05 April 2011

AV 3: AV yet again, or why archers should practice on live targets rather than straw men

There's a piece on Conservative Home which a friend of mine rather extravagantly pointed to yesterday, billing it as 'a comprehensive case against the introduction of AV by statistician Graeme Archer PhD'.

It's a  slightly different approach to the three standard ones for opponents of voting reform, those being, of course:
  • I'm opposed to voting reform for a whole host of reasons all which are demonstrably false, such as lies about which countries use AV or lies about people having more than one vote under AV or lies about the cost of introducing AV.
  • I'm opposed to voting reform because only first past the post produces strong candidates rather than bland ones, though it's best not to ask why my party doesn't use first past the post in its internal selection processes.
  • I'm opposed to voting reform as the current system is good for my party and is therefore, by implication, good for the country.
The second point is, I think, the only anti-AV argument that has any real merit, being capable of being maintained sincerely and without cynicism, but I think it ignores real-world evidence and invites some very serious questions. This point rears its head in Archer's article, but his argument is somewhat different. Instead he goes for smoke and mirrors, wheeling out some of the more absurd and unusual claims people have sometimes made for voting reform, and then attacking them as though they're the main arguments.

Before loosing his volley against his artfully-arranged battalion of straw men, Archer starts his article with the ostensibly reasonable observation that:
'The likely anti-Conservative outcome of an AV election wouldn't matter, of course, if the AV algorithm were capable of delivering a fair outcome.'
Why does everyone automatically assume that an AV election would lead to an anti-Conservative result? It might, sure, but given that the Lib Dems, not long ago regarded as the most left-wing of the major parties, are in government the Conservatives, doesn't it rather look as though anything might be possible? Why assume everyone hates the Conservatives? Or course, if everybody does then they probably shouldn't be in government, because I don't think democracy is about allowing a minority to dictate to a majority. Still, I think the basic thesis is wrong.
Straw Man No. 1: AV will end safe seats
Archer says it won't, because around a third of seats can be called 'safe', and will continue to be so under any reasonable electoral algorithm. I presume he's talking about the fact that a third of MPs are elected with the support of most of their constituents, and that this is unlikely to change. I'm inclined to agree, albeit with the proviso that nobody knows for certain. After all, in such 'safe' seats, people who might be inclined to vote against incumbents may nowadays simply not vote, thinking there's no point in their voting: AV may actually encourage them to vote.
The key issue, which Archer should be aiming at if he was interested in, well, accuracy, would be that AV would end precarious seats. You know, like Brighton Pavilion and Norwich South, where MPs can be elected with less than a third of the vote. Where more than twice as many people vote for losing candidates than for winning ones. It's odd that he doesn't address this, and given that he doesn't do so, I don't really think he can be said to be comprehensively addressing anything.
Straw Man No. 2: AV will make candidates work harder...
Archer doesn't so much demolish this claim as rephrase it, saying 'a candidate will have to appeal to people who don't want to vote for him', and then fail to refute it at all. Indeed, all he manages to do here is basically to say 'imagine what would happen under AV - nobody would say controversial stuff in case it might scare off transfers'. It's disappointing that he just relies on imagination here, rather than looks at real-world evidence for how politicians appeal for transfers in countries with electoral systems based on transferable votes.

He could just look as far as Ireland, say, and ask whether of the current crop of new TDs -- let's just say Gerry Adams, Shane Ross, Luke 'Ming' Flanagan, Richard Boyd Barrett, or Stephen Donnelly-- are really examples of candidates smoothing out their message to get transfers? Could any of them be described as a bland non-entity? Just google them to find out what they're like. Or Joe Higgins, say, who I remember running and coming very close to winning in an AV race in my constituency once upon a time...

Straw Man No. 3: ... by aiming for 50% of the vote
I don't think the issue is that AV requires candidates to aim for 50% of the vote; rather, it requires them to get 50% of the vote, or more precisely 50% of the vote in the only decisive round of counting. The important thing is that it's not about what candidates aim for, so much as what they need. Archer misses the mark on this, again.

