Understanding and Misunderstanding AV

It was probably a repeat, but I happened to see a Daily Politics debate on AV in the early hours of this morning. The standard of debate was terrible; although that was due in no small part to the chairman, Andrew Neil, wanting to have much more of a say than those who were putting the case either for or against. The whole debate is available here on iPlayer, but I want to highlight this closing argument in favour of AV by Tessa Jowell.


The points she starts with are good, but she goes on to make the claim that AV will mean that an MP ...

would have to be elected by at least 50% of all those that are eligible to vote

This is completely untrue. What she probably meant to say was that an MP would have to be elected by 50% of those who do vote, because many of those who are eligible to vote don't do so. It might just be excusable if she had said it in the heat of debate, but this was a prepared closing statement. There are no excuses for her getting it so wrong.

And others who support AV make similar basic mistakes. Peter Hain might think he's getting it right when he says—as he does nearly every time he speaks on the issue—that under AV a candidate would need to be elected by at least 50% of those who vote (as opposed to those who are eligible to vote) ... but he's wrong too, and he has no excuse either.


So let me try to explain what they should be saying in a better way. The best way of thinking of AV is as a series of rounds in which the candidates who get least support get knocked out of the contest one by one. As an idea, there's absolutely nothing new, unusual or difficult to understand about this way of voting. It's the way nearly every talent contest on television works, for example, and it's even the way contests to decide the leader of the Conservative Party work. This is somewhat ironic, given that nearly all Tory MPs don't want ordinary voters to be able to do what they themselves already do ... but that's another story.

AV is a way of asking the question: "Who would you most like to see elected as your MP?" ... but with the follow-up question: "If s/he were knocked out of the contest, who would you like to see elected instead?" ... and with that question asked as many times as there are rounds in the contest.

The whole point is to allow voters more choice.

•  If people who are eligible to vote don't want to, they don't have to. It's their choice.

•  Those who do vote can express, in order, their preference for only one candidate, some candidates, or even all of the candidates. It's their choice.

•  But if all the candidates they express a preference for have been eliminated, then their vote no longer counts. They have effectively abstained from any further rounds.

As an example of how this works in practice, Radio 5 Live conducted a dry-run election a couple of weeks ago which I read about on Guido Fawkes' blog. The results are shown in this table:


There were candidates from six parties standing. In the first round the BNP candidate was eliminated because he had the lowest vote. So the second preferences of the 2.6% who voted BNP were transferred to their second choice. Unsurprisingly, most of them put UKIP second, pushing up UKIP's share of the vote from 3.3% to 5.3%. But some of those who voted BNP did not express any other preference, so 0.6% effectively abstained from the rest of the contest.

In the second round the UKIP candidate had the lowest share of the vote, and was therefore knocked out. His 5.3% of the vote was split so that 3.6% went to the Tory candidate, 1.9% went to the Green and 0.7% went to Labour. But 0.1% expressed no other preference, or had expressed only a second preference for the BNP candidate who had already been knocked out.

Third time round, the LibDem candidate had the lowest share of the vote. So his 15.2% went to the second preferences of those who had ranked him first (and would have gone to the third preferences of any who had put him second after UKIP, and to the fourth preferences of any who had put him third after the BNP and UKIP ... although in this election nobody actually did either).


At this point it is perhaps worth commenting on one of the more misleading pieces of misinformation (why beat about the bush, lies) put out by the No to AV campaign. They would have people believe that it is unfair that those who put the BNP, UKIP or LibDems at the top of their list of preferences are now getting their vote counted two, three or even four times.

Well they are ... but that's equally true for everybody else.

Those who gave their first preference to candidates who are still in the contest have been getting their vote counted in every round too. Their vote counts just as much—no more and no less—than the vote of someone whose first choice was for the BNP, UKIP or LibDems. If somebody thinks this is unfair, we simply need to go back to the example of the TV talent contest or Tory leadership contest. If you vote for someone who is knocked out in the first or second round, that doesn't mean you're disqualified from voting for one of the remaining contestants in future rounds, does it? Nor does it mean that your opinion should now be worth less than the opinion of everyone else. In AV the opinion of every voter carries the same weight in every round.


