Saturday, 16 April 2011

Coalition Politics on your Doorstep: Why I'm No2AV

 It should surprise none of you if I confirm now that I am an opponent of a change to the voting system. I can be entirely honest about my reasons. Despite being in favour of this government, I am not at all keen on the idea of coalition government in the long term - it is simply that the Liberal Democrats are a better coalition partner for the Conservative Party than its own lunatic backbench fringe. A healthy majority Conservative administration is preferable. More than that, I don't attach great significance to an MP gaining 50%+ of the vote on people's multiple preferences, and I think that any step towards PR is a bad idea. I just straight-up like FPTP and the principles behind it.

 But such honesty doesn't preclude consideration of AV as a system, and whilst debating it I got thinking about one of the points that keeps coming up: under AV, minor parties will have more influence because their votes will be counted multiple times. I think this is true, but I've seen it knocked down a few times, mainly because it gets the emphasis wrong. So this is a short post just to outline why I think that AV will grant inordinate influence to the supporters of minor parties.

 The key issue isn't some basic mathematical calculation of vote worth (i.e. if my vote is redistributed four times it is worth four times as much as your non-redistributed vote), but rather the greatly magnified influence of minor parties due to AV encouraging practises that, if they occurred, would effectively neutralise the supporters of main parties. The number of times a minor parties support is redistributed beyond one is irrelevant; its that they're redistributed at all that counts.

 One key point hammered home by AV supporters is that it will help to take the adversarial edge off politics (although why this is good I don't know), and another of the main selling points, according to many of its proponents, is that it brings an end to the necessity of tactical voting. Whoever your first choice would be, you can place a tick (or rather, a 1) in their box, and then with a clear conscience set about tactically voting with your preferences. This is fine, if you're a fan of a very small party. But once the supporters of major parties start doing this we run into problems on both counts.

 Lets examine the impact on marginal seats. In a two-way marginal, the normal course of electioneering is that each of the parties in with a shot of winning tries to woo the other party's supporters, with Conservative candidates pitching to the left and Labour candidates pitching to the right, and so forth. This has the effect of orienting politics towards the centre: each candidate has to compromise to some extent in a bid to win the support of people naturally inclined to support the other candidate. Would this happen under AV? In most cases, no.

 The problem with AV is that there is no longer any point in major parties pitching to each others supporters. If the supporters of major parties all cast their votes in a purely non-tactical manner, those votes will not be redistributed. They're gone, stacked up in the red, blue or gold column and entirely unreachable by the other side. The only votes in play are the votes of those minor parties further down the ballot who will get disqualified, your UKIPs, Greens and yes, your British National Party's. 

 It is the votes of their supporters that will actually get redistributed and thus decide the election in that seat. Suddenly, the political centre of gravity shifts to the poles. Instead of trying to woo the other sides supporters by moderating their views, each side is in a race to rack up the preferences of the extremes, with Conservative candidates chasing UKIP votes whilst Labour hare off after Green and TUSC preferences. Not only is this the very opposite of the moderating influence AV supporters claim, but it means that a minor party need only build up a certain low level of support in a constituency to get policy concessions laid at the feet of its voters every election. In genuine two-horse races you might end up with both contenders desperately offering bigger and bigger carrots to the third-placed party in order to secure its transfers. Its all the undemocratic demerits of coalition politics, but actually played out on a constituency level. Charming.

 Perversely, this means that people 'disenfranchised' by the current system by living in a safe seat (an interpretation I reject, but many electoral reform advocates subscribe to) will be joined in their sad state by all those who are solid supporters of a major party, even in marginals. When their non-tactical vote can be counted on, parties are bound to neglect the base in pursuit of those elusive extremist deciding votes. Supporters of minor parties replace people in marginals as the only people whose votes - if you buy this interpretation - actually 'count'. 

 The worst thing is that if you support a major party, your best bet is still to vote tactically, precisely as you would under FPTP. If you're a Lib Dem in a Labour/Conservative constituency but it isn't so tight that the Liberals will get knocked out and their preferences distributed, a vote for them is just as 'wasted' as ever it was, and you're better off - as far as actually influencing the outcome is concerned - tactically casting your first preference for your preferred potential winner. 

