April 21, 2011

Cutting through the fog on the AV referendum

Politics students wanting to go beyond the deliberate distortions and lies of the UK’s voting system referendum campaign could do worse than check out this blog: http://gowers.wordpress.com/2011/04/20/is-av-better-than-fptp/

It’s written by a mathematician, but despite that gives a clear, readable and methodical guide to the facts and fallacies of both sides’ claims.

One issue it is weak on is lessons from the practice of the Alternative Vote. As an occasional Australian, I’d have pointed you in the direction of comprehensive analyses of the Australian practice, but alas, there are none recent and therefore available online through the Warwick library. Instead, check out this comment from Professor Leach in Economics:

See also a Political Studies Association briefing paper by Alan Renwick at Reading: http://www.psa.ac.uk/PSAPubs/TheAlternativeVoteBriefingPaper.pdf

Also have a look at Sanders, David et al. 2010, ‘Simulating the effects of the Alternative Vote in the 2010 UK General Election,’ Parliamentary Affairs 64(1):5, and then my colleague David Hugh-Jones’s response, available under ‘Working Papers’ at

Finally, I’m going to do something I never normally do: express a clear political preference to my students. I don’t normally do this because I’m trying to train you to think through evidence yourselves, not simply to use me as a proxy for what to think or not to think. However, in this case the publicly-available evidence being provided by the No camp is so strikingly manipulative and scare-mongering that I feel it my duty to say so. I will be voting “Yes”, not because I think AV is the best system there is – I’m a supporter of mixed member proportional systems, as in Scotland, Germany, New Zealand and elsewhere – but because I think that First Past the Post (or single-member plurality) voting is quite obviously the worst of the lot.

Lest anyone in the Yes camp get too excited about that last paragraph, you too should be ashamed – the Nick Griffin ads are beneath you.

- 4 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Sue

    I listened to a discussion on the radio a few weeks ago between Kenneth Clarke and John Prescott about AV. Ken Clarke said that AV was a ridiculous system because you needed two degrees in mathematics to understand it. John Prescott said that was absurd and to understand the system you only needed to be able to count to three. At that time I wasn’t sure how the system worked so I took the advice of Ken Clarke and asked someone with two maths degrees to explain it to me. l was a little confused at first but I asked this person which system she thought was best (the present one or AV) and she said that she would be voting for AV. As I trust her judgment I’ve decided to do the same.

    21 Apr 2011, 23:21

  2. Gordon Lee

    How about the practical effects of AV?

    AV has worked well in Papua New Guinea because in politics that are highly fragmented along ethnic and tribal lines, AV prevents candidates from behaving in an overly partisan way, making them seek support beyond their own communal base in order to gain the 2nd preference votes and get elected with an overall majority. But this is the very opposite of Britain’s situation, where three nationwide parties stand accused of becoming increasingly similar, and a worrying number of potential voters abstain from deciding between them. AV is said by specialists to be the best system for promoting centrist politics, just what reformers in Britain wish to avoid.

    AV does force parties to “reach out”, but this occurs with parties essentially have to say to core supporters of another party “Look, we are not that different, so put us as your second preference.” With more parties incentivised to adopt even more similar centrist positions under AV, voter choice is harmed.

    24 Apr 2011, 01:05

  3. Tom

    To the above: that’s complete rubbish. The very fact that the three main parties in this country offer pretty much the same ideological package proves the need for AV, a system where a voter can choose their real first choice, without worrying that by not voting tactically, they might have put the worst possible party in. Tactical voting, a scourge of FPTP democracy, would be eliminated. Voting outside the big three would be a realistic option for the first time ever.

    To give an example, 2% of Americans voted Green in the 2000 election. The vast majority later confirmed that they’d have sooner had the Democratic candidate, Al Gore, in power than the Republican, George Bush. But they voted Green, and so their votes were worthless. Bush won by less than 1%. If the greens had voted strategically, for Al Gore, they would’ve been spared at least 4 years of Republican rule. In an AV system, the Greens could have listed said party as their first preference and Democrats as their second. When the Greens were eliminated, the Democrats would’ve hit 50% and won.

    That’s real democracy. In any case, even if AV is a crap compromise, it’s a step away from the mindleess tyranny of the majority we’ve suffered in this country since ‘democracy’ was born.

    24 Apr 2011, 17:36

  4. Thanks for those comments folks. In further reponse to Gordon, may I add that comparing the effects of a voting system between countries is always fraught with difficulty, but picking PNG as the relevant comparator is particularly unhelpful given the vast differences in culture, social structures, institutions, history, and so on. You cannot tell whether what you are seeing is caused by the voting system or some other variable. In response to Sue, if you think about it, what is harder to understand – the maths of AV or the maths of FPP, a system where governments are usually formed by parties that fail to gain a majority of votes, and sometimes who fail to gain a plurality (the largest number) too?

    Again, for the record, I think the benefits of AV are being oversold but so are its dangers. Tactical voting is still possible, it’s just that the incentives are reduced; it’s still a single-member constituency-based system in which the winner takes all; it will not magically remove the politics from politics. It’s an improvement on FPP, but it’s not SO much different that the political landscape of Britain will be unrecognisable. The powerful use whatever system they have to exert power. Just look at New Zealand, where despite a mixed-member proportional system, the current right wing government is still able to implement much of its usual agenda, much as it always did. I will be voting for change, but I do not expect revolution in its wake.

    26 Apr 2011, 09:55

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