Voting reform in the UK

This is the first time I’ve ever written about politics on this blog, and I hope it will be the last.  [Edit: it wasn’t.  Three more posts on AV followed — #1, #2, #3]  Usually I don’t like to swim in such murky waters, but here in the UK we have a referendum coming up in five days’ time — Thursday 5th May — that I think is the most important vote of my lifetime, and I want to take a moment to explain why.

In the UK, we use the simplest of all possible voting schemes to elect our MPs.  Everyone votes, and the candidate with the most votes wins.  This is appealing in its simplicity, but has a grave problem.  Suppose a constituency is roughly split so that 40% each support the Tuna Nigiri party and the Unagi Maki party.  The other 20% would like the Salmon Nigiri party to get in, but they realise that voting for Salmon Nigiri is hopeless — there just aren’t enough supporters for them to get in.

In this very common situtation, Salmon Nigiri fans will look at the other parties and say “Well, I certainly don’t want to eat tuna, so I will vote for the Unagi Maki party, even though I don’t really like their candidate”; or, as it may be, “I certainly don’t want to eat eel, so I will vote for the Tuna Nigiri party, even though I don’t really like their candidate”.

This is called “tactical voting”.

A better name for it would be “lying”.

The brutal fact of the democracy that I live in is that nearly every time I’ve voted, I’ve had to vote for a candidate that I didn’t want to win.  That’s because the real choice was between him and a candidate that I really, really didn’t want to win.  And the stupid result of this is of course that the candidate who I actually did want to win didn’t get my vote.  (No doubt he also missed out on many other people’s votes — and, who knows, might even have surprised everyone by winning had we not all voted tactically.)

This is fundamentally wrong.  I want to stop lying on my ballot forms every time election year comes round, and that is why I will be voting YES TO AV, and I hope you will, too.

Under the proposed replacement voting system — Alternative Vote, or AV for short — you list your preferred candidates in order.  So I would vote Salmon Nigiri as my first choice, and Tuna Nigiri as my second.  (Some advocates of the current system complain that this is too complicated for voters to understand.  I think they they should give their constituents a little more credit than that.)

I am not even going to explain how the votes are tallied under the AV system, and how the winner is decided (though it’s not hard to guess).  Because for me that is not the point.  The point is that I don’t have to lie.

This might not make any actual difference to who gets in, of course.  I hope that it will in many constituencies, and that people’s real preferences will be elected rather than the candidates they feel obliged to vote for.  But whether or not it makes a difference, the AV system is better because it’s just Right.

There are lots of other arguments in favour of the AV system — maybe most intuitively, this image, which I got from an article on Andrew Hickey’s blog:

But I’m not going to go into any of that.  My position is simpler.  We should adopt the AV system so that we don’t have to lie in every other election.

Thanks for listening.

24 responses to “Voting reform in the UK

  1. Unfortunately, elections (in the general case) can never be perfect, as proven by Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem: https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Arrow%27s_impossibility_theorem

    But we can often make it better even if not perfect…

  2. I shall be voting YES as my first choice, and NO as my second.

  3. These types of voting systems are very nice in theory, but I’m afraid that in practice they simply tend to favor centrist candidates and push parties increasingly to the center.

    I don’t know the details of the specific system being proposed in the UK, but I am a bit skeptical that it will make tactical voting impossible or useless. In my experience people tend to vote tactically anyway, ranking the alternative they see as the biggest threat to “their” candidate as the last. This can lead to very surprising and inconsistent results.

  4. We have a similar system in Australia. Everything is good about it. It is a fantastic system. Vote yes.

  5. Politicians are a lot like statistics.

    There are lies, damned lies, and then there are statistics.
    There are liars, damned liars, and then there are politicians…

  6. Martin, huh? I know of nothing that pushes parties to the center faster than FPTP. Compare the USA.

    Now, maybe you want something to help some more representative candidates get in, like proportional representation. I think the AV is a step in that direction.

  7. You’ve certainly made me feel quite peckish, but it won’t be any easier to choose sushi in future (and even though they look tasty you never can tell which one might give you food poisoning) :(

  8. Paul Benjamin

    I’m pretty sure AV is the result of tactical voting…

    The liberal democrats would like to have PR but they realized voting for PR was hopeless.

