Red and wrong: Labour No to AV’s dubious claims

Dr Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, takes apart the arguments against AV used by some in the Labour party.

By Dr Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos, Senior Lecturer in Politics, Birkbeck College, University of London

The Labour opponents of the Alternative Vote propagate several dubious – at best – arguments that deserve to be answered head-on.

“Keep one person, one vote” they claim, but where is the equality in a system – such as the current one – that awards a parliamentary seat to a candidate whose opponents outnumber their supporters.

Their slogan amounts to little more than hypocrisy when it comes from supporters (and even MPs) of a party that gives more than one vote to some of those who elect its leader.

More importantly, what is wrong with having the support of an absolute majority (as opposed to a mere plurality) of voters.

If the Labour opponents of AV genuinely care for equality of representation, they should be supporting a system that brings an end to artificially ‘safe’ seats where huge numbers of voters have little chance of affecting election results.

Some skillfully try to associate AV with the empowerment of ‘fringe candidates’ or even extreme parties like the BNP but fail to tell us why voters would choose these candidates if their concerns had been successfully addressed by mainstream parties.

Ignoring the essence of the forthcoming referendum – i.e. the strict choice between the two options – some amongst them point out that AV is not a proportional system. While this is true, the Labour campaign against AV should use this argument only if they tell us (i) that they support proportional representation and (ii) precisely how they will bring about its introduction.

In addition, they argue that AV would be:

 “…taking power away from voters and allowing the Liberal Democrats to choose the government after each election.”

In reality, AV is much fairer than the current system because it enables voters to indicate – only to the extent that they wish to do so – the range of parties they are willing to support thus giving a steer to politicians when they conduct such negotiations, if the election leads to a hung parliament.

Indeed, the leaders of parties that conduct these negotiations would be far more constrained if they knew – along with the voters themselves – the full range of preferences of the voters who supported them; thus preventing unpopular coalitions.

Some also claim that electoral reform is not amongst the issues that are ‘raised on the doorstep’. I wonder, was the regulation of the financial services industry – i.e. the industry that has been allowed to wreak financial and economic havoc in this country and beyond – ever raised at the doorstep until 2008?

True to the pluralitarian logic of the system that they support, they claim that 2.4 billion people use it; however, this does not make it fair. If – as John Healey implies – AV ought to be rejected because it is only used in three countries, what exactly is Labour willing to do in order to introduce PR; which is used (in one form or another) by the vast majority of European countries?

Citing the Sun, Labour opponents of AV claim to have demonstrated that the introduction of AV will cost £250 million – including £13om on counting machines – when these machines are not needed, as the long Australian experience demonstrates. Moreover, as Channel 4’s FactCheck pointed out,

“no one – not the Treasury, not the Cabinet Office and not the Electoral Commission – is seriously thinking about bringing in electronic voting. So the main claim of the No to AV camp, that voting machines will add an extra £130m to the bill for an AV election, still looks decidedly dodgy.”

Nevertheless, even if the overall figure were accurate, it would certainly be justified, even in an era of austerity. After all, the gradual expansion of voting rights has made the electoral process more expensive to run but who would oppose this development on grounds of cost.

Given that symbols matter, they consistently link (the now much less popular) Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats with AV but fail to acknowledge that they themselves have de facto joined forces with David Cameron, George Osborne and the Murdoch-owned Sun in support of the current electoral system.

Despite notable exceptions including Ed Miliband, the small groups that run the two main political parties do not want power to be dispersed. Rather, they want it to remain concentrated in a handful of people. AV can help ordinary citizens shape political outcomes to a much greater extent than the current system would ever allow them to do. This is why it is a step in the right direction.

