Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What if they gave an election and no-one came? (2)

WARNING: VERY BORING INDEED

The Queen, of course, is not really in charge of anything. The person who is really in charge is the Prime Minister, and we choose him by an arcane process called voting. Here is how it works.

Suppose you live in a Parish of 1,000 citizens. Let's call it Little Gidding.

And suppose you have to chose a representative to send to the national assembly. Let's call it The Thing.

And let's suppose that you have four political parties: the Red Party, the White Party, the Blue Party and the Black Party.

And let's suppose that the Red Party, the White Party and the Blue Party are all united in their hatred of the Black Party, the leader of which is a swivel-eyed lunatic who starts foreign wars on flimsy pretexts. But let's also suppose that the supporters of the Black Party are all loyal party men who hate Red, White and Blue equally, on the unassailable grounds that they are not Black.

When the votes of the citizens of the parish of Little Gidding are counted, they come out as:

Black Party - 251
Red Party -250
White Party - 250
Blue Party - 249

So the representative of the Black Party is duly elected and sent to the Thing, where he claims to speak on behalf of all (or at any rate the vastmaj ority) of the people of Little Gidding, even though 74.9% of them didn't want him as their representative. Indeed, when he decides to chop down the rose garden and build a car-park, he reminds the 749 parishoners who stage a "save the rose garden" demonstration that they had an election, that he won, that it is therefore the will of the people of Little Gidding that the rose garden be chopped down, that it would be positively undemocratic to listen to their objections (and that in any case he feels in his heart that chopping down the rose-bush is the right thing to do, and that he will some day have to answer to God on the matter).

Clearly, this is not an ideal system.

The ideal system -- if you think that an election result which reflects the wishes of the people who voted in the election is a good result, which, I grant you, is not self-evident -- would be to let the people of Little Gidding send not 1 but 4 representative to the Thing: a Black one, a Red one, a White one, and a Blue one. The down-side of this is that it would quadruple the size of the Thing. The villagers would have to contribute to the cost of 4 times as many postage stamps; 4 times as many cups of coffee 4 times as many moats and 4 times as many duck-houses. And it always seems to turn out that the only way of obtaining this money would be to close hospitals, sack teachers, make vets redundant and cause thousands of cute kittens to die in horrible agony. The idea that you could raise the funds by, say, dropping fewer bombs on fewer foreigners never seems to occur to anybody.

The second best system would be to merge the parish of Little Gidding with the three nearby parishes called, for the sake of a joke that wasn't particularly funny to begin with, East Coker, Burnt Norton and Dry Salvage. You'd count up the votes of the newly merged mega-parish and send representatives to the Thing based on how those 4,000 votes were cast -- say, two Blues, one Black and one Red. This would, of course, mean that the people of Little Gidding might end up being represented by someone who was born and bred in East Coker. And the one thing that unites everyone in the Red party, the White party, the Blue party and the Black party is that no-one from East Coker could possibly understand what happens in Little Gidding. If you haven't lived all your life near the rose garden, you simply won't understand the strong feelings that rose gardens engender. The Red Party, the White Party and the Blue Party all agree that the Black Party candidate is a swivel-eyed lunatic: but at least he's a local swivel-eyed lunatic. They'd rather be represented by him than some furriner from the village next door.

Since the two sensible options are clearly too silly to consider, the villagers decide that the best thing to do is count up the votes in a more complicated way -- a way which reflects the fact that the vastmaj ority of the villager really do hate the Black Party.

"Here is what we will do," they say. "We will decide that a simple majority of votes cast will no longer be sufficient to win an election. From now on, you will only be allowed to represent us if you have more votes than all the other candidates put together. If no candidate gets that magical 50% of the votes, we will declare the election null and void, and run it all over again. But, and this is the cunning bit, if we have to have a second election, the candidate who got the least votes -- the Blue one, in this case -- will not be allowed to stand a second time. And will carry on knocking candidates out and having new elections until someone gets overall majority."

As we've seen, in Little Gidding, the Black candidate is very unpopular with everybody except a rump of swivel-eyed lunatics. So when the Blue candidate drops out, some of his supporters vote RED and some of his supporters vote WHITE, but NONE of them vote BLACK. So after the second election, you get a result like this

BLACK 251 + 0 =251
RED 250+125=375
WHITE 250+124=374

Oh dear! The poor villagers still haven't managed to come up with an overall majority. So they have to have the election all over again. This time the BLACK candidate bows out. Hooray! At the next election, some of his supporters vote RED and some of them vote WHITE. This leaves us with a final result:

RED: 375 + 126 = 501
WHITE: 374 +125 = 499

So after three goes, and by the closest of margins, RED is elected. [*]

The BLACK candidate is very sad.

