Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday, 17 April 2015

Is FPTP so much simpler than AV? Ask the voters of South Thanet

During the AV referendum (I'm not bitter, honest) we heard time and again from No campaigners how much simpler First Past the Post is than the Alternative Vote.

After all, all you need to do is put an X next to the person you want to win and then job done. That's so much easier than faffing about having to rank candidates, surely?

Well it depends where you live and what you want to achieve with your vote. Under FPTP you only get one choice. It's a system with limited inputs and therefore there is a limit to how the system can process that input.

There are plenty of examples of three way marginals in the current general election but let's take a live example. South Thanet.

This is the seat that Nigel Farage hopes to win for UKIP. Indeed if he doesn't win it he has already said he will resign as leader so the stakes are pretty high for him. But an average of recent polls in the constituency put UKIP on 31.6%, the Tories on 30% and Labour on 29.8%.

Let's put aside the fact that on these numbers, UKIP would win the seat on less than a third of the vote with nearly 70% of voters voting against the somewhat extreme Mr Farage (which is a definite defect of FPTP as well).

What I want to focus on here is what a voter in South Thanet who wants to keep Nigel Farage out should do. So if you wanted do this you could vote Tory. After all they were slightly ahead of Labour in the polls. Well, 0.2% ahead, but given that there is a margin of error of 3% in the polls it's actually equally likely that the Tories are behind Labour and you'd be better off voting Labour to keep Farage out. This is an invidious position to be in for a voter. You are almost being forced to vote for someone you might not actually want to vote for. Let's say you're a natural Labour voter but you become convinced that the Tories actually have the better change of keeping UKIP out. In order to keep Farage out you'd have to vote blue. But that might be the wrong choice. Doing that might let Farage in! There's no way of knowing until the count.

This is where AV would be a much better system. If our Labour inclined voter wanted to keep Farage out he could simply vote Labour 1, Conservative 2 (and either not rank UKIP at all or rank them at the bottom below all other candidates). Then when lower preferences are distributed at the count, if Labour are eliminated our voter's vote would go to the Conservatives who would then be in the final round with UKIP. But if it turned out Labour were in the final round, he/she had already voted for the other party in the final round to keep the purples out.

This is a scenario where AV is actually a much simpler system than AV. The voter would not need to second guess how everyone else if going to vote in order to try and make sure their vote made the difference. They would simply rank their votes in such a way as they would definitely know it would count in the final round.

Sadly we are not voting under AV or any sort of preferential system. The electorate rejected the change to the system so we are stuck with the current system for probably a long time to come.

But when, eventually electoral reform creeps back onto the political agenda (as it may if we keep seeing hung parliament after hung parliament) just remember South Thanet in 2015 when someone tries to argue that FPTP is the simplest system.

There are plenty of occasions when this is manifestly not the case.

1 comment:

L fairfax said...

"Sadly we are not voting under AV or any sort of preferential system. "
Why sadly? PR would be great but AV is not the same, it could give equally unrepresentative results. It might be possible under AV for the SNP to get 45% of the votes in Scotland and no MPs (if all other voters put the SNP as their last choice and they got less than 50% in every constituency). I don't like the SNP but that wouldn't be a good think.