Tuesday, 8 February 2011

So-called AV Myths

A little bird has directed me towards a new page on the NO2AV campaign's website. It's called Busting the Myths of AV - an amusing title given that the Yes campaign has done nothing but tell the truth so far while the No campaign has done little other than spread lies and misinformation. So, I've decided to post a list of all their Mythbusters and then explain why each one of them is false.

MYTH - MPs would need to secure at least 50% of the vote under AV
THEIR REALITY - The AV system being offered in May makes the ordering of preferences optional. Most voters would not work their way through ballot papers, exhausting every preference. Therefore a large number of MPs would win with less than 50% of the vote. Research has shown that ‘more than 4 out of every 10 MPs would still be elected with the endorsement of less than 50% of the voters’ (Rallings and Thrasher).

ACTUAL REALITY -  First of all, AV means that MPs would need to secure the support of at least 50% of the voters. Secondly, yes, voters do not have to use all their preferences - this is a good thing as it doesn't force people to give any support at all to any parties they dislike. If a voter has no preferences left by the final round of counting (an unlikely occurrence as the counting would be unlikely to last longer than two or three rounds) then the voter has effectively abstained from the final round. Just as we don't count people who don't vote in FPTP elections when working out percentages, nor do we count people who didn't vote in the final round when working out whether a candidate got over 50% of the vote.


MYTH - AV would tackle jobs for life
THEIR REALITY - AV would make no difference in nearly 300 safe seats where the sitting MP has 50% of the vote, or is close to it. And AV will actually create new safe seats where some voters’ second preferences consistently protect one candidate (e.g., third place Conservative voters supporting a Lib Dem). So-called safe seats aren’t necessarily that safe anyway. Michael Portillo famously lost his seat despite holding 58% of the vote in Enfield Southgate, and Lembit Opik was booted out of Montgomeryshire in May, despite holding 52% of the vote.

ACTUAL REALITY - So according to them, that would mean over half the country would no longer have safe seats. But aside from that there are two key points they don't seem to grasp. The first is that if an MP enjoys the majority support of their constituencies then of course they'll retain their seat - AV just makes it easier for people to vote for the party they want (strengthening them over the course of one or two elections) without dividing what is frequently the anti-incumbent vote. Secondly, they appear to contradict themselves here. If "so-called" safe seats aren't that safe then surely that cancels our their first point? And aside from that, when we talk about safe seats, we mean seats that haven't changed hands since the Second World War - and those are precisely the kinds of places where it will force MPs to actually earn the support of the voters. Though ultimately, we're not claiming that AV will abolish safe seats completely. What we are claiming though (and this is an accurate claim) is that it will make MPs work harder for your vote and reduce the number of MPs with jobs for life.


MYTH - AV would end elections being decided by a handful of swing seats
THEIR REALITY - Elections will always focus on the most competitive seats – political parties will always put their resources into the seats they are most likely to win – and as we have already explained, AV wouldn’t get rid of safe seats.

ACTUAL REALITY - Hang on, didn't they just say that over half of seats would no longer be safe under AV? There's an obvious fail in logic here as 300+ seats deciding the outcome of the election is still far better than the current one. So, in reality, this claim is in fact one made by the Yes campaign - and the No campaign has very kindly just reinforced it for us. 300+ seats deciding the outcome of the election vs. just a handful? I think I know which one I'd pick.

MYTH - AV will end wasted votes
REALITY – There will always be winners and losers in any contest. Even in a seat won with 51% of the vote, can we really describe the other 49% of ballots wasted? Moreover, AV will increase the real ‘wasted’ votes: spoiled ballots. In Australia, where they use the alternative vote, five times more ballots are spoiled and thrown away than the UK.