He goes on to insist that 50% is meaningless, anyway, and that it's an arbitrary target, which it is, if we treat it as a number, but if we translate it into English, it makes more sense: AV requires elected representatives to have the support of most of the people they're representing. Is this really a made-up fetish?

Straw Man No. 4: AV will end the expenses scandal.
According to Archer, this is something that Nick Clegg believes, and to support this claim, he links to a scanty London Standard article written the day before Clegg gave a speech, reporting on what it expected Clegg to say.

Look, I don't care one way or another about Nick Clegg or what he thinks, but Archer's citing on that Standard article rather gives the game away regarding the level of research he's done. He could have linked to the speech itself -- http://www.newstatesman.com/2011/02/vote-mps-means-post-past -- in which case he'd have learned that Clegg certainly saw a link between MPs abusing the system and MPs feeling invulnerable in their seats, and envisaged a whole package of reforms to help sort out Britain's broken political system, but never simplistically claimed that AV would end the expenses scandal.

He could have done that. He didn't. Instead he just misrepresented Clegg. He could have done research and checked his facts, but instead he just made stuff up. Sure, why not? If lying about AV is good enough for the Prime Minister, why not for an ordinary party hack? The fish stinks from the head, as they say.

Straw Man No. 5: AV will help minor parties flourish.
This, Archer says, is obvious rubbish, but rubbish which lots of centre-right readers are inclined to believe.
The reality, of course, that this is another thing that people just don't know about. Nobody knows. It'll all depend firstly on whether people who currently don't see a point in voting start to exercise their right and do so to support parties other than the established if declining big two, and secondly on whether people who currently and reluctantly vote for the big two will feel it's worthwhile to express their honest opinions, even if that comes down to 'I really want the UKIP candidate to represent me, but if that's not possible then I'd be happy with a Conservative'.

In the short term, I'd expect this to mean that the smaller parties would get a boost in their share of the first-preference vote, but without any significant boost in seats, so that the end result isn't radically different. In the longer term... who knows?
Straw Man No. 6: AV is fair.
Not many people say AV is fair. They just tend to say it's fairer than First Past the Post, which it is, irrespective of what formulae Archer waves around to impress the easily impressed.
In 1992, the Liberal Democrat Russell Johnston was elected MP for Inverness, Nairn, and Lochaber, with just 26% of the vote. That'd not be possible under AV. What's more, imagine if that'd happened in every single constituency in the country, with the Lib Dems topping the poll with just 26% of the vote. That'd be 650 seats being awarded to a party with just 26% of the vote. Would that be possible under AV? No. Is it possible under FPTP? Yes. Yes it would be.
I know, that sounds crazy, but given that the current system is such that a party can get 76% of seats with just 55% of the vote, or 55% of the seats with just 35% of the vote, I don't think it's all too fanciful to imagine a party getting an absolute landslide with the support of just a quarter of the voting population. It'd be unlikely, sure, but it'd be far from impossible.

Look, it's very simple. General elections are about electing parliaments. Parliaments are representative assemblies. Representative assemblies should be representative of whoever of whatever it is they represent. Parliament, therefore, should be the United Kingdom writ small. The challenge is to create a parliament as representative of the people as possible. As things stand, under the current system more people vote for losing candidates than for winning ones. AV is a very slight change -- one that was recommended by Royal Commission as far back as 1910 -- which goes a small way towards correcting the current imbalance.
Archer's witterings are based on what he assumes AV would be like. Well, I've participated in AV elections in Ireland to pick a member of parliament and head of state, and I can assure you, he's wrong. The fact that he doesn't draw on any evidence from, well, anywhere that uses transferable voting, rather shows that far from being a comprehensive argument, it's just another piece of dishonest fluff.

I really think the Electoral Commission wouldn't need to spend half as much money educating people about AV if they weren't obliged to counter the constant stream of lies from the opponents of AV.

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