WTF is the point?

22/04/2011 § Leave a comment

Tim Gowers, legendary Cambridge mathematician, has made a post on his blog about how AV is better than first past the post, circulating under the moniker ‘WTF is the post’.

I am pretty ambivalent to the upcoming referendum, but I do despair when I see the ‘yes’ side campaign. To watch so many intelligent people approach the problem like a sixth form debating team makes you want to snap the aerial off your radio and go live in a hut on Anglesey.

The yes campaign argue that the existing system produces results that do not accurately reflect the will of the electorate. Advocates of AV demonstrate, usually with the aid of a diagram, that AV would allow people who vote for the wrong candidate to still have their views taken into account when a candidate is chosen. This way, rather than representing a simple plurality of electors, the victorious candidate must, necessarily, represent a majority!

Then, point proven, the AV supporter usually stands back and waits for a round of applause.

The trouble with the average AV cheerleader is that they act as if this is an exercise in a maths textbook (usually those extra-credit questions that they gave to the really smart kids so they wouldn’t get bored). But this is not a maths problem – it is a constitutional question. Seen in that context, the issue that really matters is not ‘has the right person been elected?’, but ‘have we got a legitimate government?’

As a historian, I don’t think this is a given. In the past thousand years, England has had governments sanctioned through conquest, divine right, insurrection, coup, inheritance, royal warrant and, most recently, by democratic election. The good thing about democratic government is that it can be sustained with relatively few intrusions on personal liberty, and with a very strong respect for ethics and law.

Holding elections is no guarantee that a government will be considered legitimate. Look at Russia before the Bolsheviks took over. Look at Singapore today – 45 years under one political party following scrupulously fair elections, but which many commentators dismiss as the results of a wider policy of deliberate social control. Nor do ‘unfair’ elections render a government illegitimate. America in the 19th century disenfranchised most of the black population, and saw its elections controlled by mob activity, bribery and machine politics; but America remained a great beacon of world democracy.

First past the post is a horrible voting system. If we were starting our democracy again from the ground up, I can think of very few reasons why we would adopt it. But even with its worst results, has it ever led anyone to say the elected government had no right to govern? That Clement Atlee was just a puppet of the trade unions; that David Cameron is the figurehead of an outmoded plutocracy? After any election we have had, would the UN have good cause to send in troops; would anyone be justified in taking to the streets to overturn the results?

This is not idle rhetoric. This is what happens when democracy isn’t felt to have worked; and it doesn’t happen here. All of us, Yes and No alike, know that we’ve got a democratic system that in a very fundamental sense represents the people. That sense of representation does change, slowly, over time. Note that this is the first time that we’ve ever put a constitutional change to a referendum. We felt quite happy accepting women’s suffrage based on an act of parliament, but now we feel major change must be agreed by the people as a whole. Nobody would call AV an integral part of our democracy.

I suspect this is why the No campaign is doing so well – it isn’t so swept up in voting calculations to lose sight of the bigger truth. All of its rhetoric is based on the fact that the existing system, despite any intellectual inelegance, is emotionally spot-on. They know that having the same electoral system for more than a century is instinctively seen as a mark of quality – people have seen it work before, and have confidence it will work again. They know that people feel that the existing system represents their views, even if it doesn’t. They realise that the winner of the election is always, always seen as the legitimate government.

That’s a democracy that works. So what if it gets the maths wrong?


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