Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What if they gave an election an no-one came (3)


"I am on neither side in the present controversy. But I still think the abolitionists conduct their case very ill. They seem incapable of stating it without imputing vile motives to their opponents. If unbelievers often look at your correspondence column, I am afraid they may carry away a bad impression of our logic, manners, and charity." - C.S Lewis, letter to the Church Times 15 Dec 1961

So: come Thursday fortnight we all get to traipse down to the polling station and have a vote about how we want to vote. A sort of meta-vote. "Yes" if you want to go over to the first, second and third preferences system; "No" if you want to stay with the simple majority system. There is no way of indicating that you'd rather have Proportional Representation, or that you think that the vote-counting system isn't the main thing which is screwed up about our version of  parliamentary democracy.

If I could be bothered, I might make out some posters saying "Vote 'Maybe' On May 5th." 

If I were the "No" campaign, which I hasten to say that I am not, I could muster a number of perfectly sane arguments for sticking with the system we have at present, however crazy that system it may be.  [1]

1: The crazy system was not invented by anyone. It just grew. Gradually, and incrementally. Having an organic constitution that isn't written down in any one place is one of the special and unique things which make us British, like Morris dancing and the shipping forecast. We should, therefore, only change it gradually and incrementally, and there should always be a presumption to the status quo. "If it ain't broke don't fix it" is a good principle. "Even if it is broke, be careful of fiddling with it if you don't know what you are doing, because that may very well make things worse" is a pretty good principle too. Presumption in favour of the status quo does not mean "never change anything, ever" any more than "presumption of innocence" means "never find anyone guilty, ever". It just means "be pretty damn sure you know what you are doing". Wait until there is an overwhelming case. Beware of unintended consequences. The case for giving women the vote in 1928, or giving all men the vote in 1832, were pretty overwhelming. Counting the votes in a more convoluted way, not so much. 

2: Some people quite like the kerrazy system. Practically no-one likes the "alternative vote" system. The supporters of AV really want a PR: they are pretending to like AV because that was the only system that the people who don't really want any change at all were prepared to agree to a referendum on. [2] We're going to a great deal of trouble to replace a system which some people like and some people don't like with one which nobody likes. We're going to a great deal of trouble to replace the worst system imaginable with the second worse system imaginable. At best, there's a huge fuss and palaver, we conduct the 2015 election on AV, and in 2020 or 2025 we have to go through the whole process all over again. At worst, we spend the next 100 years saddled with a system that no-one wanted in the first place. (And the people who object to all change on general principles will, of course, say "You want ANOTHER referendum? Will you NEVER be satisfied?") 

3: The supporters of AV appear to take it for granted that an election result which accurately reflects the "will" of the people is the most desirable result. This does not seem to me to be self-evident or axiomatic. Granted, a minority of die-hard Black Party supporters don't really care what is done to the country, provided it is done by a person wearing a Black rosette and a minority of die-hard White Party voters don't care what is done to the country provided it is done by a person wearing a White rosette. But what everyone else wants is good, efficient, competent leadership -- a prosperous country, low rates of crime, clean hospitals, well educated children, Folk Waves returned to its Monday evening slot Radio Derby, et cetera et cetera et cetera. They don't actually care all that much about parties. Oh, we may have our own personal opinions on whether the Blue party policy on law and order is better than the Red party policy on law and order, in the same way may happen to have a personal opinion about whether the committee of the Little Gidding swimming club should spend this years subscription money on installing hair dryers in the changing rooms or on fixing the diving board, but what really matters to us is that the police catch criminals and the swimming pool stays open. It is at least arguable that a parliament with an overall majority of Red MPs -- even if the Red party does not command an overall majority of support among actual voters -- will do a better job of actually organizing the police force than a parliament consisting of equal numbers of Red, White and Blue MPs would have done, even though an equal number of Red, White and Blue votes were actually cast. Hung parliaments necessarily involve lots of messy compromises and back-room deals, and all three parties having to pretend to support policies which none of them actually agree with. You might very well think it best that the Red party gets a chance to put their policies into practice without being blocked all the time by the White party -- even though you yourself like the policies of the White party better. For most people, party politics is not like supporting a football team or signing up to a religion. It's more a set of vague preferences. The "Yes" campaign seems very good at showing that "first past the post" marginalizes smaller parties and tends towards two-party rule. It seems rather less keen to show why that is necessarily a Bad Thing.

