Business leaders say ‘yes’ to AV, historians say ‘no’: how can they both be so stupid?

It’s hard to comprehend how a group of such distinguished businessmen, and a bunch of academic and popular historians could both have got it so wrong yesterday. The businessmen in question, including leading figures in the financial and retail sectors, signed a letter to The Telegraph in support of the Alternative Vote (AV) voting system. The historians, headed up by Tory MP Chris Skidmore, wrote to The Times (behind that title’s paywall) in defence of the existing First Past the Post (FPTP) method. The arguments used by both sides were simplistic, inaccurate and, in some instances, factually wrong.

First the pro-AV businessmen – all men, as it turns out. Their arguments, in summary, are:

  1. AV would force politicians to work harder in order to secure the more than 50% of the vote needed to be elected
  2. As a consequence, MPs would be more representative of the population as a whole and have more legitimacy
  3. AV better reflects political pluralism and multi-party democracy
  4. AV is fairer and would be good for business.

Dealing with these arguments in turn:

  1. Politicians are not required to secure over 50% of the vote in order to win under AV. This is a fallacy that people should not be taken in by. It’s quite possible – and indeed this has happened in recent Irish by-elections and the Labour leadership ballot – for candidates to win on a minority share of the vote if not enough voters indicate a preference for one of the top-two candidates. One AV supporter I had a comment-stream argument with conceded that, in his own estimate, maybe as many as a quarter to a third of UK seats will still be decided by a minority of voters under AV.

    It is true that politicians will need to work harder to secure the support of second-preference voters. But in most seats, AV still won’t make any difference because the end result after all the vote transfers will be similar to what it would have been under First Past the Post: UKIP supporters will mostly vote Tory as their second preference; Green voters will support Labour or the Lib Dems; Lib Dem votes will transfer mostly to the Greens and Labour; Labour to the Greens and the Lib Dems. The end result will mostly be the same as if some of those voters had voted tactically for their second or third preferences under FPTP.

    As very few constituency results will be different under AV, UK elections will still continue to be decided by a small percentage of swing seats. Even the proponents of AV concede this fact: the result will be decisive at a national level in more seats than under FPTP but still relatively few. The businessmen writing to The Telegraph are confused about this point and extrapolate from the fact that, at constituency level, the result will be decided by more voters (but still not necessarily a majority) to the conclusion that: “Under AV, parties would have to pay far more attention to the majority of people during election campaigns”. Just not true: they’ll still just pour money and people into the swing seats.

  2. It is true that MPs would have more legitimacy insofar as they would be elected by a greater share of voters. But as I observed in point 1 above, many MPs will continue to be elected by a minority of voters in their constituency. And merely winning over 50% of the vote is a slender test of legitimacy, especially as the basis for that majority in the AV system is so flaky. In fact, the winner in an AV ballot can often obtain a smaller and weaker majority of first and subsequent preferences than one of the losers, based on the fact that the second preferences of people who’ve voted for one of the last two candidates left in the race are not counted. For example, if the final round in an AV ballot involves a Labour and Conservative candidate, the second preferences of first-preference Labour and Tory voters are not counted. These will mainly be for the Lib Dem, who might then be the recipient of a greater total of first plus second preferences than either the Labour or Conservative candidate. But as these votes are not counted, the most popular and ‘legitimate’ candidate – more closely representative of the views of most voters – is not elected.

    Besides which, there are much greater questions about the legitimacy of the UK parliament than this mere concern to secure the support of a dubious ‘majority’, particularly all the issues around the governance of England. What point does all this minor tinkering with the voting system have if the body that’s elected remains an illegitimate and unaccountable parliament for England in which MPs not elected in England have a decisive say in England’s laws; and a parliament that does not speak for England nor stand up for her people’s needs and rights within the UK?

  3. It is also true that AV does take more account of political pluralism and that one of the reasons why FPTP has become so unfair is that parties can now win large parliamentary majorities on quite small minority shares of the vote, such as Labour’s 2005 majority of around 60 MPs based on a 36% share of the vote across the UK. Nonetheless, AV will not facilitate the emergence of genuine multi-party democracy in the same way that a properly proportional voting system would do. If anything, AV will ultimately concentrate the vote between the leading right- and left-of-centre parties, and will consolidate the present 2 x two-party set-up: Labour and the Tories dominant in the North of England and Midlands (and Labour even more so in Scotland and Wales); and the Lib Dems and the Tories making a clean sweep of the southern half of England. This is because AV acts as a sort of vote funnel: all of the right-of-centre and left-of-centre vote ultimately concentrates behind one leading party. In England, the Tories will cream off the right-of-centre vote; and the left-of-centre vote will line up behind Labour in the North and Midlands, and the Lib Dems in the South.
  4. And so will AV be “good for business”? Yes, probably; because the present British establishment will not be shaken up, and you’ll have permanent government of the centre, rather than full-scale multi-party democracy – let alone an English parliament. So it’ll be business as usual, in fact.

Now for the historians. Their letter is hidden behind the Times paywall, but a good summary is provided by the BBC, and I’m also basing my critique on yesterday’s radio coverage. Their arguments, as I take it, are as follows:

  1. AV compromises the hard-won principle of ‘one person, one vote’, in that those whose second and subsequent preferences are counted get several bites at the cherry, while those whose first preferences only are counted get only one vote.
  2. AV also casts aside the principle of ‘majority voting’.
  3. FPTP delivers strong government at a national level, with one party obtaining a clear majority, and better representation at the constituency level, since MPs are directly accountable to their constituents.