ACTUAL REALITY - Here they're deliberately misunderstanding what we mean by "wasted votes". When we say wasted votes, we are referring to the situation where if you vote for a minor party, instead of for a main one which you may dislike, your vote has no chance of making a difference. So under the current system (in Guildford for example) you can either vote Lib Dem or Conservative, and be able to influence who wins, or vote for say UKIP or Labour and watch your vote potentially let in a candidate you utterly despise. Under AV you'd be able to vote for the party you really support as well as being able to vote tactically to try and keep the candidate you dislike the most out. You will also note how the No campaign references Australia but - in case the kangaroos and funny hats don't give it away - Australia isn't the UK. In Australia you are forced to vote (something, by the way, which the No campaign were previously implying would happen in the UK under AV) and are forced to use all your preferences. Under those circumstances, is it really surprising that more people choose to show their discontent by spoiling their ballots?


MYTH - AV would eliminate the need for tactical voting
THEIR REALITY – AV wouldn’t eliminate tactical voting, it would reinvent it. Under AV, the challenge comes in working out the order in which candidates are eliminated, and ordering your preferences accordingly. For example, in a three way seat where both Labour and the Liberal Democrats were in danger of coming last, a Conservative might be tempted to give their first preference to Labour, for fear a Labour elimination would mean a hefty vote transfer to the Lib Dems. As Dr. Roger Mortimore from Ipsos MORI puts it, “under AV there is a real incentive for tactical voting.”

ACTUAL REALITY - I don't think we've ever made this claim though we might well have claimed that it eliminated the need for forced tactical voting. Under AV you no longer need to vote red to keep the blues out, or vote blue to keep the yellows out. The example they use is flawed as it assumes that people will cast their second preferences in a certain way when in reality, the introduction of AV in other countries has always been followed by a change in voting patterns. However, a voter could indeed attempt to try and second-guess how others will vote (just like under the current system) but this doesn't mean that that guess will be right. Essentially, here we have a claim that we've never made along with an inaccurate counter-argument.


MYTH - AV is a proportional electoral system
THEIR REALITY - AV is not a proportional system. In three out of the past four British elections AV would have produced more disproportionate results than First Past the Post. And in landslide elections, AV would have dramatically exaggerated the winners’ majority. For example, in 1997, Tony Blair would have had a majority of 245 MPs under AV, despite only getting 43% of the vote.

ACTUAL REALITY - No shit Sherlock. Of course AV isn't a proportional system - nobody has ever claimed it is. However, it can produce more proportional outcomes than our current system and, as for the fallacious claim above that it would produce wildly more disproportionate results, they are just guessing at random as to how people would have voted under AV. This is just nonsense. You can not in anyway make accurate predictions about AV using first past the post results. The systems are completely different and any such predictions will be wildly flawed. However, just so I'm not left out, here's my crazy prediction about AV - under AV Margaret Thatcher would have lost the 1983 election and thus Tony Blair would never have become leader of the Labour party in the first place. Is that claim inaccurate and based purely on speculation? Yes. Is it any different from the claim made by the No campaign? No.



MYTH - AV would end negative campaigning
THEIR REALITY – You only have to look at Australian politics to know this isn’t true. Here’s the verdict of the commentator, Tim Colebatch, on last year’s election in Australia: “A negative campaign, where the leaders stood for less than ever before, and insulted voters’ intelligence more than ever before. Both sides asked us to vote against their opponent, rather than giving us reasons to vote for them.”

ACTUAL REALITY - Again with the Australia references. But yes, you do get negative campaigning under a two party system - which is precisely what compulsory ranking of all candidates produces. This is why it's a good thing that our version of AV won't have compulsory ranking of all candidates. Perhaps we should let the No campaign go away and try again?


MYTH - AV would increase voter turnout
REALITY – In Australia, turnout fell dramatically after the Alternative Vote was introduced. They ended up making voting compulsory. There are also more than five times as many spoilt ballot papers in Australia than in the UK.

ACTUAL REALITY - I'm surprised they're wheeling this argument out again as it's already been comprehensively debunked. As Osmond Chiu says "Preferential voting was introduced in Australia at a federal level by a conservative government in 1918. In 1919, the first general election where preferential voting was used, turnout was 71%. The federal introduction of compulsory voting in 1924 only occurred after the 1922 federal election where turnout declined to 59%. If there was a clear link, turnout would have significantly declined in 1919. Beckett's conclusion that AV leads to a decline in voter turnout draws a long bow from no clear evidence." It's also lazy of them to use the "five times as many spoiled ballots" claim twice and I've already debunked it above.


