Friday, 29 April 2011

Friday Links

For balance

In most discussions on the news, the press nowadays are careful to bring in a dissenting voice - no matter how outlandish the dissent is - to express an alternative view.

The matters that they don't are those that are universally agreed - "Mr Jones, of the 13th Century Society, condemned the proposals. 'Everyone knows that disease is spread by miasmas', he said.".

And, of course, those that the press might like to be universally agreed.

[trigger warning for the links]

So, for instance, the BBC uncritically reprints a DWP press release claiming that "most" benefit claimants are "fit for work" - despite there being massive problems with this conclusion - without any evidence of an opposing view. Like gravity, the round earth, and so on, the "fact" that most benefit claimants are scroungers is too uncontroversial to need one.

Conversely, on other issues where there should be no controversy at all, they go to find the most hateful people they can, just to get "an opposing view". Got to have balance, and if no-one mainstream is willing to provide it, then find someone who isn't.

Likewise, most science reporting has some other scientist saying "well, we shouldn't jump to conclusions based on one experiment" - but take some of the worst research ever, and not only doesn't it need an art historian pointing out "Wait, what? That makes no sense" - it also gets a second independent speaker for the same proposition - you know, for balance.

So - this is neutrality, this is impartiality, from the fabled BBC - it can be taken as uncontestable fact, just as it can be taken as uncontestable fact that France is in Europe, or that the A1 runs from London to somewhere up North, that default people are superior and morally good, and everyone else is clearly inferior and brought it upon themselves.

That's impartiality for you.

Aside

The BBC gets a lot of criticism from the right-wing Politicians1 for being too left-wing, and a lot of criticism from left-wing Politicians for being too right-wing. This is taken by centrist Politicians to show that clearly it is impartial.

Again, since the battle between right-wing and left-wing Politics is for which bunch of mostly-default people should be in charge, that's hardly surprising.

1 I use the capital P to distinguish "the mostly-default people who are thought of as involved in politics" from the much larger set of people who - "the personal is political" - are actually involved in politics.

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Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The misguided quest for ultimate simplicity

There's a big tendency for politicians especially to say that the simpler something is, the better. Simplicity, above all else, should be the consideration. If they're looking at being elected, a promise to cut red tape - the red tape has now been cut so many times that the next government will be buying special nano-scissors to separate it atom by atom - is inevitable.

Now, I'm not saying that simplicity is a bad thing as such. Any added complexity has to be justified, because the more complex a system is to understand, the fewer people will understand it, and the more likely it is that someone whose life, health, family or livelihood depends on understanding it won't be able to.

Generally this added complexity on average benefits default people - who are more likely to have the spare time, energy and resources to look into it - and harms less privileged people. Most people spend most of their time not interacting with any particular system. The more complex and unintuitive1 it is, therefore, the harder it'll be to use when they have to.

The process for claiming benefits is designed to be complex to "catch fraud". What's not been acknowledged by government is that - almost by definition - real fraudsters are going to have more time to understand the forms, get the various bits of supporting paperwork together, and so on, than a person who actually needs the benefits and is trying to complete the form while also dealing with the situation that means they need the benefits in the first place.

At a commercial level, companies can offer a confusing range of choices to make it unlikely that their customers will pick the optimal one.

So, simplicity is good. But like a lot of things, not an absolute all-overriding good thing. Added complexity in the form of protective regulations can be helpful - equalities, health and safety, employment law, housing standards, etc. - and yes, it's more complex and costly2 to run a business or build a house to those standards, but the benefits received in terms of people being alive, more productive and happier are usually worth the costs.

When mainstream politicians talk about "cutting red tape", though, they don't generally mean "simplifying the benefits process". Instead, they go for the regulations which are probably doing more good than harm to keep. But it's a populist stance, and it's generally supported by the press - whose owners and editors also have a dislike for regulations that prevent them maximising their short-term profit - so it's one of those rarely-questioned truths: "simplicity good, complexity bad".