However, the naysayers do not appear to arguing for the principle of conservatism; or that we are being asked to replace one unpopular system with another unpopular system, or even that single party rule is preferable to perpetual compromise. In fact, it is hard to work out what their real case is. They claim that AV is more expensive than FPTP. They point out that the referendum has cost £91 million, although it isn't clear if that money is refunded if everyone votes "no". They argue that the £130 million we are going to spend on voting machines to administer the new system would be better spent on hospitals, bombs and duck-houses, which would be a fair to middling argument if anyone had proposed buying voting machines, which they haven't. They argue that it would let extremist parties in, which is hard to reconcile with the fact that the extremist parties are against it. [3] 

Cameron's speech yesterday was beyond parody. He keeps appealing to a weird constitutional essentialism under which the Alternative Voting system is "un British." I think I understand what "un British" means. For example, Eric and Ernie are "British", and Groucho Marx is "un British"; bacon, eggs, and fried bread are "British", if consumed at breakfast time, but blueberry waffles are  in the same context "un British". I suppose, then, the present system is British because that's the system we currently have in Britain, and a different system is, at the moment, not British because that's not the system that we have in Britain at the moment. How's that an argument? He repeated the ridiculous claim that under the proposes system, some people get more votes than others which is. Just. Not. True. [4] And he said that " It could mean that people who come third in elections will end up winning." In case this concept is too hard to grasp, the Naysayers campaign leaflet [5] helpfully provides a photo of four sprinters crossing a finishing line. The man in third place is marked "The winner under AV".

"It is wrong that the person who came second or third can overtake the person with the most votes and be allowed to win because the second, third or even lower choices of supporters of extreme parties such as the BNP are counted again and again and again" it explains, a trifle breathlessly.

As an argument, this really is on the same level as saying that you ought to believe in God, because that's the only way to avoid being an atheist, or that we ought to reintroduce capital punishment because otherwise we won't be able to execute any murderers. If you define "the person with the most votes" as "the person with the most first choice votes" and "the person who came second or third" as "the person who would have come second or third under first past the post" then it is a no-brainer that the "person with the most votes" will sometimes come second and the "person who came second" will sometimes come first. That is, AV will sometimes come out different to FTP. That is the point of it, you ignorant little maggot. We have a thousand people: each of them with a different set of preferences between the Red Party, the White Party and the Blue Party. We have to turn those thousands sets of preferences into a single man -- a Red Man, a White Man or a Blue Man. Some people think that "the man who was some people's first choice, lots of people's second choice, a few people's third choice, and hardly anybody's last choice" fills that role better than "the man who was a few people's first choice, but the everybody else's last choice." Cameron has literally said "The only possible system is the one where the largest single minority wins, because in all the other system,s the largest single minority doesn't win." This is just not an argument. 

And Cameron must know that it is just not an argument because he resorted to possibly the weirdest thing ever said by a British Politician

"Politics shouldn't be some mind-bending exercise. It's about what you feel in your gut, about the values you hold dear and the beliefs you instinctively have. And I just feel it, in my gut, that AV is wrong."