    By your logic they are liars…

    AV is a halfway measure which neither provides stable governments (coalitions with the LD playing kingmaker will become the norm) nor accurately provides seats in proportion to the votes cast.

  9. Chris Purcell

    I highly recommend Professor Gowers’ post on AV: http://gowers.wordpress.com/2011/04/20/is-av-better-than-fptp/

    What different politicians were or were not thinking when the AV referendum was agreed is irrelevant. What’s important is whether it is better or worse than FPTP. We don’t get to vote for PR. Halfway to decent is still better than nothing.

    @Martin: hopefully that’s a matter of education.

  10. Paul: AV doesn’t make tactical voting impossible (no deterministic ranked voting system does). But that’s not the point: Under the current system, tactical voting isn’t merely possible but is practically mandatory, and by engaging in it you’re losing the opportunity to vote for who you really want.

  11. As a side note, if the referendum goes through yes, it sounds like there’s a decent chance of getting more electoral reform in the form of actually getting PR, only in the house of lords rather than the house of commons: http://www.economist.com/node/18617926

  12. I’m from British Columbia, Canada, and this is the first I’ve heard of this AV-SMP debate. Based on your scant details it sounds like a proposed system here called Single Transferable Vote (STV), although not entirely the same. [Some of my terminology may not be the same as in Britain]
    STV involved merging several ridings / constituencies so that you elected several MLAs (~MPs for a province) from one area. You voted for your candidates in order, but you got 1 effective vote. They could calculate how many votes your top candidate needed to win, and then give the remaining fractional vote to the second candidate, and so on. If your first candidate was in the bottom and couldn’t get elected, your entire vote would be transferred to your next best. It is very interesting, but has been called a mathematicians dream (pejoratively). We held a referendum around 2005 to switch our voting from first past the post (or Single Member Plurality) to STV , and it only achieved about 58% of the vote (of the needed 60). Because it was so close they held another referendum in 2009 with more funding for both sides (as our parties remained neutral), it failed with somewhere around 35-45 of the vote this time.
    The referendums where held during provincial elections as a seperate question, what I have suspected was that the changing in the question wording was the reason for the decline. In 2005 it was “Which voting system should BC adopt?” with options: “Single Member Plurality” or “Single Transferable Vote”. In 2009 it was “Should BC switch from Single Member Plurality to Single Transferable Vote?” with options: “Yes” or “No”.
    Anyway that was unfortunately the end of it, I hope you guys can fair better.

  13. First, as has been pointed out, there cannot be a perfect voting system. In every system there are scenarios in which it could be claimed that the person chosen isn’t the best representative of the voters’ preferences. This will always be true, it’s an inescapable mathematical truth.

    Second, most of the “improvements” I’ve seen offered as alternatives to first-past-the-post have as a consequence – whether intentional or unintentional – to move the system from voting for a person to voting for a party.

    Which makes them entirely unacceptable unless there is openness and transparency in how the candidates for each party are chosen.

    Who chooses the Mauve Party candidate for Lower-West Watley? Is it the Mauve Party members of Lower-West Watley? Or the Mauve Party central committee? Is it done in open caucus? Party primary Convention? Primary election? Or is it done in a back room, somewhere, by shadowy figures who are unaccountable to the voters of Lower-West Watley?

    It’s far more important that the decisions about whose names are put on the ballot be open and accountable than that the vote between them be FPTP, AV, or PR.

  14. Gareth Jones

    @Jeff Dege:

    (Advance apologies for the inevitable political rant. I normally try to avoid talking about politics, it makes me very cynical about the world. Also bear in mind I probably don’t know what I’m talking about…)

    At heart I agree with Jeff. But the problem is that in practice (in a general election at least), people are already voting for political parties rather than individual representatives, whether they accept that or not. The only way to beat the parties (locally) is to vote for an independent, if a good sane one is available.

    Our MPs apparently represent their parties’ interests over those of their constituents, and can *effectively* be sacked for not towing the party line and voting as told to. We even have dedicated “whips” to ensure this. To me this is nothing short of corruption. Parties should be loose coalitions allowing MPs to work towards common goals, not systems for wannabe presidents to hijack government. None the less this system is entrenched and unlikely to be broken any time soon. We’d probably need a separate cabinet/presidential election for leadership if parties were weakened too.

    PR-like voting methods match the modern reality of our democracy better than FPTP. They are indeed a patch that misses the real problem. But unless the real problem is fixed then PR-like systems seem to be better than nothing.

