How to vote for Labour’s leader: more complex than it looks
This week I was going to vote for 1. Diane Abbott, 2. Ed Miliband, 3. David Miliband, 4. Andy Burnham, and 5. Ed Balls. But I have been persuaded by an expert’s analysis of the voting system for the leadership election that this would be risky. I now plan to vote 1. Ed Miliband, 2. David Miliband, 3 Andy Burnham,. 4. Diane Abbott, 5 Ed Balls. Here’s why.
Of the two candidates for the Labour leadership with the basic qualities required in a party and national leader, Ed Miliband seems to me to have the edge over his brother on policy and values, and to look reasonably papabile. But of all five candidates, only Diane Abbott’s views on almost all major issues chime with mine – on the UK nuclear deterrent, Iraq and Afghanistan, other foreign wars, prisons, terrorism, civil rights, taxation, the economy, and more. Until recently I accordingly planned to give Diane my first preference, on the basis that if she gets a respectable number of votes that will oblige the new leader to take her and her supporters’ views seriously. But I don’t think that she has the personality or skills to be an effective party leader or a credible candidate for election as prime minister (sorry, Diane). Moreover, I don’t think she can win enough first or second preferences in the parliamentary or union sections of the electoral college to stand a realistic chance of winning the Labour party leadership election itself, however well she might do in the constituency section – although it’s never safe to base one’s votes on assumptions about how everyone else will vote . All the same, it seemed reasonable to translate these views into votes by giving my first preference to Ms Abbott, in the confidence that at some stage she will be eliminated and that my second preference, for Ed Miliband, will thereupon be reallocated to him. Mission accomplished! But is it? Now read on….
This plan seemed to be confirmed by the advice in a letter in the Guardian on 27 August which advocated exactly what I was proposing to do:
Seumas Milne is absolutely right that those who want to return the Labour party to its correct place within the political spectrum should ensure Ed Miliband beats David (Ed is the only Miliband who offers a genuine alternative, 26 August). However Ed Miliband is young and untested, and his leadership will not just be determined by his platform; it will be shaped by context. The first context will be the dynamic within the party following the result. A radical confident leadership from Ed will most likely emerge if the starting point is a strong Abbott vote that transfers to him. It is therefore imperative that Diane Abbott supporters hold firm in their first preferences, determined, as Milne describes, “to see a voice for the left in the country’s main party of reform”. Vote Abbott 1, Ed Miliband 2.
However, I had a nagging suspicion that I might be missing something here. So I sought the advice of a Labour supporter who understands the electoral system better than I do. Here is what she said in reply:
Let’s start with the simple case, in which your only interest is who gets elected (that is, ignore for a moment your desire to use your vote for the additional purpose of “sending a signal” as well).
Then it is all simple. One of the principal merits of AV (some would say the only merit) is that it is simple for the voter to know what to do, even if it is not simple to explain how the system works. The voter should simply number the candidates according to her ranking of them. There is no way to vote tactically. Even if a voter knew exactly how everyone else was going to vote (which of course she doesn’t) there would not be a reason to do anything other than number the candidates in order.
To answer specific questions that have been raised:
– In an election with five candidates, putting preferences by four of them, and leaving the fifth blank is identical to ranking the last candidate fifth. (Your last preference votes won’t ever be counted because it is not possible for four candidates to be eliminated and their second or lower preferences re-allocated in a five-candidate election.)
– If you want “anyone but Balls”, your best strategy is not to put a number next to Balls. Putting a number next to a candidate can’t harm them. If it is the lowest possible number (ie 5 in a five-candidate election) it won’t help them either (see above). If it is any number other than last, it might help them. If you don’t want them, don’t vote for them.
– Your votes have to start with 1 and go down as far as you have preferences. In some elections a minority of voters put a “1” next to the candidate they want and “5” next to someone they detest, without putting the numbers 2, 3 and 4 in between. Some electoral officers will count this first preference; most will just declare the paper spoiled.
Now we make it more complicated, by acknowledging that some voters want to use the election not only to choose a winner but also for the secondary purpose of sending a signal. In the normal case, the signal a voter wants to send is aligned with her preferences in the election (that is, if a voter wants to send the signal that she likes what Ed Balls has to say, she is also likely to think that Ed Balls would make the best leader). In that case, we are back to the simple case – the voter should simply number the candidates according to her preferences. It is more complicated for a voter who wants to send a signal that is not aligned with her actual preferences for leader. So a voter prefers Ed Miliband to be leader, but wants to send the (false?) signal that he prefers Diane Abbott to Ed Miliband. If the voter is trying to pursue these two objectives simultaneously, that reintroduces the possibility of tactical voting. The optimum strategy for the voter in this special case depends on (a) the relative weight the voter attaches to these objectives; and (b) what the voter thinks other voters will do.