I was reminded of this recently when some publicity for the coming referendum dropped through the door, for the No campaign. One of the pages had a comparison of the FPTP and AV systems - the FPTP system with a short three sentences describing it, the AV system with a full column of long paragraphs: all accurate, but written in a very expanded form. Above both, a description of why one should vote No for simplicity.

In the spirit of that - and since the No campaign is opposed to spending money on voting:

Which is simpler?
DictatorshipDemocracy
You do what I say.

We divide the country into a number of "constituencies" of approximately equal population size, attempting to make the boundaries between the constituencies follow natural borders, historical divisions, group similar settlements together, and so forth. These boundaries are then reviewed and revised at great expense every few years to account for population migration, new buildings, and so on.

Within each constituency, all citizens aged 18 or over (almost all, anyway - see Appendix A for exceptions) will be placed on an electoral register to register their entitlement to vote in elections.

Every five years, or sooner if the government wishes or if the government is unable to maintain the confidence of parliament, or later but at the earliest possible opportunity in the event of a major national emergency, parliament will be dissolved. There will then be an election by the following process, with an expected cost of around £100 million.

Candidates will then be appointed on payment of a £500 deposit in each constituency, requiring at least ten signatures of residents of that constituency in support of their candidature. All eligible voters will be entitled to be a candidate if they can meet those requirements, and need not be registered within the constituency they are standing for election in.

[several pages about postal votes, proxy votes, campaign funding regulations, campaign regulations, vote secrecy, vote security, payment rates for counting staff, the largely honorary role of the Returning Officer, avenues of appeal to the courts, etc. omitted at this stage]

The winners of the elections then form the parliament.

[several more pages about by-elections, forming of governments, etc. omitted.]

Footnotes

1 A term that implies that things can be universally "intuitive" despite different people having different intuitions, based on their personal history, culture, neuro[a]typicality, learning, practice, and so on. Still, even if it's not possible for a system to be entirely intuitive, it can be designed so that it isn't needlessly obscure.

2 Some types of accessible design are actually either cheaper or no more expensive than the "traditional" inaccessible forms, provided that they're planned for from the start. Fitting them into the design as an afterthought, or on to existing technology or buildings, on the other hand, can be very expensive.

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Thursday, 14 April 2011

Alternative Vote and safe seats

Will A in comments notes the lack of research about how much AV would affect the number of 'safe seats', and has a go at producing an answer.

It's an interesting question, so the swingometer now includes a table of majorities in its results. Incidentally, because Uniform National Swing can give parties a negative number of votes in certain constituencies, which I am only partly able to compensate for when calculating transfers of votes, the majority calculations under UNS are probably not as good as those under Proportional Swing.

The results are fairly inconclusive - depending on what transfer patterns are chosen, whether the seats as a whole get safer or not is really difficult to tell. Certainly, while in general the majorities are reduced more than they're increased, this is mainly through changes from one large majority to another slightly less large majority. The number of seats in the top few rows of the table doesn't change much.

So, in that sense, no - AV won't do much towards (or against) eliminating safe seats. It will change which ones are which, though that doesn't make a lot of difference.

The question is, is the majority of a seat the correct measure of how safe it is? It sounds an odd question - that's the way that the safety of seats is normally measured - but one of the major problems of trying to estimate general election results based on extrapolating national polling to individual constituencies is that you have to make the assumption that there are no local effects whatsoever.

This, of course, isn't true, but "hoping the resulting errors cancel out" is actually surprisingly effective in UK general elections.

For working out how "safe" a seat is, rather than who will win, it's probably one extrapolation too far. One thing we really don't know yet1 is if the transfer paths of (for example) Lib Dem voters in Con-Lab marginals (where their transfer decisions could make a big difference) are the same as those of voters in Lab-Lib marginals (where their transfer decisions are probably irrelevant unless the Lib Dem candidate has an electoral disaster)

If, for instance, there was a big anti-incumbent effect in second preferences, it probably wouldn't be very noticeable in terms of discrepancies from national polling - across the country it would mostly cancel out - but it could make a big difference to the sizes of majorities in seats.