The RED candidate is very happy.

The WHITE candidate is sadder than he would have been if he'd won, but happier than he would have been if BLACK had won.

The BLUE candidate is sadder than he'd been if he'd won, but happier than he would have been if BLACK had won.

It's not an ideal system, but we've just rejected the ideal system on general principles. Overall, more people are less unhappy this way than they would have been under the old system which gave all the power to the least popular candidate.

Now, actually holding the election over and over again would be a terrible nuisance. You'd have to close the library or the school hall on three consecutive Thursdays, and pay council vote counting officials money that could have been better be spent on bombs and duck houses. So, and this is also the cunning bit, we say that the villagers are not allowed to change their mind in the second or the third elections. If you vote RED the first time, you have to vote RED the second time. Only the people whose candidate has been kicked out get to change their mind. But, and this is the most cunning bit of all, because it would be a nuisance to have to keep walking down to the Parish Hall over and over again, they ask everyone to say how they would vote if a second or third election had to be held.

This isn't as complicated as it sounds. Instead of doing this

BLACK
RED
WHITE
BLUE     X

the villagers have to do this

BLACK   4 (fourth choice)
RED    2 (second choice)
WHITE    3 (third choice)
BLUE   1(first choice)

The supporters of the Black Party, not surprisingly, don't like this system. They say that it is unfair, and goes against the traditions of Little Gidding: they say it violates a basic principle of "We've always done it this way." (As a matter of fact, they HAVEN'T done always done it that way at all. 25 years ago, only people over 30 were allowed to vote. 50 years ago, only men were allowed to vote. 100 years ago, only people with at least two turnip fields were allowed to vote.) And they say that because people who supported the RED party in the first election have to vote for the RED party in the second election, but people who voted for the BLUE party are allowed to change their mind, the BLUE party is somehow getting more influence than the RED, WHITE, and BLACK parties. They say that some people get more say in the election than others. They say that some people get more votes than others. They say that if I go into the Little Gidding Tea Shop "I'd like mint tea, if you've got it, other wise, de caff coffee is fine, but if you don't have that either, I'd be happy with ordinary tea" I end up with more drinks than the person who just ordered, and got, a cup of tea. Either they don't understand the system themselves, or they do understand it and are actively trying to confuse everyone else.

[*] In the event of a dead heat, the returning officer gets an extra vote, which he must cast in favour of the encumbent. Or maybe they settle it by a game of tiddlywinks. Doesn't matter. Isn't going to happen.



continues

24 comments:

Louise H said...

Horrible pedantry but in your second round wouldn't black be kicked out, not white?

Andrew Rilstone said...

Er, yes. As my geography teacher used to say, I was just checking to see if you were paying attention. Er, making a point about how easy the system is to understand.

Fixed now.

Andrew Rilstone said...

....bloody percentages.....

Paul Brown said...

You know what, you've changed my mind on AV. Not by a massive amount, admittedly, but I have now gone from "well AV is better than FPP, but larger constituencies with more than one representative would be much better" to "actually, the larger constituencies thing would never fly because you've got as much chance of convincing people that it's a good idea as you have of persuading them that nuclear power is safer than coal or that Jeremy Clarkson is a bigoted, uninformed moron and not an insightful genius, so AV will do quite nicely, thank you."

Sorry for the rambling, but I do tend to have somewhat long winded opinions. Maybe I should go into politics - I wonder if my local white party* needs a candidate?

*I am assuming that "white party" here is representing the "genuinely liberal and haven't really got a chance" party, as opposed to some kind of "Britain should be white" party. Round where I live you have to be careful about that distinction as the BNP are considered a real alternative to the Tories in these parts. Labour supporters are shot on sight.

Kevin Cowtan said...

Ah, so what you are saying is that the principal problem with FPTP is its failure to meet the Concordcet loser criterion?

I disagree. While Concordcet loser is desirable, the FPTP wasted vote problem is much worse as it in turn causes tactical voting, disengagement and increased vulnerability to gerrymandering.

Tim Ellis said...

