Sunday, May 01, 2011

British "too stupid to rank their preferences"

Since I've slagged off the Japanese Govt for their remarkably patronising comments, it's only fair that I have a go at the Conservatives - or maybe the UK electorate, since based on comments heard on radio phone-ins it may actually be the case that many of them are too stupid to understand how to rank their preferences.

Some readers might have heard that there's to be a referendum on changing the electoral system for general elections in the UK. The options are to keep the current bizarrely-named "first past the post" (there is no post, and it doesn't matter who gets anywhere first) or to change to a simple Alternative Vote system (sometimes called Instant Run-off). It seems that the No campaign is likely to win, aided by such idiotic and dishonest arguments as the ones presented on this page.

Perhaps the most absurd complaint about AV is that it's "complicated". Yeah, in the same way X-factor is "complicated". If there really are people who genuinely can't work out how to list a set of candidates in preference order then I'd prefer it if they didn't vote anyway. The most brazenly dishonest criticism has to be the claim that some peoples' votes will be counted more than others. Actually, for every round in the instant run-off, every voter (who has expressed a choice) gets their vote counted exactly the same. Duh. How do people get away with saying such brazenly stupid things? Surely the UK isn't on a par with the USA now is it?

David Cameron shows some chutzpah in portraying AV as "unfair and undemocratic" considering it is how he got elected to lead the Conservatives. David Davis got the most votes on the first ballot, but Cameron got the most second preference votes of the fringe candidates. Hypocrite much? Of course it's different when it comes to letting the plebs have their say.

I'm surprised at the relatively weak support given to AV by those who would ideally prefer a more proportional system. Firstly, this choice isn't on the table, and won't be for another generation if the current referendum fails. Secondly all the other systems really do have disadvantages that AV does not (like they actually are complicated, or break the local link). Thirdly, surely a system that encourages people to vote honestly for their preferred candidate is so vastly preferable to the current dysfunction arrangement where tactical voting is pretty much routine that it has to be worth supporting.

For me, this last reason is sufficient to justify changing the system, even given the simulations that suggest that AV wouldn't actually have made a great deal of difference in past elections. Under the current system, almost all voters have at best a choice between supporting the current incumbent, or voting for whoever they think has a best chance of unseating them (which may well not be their first or even second choice). In the not unlikely event that they really prefer someone on the fringe, they have to choose between making a futile "statement" by supporting them, or placing their vote in such a way that it could have the potential to influence the outcome. Under AV it's a simple matter of listing the candidates honestly in order of preference. (Yes, I know tactical voting is theoretically possible under some circumstances, and it might even have happened in practice. But honest voting is generally not going to be as poor a strategy under AV as it is under the current system.)

Japan has some sort of top-up list system for at least part of its elections. Doesn't seem to help them much, but to be honest the political problems here are too serious to be fixed by merely tinkering with the voting system...


Anonymous said...

We could go on empirical evidence. Are Australians smarter than the British.


William T said...

It's actually not that simple - look at the Australian experience, where there are some truly bizarre outcomes. In effect the transferable vote system is anti-proportional, because the votes for minor parties are invariably transferred to one of the major parties. For instance, imagine you hate both Labour and Conservative, so rank them last and second-to-last. But if they're the largest parties in your electorate, your vote inevitably gets given to one of them, with equal value to someone who ranked them first. Indeed, in Australia it was set up precisely in order to cement the dominance of the major 2 parties.

James Annan said...

I think it can only be because minority winners and the need for tactical voting are so deeply engrained in the UK system that people don't see UK outcomes as truly bizarre, most of the time. Currently, voters who prefer minor parties already transfer their votes to other parties, but they have to do this a priori on a basis of guesswork (ie who they expect to come 1st/2nd) rather than this happening simply and automatically through honestly expressed preferences.

Davo said...

look at the Australian experience, where there are some truly bizarre outcomes

Would that be something like one party getting 41% of the vote and winning 63% of the Commons? Or is that what you think is a fair thing?

For instance, imagine you hate both Labour and Conservative, so rank them last and second-to-last. But if they're the largest parties in your electorate, your vote inevitably gets given to one of them

I think you'll find the proposal in the UK is for optional preferences--so you'd vote for all of your favorite fringe parties and then stop. You don't have to vote for the major parties if you don't want.

Steve L said...

In British Columbia we had a referendum on this. Actually more than one. Something like 65% "Yes" was required to institute the change, but more than 50% ensured that there would be another referendum. In the end, the STV (AV) side was poorly supported both financially and rhetorically and it lost thoroughly. One part of the problem was that they tried to institute some other things besides just allowing the ranking to matter. They also linked this one change, which was relatively easily supportable, to an increase in the size of ridings so that multiple representatives are elected for each (WHY?!).

James Annan said...

Well the multi-member constituencies help with proportionality - I'm not really convinced either way, I have never had reason to request the services of my local MP.