority depends on votes transferred from other candidates eliminated in early counts no more has the support of a majority of voters than an MP elected on a minority vote under FPTP: in both cases, a majority of those voters preferred and voted for someone else. This reflects the inescapable reality that nation-wide no one party has the support of a majority of the electorate (none has done so at a general election since 1935, which was one of only two such results for the past 105 years).
There are also other unanswerable objections to AV. By increasing the number of seats won by third party candidates, it would make hung parliaments much more frequent, and thus produce more coalitions or minority governments, which in turn undermines the convention of the party manifesto mandate and the public accountability which that entails. Votes for mainly right-wing extremist or lunatic parties such as the BNP and the Monster Raving Lunatics, most of which are thankfully wasted under the present system, would tend to flow upwards, as each in turn is eliminated, through second and subsequent preferences to the more right-wing of the last two surviving candidates, often in sufficient numbers to give the seat to the candidate with fewer first preference votes than his or her main rival. Candidates of the serious parties would be compelled to “reach out to” the lunatic or neo-fascist fringe to try to win their preferences by offering concessions to their generally reactionary demands. The need to attract second and subsequent preferences across the political spectrum will favour the candidate who is all things to all men (and women), who avoids or blurs what should be stark policy choices, leaves doors open, sits on every available fence. It’s frustrating that the noisiest opponents of AV ignore these genuine objections to it and concentrate instead on the one argument that is easily exposed as false.
This drew a number of comments from RS, an old colleague and friend. Here they are, with my (now slightly edited) responses to each:
RS: I agree with you that the argument put forward by William Hague et al is nonsense. But I don’t agree that the other objections to AV are unanswerable. To take the last point first, I think that:
1) if you accept democracy and the principle of one person, one vote, you have to accept that the votes of people who vote for the BNP or the Monster Raving Loony Party are as valid as yours and mine. I don’t much like that conclusion, but it seems to me to flow inescapably from the basic concept of democracy (incidentally, the BNP is urging its supporters to vote no to AV). So if we get AV, yes, those people will have the same right as all other voters to indicate their second and subsequent preferences.
BB: I am not questioning the right of (eg) BNP voters to have their votes given equal weight with others’, not their right, under AV, to indicate second and subsequent preferences. I am simply saying that it’s generally undesirable for the health of our politics that votes cast by stupid or reactionary people (or both) for stupid or reactionary candidates (or both) should continue to be included in the counting process even after their first preference candidates have been defeated and eliminated, and that these votes should still end up actually influencing the outcome of the election. In other words, I don’t like the idea that a (perhaps perfectly reputable) Conservative candidate could win a seat in the house of commons, and a say in which party is to enter No 10, on the backs of BNP voters and supporters. Nor do I like the idea that the same candidate might feel obliged to bend over backwards to appease the BNP, or at best to avoid antagonising them, e.g. by adopting an illiberal position on immigration, in the hope of winning BNP voters’ preferences in the final count. Under FPTP these characters vote for the BNP, the BNP is defeated, their votes disappear down a black hole, like the votes of everyone else whose favourite candidates lost the election, and the candidate who has won the most votes wins the seat – simple, fair and straightforward.
RS: …but —
2) by no means all the people who vote for smaller parties are on the right. What about all the people who vote for the Green Party (which is in favour of AV)? What about people who vote for left-wing extremist parties? What about the situation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? The electoral landscape is much more complex than you suggest. I think it’s a very questionable argument to suggest that the introduction of AV would make candidates more inclined to look for votes from the “neo-fascist fringe” than some, including some Labour candidates, already are under the present system.
BB: Of course I accept that there will sometimes be candidates of smaller parties whose second etc. preferences may well end up going to the Labour candidate (or, in a constituency where the front runners are, say, the Tory and the LibDem, to the LibDem). But if you look down the list of the candidates and their parties at election time, I think you’ll generally find that the majority of the no-hoper parties and candidates, those who are certain to be eliminated early, are zanies or more sinister figures of the right , not the left-of-centre. However, even where this is not the case, the directions in which the preferences travel on their way to one or other of the last two candidates left in the race after the final count, if not politically regressive, are liable to be almost random or whimsical. Australian experience shows that a significant percentage of voters simply number their ballot papers in the order of the candidates shown on the ballot paper, or else put a ‘1’ opposite their favourite candidate and then number the rest in alphabetical order from 2 to 10, or however many there are (the so-called ‘donkey vote’). I believe that in Britain, where if we move to AV it won’t be obligatory to put a number against every candidate listed, research suggests that under AV a sizeable majority of voters wouldn’t bother with second etc. preferences – they would just put a ‘1’ opposite the candidate they wanted to vote for and leave the other boxes blank. If enough voters did that, we’d effectively be back to FPTP, although the few preferences actually entered, when redistributed after each count, would then have a wholly disproportionate – and random — impact on the result. Of course the vagaries of varying turnouts can have a similarly randomising effect, but two such random effects are at least twice as bad as one.
As for Scotland and Wales, I’m not sure what conclusions can be drawn from their experience. Six different electoral systems are used in the UK, and it’s almost impossible to guess how results have been affected by the variants between the systems. In Wales and Scotland, where forms of PR are used, the current results are a minority government in Scotland, only able to pass legislation (including the budget) that the opposition parties are prepared to let through, and a coalition in Wales in which neither coalition partner can do anything that the other partner objects to, with the threat of different permutations replacing the current Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition at any moment (“senior civil servants before the election were preparing for three possible coalition administrations: Labour/Liberal Democrat, Labour/Plaid Cymru or Plaid Cymru/Liberal Democrat/Conservative”). Northern Ireland, with compulsory power sharing, is sui generis. Because the devolved executives have such limited powers, the fact that due to their electoral systems all three are hamstrung or vulnerable or both, is not fatal, just inconvenient and inimical to firm, clear, long-term policy-making. Such defects and difficulties at Westminster would represent a threat to good government in the whole of the UK.