Consider, for instance, the Tatton constituency in 1997. Neil Hamilton had held it with well over 50% of the vote for several elections, and under normal circumstances would have held on in 1997 too with a decent though reduced majority - despite the Conservatives' national unpopularity. He was defending a majority of 15,000. Indeed, in 2001, when the Conservatives popularity was basically unchanged from 1997, George Osborne was able to take the seat back with a comfortable majority when Martin Bell declined to re-stand.

Of course, that's not what happened - Hamilton, in addition to his party's unpopularity, was part of a major political scandal. Martin Bell stood as an "anti-corruption" Independent, and the other major parties decided to go for the FPTP equivalent of Alternative Vote by not contesting the seat.

Hamilton's 15,000 safe majority was replaced by a 11,000 majority for Bell.

Under Alternative Vote, it's fairly clear that Hamilton would have lost even if Labour and the Lib Dems had stood candidates - whether he'd have lost to Bell or to one of their candidates, who knows - but this wouldn't have shown up on any national calculations of seat safety.

(Martin Bell went on to contest Brentwood and Ongar in 2001, but the other parties didn't stand aside, and he lost narrowly to Eric Pickles MP - a loss that was just another expected result at the time, but in retrospect has had major repercussions)

To conclude: under normal circumstances, AV will not make any significant difference to the number of safe seats. Under local circumstances where the incumbent has significant personal unpopularity2, though, pretty much any MP could be vulnerable, even those who would normally get 50% on first preferences alone.

How many FPTP-safe seats actually change hands under "local circumstances" under AV, is of course by definition virtually impossible to predict. It probably won't be many at each election; on the other hand, it will be very worthwhile for the voters in those constituencies if it does happen.

Footnote

1 Unlike many of the unknowns, this isn't one that could be cleared up by comparing polling to an AV election, since the election results won't include transfer information for votes that didn't transfer, or preferences that got skipped due to earlier eliminations. Trying to work out if second preference polling was even accurate will be a substantial challenge.

2 Or a major local issue that an independent candidate could exploit, as Dr Richard Taylor did in Wyre Forest

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Wednesday, 13 April 2011

One default man's red tape is another person's necessity.

I've criticised the Equality Act 2010 on several occasions, but, flawed as it is, it still provides more protection than not having anything at all.

So, the government has included it in its "red tape" review, which is currently open for public comment. Heg at Feminist Philosophers has more information.

If you've got a moment, and are a UK citizen or resident, you might want to leave a comment yourself (remember to keep it free of cursing and apolitical, or it will be moderated out). The responses so far are overwhelmingly supportive of keeping the Act, which is good.

On the rest of the regulations, which do appear to be secondary1 legislation, they say in their FAQ:

Ministers will then have three months to decide which regulations they will scrap, with the presumption that all burdensome regulations will go unless the government departments can justify why they are needed.

It's a rigged consultation. There are a lot of regulations. The vast majority of the population of the country don't need to know about the vast majority of them.

The people who do need to know are the people who - for everyone's good - need to follow them. They, of course, are the mostly likely to think them burdensome and unfair.

The chances of members of the general public being able to look through most of the regulations, find the ones that have affected them, and make a comment is pretty low. I'm fairly experienced at reading government documentation, and I certainly don't have time to look through them all to see what's there.

It's not that there aren't bad regulations in there, and there are certainly plenty that could be simplified, merged, or clarified, but this is a terrible way to gather public opinion on which they are.

Despite this weighting, the balance of comments on a lot of the regulations - for now - is that the regulations are a good thing and should be kept. That's probably not what they're expecting, so Plan B - ignore the comments they disagree with - is likely to be next.

Footnote

Primary legislation is laws passed by Parliament, which can only be amended or repealed by Parliament. Secondary legislation is different - Parliament will pass a law giving Ministers the right to make laws in a particular area.

