Oh dear, “It’s very complex”

From reporting of the results of the Labour Leadership election, I am forced to conclude that either the media is seriously lacking in intellectual capability, or they are trying to reflect an equally incompetent population.  I hope it is not the latter – but to conclude that the media is so lacking, is not a comfortable conclusion either.

So what was “very complex”?  An election for Labour Leader carried out by the AV (Alternative Vote) – albeit with an Electoral College.  As was expected it required four rounds to get to the result.  But the media seemed to get in a tissy about this because (1) it took so many counts, (2) the person who had the biggest minority in the first rounds did not win and (3) the eventual winner relied on the support of one section of the electorate.

Well I have news for the media – at the next election (should the referendum happen to get carried) there could be 600 counts under AV.

Is it because the media are predominantly arts graduates and therefore “totally innumerate and anything with ‘numbers’ is complex“?  Surely not.  But unless the media can get their minds around how to present this sort of story, they will be failing in their job of “informing and explaining”. And that could have serious consequences (in terms of bias) for the referendum campaign coverage.

It took so many counts

Yes it took four counts to get a result from five candidates, but why does the number of rounds make it complex?  A game of football has two halves – but does the fact that there are “two” make a game of football complex?  What about Ice Hockey (“three” periods) or American Football (“four” quarters)?

The whole idea of AV is to give a similar result to exhaustive balloting.  (Exhaustive balloting is when you run an election, and then if no one has a clear majority, you eliminate the candidate with the least votes and then re-run the whole election and continue to do so until you are running an election with just two candidates).  Therefore you can expect, in a close election, as many rounds as there will be losing candidates: so three candidates > two rounds, four candidates > three rounds, five candidates > four rounds.  What is complex about that (hint: subtract one from the number of candidates to get the maximum number of rounds – the maths is very simple!).

The first round winner did not win

The first round winner did not win because he could not command majority support – there were more people who preferred other candidates and in the end the supporters of the other candidates (a majority) preferred to coalesce around an alternative candidate.  That is what the AV system is intended to do – it elects (by a majority) the “least unloved”, rather than electing the candidate with the biggest minority.

The winner relied on the support of one section of the electorate

Again, yes – but what is new?  In most elections the winning candidate is heavily reliant on support (both electoral and organisational) from one part of the electorate.

The election for the leader of the Labour Party (and hence “the Labour Movement”), is no different in this respect, other than the use of an electoral college to control the balance of support from the three sections of the movement: Elected MPs & MEPs, Party Members, and members of the wider Labour Movement – each section having one-third of the total votes.

This does mean that the results are presented in terms of percentages, but I would be seriously concerned if our media felt that percentages make this “very complex”.  Our inflation rates and growth rates (never mind our income tax and VAT rates) are expressed in percentages and our media report on them.  If the journalists who report on politics can’t handle percentages, they really ought to have a word with an economics and business journalist – I hope they can handle percentages.

If the media persist in saying that AV is “very complex” they will be doing a serious disservice to their readership and viewership.  AV may be marginally more complex than First past the Post (FPTP), but that does not make it very complex.  It still involves sorting ballot papers and counting – it just takes a bit longer:

  • Voters instead of marking an “X” against their first preference candidate they mark a “1” (which actually is marginally quicker), then if they want to they can put “2”, “3”, “4” etc. against their other preferences.
  • The returning officers staff have to repeat the sort and count operation a number of times.

If it gives a better result, the extra length of time (which is minute compared to the life of a parliament – a few hours every five years) can easily be justified.  But it is not very complex.

It would be a great pity if the media were to persuade the electorate to vote against voting reform (however marginal that reform is) due to “complexity”.  The results of the referendum should revolve around issues of whether we want a reformed system and if so whether AV will really deliver that reform.  Now that could be a complex discussion.

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