Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Dodgy Comparisons

In his speech to his troops over the weekend, Cameron used a neat little comparison between a sprint and an election to pour scorn on AV.  He said, “Just imagine it's the Olympics, London 2012.  We're all watching the 100 metres.  Usain Bolt powers first over the line.  But when he gets to the podium, it's the guy who comes third who gets the gold.”.
It’s a typical political trick; I’ve seen lots of them do it.  Choose a comparison that isn’t really valid, say it quickly, get the laughter, and move quickly on before anyone spots the flaw.
The purpose of a race is to see who is the fastest.  It’s a demonstrable, objectively measurable outcome.  It doesn’t matter whether the winner is widely loved, or hated by all; the amount of support which he or she has makes no difference to that objective measurement of speed.
Elections work completely the other way.  Support counts for everything, and it’s support which decides victory or defeat.  It doesn’t matter which candidate is the best qualified or the most able; the voters are perfectly entitled to choose the dumbest and least qualified if they wish (readers can decide for themselves how often that actually happens in practice!).
In choosing an electoral system, the issue is how we want to measure support.  Supporters of ‘first past the post’ would argue that the winner under the current system has demonstrated that (s)he has more support than any other candidate.  It’s patently true, and in a largely two party system probably adequate; but in a more pluralist political model, it can also mean that there are considerably more people strongly opposed to that candidate than there are in support.
AV takes people’s second (and subsequent, if there are many candidates) choices into account; it aims to assess ‘support’ by looking at preferences rather than simply first choices.  In effect, it elects the first candidate to be liked more than disliked, even if some of the ‘likers’ are at best half hearted about their liking.
Cameron dismissed the system as one used in few places, but that’s a bit sweeping.  France, for instance, doesn’t use AV, but holds ‘run-off’ elections between the leading candidates.  It’s another way of achieving something very similar; it just means you have two elections instead of one election with two counts.
The one thing that is absolutely clear is that AV is not a system of proportional representation.  It is, as Clegg himself described it before deciding it was so important that it had to be a major plank of the coalition agreement, a “miserable little compromise”.  In true AV fashion, I’ll end up voting in favour on the basis that I like the current system less, but I'll do so without any real enthusiasm.  I’m sorely tempted to take an AV view of the referendum, and simply rank ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in order of preference.  That’s a better expression of my position that to say that I’m for one option and against the other.


Anonymous said...

If I wanted to fell the coalition which way would i vote in the referendum on the alternative vagrance?

Anonymous said...

Spot on
The first past the post election
has of couse had an in built propensity to trash excellent new entrants.
In most UK Westminster elections we have followed or is it lead by the media the scenario of its either Labour or Conservative.
Incumbents, good, bad or
downright useless have a head start and it is usually the case that Labour or Conservatives lose the right to govern rather than that they win on merit.
It is also true that we are close to dictatorship in that most people now see politics in terms of the three men Cameron, Clegg and Milliband or more likely one of the three --- if you know of any one who can tell me who is in the cabinet let alone the shadow cabinet let me know. As for the contribution of the mass of Mp's then thats another matter

Av seems to offer a chance to reduce the election of donkeys while giving lions a small chance of success but I for one will not bank on it.

As we are not being consulted on our own account perhaps the people of Wales should have a separate referendum on the matter-- we may be able to solve the future if any of the Welsh Office at the same time