But back to the contest. The 15.2% share of the LibDem candidate is now distributed according to the second preferences of those who had put him first. 6.0% goes to the Green, 5.3% to the Labour candidate and 3.3% to the Tory. 0.6% either had no other preference, or had only listed candidates who were knocked out in earlier rounds.

As a result of this, the Green candidate moves ahead of the Tory. This isn't in any way unfair to the Tory, it just means that given a three way choice between Labour, the Greens and the Tories, more voters prefer the Labour and Green candidates to the Tory. In a different constituency, it might well be another way round.

So for the final round, the second preferences of those who had put the Tory candidate first (together with the next preferences of those who had ranked the Tory below the LibDems, UKIP or BNP) are counted. 7.9% of the 27.8% went to the Labour candidate and 11.9% went to the Green; but 8% of those whose preferences included the Tories expressed no preference for either the Labour or the Green candidate.

This means that the Labour candidate won with 49.0% of the vote, against the Green candidate's 41.7%. In total 9.3% of those who voted did not have a preference for either of the two ... which is fair enough. AV leaves the choice entirely in the hands of each individual voter. Under AV nobody is forced to make a choice they don't want to make.


This dry run election shows why Peter Hain and others who claim that AV will mean that a candidate has to get at least 50% of the vote are talking rubbish. But that isn't the fault of AV ... it's just Peter Hain's inability to understand or explain it properly.

My point is that both Tessa Jowell and Peter Hain are not doing the Yes to AV campaign any good by misrepresenting it. In fact they're probably doing more harm than good.

To see why, just look at Guido Fawkes' post about it, here. The poor man can barely contain his glee, because he thinks that not getting 50% of the vote has somehow invalidated the result. Here are some extracts:

The BBC’s two hour attempt to sell AV to the listeners of Radio 5 backfired spectacularly

It didn’t work

The winning candidate could not get over 50% of the vote, rendering the whole basis for the change useless. The election would have been void.

The flawed result

It goes without saying that he has deliberately taken hold of the wrong end of the stick, for this doesn't invalidate the result at all. Quite the opposite, it shows how AV works and why it's fairer than FPTP. What we're seeing is merely another part of the stream of misinformation and blatant lies currently being put out by the No to AV campaign. And done with a professionalism that makes True Wales look like pussycats ... or should that be a cuddly inflatable pig?

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Alwyn ap Huw said...

The fears about the influence of extreme or unpopular parties are well founded. If in an election you have:

The Moderate Right Party - 47%
The Moderate Left Party - 46%
The Extremist Nutjob Party - 7%

then there is a danger that both moderate parties will pander to the extremist's policies in order to gain their 2nd preference vote.

MH said...

Well of course there's a danger of that, Alwyn, but it's a very small danger.

In reality, both your "moderate left" and "moderate right" parties are far more likely to be fighting for the votes of the "moderate middle" than for the vote of someone with "extremist" views.

Do the maths, 93% of your voters decide to give their first preference to a "moderate" party; only 7% to an "extremist" party. So each of the two "moderate" parties are thirteen times more likely to win the election if they focus on "moderate" rather than "extremist" policies.

aled g j said...

MH- I just don't understand your enthusiasm for AV.

Our political system here in Wales and the UK is mind-numbingly conformist and identikit as things stand at present, and AV will only perpetuate this. In the hope of picking up an individual's second/third choice vote, it's just an invitation for parties to say:

*let's be as alike as possible
*let's be as bland and inoffensive as possible
*let's not alienate anyone
*let's not abandon the safe middle ground on anything.

And that equates to "giving people more choice"??!!

On a more practical level: how many people will really be bothered to exercise this choice anyway, and record their second, third, or fourth in reality? Whatever way you try to dress it up, AV is still a "winner takes all" system exactly like FTTP, and therefore it does not promote democracy in any meaningful way.

I really hope that AV is defeated on May 5th. It may mean that we are stuck with FTTP in Westminster for the time being. But there's a positive here since I think it could persuade our Senedd here in Wales to introduce the Single Transferable Vote(STV),and true proportionality here, sooner rather than later. With the introduction of multi-member constituencies, parties and independent candidates would be encouraged to present a range of democratic choices for the elector. In turn, individuals could vote positively for 4 or 5 different candidates in each constituency, knowing that each vote would really count in the final picture. A win-win situation all round.

Alwyn ap Huw said...

Sorry MH but I don't understand your response.

In the example that I gave only 7% of the vote is available for redistribution, the 2nd preference of the 1st and 2nd candidates will not be up for grabs.

Unless a candidate can be fairly certain that s/he can get a first round outright victory, then s/he has to take into account the views of parties who are further down the food chain, in order to get the 2nd third, fourth etc choices. As Aled says this invites a convergence of opinion in some middle ground, at best, or as I say invites pandering to extreme or unpopular parties at worse.

Here is the 2010 result from Aberconwy. A seat won by Plaid in the last Assembly and European elections, but in which they came 4th out of 6 in the Westminster election. If Plaid could have managed to get into the final play off against the Tories I would have thought that it would have a good chance of winning under AV.

Conservative 10,734 (35.8%)
Labour 7,336 (24.5%)
Liberal Democrat 5,786 (19.3%)
Plaid Cymru 5,341 (17.8%)
UK Independence Party 632(2.1%)
Christian Party 137 (0.5%)

The Christians and UKIP haven't got a chance of surviving the first two rounds.

Plaid is out after round three, unless it can gain many 2nd/3rd Christian votes and many 2nd UKIP votes, which will knock the Lib Dems out in round three.

If you were a party strategist next time around what would you do:
A] Accept that the Christian Party and UKIP's votes are so unpalatable that you would prefer to see Plaid knocked out in round three, despite the party having a chance, if it progresses to round four?
B] Throw a crumb to the Christian Party and UKIP in the hope that they would enable Plaid to get to round 4?

I know what I hope Plaid would do in these circumstances, but Plaid (and the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party and the Conservatives) already have a track record of compromising themselves in order to gain a few extra percentage points for the sake of winning seats; so I suspect that there would be a strong temptation to go for option B.

Alwyn ap Huw said...

I fairness to Plaid, I should also have noted that even at this early stage in the counting, both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have good reason to try to stop Plaid in its tracks by throwing a bone to the Christian Party and UKIP. Again I know what I hope both would do, but the nature of AV might tempt them to let my hopes be dashed!

glynbeddau said...

With regards Andrew Neil. The whole programme is usually dominated with him trying to show how clever he is and his constant interrupting of politicians who are genuinely answering the question is appalling.

He also betrays his Tory-Unionist colours when he refers to the SNP as Nats. Biased and opinated .

MH said...

I'm sorry the point still isn't obvious, Alwyn. So let me put this to you:

"The 1997 referendum was won because of the votes of just 6,000 joskins in Carmarthenshire. Why should their decision mean that the rest of us have to put up with a useless Assembly?"

Can you see what's wrong with that statement? It singles out just one small group and holds them responsible for the outcome of the vote, even though those 6,000 were just a small part of the half million who voted Yes.

That's exactly what you have done. In your example, you seem to assume that the two "moderate" parties already have their 46% and 47% in the bag, and they must now try and win over the "extremists". But it doesn't work that way. In reality, if either of your two "moderates" were to adopt "extremist" policies in order to get the second preferences of the 7% of voters with "extremist" views, they would risk alienating the 93% that have "moderate" views. So in practice, it wouldn't be worth either of the two "moderates" pandering to "extremist" views, because they would lose far more than they'd gain.


Now as for your example, your reasoning is flawed because there is no way of knowing from the 2010 result alone to what extent people were voting tactically. How many people voted Tory because they thought that a vote for UKIP, the party that best represented their views, would be a wasted vote? How many people who would have liked to vote LibDem in fact voted Labour because they thought it was the best way of preventing a Tory win?

Under FPTP, many people are faced with the choice of either wasting their vote on the party that best represents their views, or voting instead for one of the two main contenders because that is the only way they can hope to influence the result.

For me, the major advantage of AV is that it does away with the need for tactical voting. That's why it's worth saying Yes to, even though I would want something even better. This leads on to Aled's point, which is why I didn't take them in order.

MH said...

Aled, you seem to be acknowledging that FPTP is a lousy system. But you want that lousy system to continue because it's so bad that it's likely to lead to more fervent calls for STV instead.

To me, that seems to be a little like someone saying they want a nuclear disaster to kill tens of thousands of people because we will then realize how bad it is, and not build any new nuclear plants elsewhere.

Like you, I would prefer STV. But unlike you, I'm prepared to take any opportunity to even slightly improve the lousy FPTP system. If we don't take this chance the change things even slightly now, we will be stuck with FPTP for the foreseeable future. STV isn't on offer.

So far as I'm concerned, your four bullet points are a fairly accurate description of how parties currently position themselves anyway. They each try to claim the middle ground because a few thousand voters in maybe fifty or a hundred marginal constituencies decide the outcome of each Westminster election under FPTP.

Because AV will do away with tactical voting, it will mean that more candidates are likely to stand because they know that there is no danger of them splitting the vote of a candidate or party that might hold similar views in one respect, but hold differing views in others. More candidates means more choice. More choice is likely to lead to more people voting, because more people are likely to find a candidate or party that reflects their views.

These are advantages that both AV and STV have in common. Because AV is STV, but in single member constituencies ... and STV is AV, but in multi member constituencies.

glynbeddau said...

"Because AV is STV, but in single member constituencies ... and STV is AV, but in multi member constituencies".

There's a huge difference between AV and STV . AV is not proportional and you can not equate them.

I have shown the difference in the Australian Election where the Lower house uses AV and the Upper STV

I commented on this nearly a year ago you should be able to see it here


AV favours the two or three Party system. It may be slightly better than FPTP but it is not the answer and we should not simply accept it because it is the only alternative we are being offered.

aled gj said...

MH- You are being wildly optimistic when you say that AV will lead to: more candidates= more choice + thus more people voting. AV will not do any of the above- all it will do is to further entrench the existing two/three party system, thus making alternative choices even less viable than they are at present, and then further alienate people from the democratic process,once they see how the system works.

Why vote for such a "miserable little compromise" to quote one party leader? We should hold out for the prize of true proportionality.

MH said...

To Glyn first. The only thing that makes STV more proportional is the multi member constituencies; apart from that STV and AV are exactly the same. So, for example, where a by election was held last week in Wick under STV, the process was exactly the same as AV ... because only one person was being elected.

Proportionality is important, but it is not the ONLY measure of a fair voting system. In this comment on WalesHome I listed six advantages that are shared by both STV and AV.


To Aled. I'm not being optimistic, I'm simply stating the obvious. Under FPTP some candidates or parties do not stand because they are are afraid of splitting the vote. With AV they could stand because there would be no danger of them splitting the vote.

That's an improvement. It may only be a small improvement, but it's better than FPTP. And is it a compromise? Yes, of course it is. But is compromise a dirty word? Isn't it better to get some of what you want than none of it?

Do you honestly think that if this referendum is lost on 5 May, politicians will offer us the chance to vote on STV instead? My advice is to take the improvement on offer now, because it will take another freak result before politicians in power will ever offer it to us again.

Naturiaethwr said...

Alwyn, there's something else you've neglected in your analysis. That's the 32.8% of the electorate who didn't vote at all in Aberconwy. It's likely to be far more productive for Plaid to try to get a few percent of the non-voters than to convert a much larger proportion of the Christian/UKIP voters.

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