Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Under FPTP The Loser Wins!

I’ve already written one piece in which I set out my position on the coming AV referendum, but I’m so annoyed with some of the bad arguments that I hear coming from the No2AV side that I felt the need to tackle them individually. I’ll get to ‘one person, one vote’ later but, for now, I’ll focus on the claim that ‘under AV the loser can win.’ This is often presented through the medium of sports analogy, for instance the leaflet I have in front of me shows four runners crossing the finishing line of a race – one clearly in front, but with another marked as ‘the winner under AV.’ This isn’t really an argument as such, but rhetorically I think it’s very effective, so it’s worth showing what is wrong with this.

Firstly, AV will never elect the one who comes last on first preferences, because they will be first eliminated. In a two horse race, FPTP and AV are equivalent, so campaign posters that focus on such cases, such as a boxing match, are misleading. Nor can the one who comes ‘last’ in a race win.

Secondly, the sporting analogy is somewhat flawed. In many sports, the winner is determined not in a single contest, but over a series of contests. The Olympic gold medallist, for instance, is the person fastest in the final, with the qualifying rounds deemed irrelevant. Like in AV, it is not the initial results that matter, but the final standing.

As I pointed out in my earlier post, the name First Past The Post is actually importantly misleading, because (unlike in a race) there is no fixed winning post. Therefore showing runners crossing a fixed finishing line is disingenuous. AV does have a clearly defined winning line, namely getting a majority of votes remaining at any round of counting. Consequently, from the perspective of AV the winner is indeed the first to cross that line and the problem with FPTP is that it takes a snapshot of the race at some arbitrary point, such as after the first lap, and concludes that whoever is leading then is the winner, though they have not yet reached any previously specified finishing line.

The more general problem is that the slogan ‘the loser wins,’ common in the No2AV campaign, presupposes that who is the loser and who is the winner has already been determined. The supporters of FPTP are implicitly appealing to FPTP criteria (who gets the most first preference votes) to determine a winner and loser and then asserting that AV picks the wrong winner because AV doesn’t agree with FPTP. But this is circular reasoning that assumes precisely what is at issue.

FPTP and AV sometimes disagree, that’s the point of electoral change. Supporters of AV could similarly argue that under FPTP, the loser, according to AV standards, sometimes wins. That’s what shows they are different systems. The disagreement is not about who wins, but who should win. Proponents of AV think that, where the two systems disagree, the candidate picked out by AV is the one with the better claim to win.

Again, a sporting analogy is useful, provided that it is properly handled. There isn’t usually much disagreement about who wins a football match – the team that scores more goals than the other. There is, however, course some debate about how best to settle ties – e.g. whether to play extra time, replays, penalties, etc. This is more analogous to the voting referendum. It may be that the team that wins after extra time would not have won had the match gone straight to penalties. We cannot, however, reject either of these methods of determining a winner simply on grounds that they disagree – or we would, on grounds of consistency, be forced to reject both.

One problem of course is that we do not know who would have won penalties if they did not in fact take place. (Similarly, we do not know who would have won under AV if voters were never asked for their second preferences.) Nonetheless, football league tables can also serve as a useful illustration. Some leagues use two points for a win and others three points for a win, though these can produce different results.

Let’s look at the current English Premier League. At the moment (26/04/11), Manchester United would lead Chelsea, whether two or three points for a win. But that need not be the case. Imagine that, at the end of the season, we see the following results:

1sth: Manchester United (W 24; D 6; L 8) – 80 points
2nd: Chelsea (W 22; D 13; L 3) – 79 points

Interestingly, United win the league in this (hypothetical) example, despite losing more games than Chelsea. Why? Because they’ve also won more, having fewer draws. With three points for a win, it’s better to have a win and a loss than two draws. What if we used two points for a win? Then Chelsea would come out in front:

1st: Chelsea (22 x 2 + 13) = 57 points
2nd: Manchester United (24 x 2 + 6) = 54 points

(For a real world example, see here.)

If we calculate the table one way, then one team wins, but calculate it the other way and the results are different. That’s because we’re using a different means to determine the results. It’s no good simply asserting that ‘the loser (according to one method) wins (when a different method is followed)’ – again, that’s the whole point of a different method.

The debate we need to have is over who should win. In the football case, we need to decide whether a win and a defeat should count for more, less, or the same as two draws. In the political case, we need to consider whether it’s better to be first choice of a large minority of the voters (though perhaps widely detested beyond those) or to have widespread support of second or third votes, even if perhaps fewer people’s first preference.

We shouldn’t take the sports analogy too far. I’m not saying that if you think teams should get three points for a win that you ought to support FPTP (or vice versa). My point is that the debate is over who should win, so it’s no good for either side to pretend that that is already settled.

Don’t forget, under FPTP the loser (according to AV) can win...


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