Tuesday, March 1, 2011

F - P - T - P - Can - We - Fix - It? F - P - T - P - Yes - We - Can!

I'm just back from visiting ConHome, in search of my nightly fix of daft defences of our glorious first-past-the-post voting system. Yet again, I wasn't disappointed. At first I thought Ed Hall was seriously trying to compare those who point out the unfairness of FPTP with a tearful three-year-old stamping his feet and demanding that he be allowed to watch Bob the Builder again, but no, it's even better than that - the comparison is actually with Hall himself, and how he feels about the 'unfairness' of electoral reform. A few unkind souls might suggest that's rather revealing.

Pointing to the example of the forthcoming London mayoral election, which will use a system similar to AV, Hall claims -

"If the leading candidate doesn't get 50% of the first preference votes, then London's Mayor will be chosen by the second choice votes of the electors that voted for the political wings of fundamentalist Christian, Karmic flying and neo-Nazi parties. That is not just unfair, it's plainly irrational. It gives undue weight to the voters who chose to use the election as a platform to promote their fringe views."

No, it doesn't, Ed. It gives precisely the same weight to every single voter, which is how - in my naivety - I always thought a democratic system was supposed to work. But I can certainly understand Hall's confusion, given that his only previous experience is with a system that saw Russell Johnston elected MP for Inverness in 1992 on 26% of the vote. To use Hall's terminology, first-past-the-post gave 100% "weight" to the one-quarter of people who happened to vote for Johnston, and literally zero "weight" to the three-quarters of people who voted against him. I dare say some of the latter group were sorely tempted to go off and indulge in a bit of foot-stamping afterwards - after all, in those days they didn't even have episodes of Bob the Builder to distract them from the injustice.

Whether Hall realises it or not, what he's actually arguing against is not the idea that fascist-inclined voters and "Karmic fliers" should have a greater say than the rest of us, but rather the idea that they should even have an equal say. That may be superficially attractive to some, but it's an argument against universal suffrage, not AV. Hall doesn't seem to have spotted that under FPTP, fascist voters are already able to decide the outcome of elections, either because they've switched tactically to a mainstream candidate, or because there is no BNP candidate and they consequently have no choice but to vote for a mainstream party. If he finds that so distasteful and "unfair", I presume Hall will be proposing fundamental changes to the current system to - somehow - ensure it can never happen again in future? Mysteriously, it seems not.

But if you think Hall's argument can't get any weaker, you're underestimating the man. He goes on to compare the self-evident 'fairness' of the current system with the way TV talent shows work -

"In modern politics, a winner should be a winner. Try it round your dinner table or next time you watch the X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing. Everyone votes for their favourite book, film or act: surely the candidate with the most votes wins? How would the BBC or ITV possibly explain or justify a programme format with public voting in which the candidate that got the most votes did not win?

'Thank you for calling Britain’s Got Talent. Your vote for the Trapeze Sisters has been counted. Now you can choose a second choice contestant instead. If The Trapeze Sisters don't win, your vote will be transferred to your second choice contestant. Press 2 to register a second preference vote.'"

Oh dear. I'm afraid, Ed, that the voting system for Britain's Got Talent and Strictly Come Dancing is much closer to AV than first-past-the-post. If it worked like the latter, Strictly wouldn't have run for ten or fifteen weeks or whatever it was - there would have been just one programme and one set of dances, at the end of which Ann Widdecombe would have been declared the series winner, on the grounds that her 14% of the popular vote was fractionally higher than any other individual. Your average dinner-party would deem that much fairer than what actually happened, apparently.

Comically, Hall seems to spot this gaping hole in his reasoning almost before he finishes uttering it -

"Of course you do get to vote again in the TV formats as the candidates are knocked out, and the next week's programme starts, but do we really want General Elections every week until we get a winner? That would be the only way to give equal weight to everybody’s second choice votes."

No, it wouldn't, Ed. There's another ingenious way of achieving just that, and you'll be thrilled to hear we're about to hold a referendum on it. It's called AV, or to use its US name, Instant Run-off Voting. The Americans call it that because it produces much the same effect as successively eliminating the least popular candidates and holding subsequent run-off votes until someone wins a majority, but without any of the additional time, hassle and expense. If what I've just described is Hall's ideal - and unless he's guilty of intellectual dishonesty I can only assume it must be - then why on earth is he supporting the status quo in this referendum?

1 comment:

  1. Hoist, methinks, with his own petard...