Let’s look at these arguments in turn:

  1. First of all, to say that, under AV, some people get multiple votes while others get only one vote is a crass misrepresentation. The way to understand AV is that it is a form of run-off voting. In fact, in the US, where AV is used in municipal elections in a growing number of states, they call it ‘Instant Run-Off Voting’ (IRV) for that very reason. In other words, it’s as if you were holding multiple ballots in which losing candidates are progressively eliminated but in which every elector can still cast a vote at each stage. Those who’ve voted for unsuccessful candidates then re-cast their vote for one of the candidates still in the race. But those whose chosen candidate is still in contention continue to vote for them. Therefore, in effect, every voter has multiple votes; it’s just that those whose preferred candidates have not been eliminated continue to vote at each stage for the same candidate.

    Are the historians really saying that people whose first-preference candidate has been eliminated should not be allowed to say whether they support one of the remaining candidates? The consequence of not allowing such people to influence the final result is the gross distortion of FPTP, where the result is in fact mostly influenced by only a minority of voters, and where furthermore even those minorities are inflated by the votes of people who’d rather support another party but vote tactically instead because they know their votes would otherwise be wasted. Ignoring the wishes of these voters would be like having a group of ten people, four of whom were in favour of one course of action (A), three supported another idea (B), two backed C and one D. Those who are in the A camp then bully all the others into accepting the ‘will of the majority’ (in fact, a minority: four votes) whereas, if B, C and D had to decide between A or B, they’d rather support B.

    You decide which of these two is more democratic. Besides, the historians have got their history wrong: the story of British democracy has not been a long struggle leading to the sunny uplands of one person, one vote, which has been in place since 1928, according to them. Wrong: as one commentator points out, up until 1950, graduates had two votes, the second of which under PR. And as Matthew Roberts has shown, multi-member constituencies were the norm until the Third Reform Act of 1884-5, and: “The United Kingdom is one of the few countries that implemented single-member constituencies as part of its journey towards democracy, and it is one of the few developed democracies to use a voting system based solely on single-member constituencies for general elections”. And that’s because single-member, plurality systems produce such unfair, disproportional results.

  2. This is where the historians, frankly, are being plain stupid when they say that FPTP enshrines the ‘majority’ principle. Not true. How can the possibility of being elected on a minority share of the vote as low as 30% or less be said to respect the majority principle? I think the word they are looking for is ‘plurality’, as in the candidate with the largest share of the vote – whether a minority or majority – wins. It is in fact AV that enshrines the majority principle in that it at least aspires to produce an absolute majority for the winning candidate, even though it frequently fails to achieve this and the majorities in question are often flawed, as argued above. And just as the winning candidate in UK FPTP elections mostly fails to win a majority, so any party achieving a parliamentary majority fails to win a majority of votes across the UK as a whole. Maybe that’s the majority principle the historians had in mind: a parliamentary majority as opposed to the actual support of a majority? If that’s what they meant, then they’re really showing their elitist, anti-democratic colours.
  3. And as for FPTP producing strong, single-party government and better constituency representation, well it’s FPTP that gave us the present coalition government, and it would be just as likely to produce a similar result in future elections if no party can command enough support on its own to win outright. Maybe if Labour continues to ride high on the votes of disaffected Lib Dem supporters, they might be able to win a majority in an FPTP election; but the Tories won’t, unless they somehow manage to cross the threshold of 40% support that has eluded them since the days of Maggie T. And in any case, as I argued above, the election result will only be marginally different under AV compared with FPTP: if a party’s going to win outright under FPTP, they’ll probably do so under AV, possibly with an even larger majority, as indeed it has been projected that Labour’s 1997 landslide would have been even bigger using AV.

So it cuts both ways, really: if you want massive unrepresentative majorities, then you can’t complain if it’s the other side that wins them; plus in any case, AV won’t be any better and might be worse. And as for FPTP making for more representative MPs, that’s just silly: how can an MP that needs to win the support of only 30% of voters be a better representative than one who wins 50%, or a bit more or less? Plus AV is a single-member system, so if anything it embodies the principle of an MP being directly accountable to his constituents in just the same way as FPTP.

    It’s amazing how stupid such bright and successful people can be. Maybe that should be the real lesson here: successful establishment people back a system that’s worked for them, however unfair it is, and however much logic, common sense and even factual accuracy need to be distorted to justify it. Both FPTP and AV are designed to bolster that system of disproportional, unaccountable UK-parliamentary sovereignty over England.

    The people of England deserve better, which is why we should vote both options down: don’t vote for either of the electoral frauds on offer, but write ‘English parliament now!’ on your referendum ballot paper!


    2 Responses

    1. I’m not sure if you read comments on old posts. I’ll probably put my genral thoughtsbon your posts together in one place on an up to date post, but thought I’d add this here.

      For reasons I’ll go into later I think measuring the last round votes as a percentage of the number of valid first round votes is flawed anyway but even so I’m amazed you cant find better examples of real situations where the winner didn’t get 50% using that measurement.

      The two linked examples are

      o Sullivan 13739 out of 28412 or 48.4 %
      Ed Milliband 48.8%

      Hardly massive deviations below 50%

      • Yes, but it’s the point of principle: the pro-AV camp often casually state that, with AV, you have to get over 50% support to win, which is just not true. It’s a very big claim that is made for the system, so the fact that it isn’t true is significant. Plus I expect that in AV elections in England there may be many winners that get a lower share of the vote than that because there’ll be a lot of voters that won’t transfer their vote to candidates from the three mainstream parties (I’m probably one of them); and also because the actual count will sometimes be stopped when there are three candidates left (when one candidate obtains more than 50% of the votes left in play) but without yet having racked up an overall majority, as I point out here.

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