Complexity

After having exchanged a few words with Tom Harris MP on Twitter today regarding the increased complexity of AV I was trying to convey in no more than 140 characters the utter stupidity that underlies the argument that AV is too complex for the average voter or that complexity is in itself a negative quality.

Let’s try and put complexity into context.

People can walk somewhere if they want to. Walking (for most people) is a very simple, un-complex undertaking. People are unlikely to break down or encounter anything during a walk that they cannot deal with.

People can also take make the journey more complex by cycling, which introduces more possible difficulties (punctures, chain falling off and so forth) but also improves several elements of the journey (reduced journey time, reduced impact on crucial joints such as the knee and so forth).

People can take complexity to whole new levels by driving the journey instead, or taking any form of public transport. This level of complexity carries the great risk that the journey might not be completed because of a mechanical failure that cannot be rectified by the individual: for it is unlikely that they understand the complexity of an modern combustion engine or how to fix a train.

This does not stop people driving or taking public transport, as end users they very rarely need to know how such things work, what they do know is that mechanics exist to fix any problems that might arise.

Complexity is all around us, we embrace it because complexity is so intimately linked with progress and understanding.
It is very simple to think that the world is at the centre of the universe and that everything revolves around us. It is very complex to realise that we are one planet amongst almost infinite numbers that happens to revolve around the Sun in an ever-expanding universe. We don’t reject change simply because it is more complex. Otherwise we should throw away just about every single bit of technology in the world.

This is, of course, assuming that AV is actually complex – and if it is more complex than FPTP, who has to deal with that complexity?

From the point of view of the voter AV could not be simpler. You just rank the candidates in order of preference. You can vote for the person you really want to, rather than voting for a lesser candidate simply because you fear voting for your real choice would be a wasted vote. Tactical voting under AV is done with second or third preferences, i.e. I’d really like Mr A, but failing that I would rather have Mr D or Mr H (so rank them 2nd and 3rd) than the horrible Mr X.

That is not difficult and perhaps people can leave the polling station knowing that they actually voted for their first preference for once, rather than voting for someone merely to stop another more despised candidate. Wouldn’t that be a nice feeling? To know that you can actually voted for your real choice without feeling that you have just ‘wasted’ your vote?

Of course, this means that when the votes are counted if there is no clear winner the weakest candidate has to be eliminated and then second preferences are added to see if that can establish and so forth until one candidate has a majority of over 50%. Sure, this is more complex than first past the post, but it’s hardly the same as building a car and we are all happy to be the end user of those, so why not be the end user of the AV voting system?

Any complexity with AV is the problem of the government, not the voter. Perhaps we should also vote no to sewers as well because they’re complex and expensive and we’d all be much better off taking the simple option of emptying buckets of shit out of our windows like the good old days. Not that AV is expensive, that’s just another scare tactic employed by the old guard who are scared because a more democratic system does not help a very undemocratic elite.

The final point, the really important point I’d like to think, is that we are having a referendum on the way in which we elect MPs and consequently the governments that make the decisions that impact on us every day of our lives. Elections only take place every 5 years, the way in which that government is elected matters. This means I don’t want a simple system to determine this, I want a complex system that better reflects the actual will of those bothering to vote (and as for those complaining that AV will reduce voter turnout, how much lower do they think it can get?).

Think back to the days when computers were horrible great big boxes that didn’t do a great deal and what they did do they did very slowly. We’d look back and describe them as crude, in the same way that we would describe most ancient tools that were a product of physical limitation. Here we have a voting system that is not a product of physical limitation, but rather a philosophical limitation. We could if we wanted have AV or AV plus or full PR, in the same way that we could vote entirely online and get almost instant results. We don’t because the rich and powerful individuals that almost entirely make up our political class rely on an outdated system to cling to a two-party system that with FPTP forces the majority of voters to compromise at the ballot box, or worse still not vote at all.

You have a country divided between safe Labour seats and safe Conservative seats with any other party or individual merely trying to get their deposit back. You could lead a party with the support of a million voters and still not end up with a single seat in parliament.