MYTH - AV would help smaller parties
THEIR REALITY – Hardly. Not a single constituency has been identified as likely to fall to a small party under AV. One study in Wales suggests Plaid Cymru could even be wiped out, losing all 3 of its current seats. As Professor K.D. Ewing and Dr. Graeme Orr found, “a small party is unlikely to win any seats under AV.”

ACTUAL REALITY - AV doesn't immediately help smaller parties, but what it does do is encourage more people to give them their first preferences and then at the next election more people will be likely to consider voting for them instead of viewing them as a no hoper. This would let them get more votes, which would let them get more votes, etc. This, of course, assumes that they actually have widespread appeal beyond a very small segment of the electorate. If you want one example, look at parties like UKIP and the Greens. They get large numbers of votes in european elections but far less in national ones. This is because voters aren't stupid. They'll vote for a party if they think their vote will count - this is why the current system excludes minor parties by making it near impossible for them to get seats whilst AV will include them. As for the claim about Plaid, it's BS. I read the study and it can only produce that outcome by relying on some unfounded assumptions.


MYTH - AV shuts the door on extremists such as the BNP
THEIR REALITY – No extremist party (including the BNP, National Front and BUF) has ever won a seat under the current system. While AV would not make it easier for extremist parties to win seats, they would gain more influence – BNP second preferences alone could swing at least 35 seats. Fringe parties could expect their first preference vote to be higher than it is now, giving them more support and legitimacy. And mainstream politicians would pander to the extremists to try and win their second preferences.

ACTUAL REALITY - Maybe I'm being stupid here, but I thought the point of democracy was to let people have their say? Much as I despise them, people who support the BNP have as much right to have their say as I do. If, god forbid, the majority of the people ever support them then they would be entitled to be in government (though if that happens don't expect me to stay in the country). However, the BNP are more likely to get elected under FPTP because if the anti-BNP vote is split it would feasibly be possible for them to win on a mere 25% of the vote whereas under AV that would be far less likely with the rest of the voters ranking the BNP last and stopping them from getting in.

Incidentally, the No campaign's admission that fringe parties could expect their first preferences to be higher just goes to show that their previous complaint that AV didn't help smaller parties is nonsense. Also, mainstream politicians still pander to the BNP  under FPTP (Phil Woolas anyone?) but I imagine that the vast majority of politicians will have the decency to keep their hands clean from such filth no matter what system we use.


MYTH - MPs would need to secure at least 50% of the vote under AV
THEIR REALITY - The AV system being offered in May makes the ordering of preferences optional. Most voters would not work their way through ballot papers, exhausting every preference. Therefore a large number of MPs would win with less than 50% of the vote. Research has shown that ‘more than 4 out of every 10 MPs would still be elected with the endorsement of less than 50% of the voters’ (Rallings and Thrasher).

ACTUAL REALITY -  First of all, AV means that MPs would need to secure the support of at least 50% of their supporters. Secondly, yes, voters do not have to use all their preferences - this is a good thing as it doesn't force people to give any support at all to any parties they dislike. Furthermore, this does not matter as it would be very rare for a count to go to more than four rounds - therefore the fifth preferences probably wouldn't need to be taken into account. Or, if you're voting for a main party which is likely to win on first preferences alone, then you might decided not to use your second preference as it is unlikely to make a difference. Essentially, their argument doesn't stand up at all.


MYTH - AV would tackle jobs for life
THEIR REALITY - AV would make no difference in nearly 300 safe seats where the sitting MP has 50% of the vote, or is close to it. And AV will actually create new safe seats where some voters’ second preferences consistently protect one candidate (e.g., third place Conservative voters supporting a Lib Dem). So-called safe seats aren’t necessarily that safe anyway. Michael Portillo famously lost his seat despite holding 58% of the vote in Enfield Southgate, and Lembit Opik was booted out of Montgomeryshire in May, despite holding 52% of the vote.