Major advantages:

  • More flexible than primary legislation, since it can be changed without taking up valuable parliamentary time
  • More scope for detail about implementation of an Act than could usually be placed in legislation

Major disadvantages:

  • Less accountability - Parliament can in theory scrutinise secondary legislation, but the process is very strongly biased towards the changes going ahead.
  • Less publicity - primary legislation and planned primary legislation is fairly easily accessible to the public and interested groups. Secondary legislation, again, is easier to sneak in.
  • Too easy to reverse - if anything actually important is only in secondary legislation, when the government changes hands, it can be scrapped almost instantly, and without much mention - did you know about these? I'd only heard of a few.
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Friday, 8 April 2011

Friday Links

And one from Alan Renwick of the Political Studies Association: The Alternative Vote - a briefing paper. With the mass of intentional and unintentional misinformation about AV, some actual accuracy on the topic is well worth a look.

Some new AV polling, at last

After a nine-month gap, someone finally got round to commissioning more second-preference polling. It's a YouGov survey for Channel 4, with a large sample size, so it should be fairly accurate.

I've added the calculation to the swingometer, along with a new swingometer mode for calculating based on UNS rather than UPS swing - with the Lib Dems down as low as they currently are in the polls, the difference between the two is significant.

A few comments on the polling itself below:

  • Second preferences have a cross-tab by first preference - though there are no 1st+2nd to 3rd cross-tabs - and the sample size is large enough to see quite a difference in how the various 'Other' parties (UKIP, BNP, Greens) receive and transfer votes. While the third preference data is relatively useless, there is data on the various major party preferences for a given first preference, which makes calculating transfer rates relatively straightforward.
  • Currently first preferences and FPTP votes match up pretty well. That's not a surprise - tactical voting isn't that big an effect: where parties bother campaigning at all is bigger. If AV wins expect a slow drift in first preferences towards the minor parties, though.
  • The sample size was almost 4,000 voters. To get a decent level of accuracy on the second preferences, most polling is going to have to be this big in future.
  • They surveyed Great Britain as a whole. Really, these surveys need to be country-by-country. I've tried to adjust for this in the English swingometer as best I can.

The big implication is that projections based on polling are probably going to start needing to treat the three big 'Other' parties differently in England, rather than grouping them all as 'Other', if AV passes. I'll wait to see if it does pass before rewriting the swingometer, though.

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Thursday, 7 April 2011

Alternative Vote: How big a deal is non-monotonicity?

One of the few areas in which Alternative Vote is unequivocally less good than First Past The Post is "monotonicity". Here's the recap explaining what "monotonicity" is, why it's generally a good thing for voting systems to do, and why AV doesn't guarantee it.

I said in that post that it wasn't generally a problem in practice, or no-one would actually use AV. Of course, one person's definition of "not a problem" might be "no more than 1 in 20 elections", while another's might be "no more than 1 in 1000 elections". Depending on how large the effect is, it might be unimportant compared with the disadvantages of FPTP over AV, or it might overwhelm them.

So, I've modified the AV swingometer to, in addition to reporting which seats change hands under a particular set of votes, to also report on whether any of the seats had a potentially non-monotonic set of preferences. Experiment for yourself to see the real scale of the problem.

More details about the methodology and the results below. In summary: it's very rare - neither non-monotonicity nor the tactical voting opportunities it creates will be a practical problem for AV elections.

Methodology for detecting non-monotonicity

There are two types of monotonicity-breaking election.

The first type is fairly easy to define, and is the one given in the example in the previous post. A winning candidate gains extra votes from a rival (or rivals), which changes the order in which candidates are eliminated, which causes them to lose the election despite their standing on every individual ballot paper being the same as before or better.

To detect this, in a situation where the original order is "A, B, C", the swingometer changes just enough B first preference votes into A first preference votes to change the order to "A, C, B". If A then loses, the election is non-monotonic.