 So in the end, supporters of the major parties in a given constituency cast their first preferences just like FPTP, their second preferences being irrelevant. Supporters of secondary parties in a constituency that aren't likely to be knocked out are better off voting tactically, and probably will, as their second preferences are also irrelevant. Supporters of fringe parties, whose transfers are relevant, become the new political sirens, luring politicians away from the centre in pursuit of their few deciding votes.

 Its coalition politics, on your doorstep. No thanks.

 P.S. Quite a few of the debates I've had with people regarding this piece stem from their position that AV won't cause a serious shrinkage in the size of the floating voter pool. Given that I think a substantial portion (at least) of the floating voter pool is made up of people with soft partisan leanings who are willing to be wooed, I contest this assumption. And if anybody was in any doubt, the Yes campaign sent me an email today (29/04/11) containing this:

This week alone, more than 500 of your fellow supporters have donated to help win votes for AV. People like Robin, who told us why he decided to give to win fairer votes:
"I have voted in every election since I got the vote, many times for the candidate who I thought was most likely to defeat the one I didn't want. I want the chance to vote for the person that I want to win and this is why I have donated to the campaign." 
Do you want to put an end to tactical voting? 
This referendum is your chance, but time is running out - this time next week it will all be over.
 So yes, the argument above is posited on the assumption that AV will significantly reduce the amount of people casting their votes tactically and contributing to the total of floating voters. Given that this is a stated aim of the Yes campaign, I don't think its an illegitimate line of counter-attack on my part.


  1. "One key point hammered home by AV supporters is that it will help to take the adversarial edge off politics (although why this is good I don't know)"

    Haha you really can't see why this is an advantage? The entire post-war history of the country consists completely of one party building a state for a term or two and the opposing party spending the next few terms dismantling it. The negative externalities involved are huge, in many cases continuity of economic policy is more important than what that economic policy actually is. Speaking more generally, a blanket refusal of one party to work with another can really get in everyone's way. You have a situation where MPs frequently oppose bills they genuinely feel are good for the country purely because they don't like the party in government. That's a cost to everyone that uniformly increases as politics grow more and more adversarial.

    These are, of course, problems that need to be weighted against all kinds of benefits. It's not a straightforward issue. What you're either missing or refusing to acknowledge is that people aren't opposed to partisan politics because they just think everyone should all be friends and link arms while waltzing into the sunset. They're opposed to partisan politics because it can be such a massive pain in the proverbial ass.

  2. Adversarial politics arises because differing people have different ideas about 1) how the country should work and 2) how the country should get to wherever they want it to go. Processes which serve to dampen this are bad.

    Why? Beyond the stifling of debate, Britain has come a lot further under the post-79 adversarial pendulum than it did during the post-1951 consensual period. Voters are given real choice in elections, parties enact great changes and then later parties alter or undo the bits of those changes that don't work. Thatcher broke the unions, Tony Blair then rebuilt a new form of the social democratic state, and now the coalition is stripping out some of the authoritarian controls of the Labour era.

    Progress, driven by competition.

  3. An interesting set of ideas. As you know I'm pro AV. Here is my criticism of some of your concepts

    1. "Stack up in red..."
    Yes these votes are stacked up because they already count. It is the votes further down the chain that at this stage, do not count. With FPTP they are simply thrown away. With AV they are redistributed (if the voter wants it redistributed). The end result is that the candidate which is preferred by the majority gets the seat. Not, as is with FPTP, the candidate that may potentially (and often is) disliked by anything up to 60 -70% of the voters.

    2. Pitching to smaller parties.
    The major parties do not and will not under any electorial system pitch to the lunatics or the fringe. That would be electoral suicide. They will always pitch to the floating voters. The vast majority of floating voters are middle ground common sense people. If a party started to pitch to (say) BNP or SWP supporters they would soon lose that middle ground and lose far more than they gained.

    3. Smaller party's and Tactical voting
    At the moment anyone voting for a smaller party is essentially disenfranchised - unless they vote tactically. Tactical voting, in turn distorts the true demography of support for parties. While I have no love for the lunatics or bigots I do believe we should be able to honestly see their vote and not have it simply soaked up anonymously in TV. Essentially, in almost all cases the support for fringe party's is so small it is unlikely they will push a candidate in a three way marginal over 50%. That will happen mainly by the redistribution of the third candidates vote. Again you end up with an MP preferred by 50%+ not potentially disliked by 50%+. Often this 3rd party will be LibDem. You must differentiate between party voters and party zealots. LibDem voters will invariably put the 2nd preference to the candidate they consider the (2nd) best. It will NOT automatically go to the Labour party. fear. Lib Dems (for 2nd choice) are certainly more like floating voters than party activists.
    (sorry this comment is so long)

  4. I think my principle counter to your analysis is that you seem to predicate it upon the presumption that the size of the floating vote pool will remain roughly the same and not alter in electoral significance. I don't think this is true.