In the actual case at hand, in which the voter reasonably expects that Diane Abbott has almost no chance of winning, he might put Diane Abbott first and his actual preference for leader (in this case, Ed Miliband) second. This would achieve the secondary objective (sending a signal) but there are two ways it might backfire on the first objective (choose Ed Miliband to be leader):
* first, there is a possibility (probably small in this case) that Diane Abbott might actually win, which is not what the voter intends;
* second, if enough people who want Ed Miliband put someone else first for the purpose of sending a signal, then there is chance that Ed Miliband could be eliminated early on. Suppose Andy Burnham goes out first, and most of his second preferences go to Diane Abbott. Then Ed Miliband might conceivably still be below Diane Abbott in the next round, and he’d go out before she does. She’d go out next, and then would be a straight race between David Miliband and Ed Balls. So in this story, the voter who has put Diane Abbott ahead of Ed Miliband to send a signal would have inadvertently made it more likely that Ed Balls gets elected leader, even though the voter has correctly anticipated that Diane Abbott herself has no chance of success.
Whether the voter regards this as a risk worth taking depends on (a) the relative weight he attaches to the two objectives of electing the right leader and sending the signal; and (b) his view of the probability that Ed Miliband might be eliminated ahead of Diane Abbott. (Note that this is not the same question as whether Diane Abbott might get more first preferences than Ed Miliband).
I have to say, my guess is that it is probably quite rare for a voter to prefer one candidate but want to send a (false) signal he prefers another. So in general, the aphorism that there is no tactical voting in AV is correct.
So the conclusions are:
* In the case where your objectives are limited to choosing a leader, you should number them in order of preference as far as you have preferences, and then stop. If you specifically don’t want a particular person, don’t put a number next to them.
* In the case where you want to send a signal that is different from your preferences for leader, it is more complicated. You should only vote for a “signal” candidate ahead of the candidate you really prefer if you are pretty confident that the signal candidate will be eliminated ahead of your true preference.
I am persuaded by this. If the argument in Mr Blaney’s Guardian letter, no doubt also being advanced by others in Labour groups and forums up and down the country, influences enough voters to do what Mr Blaney recommends, which of course is also what I had been planning to do, it could conceivably cause Ed Miliband to be eliminated before Diane Abbott, who would then either be eliminated in her turn — or else even go on to win, if (for example) we have all guessed wrongly how the voting in the parliamentary and trade union sections is likely to go. The more first preferences go to Ed Miliband, the less the risk that he might be eliminated before a candidate who has received a significant number of purely gesture preferences. If you think that of the five candidates Ed Miliband would make the best leader of the party, best leader of the opposition and potentially the best prime minister, you should give him your first preference, and resist the temptation to use your first preference to make a political statement in favour of a candidate whose views you like but who you know lacks the personality and other attributes to lead the party, the opposition or the country. If – out of loyalty, sentiment or bloody-mindedness – you insist on giving your first preference to, say, Diane Abbott or Andy Burnham, you can limit the damage, or at any rate the risk, by being careful to give your second preference to Ed Miliband. Take care to number the rest of your remaining votes also in order of your assessment of their leadership qualities: even your fourth preference may be counted and thus affect the outcome, if your first three are all eliminated. Only your fifth preference will not in any circumstances be redistributed or counted: reserve that for the candidate whom you think a seriously unsuitable choice for leader. Either number him 5, or don’t give him a number at all – provided that you have numbered all the rest 1 to 4.
Thus whichever your preferred candidate and order of preference, a first or even second preference vote for a candidate who you know lacks the qualities required of a future leader but for whom you want to make a gesture of support, is not only a waste of your opportunity to influence the election’s outcome in favour of the candidate whom you really want to win: it may actually damage the latter’s chances. With First Past the Post there’s scope for tactical voting (e.g. if you’re a Labour supporter who used to think that the LibDems were the next best thing and the Tories the worst, and you vote in a constituency where Labour always comes a poor third, it’s sensible, or used to be, to vote LibDem). With AV, you should always give your first preference vote to the candidate who you think will be the best leader, however good or bad you rate his or her realistic chance of winning, and your second to the second best choice, and so on down to no. 5.
Next year we shall all need to consider, in the light of all these ifs and buts, whether we really prefer this Alternative Vote system for electing our MPs to the existing system of First Past the Post – the choice which will confront us when we vote in the referendum promised as blood money for the LibDems by the Con-LibDem coalition in its founding document. But that’s for another day and another post.
Meanwhile some of us will have the opportunity to vote this week for a new leader of the Labour Party. I conclude from the analysis above that those who share my view of the best (and worst) achievable outcome should vote 1. Ed Miliband, 2. David Miliband, 3. Andy Burnham, 4. Diane Abbott, 5. Ed Balls.
PS: Don’t forget that if you’re a member of the Labour party and also a member of an affiliated trade union, and of the Fabian Society, and of the Society of Labour Lawyers, or any other affiliated organisation, you get a vote in respect of each. MPs and MEPs don’t need to be told that they get another one too, and one that will carry far more weight than the vote of an ordinary party or union member. Vote early, and vote often!