Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The first principle of 'first past the post' is that no-one has a clue where the 'post' actually is

I've just caught up with the No to AV television ad.  Based on the delights of the poster campaign to date, I was naturally expecting the following tearful dialogue at a hospital bedside -

"But what happened, doctor?  He seemed to be getting better..."

"I'm so sorry, Mrs. Peters.  It was the alternative voting system."

But, no, it seems they've now moved on from tragedy to 'comedy'.  We were treated to three basic messages - AV makes coalitions likely (it doesn't), AV means losers win and winners lose (they're thinking of the current system), and AV is really, really complicated (it's actually simpler than the voting system on the X Factor).  To drive the latter point home, a 'teacher' was depicted trying to explain this fantastically straightforward system to her 'students' in the most garbled way imaginable.  Having evidently concluded that her charges were nowhere near befuddled enough, she then resorted to a piece of outright invention from her trusty 'AV manual' -

"No, you can only use the third preferences for those people who have already been eliminated twice."

Now, of course what she's describing here bears absolutely no resemblance to AV, but all the same, a voting system under which a candidate can be eliminated, reinstated and eliminated again (at which point the returning officer rings round the voters and informs them that they can now use their third preferences if they'd like) certainly sounds like cracking good fun.  Can we have a referendum on that one as well, please?

Meanwhile, the 'losers win' point was illustrated by means of the ubiquitous horse-race visual metaphor, with the 'winning jockey' moaning that he'd passed the finishing line first, but AV had handed victory to the horse that came in third.  Now, this bugs me, because as I've pointed out before, if there's one system that can most accurately be described as 'first past the post', it's actually AV - for the very simple reason that it provides a fixed 'winning post', namely 50% of the vote.  By contrast, under our supposedly 'simple' current system, no-one has the faintest idea what will constitute the winning post - it might be as little as 15% of the vote, or as much as 45%.  Where it finally falls is determined by a complex mixture of how many candidates there are, and how evenly the vote is spread between them.  So to return to the horse-racing metaphor, Jason Maguire may have thought he won the Grand National on Saturday, but if the race had been conducted according to the principles of our current voting system he might well have had this to say afterwards -

"I thought I'd won, because I was ahead after all nineteen fences, and I was still ahead where the finishing line normally is, but now they're saying they've moved the winning post back to fence 11 because there were so many horses in the race, and that means someone else has won instead.  I asked them why they couldn't just tell us in advance that the winning line would be there, because after all they knew how many horses were in the race before we started, but they said it wasn't as simple as that.  Apparently they had to wait and see how big the gap was between all the horses midway through the race before they could work out which fence would be the last one.  It's a bit confusing, really.  I'm gutted.  Totally gutted."

1 comment:

  1. The "Aufwiedersehen Pet" video:


    is also totally misleading, because if the lads had actually used AV to choose the colour of the paint then they couldn't have ended with it being yellow.

    As yellow was nobody's first choice, it would have got zero first preference votes and so it would have been eliminated after the first counting round.