    Much of the current pool of floating voters includes people with 'soft' allegiance to a particular party but who are not so committed that they are guaranteed to vote that way - people who like to be courted. If AV persuades them that they can cast their first preference for their 'soft' allegiance and then still cast a significant tactical vote worthy of courtship, even if they support a major party, the number of actual floating voters is sure to decline to the smaller core of the genuinely non-partisan.

    I also as a FPTP supporter disagree with your notion that any vote 'doesn't count'. All votes count equally, its just that some are cast for unpopular candidates. That is at the decision of individual electors and is not something that warrants compensation.

    Furthermore, if as you assert the supporters of minor parties are not going to be courted under AV then the sort of politician elected in any given seat won't alter, surely rendering the entire exercise pointless.

  5. Just when I thought you were a progressive Tory! Right, I do not agree with AV but it is fairer than FPTP and to be blunt by getting it passed it will with luck kick start the process of getting a proper proportional system.

    It is weird being a Scot (or indeed Northern Irish) whereby the least democractically elected body you are called upon to elect is the one that levies the bulk your taxes. In Scotland it is AMS for Holyrood, list for Europe and STV for councils.

    Most of Europe has some sort of PR (even the French have the two-ballot run off system for national elections - but PR for others) but Brits apparently cannot get around it. Indeed nations that were under communism thirty years ago in the Eastern half of the continent have citizens who are able to fathom the system (or least vote in it) but the Brits (despite having the vote for men for over a century and women most of the past century) are apparently too thick to get around it.

    So, essentially an elderly Albanian woman who has enjoyed foreign occupation, monarchist dictatorship and communist one party rule is apparently more capable of understanding a PR system than the average Brit. Well that is what many politicians say.

    FPTP is understandable - so is dictatorship. The Chinese since Emperor Qin know the rules, annoy the government and there are "consequences".

    FPTP avoids coalitions which are messy. Since practically all of Europe is able to cope with this and governments are not collapsing week in - week out then that is a myth.

    FPTP avoids coalitions with smoke filled roomed deals etc. Lets be blunt, coalitions are like marraiges, not one partner gets all their own way - if you are in a relationship do you?. Unless the British system believes in the Stepford Wives way.

    FPTP provides the smack of firm government. Which is fair enough until the government smacks you around. Then a government with a cast iron majority with only 42-43% of the vote is not so fair. In contrast, coalitions generally reflect the majority of the ballots cast.

    End of part one.

  6. Part 2

    There are many legends about how bad PR is. Usually Italy and lately Israel is invoked.

    Critics of Italy tend to ignore the mechanics of the Italian constitution. The Italian Parliament is composed of two chambers - the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. The Chamber of Deputies is elected directly in terms of population (i.e. like the Commons, the Bundestag, House of Representatives etc) whilst the Senate is directly elected on a regional basis with each region given so many Senators according to population with a minimum and maximum that a region can have.

    Both houses can be elected at different times. Both houses need to approve a law. However either house can fire the government without reference to the other. In other words the Senate can fire a government even if it still has the confidence of the Chamber of Deputies and vice-versa. Which means that the government is constantly having to build two competing coalitions.

    Israel is an extreme case with elections of members representing the nation as a whole with yes a too generous system. However the Israelis experimented for while with directly elected Prime Ministers who had direct mandates to form governments.

    End of Part 2

  7. Part 3

    So does PR bring instablity per se. Well if you look at Germany (or West Germany before 1990) does this stand up. A bizarre common accuastion is "Hitler got elected by PR".

    Yet Bonn was allowed to adopt a PR system in 1948. Were the Allies wanting to create another Hitler?

    No. The Germans put into their constitution means to keep stable government. The Chancellor is elected by the Bundestag by secret ballot (to prevent modern day boot boys intimidating). Normally the secret vote is whether to approve the President's nomination of Chancellor.