Yes, of course, many of our most important and deepest beliefs come from instinct, intuition, or, if you insist, gut-feeling. I don't imagine that I could prove that you should never use force until all peaceful means have been exhausted; or that we should treat everyone as we ourselves would like to be treated; or that it's better to be kind than to be cruel. When you comes up against conflicting, irreducible gut feelings, then the argument is at an end. "You'd be willing to give up quite a lot of your freedom in return for security" I say "That's interesting. I'd rather live in a dangerous world provided I was free to go to hell in my own choice of hand cart. Well, then, we'll just have to agree to differ." But the person who invokes "gut feeling" and "I just know" to early in the discussion -- the person who says that he doesn't care what the boffins say, he just knows that global warming isn't happening; or that he doesn't care what the boffins say, he just knows that vaccination causes autism; or that he doesn't care what the boffins say, he just knows that human beings can't have evolved from monkeys -- is simply not worth talking to. He's a fanatic, a zealot, a fundamentalist, or, let's be quite honest here, a loony. [6] To say "I am opposed to this or that constitutional system because of a gut feeling" is really the equivalent of saying "LA-LA-LA! NOT LISTENING! NOT LISTENING!" The existence of politicians who resort that kind of argument is one reason why a lot of us think we need a better way of electing them.

Above: something essentially  British

Under the present system, choosing the government is often reduced to a kind of pesphological prisoner's dilemma. I like the Fluffy Bunny Party. I hate the Swivel-Eyed Warmonger Party. But I hate the Smug Posh Racist Party even more. I fear that few other people will vote for the Fluffy Bunny Party; but that quite a lot of people will vote for the Smug Posh Racists. Therefore, I must vote Swivel- Eyed Warmonger (who I hate) to prevent the Smug Racist Party (who I hate more) from winning. No-one votes Fluffy Bunny because they don't think that the Fluffy Bunny Party can win because no-one votes for them; the Swivel-Eyed Warmonger claims a popular mandate for whatever daft scheme pops into his head over the next five years because so many people thought he was the least worst option who had a chance of not losing.

In 2005, many disgruntled Labour voters threatened to shift their support to the Liberal party on the not unreasonable grounds that disgraced former Prime Minister Tony Blair had (as I may have previously mentioned) lied about a war. You might have expected the Labour Party to have responded by saying that lying had been the most honest thing to do under the circumstances, or that he hadn't actually lied, or that the war hadn't actually happened. But no. They argued that this kind of voting (voting Liberal because the Liberals were the only party to oppose the Really Stupid War) would be "self-indulgent" and indeed undemocratic since the Liberals couldn't possibly win because no-one was going to vote for them, even the people who agreed with them, because voting for them would be self indulgent and undemocratic because they couldn't win.

It's demented.

Some of the "No" campaign appear to think that AV would be a Bad Thing because it would make this kind of voting harder, or, as they put it, because people would not "understand" how to "use" their vote. It's easy to say "I like the Fluffy Bunnies, everyone likes the Fluffy Bunnies, but I am not going to vote Fluffy Bunny because I don't think that anyone else will vote Fluffy Bunny (because they also don't think anyone else will vote for them.)" It's much harder to say "I will put the Posh Smug Racists in second place, because, although they are really my fourth choice to run the country, putting Fluffy Bunny, who are actually my second choice to run the country in second place is more likely to result in a victory for Swivel Eyed Warmonger, who are my first choice, if, as I suspect, people whose second choice is really Raving Loony will be putting Fluffy Bunny second to keep out the Posh Racists...."

But this seems to me to be the scheme's main -- possibly only -- advantage. The idea of "using your vote" as opposed to "voting for the party you actually like best" seems to me to be undemocratic to be the point of wickedness. I've actually heard it floated, by people who believe in the "three cups of tea" theory, that the sensible thing for a Labour supporter to do would be to put Monster Raving Loony in first place and Labour in second , so that they can get a free extra Labour vote in the second round, which is Just. Not. How. It. Works.

Put your cross by the person you actually think would do the best job running the country. Under the new system, but 1 next to the best, and 2 next to the second best. Anything else and might as well not bother with elections.

"I am not producing arguments to show that capital punishment is certainly right; I am only maintaining that it is not certainly wrong; it is a matter on which good men may legitimately differ" - C.S Lewis "Why I Am Not a Pacifist."