The second type is where this has "already happened", and a losing candidate could, by losing votes to other candidates, adjust the elimination order in their favour, and win the election. (They could, of course, also win in this situation by gaining more votes and win by having sufficient first preferences to scrape 50% on the current transfer order)

To detect this, in a situation where the original AV order is "A, B, C", but with B ahead of A on first preferences, the swingometer changes just enough B first preference votes into C first preference votes to change the first preference order to "B, C, A". If B then wins instead of A, the election is non-monotonic. (If giving these extra votes from B to C causes C to win rather than A, the election is still monotonic)

There are other ways in which transfers could cause non-monotonicity, but an election with at most 3 viable candidates is too simple to bring them up.

I only change transfer values in the detection step - with only three significant candidates, improving the transfer rates in favour of the winning candidate can only reduce the size of the monotonicity window.1

I then also measure the size of the monotonicity window by considering how many more votes the affected candidate would have to gain or lose to change the result back to the expected one - the windows are fairly narrow, so the situation is usually "no change" is a win, "small change" is a loss, "larger change" is a win again.

Results

Of the 531 seats considered by the swingometer, a potentially non-monotonic result occurs is very few. Exactly how many depends on the first preferences and transfer weightings, of course, but it's generally low. There are only 6 on the previous general election results, only one (a different one) on the 6 July 2011 polling, and none at all on the June 2010 polls.

The swingometer will tell you the estimated first preferences for the seat, the smallest change to those first preferences to give a non-monotonic result, the party that benefits, and the size of the non-monotonicity window for each seat. The windows are often less than a thousand votes, and very rarely more than three thousand votes.

(These are worst-case sizes, too - a candidate whose second preferences also improve or worsen as their first preferences do will have an even narrower or perhaps non-existent window)

Implications

In the vast majority of seats, non-monotonicity will not be a problem at all. In a few seats (generally a specific sort of three-way marginal) it does occur. However, the size of the non-monotonicity window is relatively small even then - it's more likely that a candidate will go straight over it than land within it.

For tactical voting under AV, the situation is even better. Tactical voting under AV is basically about exploiting a non-monotonic situation to your advantage. To do this, you need to do two things:

  • Identify the direction of tactical vote you need to encourage
  • Calculate the size of the non-monotonicity window, and vote accordingly.

The problem is that whether the window exists at all, and how big it is, depends very much on the exact totals within the constituency. National opinion polls have a 3% margin of error for first preferences2, and much more for second preferences. Applying national poll results to individual constituency is even less reliable - Uniform National Swing (and the Uniform Proportional Swing variant used in the swingometer) are reasonably accurate for predicting overall results, because errors in individual constituencies tend to cancel out, but they're fairly bad at predicting the result of individual constituencies, and extremely bad at predicting the vote totals within those constituencies.

A relatively small change in first preference votes and transfers - around 1% -

Polls of individual constituencies are extremely rare, expensive, less accurate than national polling, and would need to be carried out very close to polling day to be any use.

Because the tactical voting relies on doing something unfavourable to your party, attempting and failing could mean that rather than hitting the (non-existent) non-monotonicity window, you instead throw away a winning position by weakening your preferences. It's therefore an extremely high risk strategy in most circumstances.

Neither non-monotonicity nor tactical voting is therefore likely to be a problem in practice for English use of AV. I suspect the same will also be true in the other three nations of the UK, but I don't have the data to prove that.

Footnotes

1 Moving transfer rates against the winning candidate of course makes it more likely that they'll lose, but then it no longer proves non-monotonicity if they do, because not every vote has either stayed the same or changed in their favour.

2 In addition to this, there is an unknown systematic error, though with a reputable polling company this should be fairly small.

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Monday, 4 April 2011

The AV campaign and racism

Several media sources are reporting on the "Yes To Fairer Votes" campaign publicity, where different campaign leaflets were sent to different parts of the country. Each leaflet included six celebrity endorsements of the campaign. New Statesman has scans of both leaflets.

