So the referendum has resulted in a resounding No to the Alternative Vote (AV) proposal. Although not surprised, I am very dissapointed. I felt that AV was superior to First Past The Post (FPTP) for a number of reasons. In any constituency were a candidate is supported by a majority of those who voted, the result would be the same under AV or FPTP. However, in any constituency were the vote is divided amongst 3 or more candidates, none of whom have a clear majority (of those who voted), AV is more likely to result in a winner who is at least liked (when considering the preferences of the voters) by a majority of those who voted, while FPTP can easily result in a winner were this is not the case.
Something I didn’t know about, until I started reading about AV and FPTP, is the Condorcet condition. Essentially a voting method satisfies the Condorcet condition if the winner is someone who would beat any of the other candidates in a one-on-one fight. Neither FPTP nor AV strictly satisfy this condition, but it is my understanding that AV is much more likely to satisfy it than FPTP. I think (although I may be wrong) that AV satisfies the Condorcet condition if there are only 3 candidates while FPTP regularly would not. If there are 3 candidates, it is quite likely that 2 of them will split a particular section of the vote (i.e., left-leaning for example) and – under FPTP – the other could win even though they would lose if they were competing against either one of the other two candidates in a one-on-one contest (I keep using terms like “contest” and “fight” which I don’t really like, as elections are not a game or a battle, but I can’t think of other suitable terms). Under AV, however, the second preferences of those who’s first votes went to the third placed candidate would determine the winner (if there isn’t an outright winner already) and would indicate that the winner is at least “liked” by more than 50% of those who’s votes count.
The only example I could find where AV does not satisfy the Condorcet condition is from a comment on Gower’s Weblog and considers the following situation
27 % vote A,B,C,D (order of preference)
26 % vote B,C,D,A
24 % vote C,D,A,B
23 % vote D,A,B,C.
Under AV, candidate D would be eliminated first and the second votes of those who put D first would go to A who would then have 50% of the votes counted. Candidate C would then be eliminated and since D is already eliminated, the third preference votes of those who put C first would also go to A who would then win with 73 % of the votes counted. However, if you consider first and second votes only, B has 53%, A has 50%, C has 50% and D has 47%. The Condorcet winner might then be B as they would presumably beat any of the other candidates in a one-on-one battle. However, the differences are so small that any one of these candidates represents approximately the same fraction of the constituency and, from a democratic perspective, any one of them would be a reasonable winner. If this a typical example (which it may not be) where AV violates the Condorcet condition, then it doesn’t seem like a particularly significant problem.
Although disappointed about the result of the referendum, I’m also disappointed by the manner in which the referendum was lost and what it implies about our democratic leaders. The Conservatives (in particular the right wing of Conservative part) seem extremely pleased by this “victory”. Is this because they truly believe that FPTP allows us to select politicians who genuinely represent the majority view in the UK? I don’t think so. I suspect it is because the Conservatives know that the UK is a slightly left-leaning country and anything that is even slightly more proportional will be to their disadvantage. I should acknowledge that AV isn’t actually proportional, but it does at least allow the constituency results to more closely represent the views of the constituents. What does this imply? In my opinion, this implies that the party that currently essentially runs the country knows that they are not (and probably never will be) supported by a majority of the voters and rather than reconsidering their ideology, they’ve managed to maintain a voting system that suits them and allows them to have a better chance of remaining in power than they would have had were the voting system to change to AV. In fairness, it wasn’t only the Conservatives who campaigned against AV. Large parts of Labour did the same, probably for similar reasons.
It’s possible that the Conservatives genuinely believe that they are the best party to lead this country to greater and better things. The whole point of democracy, however, is that it is not up to them to make this decision, it is meant to be up to the electorate. Supporting a voting system that regularly results in winners who are not supported by even a majority of those who voted is a cynical and selfish attitude. Some might argue that we should not expect a party to support something that is likely to be to their disadvantage (compared to the current system at least). It’s like asking Turkeys to vote for Christmas. I would argue that if they truly believe that their ideology is “best” and believe that they could convince the electorate of this (which is partly the job of a politician) then they should feel comfortable with any reasonably fair voting system. Maybe their objection to AV suggests that even they don’t have confidence in the value of their own ideology.