Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The AV con-trick

Of all the things claimed about Gordon Brown's preferred method of ballot rigging electoral reform, Alternative Vote (AV), perhaps the most misleading is the suggestion that it would eliminate tactical voting. Chris Huhne, for example, explaining why the change would represent "a small step in the right direction":

AV will end "tactical" voting, whereby people vote for their second preference party to block the party they dislike most. It will allow everyone to vote for who they want, secure in the knowledge that if their preferred candidate has no chance and is eliminated in the count, their second and third preferences will be used for someone else. The process of elimination and counting goes on until someone has at last half of the votes in the constituency.

AV is therefore better because voters have more choice, and can honestly support who they want.

In fact, far from meaning the end of tactical voting, AV would institutionalise it. It is tactical voting erected into a formal system. The greater "choice" it provides, moreover, is entirely illusory, and thus AV represents a con on the public.

After all, what is a second preference vote, in a constituency where your first preference is not one of the two leading contenders, if not a tactical vote? When your preferred candidate is eliminated, your vote - all of it - will be given to someone else still in the race. This will usually be the person you would have voted for tactically, if you were so minded, under the current system of first past the post. But whereas under the present system a tactical vote is the result of a conscious choice - its meaning is that you would prefer to see another candidate lose than your preferred candidate win - under the proposed AV system it would be the default option. For many people, their tactical vote would be their main vote.

Except that they might not be fully aware that what they were doing was voting tactically. To them, it would seem like they were expressing a second preference - whereas the arithmetics of their constituency dictates that their second choice is in fact their "real" vote. This is what is meant by saying that AV ensures that votes aren't "wasted". Under AV, the winning candidate will often have won through a combination of first- and second-preference votes (and in some cases third- and fourth- preference votes) and will thus appear to have a majority. But the first-preference votes will be enthusiastic; the second-preference votes may well be grudging; the third and fourth-preference votes may be casual or even ironic. All will count equally.

This is part of the reason why AV tends to increase majorities. In 1997 and 2001, the system would have led to Labour majorities (based on around 40% of the total vote, in the latter year on an extremely low turnout) that were not merely huge but crushing. Even in 2005, when a tepid 35% backed Labour, the party would probably have romped home with more seats than it actually won. AV only "saves" wasted votes at the expense of enlarging the most objectionable feature of first past the post, its tendency towards democratically-unjustified majorities. It is even possible for the winning party, in terms of national share of the vote, to be defeated by second-preference tactical voting, leading to a second-choice party winning a majority of seats. That would be a less democratic result than anything thrown up by FPTP.

There's only one way to counteract this defect in AV - and that's by voting tactically. Conscious tactical voting under AV is much more of a headache than under FPTP, but the principle remains the same: to ensure the defeat of your least favoured candidate. Under AV, any would-be tactical voter has to work out where each candidate's second preferences are likely to fall.

Say you're a Tory who could live with a Lib Dem but hates the thought of a Labour MP. It's a three-way marginal, but with Labour likely to gain the most first preferences. If the Lib Dem is eliminated, you guess, the majority of their votes would be redistributed in favour of Labour (and vice versa). If the Conservative is eliminated, very few of their votes would go to Labour, but rather more would go to the Lib Dems. To avoid a Labour victory, you should vote Lib Dem as your first preference: the object being to avoid the Lib Dem being eliminated before the Tory, thus ensuring the redistribution doesn't favour Labour. On the same principle, Labour voters ought to vote Conservative.

That sounds like a mad system to me. Madder than the one we've got at the moment, even.