In London, the campaign endorsements were (left to right, top to bottom) from Joanna Lumley, Eddie Izzard, Colin Firth, Honor Blackman, Stephen Fry, and Benjamin Zephaniah. (Three white men, two white women, and one black man)

Outside London, Benjamin Zephaniah is absent, and Tony Robinson is included in fifth (with Fry moved to sixth). (Four white men and two white women)

Not surprisingly this got picked up on quite quickly.

So, YTFV's response to the accusations of racism, when asked why they swapped Zephaniah for Robinson outside London (or perhaps Robinson for Zephaniah in London, depending on which leaflet design came first):

We have a number of endorsers and we vary the endorsers we use on our leaflets.

If they'd had an entirely (or mostly) different set of endorsers on the two posters, or if they'd had numerous different selections from those seven sent to different regions, or different households within regions, then this would make some sense.

Additionally - and this statement is quoted slightly differently by the Guardian and the Telegraph - they say:

If the No campaign want to accuse us of racism on the day that Kriss Akabusi launches our campaign, that is up to them. Who are Operation Black Vote and the Muslim Council of Britain backing? The Yes campaign.

and

Let's put it this way: Operation Black Vote, the Muslim Council of Britain and a host of similar groups are backing the 'Yes' campaign. The BNP are backing the 'No' campaign. People can draw their own conclusions.

Which is, of course, a textbook "I can't be racist, I have black friends" argument. Actually, it's perhaps more an "I can't be racist, my favourite voting system has black friends" argumentm which is even more nonsensical.

We're all perfectly aware that the proposed Alternative Vote is not an inherently racist voting system. Putting numbers rather than a cross on your ballot paper will not reinforce white privilege. OBV and the MCB are presumably supporting AV because they believe it to be a better voting system, not because they believe the members of the Yes campaign to personally be less racist than the members of the No campaign.

It's an extremely bad response, which suggests that they don't have a better honest response, and one of two things happened:

  • As suggested by the No campaign: Zephaniah was removed in favour of Robinson for leaflets outside London, to avoid having black people on a leaflet going to the mostly-white counties.
  • Alternatively, and marginally better: the counties leaflets were printed and sent first, but Robinson was removed in favour of Zephaniah after someone looking at the London leaflets pointed out that having all the endorsers be white was hardly representative of the UK.
    (There are a few other variations on this possibility that give YTFV even less benefit of the doubt on their ability to acknowledge white-as-default thinking)

I think the second case is marginally more likely, since other non-London areas with a high BAME population have also received the all-white version. On the other hand, their apparent lack of understanding of what the problem is in their responses means that I'd be utterly unsurprised by the first alternative being true. Either way, they have an unacknowledged problem.

The alternative theory does add an interesting point about media coverage of racism, too.

Thought experiment: Let's say the alternative theory is correct - the original leaflet was the Robinson version. What would have happened had they sent this leaflet out to everyone, and never made a Zephaniah version?

Most likely, there would have been no mainstream accusations of racism whatsoever. Anyone suggesting that it was a bit unusual that the Yes leaflets had an all-white cast of endorsers would have been very quickly called oversensitive or over-reacting.

In that situation, by taking (too late) action to correct the effects of white-as-default in the original design, they actually made things worse for themselves1 in terms of press attention.

1 And yes, swapping out another couple of endorsers at the same time would have effectively stopped that. No-one ever accused YTFV of being competent.

Footnote

It's extremely fortunate that, unlike a Parliamentary election, the merits of the options cannot be deduced from the quality of their campaigners. One can vote 'Yes' or 'No' without that being a reflection on the quality (or lack of quality) of the respective official campaigns, and there is basically nothing that either campaign could ever do right or wrong to change my vote.

I'd thoroughly recommend that anyone else thinking about their vote starts by assuming that both campaigns are - intentionally or otherwise - talking rubbish, and investigates the relative merits of AV and FPTP for themselves.

