Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Crossing out and counting in

As the dullest farce in British history crawls to a close, those of us still in the audience grow gloomily aware that we need to write its ending. This flat, tetchy, flimsy spectacle of a referendum campaign is going to have to have a winner. And what rotten, wooden characters to choose from, reciting lines so outrageous they almost threaten to rouse us from the torpor they send us into.

But I don’t know how to abstain. So I have to try to focus: Alternative Vote or First-Past-The-Post?

Throw off the pious fantasies of the ‘yes’ campaign – as if reshaping the ballot paper would make politicians more decent and diligent, as if we could fashion saints using origami. Cast aside the paranoid fallacies of the ‘no’ campaign – as if some people would get more votes than others, as if a vote counts for more when it’s forced to move downmarket than when it can stay with its first true love. Focus.

As you’d expect from a man of his political acumen, David Cameron cuts to the heart of the matter. He says he will vote against a system that is “a confusing mess of preferences, probabilities and permutations”. And so will I.

Under FPTP, you pick which candidate you like the most. Then you try to estimate whether they have a chance of winning, based on your calculations of how other people are going to vote (all the harder given the big boundary changes for 2015). If you assess that they’re unlikely to win, you have to decide whether it’s more important for you to register your support for them or to pick one plausible winner that you prefer to another such. You mentally compile a list of the candidates that you judge to have a fair probability of winning and decide how much you like or dislike each of them. Then you compare how strongly you feel about your favourite candidate with how strongly you feel about the difference between your most and least preferred of the serious contenders.

And then you distil all this down to one cross in one box. One cross, whether you’re wildly keen or glumly tolerant, whether this is your first choice or just the lesser of two evils.

Yes, AV is more complex than FPTP. That’s something it has in common with us: we are more complex than FPTP, and AV lets us show it without having to second-guess whether our favourite is in with a chance. Because AV is more sophisticated, it allows us to be sophisticated too; it doesn’t force us to feign a single, all-or-nothing partisan identity.

And I’m not just talking about political anoraks like me. Most voters don’t have an overwhelming party allegiance. A poll for the Institute for Public Policy Research finds that just 18% of people are strongly attached to one party; 60% of us have some sympathy for a number of parties.

But is AV too complex to understand? Well, the Aussies seem to manage. Londoners seem to manage with the preferential voting system for the mayor. The Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish seem to manage with the assorted proportional systems for their devolved bodies. And the 2010 British Election Study (cited by the IPPR) gave 13,000 people a mock AV ballot: of those who voted in it, more than 90% picked a second preference, over 80% picked a third and over 70% picked a fourth. It seems that most of us have the nous, as well as the range of opinions, to do this.

It’s true, AV will need more explaining than FPTP. But it’s not nearly as hard as people are being led to believe. Alas, the Electoral Commission’s official explanation is dry and abstract; my own effort was also a bit abstract, as well as being handicapped by its own words-of-one-syllable gimmick.

But I have seen one very good showcase for AV – a three-minute video of people picking where to go for a drink. It ingeniously uses ‘voting to make a choice’ as a metaphor for ‘voting to make a choice’. It applies AV and FPTP in an easy-to-understand context, and shows how AV can stop a minority from beating a majority who are divided by less than what unites them.

So I like the process. What about the results?

The concrete effects AV would have are hard to guess. The safest prediction seems to be: (some) more seats for the Lib Dems, making hung parliaments and thus coalition governments (some degree) more common.

I don’t think coalitions are good or bad per se. I’m no fan of the current one, but I don’t imagine I’d like a Tory majority any more. There’s a view, though, that the process of coalition-making is undemocratic. As Janet Daley puts it, “no political leader can be held to account for his pre-election commitments because they must all be up for grabs in the post-election horse-trading”.

The Lib Dem poll ratings disprove this. There’s a world of difference between political leaders feeling able to say ‘don’t blame me, it’s a necessary coalition compromise’ and voters accepting that.

What’s more, with parties competing for lower preferences as well as first ones, campaigns – and our whole political culture – are likely to become less absolutist. Without the dogma of the immaculate election, as the sanctity of the unsullied party ebbs, so the idea of coalition will become less alien. I don’t say this is good or bad, just that if AV does produce coalitions, it’ll do so by a process that gets us thinking in that direction anyway.

So I’m voting ‘yes’. While AV does cost us some clarity, a lot of that clarity is phoney or forced. AV lets us say more. It allows us to think a little more broadly, to do a little more than dump all our reproachful hopes at one person’s door. People who truly do love one party and hate the rest can carry on putting a ‘1’ and nothing else; people who see shades of grey can be as discerning as they please.

There’s a lot more that could be said about either system; I’ve just focused here on the points that keep leaping out to me. And there are plenty of failings in British democracy, both constitutionally and culturally, that a change of voting system won’t solve. But AV or FPTP is the choice we’ve got to make this week. So, however this ends, after the curtain falls and we shuffle back into the daylight, let’s not conclude that ‘reform is done’ or ‘reform is dead’. Let’s try to do politics better.


Anonymous said...

But what will your number 2 vote be?

Phil said...

I'm a soft "No" at the moment, but this is the best argued case I've yet read for AV. It's easier to be convinced when you're not being insulted - let's hope the next referendum has a slightly higher level of debate!

Martha Henson said...

Good post. Though see the Channel 4 fact check blog, which has done quite a bit on AV/FPTP lately, but in this post looks at many claims about each including the likelihood or otherwise of coalitions and hung parliaments under AV:

Fact check blog

It concludes that they are becoming more likely but that this would happen under both FPTP *and* AV.

And I thought your earlier explanation of how it worked was good, I don't think it's really that hard to understand once it's explained clearly, which both sides of the campaign have largely failed to do.

Tom Freeman said...

Phil, thanks. I find it hard to see either system as a monstrosity or as a panacea, so I can't weigh into the debate too furiously. That said, I am being a bit rude to the two campaigns, but I hope I won't hurt their feelings.

Martha: "It concludes that they are becoming more likely but that this would happen under both FPTP *and* AV."

True: the total share of the vote - and seats - won by Labour and Tories combined has been trending downwards for decades. The bigger the other parties become, the likelier hung parliaments are.

But the question is whether AV would change this: would hung parls become likelier under AV than they would become under FPTP? I think it's hard to say no to that. AV would accentuate the trend (assuming the trend continues).

Tom Freeman said...

This flowchart is very good. It illustrates that while an AV ballot paper is more complex than a FPTP one, the calculating process you have to go through is thereby made much simpler.