ACTUAL REALITY - So according to them, that would mean over half the country would no longer have safe seats. I'd call that "tackling jobs for life". But aside from that there are two key points they don't seem to grasp. The first is that if an MP enjoys the majority support of their constituencies then of course they'll retain their seat - AV just makes it easier for people to vote for the party they want (strengthening them over the course of one or two elections) without dividing what is frequently the anti-incumbent vote. Secondly, they appear to contradict themselves here. If "so-called" safe seats aren't that safe then surely that cancels our their first point? And aside from that, when we talk about safe seats, we mean seats that haven't changed hands since the Second World War - and those are precisely the kinds of places where it will force MPs to actually earn the support of the voters. Though ultimately, we're not claiming that AV will abolish safe seats completely. What we are claiming though (and this is an accurate claim) is that it will make MPs work harder for your vote.


MYTH - AV would end elections being decided by a handful of swing seats
THEIR REALITY - Elections will always focus on the most competitive seats – political parties will always put their resources into the seats they are most likely to win – and as we have already explained, AV wouldn’t get rid of safe seats.

ACTUAL REALITY - Hang on, didn't they just say that over half of seats would no longer be safe under AV? There's an obvious fail in logic here as 300+ seats deciding the outcome of the election is still far better than the current one. So, in reality, this claim is in fact one made by the Yes campaign - and the No campaign has very kindly just reinforced it for us. 300+ seats deciding the outcome of the election vs. just a handful? I think I know which one I'd pick.


MYTH - AV will end wasted votes
REALITY – There will always be winners and losers in any contest. Even in a seat won with 51% of the vote, can we really describe the other 49% of ballots wasted? Moreover, AV will increase the real ‘wasted’ votes: spoiled ballots. In Australia, where they use the alternative vote, five times more ballots are spoiled and thrown away than the UK.

ACTUAL REALITY - Here they're deliberately misunderstanding what we mean by "wasted votes". When we say wasted votes, we are referring to the situation where if you vote for a minor party, instead of for a main one which you may dislike, your vote has no chance of making a difference. So under the current system (in Guildford for example) you can either vote Lib Dem or Conservative, and be able to influence who wins, or vote for say UKIP or Labour and watch your vote potentially let in a candidate you utterly despise. Under AV you'd be able to vote for the party you really support as well as being able to vote tactically to try and keep the candidate you dislike the most out. You will also note how the No campaign references Australia but - in case the kangaroos and funny hats don't give it away - Australia isn't the UK. In Australia you are forced to vote (something, by the way, which the No campaign were previously implying would happen in the UK under AV) and are forced to use all your preferences. Under those circumstances, is it really surprising that more people choose to show their discontent by spoiling their ballots?


MYTH - AV would eliminate the need for tactical voting
THEIR REALITY – AV wouldn’t eliminate tactical voting, it would reinvent it. Under AV, the challenge comes in working out the order in which candidates are eliminated, and ordering your preferences accordingly. For example, in a three way seat where both Labour and the Liberal Democrats were in danger of coming last, a Conservative might be tempted to give their first preference to Labour, for fear a Labour elimination would mean a hefty vote transfer to the Lib Dems. As Dr. Roger Mortimore from Ipsos MORI puts it, “under AV there is a real incentive for tactical voting.”

ACTUAL REALITY - I don't think we've ever made this claim though we might well have claimed that it eliminated the need for forced tactical voting. Under AV you no longer need to vote red to keep the blues out, or vote blue to keep the yellows out. The example they use is flawed as it assumes that people will cast their second preferences in a certain way when in reality, the introduction of AV in other countries has always been followed by a change in voting patterns. However, a voter could indeed attempt to try and second-guess how others will vote (just like under the current system) but this doesn't mean that that guess will be right. Essentially, here we have a claim that we've never made along with an inaccurate counter-argument.


MYTH - AV is a proportional electoral systemTHEIR REALITY - AV is not a proportional system. In three out of the past four British elections AV would have produced more disproportionate results than First Past the Post. And in landslide elections, AV would have dramatically exaggerated the winners’ majority. For example, in 1997, Tony Blair would have had a majority of 245 MPs under AV, despite only getting 43% of the vote.

