Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The 'nobody wants AV' myth: It's as popular a first choice as FPTP

David Cameron's former PPE tutor Vernon Bogdanor is a long standing advocate of electoral reform. He is also now the "(Real) People's Front of STV" chief spokesman in the May 5th referendum, being not at all gruntled about PR not being on the ballot in the May 5th referendum, though I rather suspect that Bogdanor's idea of a New Zealand style "preferendum" would very much suit advocates of the status quo in a British campaign.

Bogdanor's challenge to AV as a "paltry alternative" essentially revoices traditional Cleggism on this subject - 'its not what I want'. The Professor does not, as far as I could see, reveal how he will cast his own vote in the referendum that has now been legislated for, and that we are actually going to have.

Public opinion is also considerably more mixed than Bogdanor implies. Bogdanor is right that many electoral reformers would prefer some form of full PR to AV, but exaggerates in the claim that AV has no first choice advocates. (The mainstream factions of the People's Front of STV - aka The Electoral Reform Society - long ago leaving the Professor in a small breakaway splinter still knocking the alternative now that the real campaign has begun). Here, Bogdanor voices a No campaign talking point that "nobody wants AV" but there is a "real debate" between or first-past-the-post or PR. The evidence does not support this. In fact, there is a fairly even spread of opinion between all three options.

The professor tries to infer voter preferences about AV, PR and FPTP from other questions. But the question has been polled directly.

It is simply wrong - as a matter of fact - to claim that "nobody wants AV", or to claim that almost everybody's first choice is either first-past-the-post or PR.

YouGov polled voters on first-past-the-post, AV and PR in the summer of 2009 for Fabian Review. (You can read the issue online). The pollsters briefly explained what each of the systems was before asking voters to choose their favourite and second choice system.

Which of these systems is your first choice?

The present system: first-past-the-post: 25%
The Alternative vote: 25%
Proportional representation 34%
Don't know: 16%

Which of these systems is your second choice?

The present system: first-past-the-post: 24%
The Alternative vote: 37%
Proportional representation 25%
Don't know: 14%

If you have a First-Past-the-Post worldview, you would have to say that PR has it.

"Nobody wants AV" rather entails "nobody wants first-past-the-post" too.

The current system could only tie AV to be second-past-the-post, and was the public's third favourite in this three-horse race overall. On this evidence, first-past-the-post is not the public's first choice of electoral system - and it doesn't look like it would even be their second choice either!

But supporters of PR can't celebrate so quickly, given their own worldview and principles. A first-past-the-post plurality of first preferences is not enough for an overall majority. (Perhaps the voting systems could rotate every third election!)

In an AV world, where we might seek the system with majority support, it rather looks as though either AV or PR would begin favourites to beat FPTP in a run-off. AV might also have a decent chance in a run-off with PR, as well as in one with FPTP.

So Bogdanor's challenge may have some merit from an actual supporter of PR, but it ought to blow up in the face of those first-past-the-post supporters who are faking a concern about this, and pretending not to hate PR for the duration of the campaign.

What PR supporters making this case often gloss over is why it would be difficult to win a majority consensus for PR.

This plurality for PR reflects a broader conundrum in public attitudes: there are public majorities both for and against PR, depending on what you ask. That appears to be primarily because voters have a long-established view that it would be the fairest way to elect a Parliament and allocate seats within it, but are not happy about whether they can see how PR allows them to elect a government at the same time. So, in one JRRT poll discussed in an earlier post, the very same sample of voters immediately after giving a strong pro-PR majority, with 63% support against 22% for PR (seats in proportion to votes) immediately also offered a contradictory 53% opposition against 29% support (wanting FPTP so as to choose one-party governments).

Some PR supporters might be confident of winning that argument, particularly if electoral geography erodes the long-term anti-Coalition case for first-past-the-post, so that the "one off" interpretation of 2010 proves wishful thinking.

Alternatively, those seeking to chime with and balance public attitudes on both of these fronts will examine the case for a more pluralist majoritarian system - that was the central thought behind Roy Jenkins' advocacy of AV+ and is also a motivation for AV itself, and particularly when combined with the check of a PR-elected upper house.

So there is a first-choice case for AV over the other alternatives as the best electoral system for the House of Commons. The evidence was marshalled especially well by Peter Kellner in his submission to the Jenkins Commission. PDF file. (This offers a particularly good in-depth analysis of how much to worry about AV's increased disproportionality if popular winners beat especially unpopular losers in elections like 1997, suggesting too that it is important to consider AV's advantage in avoiding FPTP's greater tendency to pick the wrong winning party altogether in close elections, because it is simply the geographical patterns of votes rather than voter preferences which are the tie-breaker).

And there is a good case for it as a compromise too. The Professor must surely know that the whole purpose of politics is to compromise where collective decisions are necessary. Back in 2007, I set out in a Fabian Review essay why AV could unlock a stalemate over voting reform, precisely because it preserves the valued features of first-past-the-post and adapts to a more pluralist system.

This explains why both Peter Hain and Jack Straw can prefer AV to both FPTP and PR - and would indeed reject a shift to PR - while John Denham as a long-standing PR advocate has also argued for the value of AV as an alternative for several years. Denham argued for AV combined with a PR-second chamber at the same time as I did. (By coincidence: we had simply followed the same train of thought, that the Jenkins compromise of pluralist and checked majoritarianism could be achieved across two chambers, as well as through a hybrid electoral system for the Commons). There was much discussion of whether electoral reformers would seek to unite around AV as Stuart Weir's article captures.

There is especially little sense in advocates of a full PR politics denigrating a politics of compromise, which is made more explicit and transparent under PR than in the compromises and broad submerged coalitions of first-past-the-post politics. I find that Nick Clegg is often less of a pluralist than he thinks - because he so often has a tonality, whether over the deficit before or after the election, student fees before or after the election, or electoral reform, where the only reasonable thing to do about a major policy agreement is to agree with Nick Clegg, even when he changes his mind from one side to the other.

AV is not going to suit purist PR opinion. The case for AV is its greater pluralism, not proportionality. But there is only a small sliver of 'no to AV, yes to PR' opinion, such as Austin Mitchell MP, who has blogged this perspective here on Next Left. It is much outweighed by long-standing PR-sceptics like Matthew Elliott, William Hague, Margaret Beckett and John Prescott, who are all really much more hostile to PR than to AV. So this is part of a disingenuous strategy "being nice about PR" by those who hate PR but are now pretending to be neutral or positive about it. This allows them to argue that AV "fails the proportionality test" while attacking AV on grounds ('more likely to create hung Parliaments') which are true only if it is more proportional than FPTP.

Meanwhile, we will await the Professor's final choice as to whether this is a referendum worth participating in - and on which side of it he will cast his vote.


Tacitus said...

Is anyone else like me and already reached the "I've gone past the point of caring and if anyone else mentions AV then I think I will rip out their spleen with my bare hands" stage, or is it just me?

What worries me is that if I'm fed up with it then what about Joe and Jill Public?

Read my blog at

Left Futures said...

Sunder says "that Bogdanor's idea of a New Zealand style 'preferendum' would very much suit advocates of the status quo in a British campaign. Quite right. If we have to talk electoral systems, why should we just be offered a single “miserable little compromise” when there are so many to choose from? Every one has an advantage for some politician at some time. There isn't a right one. Every politician wants something different from the system.

But most of the public want decent homes and health care and schools for their kids. Or to pay as little tax as possible because they aren't worried about their futures. They'll get the choice. You can call it adversarial, but that's the way life seems to lots of people. The right to kick the government out if you don't agree with them though, that's something most people will agree on. And FPTP with two main parties does that rather well.