15 Responses to “Red and wrong: Labour No to AV’s dubious claims”

  1. Dr Eoin Clarke

    RT @leftfootfwd: Red and wrong: Labour No to AV's dubious claims: http://bit.ly/eIVGDt by Dr Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos #Yes2AV @YesInMay

  2. Duncan Stott

    RT @leftfootfwd: Red and wrong: Labour No to AV's dubious claims: http://bit.ly/eIVGDt by Dr Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos #Yes2AV @YesInMay

  3. Ben Cadwallader

    RT @leftfootfwd: Red and wrong: Labour No to AV's dubious claims: http://bit.ly/eIVGDt by Dr Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos #Yes2AV @YesInMay

  4. YES! Portsmouth

    RT @leftfootfwd: Red and wrong: Labour No to AV's dubious claims: http://bit.ly/eIVGDt by Dr Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos #Yes2AV @YesInMay

  5. Ash

    “what is wrong with having the support of an absolute majority”

    “AV is much fairer than the current system because it enables voters to indicate… the range of parties they are willing to support”

    I’ll be voting ‘yes’, but I have to say I’m uncomfortable with all the talk about voters indicating the candidates they “support”, and conversely about candidates needing the “support” of a majority of local voters.

    “Support” just feels like too strong and positive a word to me. If the Tories, the Lib Dems, Labour and the BNP were all standing in my constituency, I would feel obliged to vote *against* the BNP by ranking Labour 1, the Lib Dems 2 and the Tories 3; I wouldn’t want to fail to express a preference between any of those three parties and the BNP. But if the Tories went on to win on third preferences – or if the Lib Dems went on to win on second preferences, for that matter – it would be a bit rich to suggest they had my “support”.

    In general, preferring candidate A to candidate B doesn’t mean you “support” candidate A, and if we get AV I fear this sort of talk might just encourage MPs who’ve won on second and third preferences to kid themselves about the level of “support” their party’s policies enjoy among constituents.

  6. Francis McGonigal

    Today’s Guardian has a full-page advert by the NO to AV campaign (Back page, Monday 28th March). This states that the referendum is about a change from “One Person One Vote” to the Alternative Vote system. This is not the case. Under AV a vote may be transferred according to the wishes of the voter, but AV upholds the principle of “One Person One Vote”. Furthermore the advert states, under the heading “Official Electoral Commission Description” that “In short, some people’s votes count more than others”. Perhaps the Electoral Commission should be asked whether they uphold this ridiculous interpretation of AV.
    Unfortunately some Labour MPs and Trade Unions are against AV somehow thinking that a NO vote will hasten the demise of the coalition. In fact the opposite will be the case – if AV is rejected Lib Dems will have nothing to gain by breaking ranks with the Tories.

  7. AV2011

    Three points:

    “If the Labour opponents of AV genuinely care for equality of representation, they should be supporting a system that brings an end to artificially ‘safe’ seats…”

    AV does not end safe seats. Nor will it necessarily reduce the number of safe seats. As Dr Renwick of Reading University and author of A Guide To Electoral Reform points out: “The biggest problem for YES is that AV won’t significantly change the number of safe seats. Certainly the claim that AV ends safe seats is untrue.”

    “What is wrong with having the support of an absolute majority (as opposed to a mere plurality) of voters.” Well, also ask what is RIGHT about it?

    Market research finds that “for general elections, voters consider which party they wish to govern the country, and see the election of their local representative MP only as a means to this end. Candidates are generally expected to support policies equivalent to those of the party, so are not regarded as separate entities.”

    If the choice of party is the primary voter consideration and the constituency is only a means in which to register this support, then why is it important that a party gets a measure of support from the majority in a constituency? If voters want to have a say in electing a government then the most important factor is that everyone’s first choice counts in determining the composition of Parliament. This requires a proportional system in which each vote counts equally. Both AV and FPP perform equally abysmally in achieving this; there is no reason to prefer AV in this respect. When we focus on the bigger and more important picture of what voters want, the requirement for majority support is neutralized.

    “In reality, AV is much fairer than the current system because it enables voters to indicate – only to the extent that they wish to do so – the range of parties they are willing to support thus giving a steer to politicians when they conduct such negotiations, if the election leads to a hung parliament.”

    For electoral reformers, a system is fair if and only if it allocates seats proportionately to votes. Under AV most scenarios show that only the LibDems will consistently gain more seats. Will they take account of how many first preferences UKIP get when negotiating foreign policy during negotiations?

    We outline the principled case against AV on our website.

  8. Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos

    My response to the comments posted by AV2011 is as follows:

    On AV and safe seats, my point concerned artificially ‘safe’ seats, i.e. constituencies where the MP does not actually command the support of an absolute majority of those who have voted. If AV is adopted, no MP will be elected without the explicit support of an absolute majority.