ACTUAL REALITY - No shit Sherlock. Of course AV isn't a proportional system - nobody has ever claimed it is. However, it can produce more proportional outcomes than our current system and, as for the fallacious claim above that it would produce wildly more disproportionate results, they are just guessing at random as to how people would have voted under AV. This is just nonsense. You can not in anyway make accurate predictions about AV using first past the post results. The systems are completely different and any such predictions will be wildly flawed. However, just so I'm not left out, here's my crazy prediction about AV - under AV Margaret Thatcher would have lost the 1982 election and thus Tony Blair would never have become leader of the Labour party in the first place. Is that claim inaccurate and based purely on speculation? Yes. Is it any different from the claim made by the No campaign? No.


MYTH - AV would end negative campaigning
THEIR REALITY – You only have to look at Australian politics to know this isn’t true. Here’s the verdict of the commentator, Tim Colebatch, on last year’s election in Australia: “A negative campaign, where the leaders stood for less than ever before, and insulted voters’ intelligence more than ever before. Both sides asked us to vote against their opponent, rather than giving us reasons to vote for them.”

ACTUAL REALITY - Again with the Australia references. But yes, you do get negative campaigning under a two party system - which is precisely what compulsory ranking of all candidates produces. This is why it's a good thing that our version of AV won't have compulsory ranking of all candidates. Perhaps we should let the No campaign go away and try again?


MYTH - AV would increase voter turnout
REALITY – In Australia, turnout fell dramatically after the Alternative Vote was introduced. They ended up making voting compulsory. There are also more than five times as many spoilt ballot papers in Australia than in the UK.

ACTUAL REALITY - I'm surprised they're wheeling this argument out again as it's already been comprehensively debunked. As Osmond Chiu says "Preferential voting was introduced in Australia at a federal level by a conservative government in 1918. In 1919, the first general election where preferential voting was used, turnout was 71%. The federal introduction of compulsory voting in 1924 only occurred after the 1922 federal election where turnout declined to 59%. If there was a clear link, turnout would have significantly declined in 1919. Beckett's conclusion that AV leads to a decline in voter turnout draws a long bow from no clear evidence." It's also lazy of them to use the "five times as many spoiled ballots" claim twice and I've already debunked it above.


MYTH - AV would help smaller parties
THEIR REALITY – Hardly. Not a single constituency has been identified as likely to fall to a small party under AV. One study in Wales suggests Plaid Cymru could even be wiped out, losing all 3 of its current seats. As Professor K.D. Ewing and Dr. Graeme Orr found, “a small party is unlikely to win any seats under AV.”

ACTUAL REALITY - AV doesn't immediately help smaller parties, but what it does do is encourage more people to give them their first preferences and then at the next election more people will be likely to consider voting for them instead of viewing them as a no hoper. This would let them get more votes, which would let them get more votes, etc. This, of course, assumes that they actually have widespread appeal beyond a very small segment of the electorate. If you want one example, look at parties like UKIP and the Greens. They get large numbers of votes in european elections but far less in national ones. This is because voters aren't stupid. They'll vote for a party if they think their vote will count - this is why the current system excludes minor parties by making it near impossible for them to get seats whilst AV will include them. As for the claim about Plaid, it's BS. I read the study and it can only produce that outcome by relying on some unfounded assumptions.


MYTH - FPTP gave us the expenses scandal
THEIR REALITY – The expenses scandal had nothing to do with the electoral system and everything to do with a lack of openness. MPs were able to get away with it because their claims were kept secret. Policy Exchange found that “MPs’ expenses over-claims were statistically linked to length of service but not to the safeness of an MP’s constituency, as is often supposed.”

ACTUAL REALITY - Here they are attacking yet another argument that we've never really made. However, it's pretty obvious that if an MP is in a safe seat, and know they will win it come what may, they're going to be far more likely to stick their snouts in the trough than an MP who has to fight hard just to hang on to their seat.