    I can’t help thinking that the referendum on AV is a clever way of putting any kind of meaningful reform (whether breaking parties or switching to STV) to bed for another generation however: “the public don’t want it” vs. “there, done that, don’t need to do any more, expensive, see how it turns out…”. Still I’ll vote for AV if only out of spite to the idiotic and insulting arguments against reform coming from certain MPs. I’ve come to accept that having my vote misrepresented is pretty much standard for any national election.

    Anyway I’ll shut up now.

  15. “Parties should be loose coalitions allowing MPs to work towards common goals, not systems for wannabe presidents to hijack government.”

    I can’t speak for how things are in the UK. I’m in Minnesota, USA. We’ve a complicated system, involving party caucuses in each precinct, that elect delegates to the district convention. The convention endorses a candidate, which is supposed to bring party support to that candidate, but who actually ends up on the ballot is determined by a primary election. The endorsed candidate gets to say he’s the endorsed candidate on the ballot, but that doesn’t always mean a lot.

    I can think of a number of instances in which a district’s endorsing convention chose to endorse someone other than the incumbent. In these cases, it’s not uncommon for the central committee to back the incumbent against the endorsed challenger in the primary. Still, if the challenger wins, he or she will be on the general election ballot. There are a number of sitting politicians in Minnesota who have won seats this way. Not a lot, but a few.

    I don’t think that the way we do things is necessarily the best. But I do think that it is essential for the voters to have not only the choice between parties, but a voice in how the parties themselves are run. It’s far too easy to end up in situations in which none of the parties speak to the concerns of the voters.

  16. Pingback: UK Voting « Place of Stuff

  17. Gareth Jones

    (Another long post, sorry. Tl;dr: I think I agree with Jeff, but I’ll still vote for AV for lack of better options.)

    I’m not sure what the legal rules are, but in the UK basically anyone can stand for election if they pay the deposit fee. The choice of official party-endorsed candidates is fairly arbitrary and effectively closed-doors to anyone who isn’t already heavily involved in party machinery.

    It even varies party-to-party how the leader is chosen – potentially the future PM should said party go on to form a government. Major party leaders are allocated “safe seats” to ensure they are elected into any government or opposition that their party may form, even if they have no actual local connection.

    The loyalty/accountability problem is made worse in government when further ministerial positions (allocated to regionally elected MPs by the governing party leadership) also conflict with constituency concerns and representation.

    Joining a party gives one some say in how it is run, but how much say is very party-dependent. There’s a lot of politics… Most people don’t feel any party really represents them and so don’t get involved, although this is chicken-and-egg.

    Really there should be separate electoral processes for constituency and PM/cabinet/ministerial MPs – FPTP isn’t at all suited for what is in all-but-name a combined parliamentary and presidential election, and PR-like systems only help so much.

    How to weaken and democratize the parties I don’t know, but it is fundamentally important.

  18. Gareth Jones

    On a lighter note, we not only have beer, we also have LOLcats:
    What more could you possibly want?

    Now I shall stop hijacking this blog… Sorry Mike!

  19. Gareth Jones

    There should be a URI there:
    youtube

  20. “Major party leaders are allocated “safe seats” to ensure they are elected into any government or opposition that their party may form, even if they have no actual local connection.”

    And maybe that’s the biggest problem. Candidates seeking office from a district should be limited to those who reside in the district. And while the parties should be able to set their own rules, it should be the party organization in that district that picks the candidate for that district.

    I said in my earlier comment “I don’t think that the way we do things is necessarily the best”. That came off far stronger than I had intended. I don’t believe the way we do things is in any way the best. But there are forces in play, in our system, that I think are essential.

    I don’t think that a party that was fragmented into multitudes of little fiefdoms would be effective, either at running candidates or at running the government should it win. But there has to be some tension between the centralizing and decentralizing forces within each party. And the central committees will always have the better connections, and the money, and the full-time staff to do their work, that the yobs out in the sticks won’t. There needs to be some sort of structure in place to at least partially counter that.

  21. Pingback: British readers: vote on AV tomorrow! | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  22. Pingback: British readers: vote on AV tomorrow! | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  23. Pingback: British readers: vote on AV tomorrow! | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  24. Pingback: British readers: vote on AV tomorrow! | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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