Monday, 29 November 2010

AV or FPTP for making decisions?

You and your friends (let’s say there are 10 of you) are organising a party and you want to work out where to go to eat. How do you come to the decision on where best to go?

4 of you really want to go to have a curry at the local Indian restaurant, 3 of you are calling to go for Italian, 2 want to just go to the pub and 1 would rather you splashed out and went for an expensive foodie experience at that Michelin star restaurant you've heard about.

However the 2 that want to go to the pub also simply can’t stomach indian food, something about the spices, one of the people that want Italian food can’t stand the atmosphere of curry houses and the guy that wants to go to the expensive place will only compromise on price, not quality.

How would YOU decide?

How about a simple majority, a “First past the post” of where to eat out? Fine, you’re off to the Indian restaurant, though four of you have decided that they’ve got better things to do, and maybe they can catch up with you for a lunch next week instead.

The trouble is that there are just as many people in your group that don’t want to go for a curry as want to, their views are equally as strong as each other but in opposite camps...but your choice of simple majority vote doesn’t let this expression of NEGATIVE feelings show. Sure, it allows you all to see that people would rather not go to the expensive place, but it doesn’t even rule out that most people would agree on the more costly experience as a fair compromise.

In essence with a FPTP style vote you're abandoning the deeper opinions of the majority that would bring the context of what type of eating experience the group wants to knowledge.

Of course if you were doing this in real life you of course wouldn’t use a voting system; you’d come to that compromise organically. Assuming everyone was as engaged in making the overall best choice for everyone you would rule out options that, while they may seem initially popular with the group, are actually more unpopular. The reality of choosing a best option is that you don’t simply take a ballot of what people like, but you also listen to what they dislike.

How does this relate to the question of AV vs FPTP to elect our House of Commons?

FPTP is a simple indicator of what people like. It’s the political equivalent of a clap-o-meter. Whoever screams loudest at a single point of measure gets the win, no matter about any other factor. What AV does, while not directly allowing people to state who they don’t like, is give the opportunity to get context on those “screams”. It lets you get an idea of the boos too. It lets you reach a fair compromise.

We shouldn’t be happy with a system that means a significant percentage of us feel like we might as well not have bothered saying anything, a system which makes them wonder if next time they should vote tactically if they even bother to vote at all.

Why should second preferences mean as much as first preferences?

The reality of the AV system is that you are still using a binary voting system, if you put a preference down for someone you are supporting their election to office. You can’t “weight” your preference, you either have to give someone 100% of your support for getting the job, or 0%. Is this a problem?

I don’t see it as a problem, and don't believe anyone has much ground to stand on if they claim it is a problem.

When, under FPTP, I vote for my preferred local candidate am I doing so with 100% of my conviction? I voted Lib Dem at the last election, but there were definitely some things I didn’t agree with them on. On a personal scale perhaps I endorsed my candidate with 90% of my self, and disagreed with them on 10%. Should my vote have counted more than those that voted Labour with less conviction, is it “fair” that my votes still counts the same?

Ultimately, yes, it is fair. Weighting is a subjective element that cannot be compared between different individuals.

Weighting is far too complicated, and have no place in any political voting system. It only gets more complicated under AV where it is entirely possible that someone can believe that their second or third preference should be MP with more conviction than someone else believes their first preference should be the elected MP. It’s not the system’s place to judge what we mean when we put down a number on a bit of paper, nor how much more "absolute" someone's support is than another's.

But how is it fair if our first preference winner doesn’t go on to get elected under AV?

How is it unfair? We have to stop thinking that the most vocal minority have the right to have the final say. We have to stop thinking that such a minority opinion can decide who is "best for the job"

If your candidate would have won under FPTP but doesn’t under AV there is only one thing that signifies, that your candidate is explicitly tailored to your world view at the detriment of their image to others. It comes all the way back to the “where to eat” analogy above.

We deserve politicians that we collectively agree on as being the best choice for our constituencies. Some FPTP supporters are concerned that this will mean that they become the people unhappy with who is representing them. This is pure selfishness.

These people are putting the potential situation of over half of a constituency being unhappy with a result as a more worthwhile outcome because they don’t want to risk becoming part of the less than half of the constituency that is unhappy with the result. Can that accurately be described as electing the "best person for the job"?

It boils down to people trying to hold their territory artificially, potentially against the will of the larger majority.

Still, it moves the power to those that hold 2nd, 3rd or even 4th preferences, doesn’t it?

It moves no power except away from those that sit in a minority but are the largest minority. It gives a more distributed voice to everyone. Those that vote to have a Tory, Labour and Lib Dem as the top three candidates in their constituency have all stated explicitly that the constituency would rather have once of those three parties represent them.

What it then does is say “But the rest of you... given we simply can’t fairly give your representative a go, which of these three should we go with?” Where in this do the remainder supporters gain power for their preferences, other than to be rightfully heard within the new scenario of who is able to actually win the seat?

There is no such situation where someone gets an unfair amount of votes, or bites of the cherry. Each round everyone gets the same votes, it's just that voters of parties that are unpopular are essentially told that they aren't allowed to vote for who they want to, so choose from the candidates that everyone else has determined are fit to represent us. Even if you back the eventual winner, you get as many votes as those supporting minority just keep voting for the same MP, keeping them in the running to win each time!

FPTP is a system, it is not evil nor inherently wrong, but what it definitely is as a system is blind. It can hear how loud you shout but it can’t see the consternation or relief of those that voted for parties further down the pecking order. 1 vote, 1 party, it just means lack of context. AV on the other hand takes everything that is preferred about FPTP in this country...a single MP for your constituency, the ability to come to a quick result for the media...and adds in more fairness, more choice to vote for your representatives how you actually want to rather than having to second guess everyone else and vote tactically.

Voting to move to AV next May is win-win for everyone that supports FPTP, if they care about democracy and ensuring the voices of the voting public are heard and accounted for. Anyone who supports FPTP that tells you otherwise is quite simply not in this discussion for the sake of democracy or fairness, and I urge you to question their motives.

For more information about the "Yes 2 AV" campaign I suggest visiting these links:

And follow these people on Twitter: