Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Why Cameron would be smart to follow Fink's advice on AV

Danny Finkelstein wrote a Times piece this morning where he suggested that David Cameron could use a change in the electoral system to AV to his advantage. Because of the paywall, there's little point in me linking to The Fink's piece directly but James Forsyth on the Spectator blog has summarised his idea:

So Danny Finkelstein’s blog this morning suggesting that ‘AV might provide the answer to the otherwise impossible question - if the parties stay together, how can they fight the election apart?’ has caused quite a stir.

The argument is that the Tories would urge their voters to put the Lib Dems as second choice and vice-versa. If this ploy worked — and the Australian evidence Danny cites suggests it would — then AV would hurt Labour not the Tories.

I wondered how the most recent election might have played out had this sort of game been in play. Obviously some serious academic analysis would be needed in order to do this properly but I thought I'd have a stab at a crude way of discerning what could have happened if all voters for each of the coalition partners had gone along with this under an AV system.

I took a spreadsheet that I received a few weeks ago which contains the voting figures for every party in every seat from the general election last month. I then went through it and created a new "Coalition" column which contained the total combined figures for Conservative and Lib Dem votes in every seat. I then made the assumption that whichever of the two coalition parties was in the lead out of the two of them in the seat would receive the other's votes to get a total hypothetical figure for the "leading" coalition partner after transfers.

Before I reveal the figures, some caveats. Firstly in reality all voters are not going to go along with this plan even if both parties in the coalition try really hard to persuade them to do so (which in itself is questionable). Secondly under different electoral systems people vote differently so if 2010 had been run under AV the numbers would have been different anyway. Also, my analysis does not take into account how other transfers from e.g. nationalists, Greens, UKIP etc. to other parties may have worked out. It simply focuses on the coalition partners.

Effectively what this method is doing is taking The Fink's idea to its extreme assuming a perfect set of transfers for the coalition partners from each other in 2010.

In the actual election the figures were:

Conservative: 306
Labour: 258
Lib Dem: 57

In my reworked extreme AV scenario the figures would be:

Conservative: 394
Labour: 141
Lib Dem: 91

So the Conservatives would have a thumping majority. The Lib Dems would have done much better but ironically ended up with much less influence. Labour would be the big losers with just over half of the number of seats they actually got.

Despite all the problems with this analysis I think it was worth doing because it demonstrates that it would be possible for the Conservatives to benefit from AV. In an actual AV election I would not expect it to end up anything like what we see above but I think a good case can be made that a fair number of voters would be willing to put the partner of the coalition party that they put in first place in second assuming that the coalition is reasonably popular in 5 years time. It is certainly true to say that all those certainties that so many on all sides once thought about how the Lib Dems and Labour would be likely to be the automatic beneficiaries of an AV system are not necessarily true any more in the new political reality.

If Cameron could get even just a slice of the sort of action we see in play above then it could make a change to the electoral system a much easier sell for his party. Who knows, out of self interest some of them may even feel able to campaign for it, or at the very least not campaign against it!

This is another example of how everything changed on May 6th.


Duncan Stott said...

I would rather cause extreme pain to my genital zone than put a '2' next to the scribbled tree logo.

NoetiCat said...

Re: The calculations made:

I was saying this after the election - had we done much better seat wise, say if we had gotten the 100 seat Clegg was talking about, then the Tories might have made had an overall majority, and we could well have ended up in opposition.

Duncan Innes said...

I would think most people wanted to vote lib dem because:
1. They wanted to send labour a message but not vote tory
2. Keep tories out
3. They liked lib dem policies

Therefore the chance of lib dem second pref being tory is slim

NoetiCat said...

PS: And after much criticism from a friend of mine, our (ex-Lib Dem might I add!) new Tory MP Jason McCartney is actually turning out to be doing quite a good job, my friend wrote to him about support for small and new businesses in Colne Valley and she received a late-ish, but hand-written and productive response.

If he continues to do such a good job then - assuming I can save up for my citizenship test by then [I am Swiss] - and keeps up his generally non-partisan approach to "getting things done", then I'd be hard pressed not to give him my second preference vote.

Andrew Hickey said...

What Duncan said, except more so. The only parties that would *EVER* come below the Tories in my preferential vote would be UKIP and the BNP (or similar mad-right fringe parties). And were the Lib Dems to try to persuade me to put the Tories as second preference I would quit the party and bump it to only one above the Tories in my preferences.

For the record, my preferences in the last election would have been:
Lib Dem
Trade Unionist And Socialist

I suspect at least as many Lib Dems would vote in that kind of manner as would put the Tories anywhere near their second place...

Laurence Boyce said...

Well you've already pointed out that people are not going to to do what they're told, so I don't need to.

Tories will never support AV. One reason is that a huge number of people will put UKIP first and then Tory as their second place backstop. The clue is in the Euro election results in which UKIP are a force to be reckoned with.

Under AV, Tories could lose seats to UKIP, but even if that doesn't happen, there's just a huge embarrassment factor involved in the whole thing.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post as a propaganda piece, but not grounded in reality.

An alliance of this nature would spell the end for the Liberal Democrats. They have just gained credibility by shooting the Tory fox that they would only ever side with Labour, and woken Labour up to the fact that they shouldn't treat the Lib Dems as their "B" team. The Lib Dems must remain independent and seek post electoral alliances to further their policies through whatever combination of partners is plausible.

For the record, my general AV voting pattern in England would be:
1. LD, 2. Green, 3. and 4. red and blue in an order dependent on the strengths and weaknesses of the respective candidates and/or the likelihood of increasing LD influence in government. I am, in general, agnostic about both establishment parties, although this time I had a preference for the Conservatives as the LD partner, simply to offer a change and something genuinely liberal and progressive.

Paul McKeown

Anonymous said...

Labour have just bankrupted Britain and the usual suspects of lefty libdems still hanker after more labour. Certainly they propose a voting strategy that would help labour back in.

Just why should any libdem vote labour after libdem MPs have spent 5 hard years working to clear up the mess labour have created? Are you really going to reward them with the fruits of your labours?

Its laughable to see the lentil eating lefties still stuck in their time warp. The world has turned.

Voters are different and if the coalition work well together to clear up the mess then voters will see them as symbiotic and keep them together.
And even with a Conservative majority the tories will probably see mileage in continuing the agreement - it gives both parties 5 years of settled govt with minimum opposition; ie the opposition is within the coalition, 2 parties working together.

It will be interesting to see how the coalition tap into this - almost as interesting as to see the next elections leaders debates.

Sunder Katwala said...

Daniel Finkelstein is right that there is some strategic rationale in Cameron running on a pro-coalition ticket and pact.

It does not follow that it would help the LibDems, who might find it creates several problems, not least because of activist dissent at fear of loss of identity, as well as voter ignoral. Tories are going to be much more sanguine about second preference debates, I suspect.

It is a much dafter piece of analysis than your caveats acknowledge.

(1) Isn't there quite a big risk to quite a big group of LibDem first preferences from an actual electoral pact with the Conservatives? Given that 43% of yr voters in 2010 identified as left or centre-left, about 5 times as many as who identify as right.

(2) Doesn't the pact simply confirm the brand decontanimation of the Tories. Do you really want Clegg arguing "we're your best/only insurance policy on keeping Tory nastiness in check" AND "vote Tory" as well as LibDem.

So again this has the look of being great mood music for Cameron, and potentially toxic for Clegg. Even if it worked (unlikely?), it becomes a clientilistic relationship.

(3) While it is an absurd projection, apart from removing any LibDem influence, I could imagine some crude extrapolation of this kind could prove much more effective in deterring Labour support in the referendum itself (where the party and leader candidates are for, but there will be a range of views) than it will prove in attracting Tory support on AV.

Mark Thompson said...

Sunder - Of course there are all sorts of other potential effects that I have not adjusted for. As I said it was a pretty crude analysis.

However I do not think it is daft. It demonstrates that at the extreme end the sort of pact that Finkelstein advocates would benefit the Tories nearly 3 times as much as the Lib Dems (nearly 90 seats gained v around 34 for the Lib Dems).

Of course it won't play out exactly like that in reality but sometimes taking a strategy to its extreme can highlight things about it that may not be apparent otherwise. In this case how AV combined with a popular coalition could under certain circumstances could end up being better for the Tories than for the Lib Dems in terms of extra seats won.

Opinicus said...

Lib Dem support for AV or PR is largely predicated on its 20th cewntury history of powerlessness

Lib Dems should be thinking about retaking the left of centre position from Labour when the coalition collapses.

An alternative voting system will prevent that and keep the Lib Dems third

It doesn't add up... said...

Opinicus is correct: Lib Dems should not suffer from poverty of ambition.

The analysis is however fundamentally flawed. Many seats would be decided by the second preference votes of the supporters of minor parties - not supporters of the big 3. I think that is exactly why Ed Balls has now positioned himself "to the right of Enoch Powell". Examine the results in detail, and you realise that AV would actually promote a battle to appeal to extremist fringes. Is Labour going to leave BNP voters to the Tories to get second preferences? Will Lib Dems not be tempted to try to collect the Green vote second preferences? The Tories won't be calling UKIP fruitcakes to be sure of their second preferences - and they'll want to see UKIP survive for that reason.

Elby the Beserk said...

You are all missing the main matter regarding voting - and that is the resolution of the West Lothian question.

Once Scottish MPs can no longer vote on matters English, then Labour will for ever be a minority party in England. Indeed, were it not for the 41 Scottish MPs re-elected by what can only be described as a country that is terminally stupid*, the Conservatives would have had an overall majority.

*Why? As the evidence is in so many Scottish constituencies (viz. Mick Martin) that whilst the MP elected does very nicely thank you out of his post, the constituency is no better off when they go than when they arrived. Conclusion - many Scots must be very stupid, as they refuse to take account of reality.

paul barker said...

My first reaction is that it isnt practical politics, not now anyway. I cant see how it would work without a pre-election agreement, as with The Alliance & theres no political basis for that.
On the matter of trying to make an intelligent guess at the results of AV - I think the best approach is to make a range of reasonable assumptions, eg
The big 3 continue to get 90% of the 1st votes,
Between 1/3 & 2/3s of 2nd preferences for Lab & Con come to us.
I had a go at working this out & applying AV to 2010 I got the Libdems with between 80 & 120 seats. I didnt bother working out ranges for the Big 2.

Penfold said...

Does rather presuppose that Lib-Dem voters have any inclination to give a second pref to the Tory's. I think that is highly unlikely for at least half the party voters.

Accept FPTP as being honest and lets have none of this nonsense over AV or PR, which is nothin gmore than a losers whinge.

Julian Ware-Lane said...

Whilst AV does not deliver a truly proportional result, it makes all votes relevant and should encourage greater turnout. It should also encourage people to vote with their hearts rather than tactically.

Whether it helps the Tories depends on the electoral tide. At the moment I have no doubt that the Tories would benefit, whereas when opnion swings back Labour's way then it will help them.

AV will also change campaigning methods and should see all voters targetted, rather than the swing voters in key marginals.

For what it is worth, the Electoral Reform Society predicted the following result under AV for this year's General Election:

Con 281
Lab 262
LD 79
PC 3
Oth 20