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Saturday, 2 April 2011

Winning FPTP elections with BNP second preferences

The latest line of attack from the No campaign is that BNP second preferences could end up deciding elections, and this would cause the BNP and other extremists, while having no chance of winning the seat directly, to have influence on the election because their voters' second preferences would need to be attracted.

The implication is that therefore politicans would pander to BNP voters more than they already do.

This is not the case. The circumstances in which BNP second preferences could decide an election are very rare - and crucially, equivalent circumstances could occur under First Past The Post

For BNP votes to be decisive, you would need a constituency where all of the following conditions were true:

  • On the final round of counting, the winner was over 50% of remaining votes by a margin significantly smaller than the number of BNP first preference votes.
  • All votes except for the winner and runner-up have been transferred (otherwise, another party's transfers would overwhelm any effect from the BNP transfers)
  • The majority of BNP first-preference voters expressed a preference for at least one of the remaining two candidates, and the winner of the election benefited from those preferences significantly more than the other candidates.

In that rare case, it's possible that transfers from the BNP could make the difference between being first and being second.

However, that's also true under First Past The Post.

"What?" you say - "first past the post doesn't have transfers" - well, it does, in a way. All first preference votes for parties not standing in the election are transferred before voting starts. (In my constituency in the last general election, no party I actually liked was on the ballot paper, so I was on to second or maybe even third preferences before I even got to the polling booth)

Consider a constituency like Bolton West where the BNP didn't stand a candidate. The margin of victory there is 0.2% - and in nearby constituencies where they did stand, the BNP are getting around 5% of the vote.

If BNP second preferences favoured Labour over Conservatives, then Bolton West was almost certainly only won by Labour because of BNP second preferences in 2010.

(Conversely, if BNP second preferences favoured Conservatives over Labour, then Hendon was only won by the Conservatives because of BNP second preferences)

Another obvious case - Oxford West and Abingdon where if BNP second preferences in 2010 favoured Conservative over Lib Dem they almost certainly changed the result in the seat.

In fact, there were 13 constituencies (excluding Northern Ireland) where the BNP didn't stand a candidate, but the margin of victory for the winning candidate was below the 2% the BNP candidate would probably have achieved. The second preferences - due to lack of candidates - of BNP voters almost certainly changed the result in at least some of those seats compared with a situation where the BNP had stood.

So that's the case where the BNP aren't standing. What about the case where they are?

In Solihull, the Lib Dems beat the Conservatives by 0.3%, in an election where the BNP had 2.9% of the vote. Had the Conservatives convinced a few more BNP voters to vote for them, then the BNP would have had only 2.5% of the vote, and the Conservatives would have retained the seat by 0.1%.

In a close FPTP election, parties need to convince "natural" voters for third and fourth parties in the seat to vote for them instead - the Lib Dems are (in)famous for their bar charts. In a close AV election, parties need to convince exactly the same voters to give them a better later preference than their rival gets.

There were 16 seats at the last general election where the margin of victory was smaller than the number of votes for the BNP. In 6 of them, fewer than a quarter of BNP voters would need to have been persuaded to vote for the runner-up instead to change the result.

In both voting systems the need to reach out to voters who are not your "natural" voter is there. Indeed, this is true of every voting system, since the point of elections is to convince people to vote for you more than they vote for the other candidates.

Politicians will always pander to pretty much everyone they think they can pander to without losing more votes than they gain.

The BNP - while electorally unsuccessful - have been quite successful under FPTP in making racism and especially anti-immigration rhetoric part of mainstream political dialogue: shifting the debate while apparently losing it.

It's possible under AV, where they stand no chance of winning a seat - which is why the BNP is one of the few political parties officially opposing AV - that their influence would be reduced. That's hard to predict, and I doubt it would happen to any noticeable extent - but it's certainly true that their influence wouldn't increase under AV.

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Friday, 1 April 2011

Friday Links

And some more links about the census

(roughly on a theme of "you can only find out about things you already know about")

And for lighter relief on the same theme: Dear Lockheed Martin (UK Census 2011 response) - census by cat

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