    Once elected, the Chancellor cannot be removed before the next election unless a) the Bundestag elect a new Chancellor to replace him/her b) the Chancellor uses their exclusive right to put a motion of confidence in him/herself and loses which leads to the Bundestag electing a new chancellor (in secret) or failing that prompting new elections.

    Since 1948 there has been eight Chancellors. In that period there has been fourteen UK Prime Ministers (double counting Wilson's second term). And a lot less elections.

    End of Part 3

  8. Finally, does FPTP bring fairness or stability. Well lets see.

    Fairness. Lets go to Malta. In the 1970s I believe one party won the majority of seats through FPTP but the runner up won the absolute majority of votes cast in the nation. Who had the right to govern?

    Eventually it was changed so if that happened again (and it did I believe), additional non-constituency seats would be created to deal with this anomaly. Later I believe the Maltese adopted STV.

    Has it brought stablity in the UK. Well lets consider that with 48% of the ballots in Ireland in 1918, Sinn Feinn won 73 out of 105 Irish seats in the Commons and use it to declare secession of Ireland and start a civil war. But surely that was fair under FPTP rules?

    Or Scotland. From 1987 till 1997 the basis of the campaign for Home Rule in Scotland was largely driven by the "no mandate" argument. This was due to the halving of Tory seats in 1987 in Scotland from 21 to 10. However under PR the Tories would have had something like 17 out of 72 Scottish seats and probably would not have inflamed the "no mandate" arguement like it did. And of course FPTP decimated the Tories in 1997 in Scotland and Wales despite under PR in Scotland the party being entitle to 12-13 seats.

    A party hoisted by its own Union-Jack petard in both Scotland and earlier Ireland? As a Tory unionist what do you think?

    And the piece de resistance. Canada in 1993 when due to the thin support across the country of the federal right-wing parties, the Quebec-only Quebec nationalists who came fourth in terms of the vote ended up being the official opposition in the Federal Parliament thanks to the quirks of the FPTP. Great for Canuk unity.

    Bloc Quebeqcois - 54 seats (13.52% of vote)
    Reform Party - 52 seats (18.69%)
    Conservatives - 2 seats (16.04%)

    So fair and representative!!!

  9. OK, rather than writing a counter-essay I'll write a brief counter to each section. If the debate continues I might turn it into a blog post. I'll engage with your arguments as you've written them, rather than simply reprising my own pro-FPTP position, because I'm a debater and enjoy it more.

    Part 1: First, cut a man some slack! I'm progressive on all kinds of things, I just like FPTP. I hope it hasn't completely destroyed my progressive credentials in your eyes.

    Your first section seems to consist of just insulting the British electorate. The argument that the British people are simply 'too thick' to handle proportional systems smacks of hubris in that it assumes that anybody who disagrees with you is "stupid". I disagree with that assessment. As to the other claims:

    Understandable: The fact that dictatorship is also understandable doesn't detract from the merits of having a clear electoral system.

    Largely Avoids Coalitions: If the British people don't want coalitions - which might not collapse every week but are hardly unproblematic - then this is an excellent reason to support FPTP.

    Avoids Back-Room Deals: Your marriage analogy only works if the British people want their government to be like marriages, which the anti-Coalition argument suggests they don't. So the answer would be "Yes, marriages work that way, that's why I'm NO2AV!"

    Smacks you Around: Nice wordplay, but it doesn't really go anywhere. The idea that a majority government on 40%+ of the votes isn't fair depends entirely on your definition of fairness, a point I'll expand on in part 4.

  10. Part 2: The point on Italy is taken, but your approach to Israel is interesting. If the primary aim of electoral reform is fairness, and fairness is measured by how closely the apportioning of seats correlates to shares of the popular vote, surely Israel has the fairest system of all? On what grounds do you describe it as "too generous"?

    Part 3: I will happily concede that the German system is better designed than most PR systems, but it comes with its own problems. For a start, successful parties of the far-right are constitutionally illegal in Germany and are banned, in addition to there being a quota to enter the Bundestag. This means that Germany has taken special measures to exclude certain parties, which contributes towards its less-odious-than-most-PR parliaments.

    The other problem with Germany is that when you have a largely three party system (as Germany has for most of its existence) it is impossible to eject the third party from power as it is the only possible coalition partner for the other two. The FDP have held Germany's foreign ministry for the greater portion of its post-war existence despite being far and away the small third party - is that "fair"?

