The Dishonesty of the Conservative Party's Position on AV

Richard Kimber

UK homepage

The debate over AV has been characterised by dishonest arguments by the protagonists of First-Past-the-Post, and by a concentration, on the part of the media, on the political effects of the campaign, rather than on the merits of the voting systems themselves. Here I look at the the Conservative position on AV. The quotations are taken from an email sent out by Sayeeda Warsi (28th April 2011).

"First, AV is unfair. With First Past the Post, everyone gets one vote. But under AV, supporters of extreme parties like the BNP will get their votes counted more than those who vote for mainstream parties. Put simply, BNP votes are worth more than yours."

No one has their vote counted more than anyone else under AV. Trying to frighten people by raising the spectre of the BNP is totally dishonest; no wonder Chris Huhne makes the comparison with Josef Goebbles. The BNP is actually against AV. The idea that AV makes BNP votes worth more than anyone else's is totally false and quite absurd.

With AV, everyone gets just one vote. This is cast according to the voter's preferences. Which preference is the one that counts as the voter's choice depends on which candidates are deemed not have enough support to achieve 50%+1, and thus have been eliminated, when the preferences are examined. If a voter is unable to see their most preferred candidate elected, the system in effect says "OK, so given the total distribution of preferences, in which your most preferred candidate can't achieve 50%+1, for whom would you like your vote to be cast?" All votes have equal worth and are cast just once, after the preferences have been examined. Baroness Warsi is deliberately confusing the examination of the preferences with the casting and final reckoning of the vote.

This contrasts with FPTP, which allows someone to be elected with only, say, a third of the vote, just because they have one more vote than any other candidate, and despite the fact that this person may not reflect the overall view of voters, given their diverse preferences as between the various candidates. AV seeks to avoid this situation by requiring the winner to have majority support, taking people's overall preferences into account. AV allows the subtlety of people's views about the various candidates to be expressed more fully than does FPTP, which in fact does not allow them to be expressed at all.

"Second, AV is confusing. Just look what happens in Australia, where they use AV and want to get rid of it. Party workers stand outside polling stations with 'How to Vote' cards, telling people the exact order to rank each candidate."

AV is not confusing at all. People are quite used to putting things in order of preference in other walks of life. They do it all the time, either implicitly or explicitly. Having party workers stand outside polling stations with 'How to Vote' cards has nothing to do with the nature of the AV system at all, but rather has everything to do with political parties trying to manipulate the views of voters - something which they are quite happy to attempt under FPTP.

"And third, AV is costly- no matter what our opponents claim, there is a real danger that AV would be an expensive political fix, coming with higher costs and a raft of new bureaucracy."

This is false. There is no reason why AV should be costly, and it is significant that Baroness Warsi is not explicit about what she thinks the costs are. It is just a smear. AV would be administered in the usual way by Returning Officers and their staffs, and there would not be a "raft of new bureaucracy".

"Take a look at the rest of the world. Right now, First Past the Post is used by 2.4 billion people across the planet. It's the most widely used system in the world. But AV is used in just three countries: Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea."

The implication here is that there are just two voting systems in use around the world, FPTP and AV. What Baroness Warsi does not mention here is that many countries use some form of Proportional Representation, or they use STV, or second ballots. It is dishonest to cite the number of voters using FPTP in this way because one or two very large countries can distort the figures and give the impression that virtually all political systems have chosen to use FPTP. This is not so.

Also, Baroness Warsi fails to mention the fact that the Conservative Party has chosen to use the Alternative Vote for its leadership election. If it is such an unfair system, why would they do that? AV is used widely in a variety of contexts, and is usually chosen because it is straightforward and fairer than FPTP.

"So if, like me, like Churchill, like many leading historians, sports stars and scientists, you know that AV would be a disaster for our democracy, get in touch with your local association and find out how you can help."

The argument from authority is a well-known fallacy. In a democracy people should make their own minds up. Churchill was not always right, and who knows what his view would be if he were alive now? As for sports stars like David Gower and Darren Gough, I'd be amazed if they had any real understanding of the different voting systems at all. What is it about their former abilities on the cricket field that makes their opinion on AV especially worth listening to? Have they somehow been transformed into people of some intellect, leaders in the field of voting theory? No, the opinions of virtually all the celebs are worth no more than anyone else's.

It is sad that the Conservative Party has chosen to conduct the electoral reform debate at such a low level. It is a pity that the media are letting them get away with it.

© Richard Kimber, 2011

Last Modified: 22 Oct 12