RS: I don’t think it’s right to imply that every election since the war would, if held under AV, have produced a hung parliament. That implies that no voters would have given their second or subsequent preference to a Labour or Conservative candidate, which seems very unlikely. I’m quite sure, for instance, that under AV, Labour would have won an overall majority in 1945, and the Conservatives would have done so in 1959.
BB: I didn’t say or even imply that under AV every election since the war would have produced a hung parliament – although clearly many more of them would have done so. I pointed out that nationally no one party ever has the support of a majority of the electorate, and that no party has done so at a general election since 1935, which was one of only two such results for the past 105 years. This is the reason, obviously, for relatively few MPs winning 50%+1 of the votes under FPTP (or for the few who would win 50%+1 of the first preferences under AV). By pretending, nonsensically, that first and second and lower preference votes are all of equal value and therefore should all be given equal weight in the final count, AV purports to disguise the reality that overall, no single party in modern times ever wins an overall majority of the votes cast nationally. The opinion polls generally reflect this too. We should stop fussing about some MPs being elected without an overall majority of votes cast: it’s a function of the actual situation in the country.
I don’t know the basis for your confidence that under AV Labour would have won an overall majority in 1945 and the Tories in 1959. Labour didn’t win an overall majority of the votes in 1945 (nor even in 1951 when they won more votes and a bigger share of the vote than in 1945, in both cases more than the Conservatives, yet lost the election to them); nor did the Tories win an overall majority of the votes cast in 1959. Neither would have won an overall majority in either election under PR, and in general AV tends to produce results closer to PR than FPTP. In 1959, although the Conservatives had a huge majority of 100 seats over all the other parties combined, and the Liberals won only 6 seats, Labour and the Liberals together won more votes than the Conservatives. Now a Tory-led government without either a mandate or an overall majority in parliament is able to dismantle the welfare state, thanks to the perverse distortions of a coalition government. So it seems uncertain that under a more proportional system the Conservatives would have had an overall majority of seats in either 1959 or 2010 – and absolutely certain that under a fully proportional system, they would not. Of course these somewhat freakish results can be cited as proof of the ‘unfairness’ of FPTP, but actually they have delivered rough justice in swings and roundabouts terms and above all they have delivered reasonably decisive and durable government – much the most important objective of a general election, as the vast majority of voters will always confirm. Almost everyone votes in the hope of producing a government of his or her chosen party with enough support to enable it to govern on its own; very few indeed vote in the hope of producing either a coalition government or a house of commons arithmetically mirroring opinion in the country as a whole, which, in truth, would be largely pointless anyway. A proportionally representative assembly would be fine for a debating or revising chamber such as the house of lords, but it’s clearly a dysfunctional way of electing an electoral college (the house of commons) responsible for producing a government.
RS: But yes, under AV hung parliaments would be more frequent. Would that be a bad thing? I am much less convinced than you that under the existing system, we get a clear picture from the manifestoes of what parties will actually do once in office. None of the parties said clearly at the last election how they would actually tackle the deficit, which was by far the most important question. You will search the 2001 Labour manifesto in vain for any indication of a plan to invade Iraq. I don’t think any system is perfect, but I don’t see why coalitions are automatically worse than one-party governments.
BB: I agree that manifestoes give only a partial picture of what a party will do if elected to government – not least because all sorts of issues will come up between elections that couldn’t have been foreseen and which are accordingly not mentioned in the manifestos at the previous election (Iraq, which you mention, being an obvious example; Libya is another). As to the deficit, all three of the serious parties did give a clear indication of how they would approach the deficit – halving it in four years, eliminating it in five, etc., the LibDems being much closer to Labour than to the Conservatives on this issue. The hung parliament and the coalition enabled the LibDems to ignore their manifesto and other pre-election promises and go over shamelessly to the Tory position on the deficit. You will remember St Vincent Cable explaining that the coalition agreement, negotiated secretly after the election, supersedes the two parties’ pre-election manifestos. Parties do often include quite specific pledges in their manifestoes, if only as a precaution against having the draft legislation enacting them rejected in the house of lords, which has to respect the governing party’s manifesto commitments under the Salisbury Doctrine. Some peers are already arguing that the Salisbury Doctrine is now dead, since manifesto commitments have been replaced by the coalition agreement, which enjoys no electoral mandate. In other words, coalition governments can do what they like without any fear of being accused of breaking their election promises. In future we can expect the more honest manifestoes to include a warning that if the party turns out to be a member of a coalition or minority government, all bets are off. That won’t be a great help to the undecided voter.
The ageing warriors of the No campaign (among whom I include young-old Mr Hague), with their unerring nose for the feeble and fallacious argument, also place great emphasis on the alleged cost to the Exchequer of any change in the electoral system, and the supposed difficulty that voters would experience in numbering the candidates in order of their preferences. Both points insult the intelligence of those interested in serious debate, and indeed of ordinary voters. The irony is that as the No-sayers flail aimlessly around with their rubber swords, they neglect the cold steel sabres that could win them a solid victory. Perhaps they are all double agents working for that nice Mr Clegg and his Yes campaign. Remember how once they all used to ‘agree with Nick’?