MYTH - No country has adopted FPTP since 1945
THEIR REALITY – First-past-the-post is used by 2.4 billion people in 50 countries around the world. Only Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Australia use AV to elect their MPs. And six out of ten Australians want to go back to FPTP, while Papua New Guinea has only held one AV election and Fiji has made plans to scrap AV.

ACTUAL REALITY - We do use this argument and it's accurate. All the countries that use FPTP only do so as a result of historical pressure (such as the UK). Every single new democracy since 1945 has rejected AV. Three of them did start off with FPTP but quickly changed it for better systems. Only three countries use AV in national elections though plenty (such as the USA and the UK) use it for non national elections and most of the countries that don't use AV or FPTP use something far more proportional. The majority of Yes campaigners would prefer something more proportional than AV but we support it because it's still tons better than FPTP. And when it comes to Australia, it's not surprising that they want to escape compulsory preference AV (I'd want to escape it as well) but that's not an accurate comparison with the AV system we'd be using. As for Fiji, the reason they want to scrap it is because they've got a military junta which didn't like elections giving them results they didn't like - I'm not sure how that's an argument against AV but clearly it must be if the No campaign are using it.


MYTH - Party leaders are elected by their members using AV
THEIR REALITY – The Conservative leader is elected by members who choose between two candidates as presented to them by MPs. Labour uses an electoral college to choose its leader. Members can express an order of preference but are in a minority within the college, making up only 33%.

Electing a Government is a very different business. The benefit of our current system is that it gives the people power to choose their Prime Minister and Government, and kick them out if they don’t do a good job. Under AV they would surrender that power to the politicians.

ACTUAL REALITY - Labour uses AV to elect its leader, it's just who's allowed to vote that's fucked up. The Conservatives don't use AV per se but they use a system that functions in pretty much the same way. Now we also see the No campaign wheel out the argument that FPTP gives us strong government and lets us kick them out if they don't do a good job. That is a lie.

First of all, we don't elect a Prime Minister, his party chooses him - this would be no different under AV. Secondly, under AV people would be far more likely to a get a government which actually represented them. Thirdly, only three times in the past half century have voters been able to kick out the government e.g. replacing a government with a majority from one party  with a government with a majority from another party. The problem with FPTP is that it allows parties to win 100% of the power with a very small share of the vote. Labour retained a huge majority in 2005 despite only getting 34% of the vote.

Quite simply, FPTP is broken. It only ever works at all in a two party system and we are no longer in a two party system. AV is not the best solution but FPTP is the worst of both worlds. Under AV people will have more say in who runs the country and that can only be a good thing. It is not surprising, therefore, that the No campaign is run by washed up former politicians and millionaire donors who are terrified of losing their power.

I urge you to check out the Yes campaign for more information on why you should support it.

4 comments:

  1. Good article George. It's extremely frustrating correcting the mis-information and inaccuracies around the No Campaign, but you've done very well in doing so here.

    A couple of minor points though. Their was no election in 1982; it was in 1983. Secondly, you could have put this much more diplomatically; 'Labour uses AV to elect its leader, it's just who's allowed to vote that's fucked up.'
    Yes to Fairer Votes is a cross party campaign and has many Labour supporters.
    Best Wishes,Eamon Birmingham Yes to Fairer Votes
    You can feed back any comments on Facebook.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for correcting me on the date. I'm afraid it was before my time so I'm a bit shaky on exactly when events happened.

    I note your point about the Labour leadership election system. As a democrat, I do think the practice of allowing an MP 100 times as many votes as an ordinary member is fucked up - though I don't mean any disrespect to Labour supporters/members when I say that. However, I'll be more diplomatic in future.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I have had a look at the NO2AV site. I like the one about how the BNP have never got enough votes to win a constituency here but in Australia, the One Nation party won 11 seats in the Queensland state legislature under AV.

    Well, firstly, under FPTP the BNP have won council seats on a small share of the vote.

    And, if NO2AV really want to use One Nation as an example, they could always talk about how Pauline Hanson won the most first preference votes in the Blair constituency but lost to Labor under AV.

    ReplyDelete
  4. SwagBucks is an high paying work from home website.

    ReplyDelete

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