Is AV better than FPTP? (via Gowers’s Weblog)

Here’s an interesting discussion of the Alternative Vote versus First Past The Post voting systems. This is the issue to be decided at the Referendum on 5th May in case you didn’t know…

Is AV better than FPTP? On May 5th the UK will vote in a referendum for only the second time ever. (The first time was in 1975, when we voted on whether to remain in the EU, or the Common Market as it was then called.) Now we have a chance to decide whether to retain our current voting system, misleadingly known as First Past The Post, or whether to switch to the Alternative Vote. Let me come clean straight away. Although in this post I shall try to write dispassionatel … Read More

via Gowers's Weblog

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11 Responses to “Is AV better than FPTP? (via Gowers’s Weblog)”

  1. telescoper Says:

    For the record, I’ll just say that I think the main problem with the AV proposal is that it doesn’t go far enough. It’s not a proportional system and the advantage in moving to it from FPTP seems to me to be quite marginal. I doubt if I would have used any alternatives at all when I voted in the last General Election had AV in place then, for example. Had a true PR system been on the cards things might have been more interesting.

    The biggest problem with our current political system is not precisely how MPs are elected, but the fact that we have an entirely undemocratic second chamber.

    It’s worth also mentioning that here in Wales we have elections to the Welsh Assembly coming up on 5th May, the same day as the referendum. The Welsh Assembly elections use a system in which 40 Assembly Members (AMs) are directly elected, one for each constituency (via FPTP). Voters also get another ballot paper on which they can vote for regional AMs, 20 of which are allocated taking into account the results of the first ballot. I actually like this system far more than the half-baked AV proposal on the cards in the referendum…

    • (Cross-posted to Gowers’s blog)
      We need to consider Arrow’s, and other no-go theorems, which render the notion of “Will-of-the-People” incoherent. But the criterion to follow is that presented by David Deutsch: The prime object of voting is to cleanly dispose of bad governments without violence. Since FPTP amplfies small voting edges and (usually) produces substantial Commons majorities from small pluralities, it is best for unseating incompetents. All other systems surrender power to splinter parties and crank politicians and so frustrate the voters’ hopes.

    • Richard,

      Wouldn’t it be better to have a voting system that gave us a good government? Then we wouldn’t be so eager to get rid of them every few years.

      Anthony

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t see anything about a change in voting system that would lead to better government. It’s more likely that there’ll be a lot of compromise deals and a series of ineffective governments as a result.

      The biggest I have is to find anyone on the ballot paper I want to vote for, and that’s not solved by ranking the undesirables in order of who’s the least bad.

    • Peter – I think I’d rather have a good government than an “effective” government, if by “effective” you mean “like a dictator”.

      Government by consensus (“compromise”) is not necessarily a Bad Thing. It’s what happens at the moment, even in a majority government, where the different factions within the ruling party reach a consensus about how to govern. But anyway, AV is likely to make hardly any difference to the current system in terms of likeliness to produce a coalition government. We’ll have to wait for PR before that happens.

    • “For the record, I’ll just say that I think the main problem with the AV proposal is that it doesn’t go far enough. It’s not a proportional system and the advantage in moving to it from FPTP seems to me to be quite marginal.”

      Yes, a bit like amputating a leg is good if one would otherwise die of gangrene, but of course the best alternative is health. But AV is better than FPTP. In particular, AV might be a necessary first step to ultimately achieving PR.

      “The biggest problem with our current political system is not precisely how MPs are elected, but the fact that we have an entirely undemocratic second chamber.”

      Certainly a big problem in principle, but is it a big problem in practice?

      “It’s worth also mentioning that here in Wales we have elections to the Welsh Assembly coming up on 5th May, the same day as the referendum. The Welsh Assembly elections use a system in which 40 Assembly Members (AMs) are directly elected, one for each constituency (via FPTP). Voters also get another ballot paper on which they can vote for regional AMs, 20 of which are allocated taking into account the results of the first ballot. I actually like this system far more than the half-baked AV proposal on the cards in the referendum…”

      Indeed. This is the system used in Germany (though it is 50/50 not 40/20) which combines the advantages of PR while at the same time countering the real (though in my view often unfounded) objections that the MPs have no relationship to their constituency. It suffers from only a few small problems, all of which can be corrected: What if a party gets more direct MPs than it should have by way of the second ballot? (Increase the total number of seats to compensate.) If there is a threshold (5% or whatever), then votes to such parties are lost. (Just have AV, but with parties instead of candidates.)

    • “We need to consider Arrow’s, and other no-go theorems, which render the notion of “Will-of-the-People” incoherent. But the criterion to follow is that presented by David Deutsch: The prime object of voting is to cleanly dispose of bad governments without violence. Since FPTP amplfies small voting edges and (usually) produces substantial Commons majorities from small pluralities, it is best for unseating incompetents. All other systems surrender power to splinter parties and crank politicians and so frustrate the voters’ hopes.”

      First, people often quote these theorems in such discussions. However, just because no system is optimal doesn’t mean that some are much better than others! Second, it doesn’t seem to be the case that countries with PR have more splinter parties and crank politicians than those with FPTP. (Just look at the presidential hopefuls in the US: Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Donald Trump. Just look at W. I rest my case.)

  2. I didn’t used to mind our unelected second chamber. In amongst the inevitable murkiness there was a sense that many members were brave enough to speak their minds and hold the government to account. Furthermore, they had (and probably still have) a long standing convention of not voting against a policy which was stated in an election manifesto. Also they knew and we knew that, like the Royal family, their undemocratic instituion could be overturned very quickly if the population started to give a damn.

    However, Blair’s bodged reforms and the subsequent elevation of a large number of career Lords now make the Lods a cause for concern IMO. I object to someone being parachuted into a position for life so he/she can be an often ineffectual minister for several years. One can’t go back so a fully elected chamber is probably the way forward.

  3. telescoper Says:

    There’s a (presumably unintentionally) hilarious piece in the Guardian today featuring comments by Vince Cable:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/apr/22/vote-for-av-vince-cable

    He argues that AV will end tory dominance of parliament. It’s quite an interesting argument from somebody whose own party is responsible for keeping a minority Tory government in power. If the LibDems really wanted to end Tory dominance they could just bring down the government!

    • Phil Uttley Says:

      I think it’s naive to predict what will happen under changes to the voting system based on the current political landscape. Voters can be pretty agile and you only have to look at countries with PR on the continent to see that it does *not* lead to the same minority party always in power propping up a larger party (e.g. a ‘progressive majority’). Inevitably voters get tired of governments and they become quite efficient at getting rid of them as they learn how the system works. I think the best outcome of a shift to PR would be an increase in the number of political parties to represent more nuanced views than the traditional Labour/Conservative split, e.g. traditional socialist left, social democratic leftlibertarian/liberal-right, conservative right and many other possibilities I’m sure. This would lead to more genuine voter choice. I also think that those who think there is a ‘progressive majority’ might be surprised at the outcome (consider what might happen if there were a referendum on capital punishment?). Many Labour voters are actually quite conservative/authoritarian on many issues and if ‘their’ government kept having to toe the liberal line of a smaller liberal party propping them up they might desert them on those issues. What you should never wish for is perpetual government by the same people (that is what is so shocking about people arguing about somehow ‘locking out’ one side or the other from government).

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