    This is directly linked to the second criticism:
    “What is wrong with having the support of an absolute majority (as opposed to a mere plurality) of voters.” Well, also ask what is RIGHT about it? The simple and pretty fundamental point that under AV 50%+1 is – as in maths – greater than 50%-1. As a result, the legitimacy of the incumbent is far greater. Again, opponents of AV contradict themselves if they both claim the opposite and that they support the “one person, one vote” principle.

    Also, since we are asked to choose between two options (FPTP and AV) it is important to compare them which is what I did when I argued that “AV is much fairer than the current system”. This is so also because politicians who try to form a coalition government (if it comes to that) know as much as the voters on what kind of support they have.

  9. Ash

    AV2011

    “For electoral reformers, a system is fair if and only if it allocates seats proportionately to votes.”

    Huh? Only if you define ‘electoral reformer’ as ‘someone who thinks a system is fair if and only if it allocates seats proportionately to votes’! If you define it (more reasonably) as meaning ‘someone who wants to reform the electoral system’, electoral reformers could support anything from STV to AV+ to AV, or even (say) keeping FPTP in the Commons and having a second chamber based on another system.

    Dionyssis

    “no MP will be elected without the explicit support of an absolute majority”

    To reiterate: I just don’t accept that expressing a preference for candidate A over candidate B amounts to giving candidate A one’s “explicit support”. If pressed, I would have to concede that I prefer sprouts to vomit, but that falls some way short of an explicit expression of support for the inclusion of sprouts among my pizza toppings.

  10. cim

    Let me say before I begin: when the choices are AV and FPTP, AV every time. Definitely. I have never encountered a situation in which FPTP would be superior and I doubt I ever will.

    But there are some terrible arguments for AV in this post, which are based on common misconceptions about the properties of AV as an electoral system. (Spot on with the cost argument, though)

    “where is the equality in a system – such as the current one – that awards a parliamentary seat to a candidate whose opponents outnumber their supporters.”

    A fair question, but:
    1) By definition any multi-member PR system will do that; that being the whole point.
    2) Even if we restrict ourselves to single-member systems, AV is quite capable of doing that too. Consider the following set of preferences:
    10 votes: A B C
    9 votes: C B A
    3 votes: B C A
    3 votes: B A C
    Candidate A will win in AV (13-12 over C in round 2), but a majority of voters prefer candidate B to candidate A (15-10)

    This would be an argument in favour of Condorcet, not AV.

    “what is wrong with having the support of an absolute majority (as opposed to a mere plurality) of voters.”

    And it’s not even a majority of voters guaranteed anyway – some initial projections I’ve done suggest that, depending on the way the votes fall, some English seats could see the winner have only 40-45% of the initial votes (though of course over 50% of the remaining transferable votes). The majority would be over 50% of the original, though.

    And fully agreed with Ash’s points on the difference between the relative support expressed by AV preferences (A more than B) and the absolute support implied by that sort of statement (perhaps Approval Voting with a threshold would be more suited here?)

    “Indeed, the leaders of parties that conduct these negotiations would be far more constrained if they knew – along with the voters themselves – the full range of preferences of the voters who supported them;”

    But they’re not going to, not fully. They’ll be able to see how votes were transferred from some candidates in some seats. However:
    – in any seat where there’s a first round victory (probably about a third of all seats, to start with) no transfers will be known
    – in every other seat, potential transfers from the top two candidates will not be known
    – in a seat where a party comes in fourth or fifth (which can even happen to major parties), how many of the third-placed party’s supporters would have transferred to them will again not be known.

    After excluding those voters – which will be the majority of a major party’s first preference voters almost by definition – you have to believe that the minority of remaining voters is representative of all voters. I have my doubts. The coalition decision would essentially be made based on the seats in which the deciding party was third (or worse).

    (Or you could use opinion polling of second preferences to avoid that problem, but you could do that without AV)

    “they should be supporting a system that brings an end to artificially ‘safe’ seats where huge numbers of voters have little chance of affecting election results.”

    There are actually relatively few seats which are safe under FPTP that would be meaningfully contested under AV. On the scale of “ultra-marginal, marginal, moderate, safe, ultra-safe” it’s unlikely to move a seat more than one place.

    Multi-member PR is the only system that would end safe seats. AV will marginally reduce their numbers (and could make some other seats even safer)

  11. Mr. Sensible

    I think all this talk about safe seats is a bit misleading; we only need look at situations like what happened in Ashfield in 2010 to see why.

    And if we have more situations like after the 2010 election and how the Lib Dems did their about turns, that isn’t exactly giving power to voters is it…

  12. Ash

    “10 votes: A B C
    9 votes: C B A
    3 votes: B C A
    3 votes: B A C
    Candidate A will win in AV (13-12 over C in round 2), but a majority of voters prefer candidate B to candidate A (15-10)”

    Very interesting – especially as this looks so plausible as a real-life split between three main parties (= e.g. Con-Lib-Lab 10,000, Lab-Lib-Con 9,000, Lib-Lab-Con 3,000, Lib-Con-Lab 3,000). I suppose this amounts to giving first preferences extra weight; maybe that’s a good thing.

  13. Andy W

    @cim @ash The example you give would present an interesting argument against AV as opposed to, say, a Condorcet method. But FPTP is actually worse than AV in these situations, and since the referendum is about FPTP vs. AV, we should compare the two against each other – not against systems that aren’t on the table. No voting system is without its flaws, but AV is somewhat less flawed than FPTP.

  14. Rupert Tiger

    There is something not quite right with AV its followers conveniently always fail to tell us.

    Something that can’t readily be described in few words. It requires complex formulations about how votes are worth different things to different people, in different places, and under peculiarly different circumstances. How that complexity is somehow fairer, yet the more one digs into it the more one comes beguiled, then confused, and then disgusted…

    It is the end of democracy in Britain, it is the beginning of permanent LibDem dominated coalition government; the floodgates to the slippery slope to a smooth easy patch-in to the EU-superstate.

    And what we would actually lose with it? Forever the ability for us to vote out an entire political class or entire political ideology.

    It is not a stepping stone to PR. No party will give us that. And certainly not the LibDems.

    The LibDems love AV precisely because AV crushes the other small count parties at first count; counter to what the loving public perceive of it.

    AV is nothing but the LibDem CUCKOO’s egg in the nest of British democracy.

  15. cim

    Andy W: Well, not always. It’s quite straightforward to construct a preference set where the Condorcet winner and the FPTP winner are the same person (so this person is preferred to every other candidate 1-on-1, and has a plurality of first preferences) – but loses an AV election.

    10 votes: C B D A E
    9 votes: B A C D E
    9 votes: D E C B A
    3 votes: A B C D E
    2 votes: E D C B A
    (C wins FPTP, and is preferred about 2:1 to any other candidate, B wins AV)

    Also, of course, if AV’s supporters are claiming the “50% support needed” property for it – which implies in the loose ways it’s generally talked about the Condorcet property rather than the rather more complicated property it actually has – I think it’s fair to point out that AV does not in fact pass the Condorcet criterion [1].

    And then of course there’s monotonicity, where FPTP has a clear advantage over AV.
    8 votes: A C B
    8 votes: B C A
    7 votes: C B A
    (B wins, but if B convinces two of the ACB voters to vote BAC – an action that makes the electorate as a whole only more favourable to B, then C wins)

    The problem with AV is that it only works on average, and the situations in which it doesn’t work it can give some very bizarre results.

    I think it’s better than FPTP, certainly, on balance – but I would be extremely surprised if the majority of the electorate would intentionally vote for a non-monotonic voting system because it’s one of the worst properties a voting system can have. That FPTP is so terrible that this major disadvantage of AV still leaves AV ahead … well, I’ll be voting ‘Yes’ in May, but without much enthusiasm.

    Fortunately, the No campaign are too busy thinking up implausible lies to worry about unpleasant truths.

    [1] When electing a Parliament by multiple single-place elections, I would argue that you want an electoral system that doesn’t meet Condorcet, just so you can have some variety in Parliament. So in that context it’s a strength of AV. I suppose you could argue that non-monotonicity, because it increases unpredictability, is also desirable, but that might be going too far.

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