    Part 4: This boils down to our differing interpretations of 'fairness' - indeed everyone has a different interpretation, making it a largely meaningless word in politics. Anyway, I consider FPTP to be fair. Every constituency votes for its MP, and the candidate with the most votes wins. Parliament is made up of constituency representatives. I have no problem with that system. No rational debate will prove either you or I wrong because our definitions and moral goalposts are fundamentally different.

    As for the unionist thing, it is an interesting point. The sad fate of the Scottish Conservatives and how they suffer under FPTP is actually something I've written about before, as I'm sure you've read. I also demolish the 'no mandate' argument here:

    As for Ireland, Sinn Fein intimidated people at the polls and engaged in all kinds of unsavoury practises, and if they'd not won an overall majority I find it highly unlikely they'd have quietly agreed to simply imitate the IPP until their time came.

    Given that unionism and FPTP aren't umbilically linked I can hardly see how the Conservatives in Scotland were hanged by a union jack. Nonetheless, I support FPTP even though it is bad for us in Scotland. I genuinely consider it to be a good, fair electoral system and I don't support it simply for partisan political advantage. I detest nationalists from Ireland to Quebec but the fact that they can derive advantage from it doesn't render FPTP wrong. Perhaps its time you started giving people who disagree with you a little more credit.

  11. First of all, on the "thick" issue, it is a rhetorical question. Same with the second chamber issue. Whilst not an admirer of his politics, Tony Benn has said more than once that British politicians tend to think the electorate is stupid and incapable of understanding things. Benn says that is a dis-service to the electorate.

    What I am getting at is that politicians say that PR is too complicated for the British people to understand. However our continental cousins in some parts with little history of having multi-party system seem to be able to understand PR systems.

    I seem to have stuck some jaggy thistles underneath you!

    Right, concerning coalitions, who says the British people are necessary anti-coalition per se. In Northern Ireland there is constantly coalitions. Grand ones. In Wales they are onto their second coalition.

    In Scotland we had two terms of coalition and if the Lib Dems had not broken negotiations in 2007 we would have had a third. Even the Constitutional Convention that drew up plans for the Scottish Parliament back in the Thatcher-Major years was a Labour-Lib Dem effort.

    Could it maybe that the English do not like coalitions and England exclusively speaks for the UK? Considering that Scotland and NI use PR for most elections and Wales for half (and voting system for councils may change there), is England speaking for the UK?

    (Since in the devolution referendums - that were approved - the electorate knew the systems that the new legislatures would be using, well you cannot say there was no mandate for the system. It was well publicised in Scotland for years before 1997 that a Scottish legislature would be elected by PR).

    Concerning the Scottish Tories, they are in an interesting position of supporting PR in Scotland at council and parliamentary level but agin it for Westminster. Blatantly more an issue of supporting systems where it works in their favour than actual theme of "fairness" or indeed "consistency". Even Cameron was in on the act as he seemed to concede at the end of last week that FPTP ballot for Holyrood worked against the Tories "but urged people to vote Tory on the regional ballot" to get more Tories in. Coming from someone who is against voting reform, now that is chutzpah!

    Concerning the FDP, if the government represents the majority, why should not the FDP not have a large influence in the coalition.

  12. I simply dislike it when any commenter argues that their opponents have to be idiots. If I misunderstood your point I apologise.

    As far as the 'liking coalitions' thing, even if it is only the English as a group that are anti-coalition on a British level that still means the overwhelming majority of the British are anti-coalition as England is about six times the size of the other home nations put together. On pan-British issues it is fair that every citizens opinion counts the same, and if a majority are anti-coalition then the home country breakdown of that figure is irrelevant.

    The "No Mandate" argument I attacked was the idea that the Conservatives have no mandate in Scotland without lots of seats there, I never contested that devolution won the respective referendums.

    I don't see anything wrong with the behaviour of David Cameron or the Conservatives in Scotland. Yes, they're anti-FPTP but they have to work with the system they've got in Scotland, and that includes a regional vote that can help them. If they refused to engage with the regional vote they'd just look deluded.

    As for the FDP, I personally think its a bit iffy that a party can hold the German foreign ministry for decades whilst only winning 7% of the vote.