AV, People Power and the Flintstones

Daniel Finkelstein had it right in the Times on 5th January. Though it was strange to have Fred and Barney (seemingly from the Flintstones) wandering around the debate on whether the UK should change to the alternative vote (AV).
The relevance of Fred & Barney  is they  are alleged (in this instance) to be stone-age rabbit hunters who realise if they work together they could hunt bigger game. The next morning they set off to put their new plan into practice but then neither can remember if they agreed to hunt bison or stag. And depending on which they choose they have to go in different directions.
What’s the solution? (And humour me for another paragraph and I’ll tell you what the heck this has to do with AV!)
The answer depends on what are the exact rules of the game. How much more valuable is bison/stag compared to rabbit? Can Fred and Barney contact each other in some way? How many times they play the “game”? And what they think the person will do. Changing any of these rules can have a dramatic effect on how Fred and Barney behave and the ultimate result.n It’s called game theory. There’s an entire branch of Maths devoted to studying this kind of thing!
If you changed the rules Fred and Barney would behave very differently and if you change rules of the voting system our latter-day Freds and Barneys (David Cameron, Nick Clegg, David Miliband, Caroline Lucas etc) would behave differently. As well as the voters (another Freds and Barneys who behave differently as rules change)….
Bets are off as to the ultimate effect of AV on party-held seats in the Commons, that the endless speculation of what party will do better under is AV is pure crap.
It’s often based on asking people what their second preference vote after an election campaign designed for the FPTP electoral system, and being given a choice of candidates and parties that have come forward (or held back), in part, because of the voting system itself.

It’s take a lot more than that it take educated guesses as to what might happen. See my next post on the effect of the Lib Dem vote based multiple multi-party situations (i.e. Europe).

Change all that and the whole “game” of politics changes – forever.

It is entirely possible there will be new parties under AV (with the fear of wasting one’s vote gone, people could give their preference to something new.) Those new parties could even lead to the end of one of the current ones. More independents may be elected (same logic as new parties). And there’s a general consensus that a politics where people try and find common ground emerges (as party’s attempt to get the 2nd or 3rd preference of other party’s supporters).
So how do we decide which is the better voting system?
Here Daniel Finkelstein and I divert. He kept his powder dry on whether AV was better than FPTP to focus on his main point  that changing the rules, changes the behaviour of the parties and the result.
Being a political-journalistic hack created under FPTP Daniel Finkelstein speculates about some of the effect on the behaviour of political parties…but doesn’t mention the effect on voters (and secondarily on MPs behaviour), which is the most certain effect change in the voting system.

Just like if you change the pay-out for going past Go in Monopoly from £200 to £50 you can’t guess who’ll win but you can tell cashflow is going to be a lot tighter.
So what difference does AV make? And is it desirable?

Let’s start by looking at what FPTP does.
Sorry, if this sounds patronizing but one thing I’ve learnt from chatting on twitter is that we may think we are talking about the same thing when  we use terms like “safe seat” we often aren’t.

1)      Creates “wasted” votes. There are a number of interpretations to the term “wasted vote”. Here’s one popular one.  If your vote doesn’t go towards electing someone or directly stopping them being elected then it wasted.

Also where it known by the MP that an individual’s vote is routinely for a party with little chance of taking the seat (and they do tend to know about their regular correspondents) the MP can afford to ignore that individual. Where there are a lot of wasted votes MPs can pay little attention to whole districts were that party is supported (e.g. social housing areas in Tory seats)

2)      Creates safe seats. This is where, except for something extra-ordinary happening, the seat remains a racing certainty for the seating party and MP to hold it. Safe seats routinely have lower voter turnout. Something extra-ordinary could be the  “cash for questions” scandal and Labour and Lib Dems standing down in favour of Martin Bell (Tatton, 1997), but get generally the MP is secure, and can therefore ignore the wishes of the voter.

3)      Inspires Tactical Voting. Tactical voting is a game strategy, like Barney hunting rabbits when he really wants bison. It is deployed by the electorate that understand FPTP and have found their way round some of it flaws.  It is an attempt to avoid to having your vote wasted by the system at the price of voting for a party you don’t really like. It is used by people who prefer another candidate but don’t think they will win, so they vote for the candidate most likely to beat a candidate they like least.

The reason why they do this is to ensure they at least prevent someone they don’t like being elected.

The disadvantages are massive, though, they reduce the chance of the support of their most favoured party growing over a number of elections and eventually taking the seat, their vote will count in the national share of the vote as support for another party and they could have guessed wrongly how the election was going anyway

4)      Also encourages political parties to put out leaflets claiming “x can’t win here”. This is an attempt to gain tactical votes. Shame more leaflet space isn’t devoted to discussing real issues but then the FPTP encourages tactics rather principles.

And what would be the difference with AV?

1)      Your vote matters no matter which is your first preference candidate. With AV you get multiple preferences. If you vote for a candidate that doesn’t have much support in your constituency and that candidate is eliminated then your vote goes to your second preference until someone is elected. No one need to go to the polling booths with the feeling that their vote won’t count. There’s an option of voting for independent candidates or a new 4th party may emerge because you can’t waste your vote.  And as any politician could benefit from your later preference they will be more inclined to listen to you.

2)      Personal Safe Seats eliminated. Some parties would still be assured to win certain seats (e.g. Kensington and Chelsea is like to remain Tory, at least for the first AV elections) Personal safe seats do disappear however. An unpopular MP could be challenged by an UNOFFICIAL candidate claiming to be of the same party and showing themselves to be better candidate. Previously this was rarely done with FPTP because the vote could split and let in another party. But with AV preference voting people could be put their preferred candidate first and then back the other one and let the electoral system work out the winner!

And MPs, aware of this potential scenario, could just pay more attention to their constituents and often prevent themselves from being challenged in this way.

3)      Tactical voting disappears under AV. It was a strategy used to compensate for the worst of FPTP. With AV, voters give a 1st preference to their 1st preference; a 2nd preference to their 2nd preference. If they can’t get the candidate they want it their vote moves to the next choice. There’s no need for tactics.

4)      The “x can’t win here” could stay around for a bit (while voters and parties get used to the system) but is likely to be replaced by political comment and attempts to win broad support (i.e. other parties second and third preferences.)

Are these changes desirable?

It’s clear that AV gives much more power to voters. For some, it would seem obvious that AV is better because of that.

However, having listened to the NO2AV campaign on twitter I note that occasionally they let out the sentiment that voters aren’t the ones that really matter – like “The trouble with AV supporters is that they think voters are the most important. They aren’t.”

What is? I can only guess that it is “Strong Government”.

And if you are used to governments created by FPTP why would you want to change that model?

To really have strong government you must have a strong connection between people and government. A government out of touch with the people inevitably makes a lot of errors. MPs out of touch with constituents routinely misrepresent them too.

In summary

We only get a vote for the Commons every 4 to 5 years that is our main input. We live with government decisions day in day out. We should have maximum power of influence. Yes to AV.

Unlike FPTP I believe in allowing people’s voice to be heard… please leave a comment below…


About 123voting

Imogen Caterer campaigns for the alternative vote (AV) in the UK referendum on May 5th, 2011. The alternative vote is sometimes called IRV (Instant Run-off Voting) and is becoming increasingly popular in the USA. It is also used in a number of internal party elections in the UK But some believe it isn't good enough for the voters! For a dramatically different topic she also blogs on go to: http:www.inspirationcatalyst.com
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