[1] A very wise man once pointed out that the English language was crazy: if you can say that a retired teacher "taught" why can't you say that a retired preacher "praught"? But that's not necessarily an argument for wholesale spelling and grammar reform.

[2] So it is pretty shitty underhanded of the naysayer to say that only Fiji and Narnia use the AV system. Wikipedia lists 165 countries which use PR. The Liberals wanted a referendum on PR, but Cameroon wouldn't let them have one.

[3] Of course they are. Of course they are. They are a few peoples' first choice, and everybody else's last choice. That's what "extremist" means.

[4] Well: Mr Smith writes the numbers 1 - 7 by each of 7 candidates, in order of preference, while Mr Jones writes the numbers 1 - 5 by the names of the 5 candidates he wouldn't mind winning -- but nothing at all by the names of the two candidates he wouldn't want under any circumstances. I suppose it is literally true that, if the count went to the 7th round, Mr Smith would have voted in all 7 rounds, where Mr Jones would only have voted in the first 5 rounds, but that doesn't equate to Mr Smith having had more say in choosing the candidate that Mr Jones. (Or does it: can someone do the maths?)

[5] The No-To-AV campaign leaflet is quite the most hateful document I have ever read, and I speak as one who has made a special study of the works of Dave Sim, and once read the Daily Express every day for a month.

[6] "Thus, you may meet a temperance fantastic who claims to have an unanswerable intuition that all strong drink is forbidden. Really he can have nothing of the sort. The real intuition is that health and harmony are good. Then there is the generalizing from facts to the effect that drunkenness produces disease and quarrelling, and perhaps also, if the fanatic is Christian, the voice of Authority saying that the body is the temple of the Holy Ghost. Then there is a conclusion that what can always be abused had better never be used at all - a conclusion eminently suited for discussion. Finally, there is the process whereby early associations, arrogance, and the like turn the remote conclusion into something which man thinks unarguable because he does not with to argue about it." C.S Lewis "Why I Am Not a Pacifist."


Helen Louise said...

Thanks for this - also I'm glad that you brought up Cameron's ridiculous 'gut-feeling' argument. I don't like the man anyway, but this was the first thing he's said that has made me suspect that he's incompetent as well as evil...

NickPheas said...

I'm perfectly content with AV as proposed.
The failing of most of the PR schemes out there seem to be that they're largely incomprehensible (cf the European Parliament rules), they break the link between the MP and a constituency (ibid) and if based about a list system (ibid) allow the swivel-eyed lunatic leader to place their cronies at the head of the list, effectively making it impossible to have an honourable, popular candidate elected.

Andrew Hickey said...

Nick, exactly. This is why I want STV (which has none of those downsides,except for having slightly larger constituencies) but am happy to settle for AV.

And Helen, I don't think the 'gut feeling' argument is incompetence. Cameron has deliberately lied throughout the campaign (saying e.g. that he couldn't explain AV, when he's got a PPE degree from Oxford). Unfortunately, though, the 'gut feeling' pseudo-argument works on a lot of people who should know better.

Andrew Rilstone said...

****ing Blogger, by the way.

DC said...

Yes and absolutely. The people who put that terrible leaflet together either don't understand what they're arguing for, or they're mendacious. It is, as you say, demented.

Mike Taylor said...

Much agreement all round.

But that's not what The Prisoner's Dilemma is -- its more like the Tragedy Of The Commons acted out in the small. See

Mike Taylor said...

Stupid Blogger, and its inability to make URLs into links automatically. Here you go: The Prisoner's Dilemma.

Andrew Hickey said...

Mike, I think what Andrew's describing is isomorphic to an iterated prisoner's dilemma, though - if you have two people, both of whom would prefer party A but are OK with party B, and don't want to see party C get in, who would get in if the vote is split, and both know that last time both 'defected' and went with party B, then there's an incentive to defect again.