You miss another problem with the "second best system" - apart from parochialism, it also robs the electorate of the power to remove a candidate they don't want. If, for example Little Gidding's Blue candidate had been accepting large sums of money in return for asking questions in parliament, or putting their partners video rentals through as MP expenses, even some of their own party might prefer not to see them re-elected. If, as in the current system, or the proposed AV system, you are voting for an individual, you can express this preference, which you can't do if a sufficiently large minority allows the blue party to choose one of it's candidates anyway.

It's not that an East Cokerite doesn't understand Little Gidding's issues. The East Cokerite candidate doesn't even need to care about East Coker's issues, providng there is a sufficient level of support to return one candidate form his party, and he has the support of the party.

Mike Taylor said...

I strongly support the AV system in place of FPTP, and here's why: it means I don't have to lie. If I like the Oak party best but in my constituency the never win and it's realistically between the Birch and Willow parties, I no longer have to pretend that I support the Willow party on the grounds that I dislike them less than I dislike the Birch party. Instead I can just say exactly what I mean, which is "Oak good, Willow OK, Birch bad".

Sam Dodsworth said...

Ironically enough, I think I don't like either of the options on offer but will probably choose AV as the lesser evil.

Mike Taylor said...

What would you like, Sam?

Andrew Rilstone said...

@Kevin: Just pretend, for the sake of argument, that there was someone here who used to know what a concordcet is, but has forgotten...

Gareth McCaughan said...

Mike: Here's a different way of stating the having-to-lie problem: The existing system gives an advantage to people who don't mind lying when they vote: it punishes a certain sort of integrity. (I prefer this way of stating it, because it isn't vulnerable to the objection "But, you know, you *don't* really have to lie.")

Also, Sam would like green eggs and ham.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Also, Sam would like green eggs and ham.

I expect people say that all the time, Mr Smoke-too-much.

Gavin Burrows said...

I am surprised you are all still talking about this when the most desirable system is given in Andrew's video clip. (Though of course twice-weekly meetings of the executive committee is far too infrequent.)

Sam Dodsworth said...

What would you like, Sam?

Short answer: An actual, radical, change. In the context of this debate, that probably means some form of proper PR.

Slightly longer answer to follow tomorrow, when I'm at a proper keyboard.

Kevin Cowtan said...

Concordcet criterion: If a candidate is favoured in all pairwise comparisons with other candidates, then that candidate will win. Interestingly neither FPTP or AV fulfil this criterion.

Concordcet loser criterion: If a candidate is disfavoured in all pairwise comparisons with other candidates, then that candidate will not win. FPTP does not fulfil this, but AV does.

Unfortunately it is provably impossible for any voting system to satisfy all the intuitively desirable criteria of a voting system. But FPTP sucks.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Slightly longer answer:

AV makes it easier to vote for the candidate you want, but doesn't make a significant difference to outcomes.

If you support one of the major parties and you're not in a marginal seat then there's no change from FPTP.

If you support one of the major parties and you are in a marginal seat then AV works like a more reliable version of tactical voting.

If you support a minor party then it's vanishingly unlikely that they'll have enough support in any one constituency to get their candidate elected. There's no chance of a "wasted" vote, but that's because your first preference won't have any effect on the outcome of the election.

So the only real use of a first-preference vote for a minor party is as a signal: to the major parties to influence their policies, or to the minor party to show moral support. There will be an effect in both cases, but it'll be a marginal one. Most minor parties have a natural second-choice major party so there's not much scope for vote-hunting, and moral support doesn't win elections.

And of course the signal from first-preference votes arrives immediately after a general election, when voter preferences are least important to the parties.

Summary: AV offers a few marginal benefits over FPTP but is still a very effective engine for maintaining the status quo.

So what would I prefer, me?

Basically, anything that erodes the power of the three existing major parties. They're all bankrupt of ideas at this point, and need an incentive to change their policies before they make a bad situation worse. Much as I'd like to see the abolition of money and everything run by "jazz hands" consensus meetings, some form of PR that aggregates the national vote is probably the least unrealistic option. But anything that gets a wider range of views into parliament is good.

Mike Taylor said...

Sam says: "So the only real use of a first-preference vote for a minor party is as a signal: to the major parties to influence their policies, or to the minor party to show moral support. There will be an effect in both cases, but it'll be a marginal one."

I am not so pessimistic. To put it in concrete terms, it could make a big immediate difference in some constituencies if people who have been voting Labour "because it's between them and the Tories" start voting for the Lib Dems because that's who they actually want to get in. And once such a shift starts to happen, I can imagine it prodding a lot of people into actually thinking about who they're voting for and why, in a way that they didn't back in the bad old days when it was all about Keeping The Tories Out.

But more than that, the great benefit of AV for me is just it it lets me just say what I actually think rather then having to weigh up, from a position of some ignorance, what I think the consequences will be if I do. I think that kind of honesty, and the end of tactical voting, has a great value in itself -- even if it turns out not to change the results.

Sam Dodsworth said...

it could make a big immediate difference in some constituencies if people who have been voting Labour "because it's between them and the Tories" start voting for the Lib Dems because that's who they actually want to get in.

Yes, oddly enough the "big immediate difference" is a possibility of Lib-Dem gains in marginal seats. (In a couple of cycles when the Lib-Dems are no longer radioactive, anyway.) That's a gain if you're still a Lib-Dem supporter at this point, but doesn't do much for people who aren't in marginals or who would like to see gains for parties outside the Big Three.

the great benefit of AV for me is just it it lets me just say what I actually think rather then having to weigh up, from a position of some ignorance, what I think the consequences will be if I do.

My problem is that it's a system that let's you say what you actually think but doesn't allow it to affect outcomes. Rather like a "consultation exercise". And the cynic in me thinks that disconnect is a feature, not a bug, for those in power.

I think that kind of honesty, and the end of tactical voting, has a great value in itself

Under FPTP, if I was in a Lib-Dem/Tory marginal I'd vote Lib-Dem to keep the Tories out. Under AV, I'd vote (probably) Green as my first choice, and then Lib-Dem to keep the Tories out. I have trouble seeing that as the end of tactical voting. And my honesty, although of great value, will have the same effect as a "dishonest" vote under FPTP.

Mike Taylor said...

Sam says: "Under FPTP, if I was in a Lib-Dem/Tory marginal I'd vote Lib-Dem to keep the Tories out. Under AV, I'd vote (probably) Green as my first choice, and then Lib-Dem to keep the Tories out."

Really? Surely what you'd do is vote Green because that's who you'd most like to win, then Lib-Dem because that's your second choice rather than for a tactical reason. To me, that is fundamentally different from voting to keep someone out.

And I used the Lib-Dems in my example because, yes, they stand to gain the most in the immediate; but I can easily see the AV benefitting the Greens and other as-yet-unrecognised non-big-three parties in exactly the same way. The bottom line is what when you can vote for who you want to win, your vote will go the people who you want to win. How can that not be an improvement?

Sam Dodsworth said...

Really? Surely what you'd do is vote Green because that's who you'd most like to win, then Lib-Dem because that's your second choice rather than for a tactical reason.

I'm not sure it's that easy to distinguish between a second choice and a tactical reason - in my case, anyway. I'm not a centrist so the Lib-Dems aren't really any more representative of my views than the Conservatives. I'd be voting for them because I'd expect them to do less damage, not because I actively support them. More importantly, the same principle would apply to any Labour or Conservative supporters who currently vote tactically.

I can easily see the AV benefitting the Greens and other as-yet-unrecognised non-big-three parties in exactly the same way.

Not at the current levels of support, surely? If 10% of the country support the Greens and that support is evenly distibuted then you'll never see a Green MP under FPTP or AV. Under PR, you might. You might get a boost from pure first-preference numbers under AV, but it's hard to gain credibility as political force without winning at least some elections.

So - as a reminder - I'm very much Meh2AV but intend to vote for it anyway, since it's not obviously worse than what we've got now.

Mike Taylor said...

Well, we won't know until we try it, but my guess is that if/when AV comes in, we'll suddenly find a lot more voters prepared to put Green at the top of the poll than were prepared to have them as their only choice.

Of course, the same may also be true of UKIP.

Sam Dodsworth said...

we'll suddenly find a lot more voters prepared to put Green at the top of the poll than were prepared to have them as their only choice.

Of course, the same may also be true of UKIP.


I completely agree with this (for both Greens and UKIP). I just don't think the extra first-preference votes will affect the political landscape, because they won't represent any kind of threat to the established parties.

Mike Taylor said...

There are more ways to change the political landscape than the simple issue of who wins the seat. A Tory MP with an FPTP majority of 10,000 is in a very different situation from one with a majority of 2,000 who knows there is a swell of Green support in his constituency.

Millennium Dome said...

Good piece with one niggle:

"We will decide that a simple majority of votes cast will no longer be sufficient to win an election."

You mean "plurality" of the votes cast, not "majority" - in your example, no one has a majority and that is of course the whole point.

AV says that you *should* win the majority (or at least majority of those votes still in contention) :)