The same is also true with AV, it is a miserable compromise. But this is not an argument against voting for AV, rather it is a damning indictment of the current government – if AV is a miserable compromise then why did you not offer us full PR – if you keep saying that is superior? Probably because PR would take away the very notion of a safe seat and the Conservatives – who only represent the interest of a small elite, would finally have that reflected in the number of seats they won. Likewise, the Labour party – who seemed to have abandoned the working classes in policy, but can still be guaranteed a huge amount of seats in working class areas – might actually have to start being the Labour party again; instead of the Conservatives with a different colour tie.

AV plus or true PR would be much better, but it turns out our ‘elected’ leaders actually despise democracy. ‘What about extremist parties, under PR they would get MPs elected’ they cry, such an argument seems almost directly against proper democracy. If the BNP or EDL (if they became a political party) or any other extremists gained seats it would not reflect poorly on democracy, merely on the level of debate that takes place on real issues of importance in this country. The EDL exists because our media constantly creates and feeds the narratives that sustain them – as do politicians when they blame the foreigner for all the ills that are a direct result of their policies.

If we elect a series of racist loons, we need more education, not less democracy.

Perhaps true PR might lead to a properly regulated press, a House of Commons that doesn’t descend into the infantile groaning and roaring of over-privileged, public-schooled pals mistaking running a country with messing around in their old common rooms and above all a political class that engages in real issues rather than petty political posturing and point-scoring. Maybe, just maybe, politicians would have to honestly answer the occasional question, rather than aloofly ignoring questions put to them as if we have no right to know what they are really up to.

AV is slightly more complex than FPTP – but only for the people counting, not the people voting – and like most increasingly complex things: this is a good thing. People don’t race out to buy the latest gadget because it does less than the old one; they buy it because it offers them more. We have voted with our wallets for hundreds of years for increasing complexity, increasing sophistication; for products that do similar things in better ways and for products that have revolutionised our lives.

The majority of humanity loves progress and change, capitalism, for example, is entirely reliant on this fact. It’s about time we put down our wallets for five minutes and instead voted with our ballet paper for increased political sophistication, for a voting system that offers us slightly more for the same exertion. AV is a compromise, it’s not the system that would bring true democracy to the UK, nor will it likely change the party system currently in place.

However, it is progress; it is increasing the sophistication of the way we are allowed to vote. It could be, if we all turn out to vote if given AV for the next election, the first step on the path to real democracy and real change.

Now that is change I do want to believe in.

17 Comments

  • Will says:

    You had the misfortune of speaking to Harris. It’s to be expected that all MPs that have ever represented Glasgow are arseholes; Michael Martin, Tom Harris, George Galloway…

    The point is, Harris is one of the worst of Scottish Labour, who are mostly in it for power and to screw England over. Even the most nationalist SNP member hates England less. Without them, we could have a truly progressive Labour party, with none of this squabbling over AV.

  • Daley Gleephart says:

    “It is very complex to realise that we are one planet amongst almost infinite numbers that happens to revolve around the Sun in an ever-expanding universe.”
    I think that most astronomers would disagree with you.

  • hannanibal says:

    Excellent post. The complexity argument is one of many logical fallacies used by the “No” campaigners.
    Another is claiming AV to be a bad thing because Nick Clegg thinks it’s good(?). Nick Clegg also thinks shoes are a good idea so maybe we should stop wearing them too.

    Let’s not forget “sick babies need heart monitors not an alternative voting system”. Like we can’t have both. Apparently if AV comes in a premature baby is going to be taken off life support.

  • mixedandmuddled says:

    I enjoyed reading your reasonings here. Only read a couple of blogs today regarding AV, this one and a no2av one which basically stated, AV didn’t work when his family were deciding what to name the cat…..

  • Meee says:

    It won’t pass. I have that feeling. It won’t pass and the no-to-AV folk will claim it means people support the current system (rather than them feeling the alternative vote doesn’t go far enough), and it’ll be a long, long time until anyone can get together enough political clout to try this again.

    That’s possibly just me being cynical, though. Then again, all of the people I talk to seem to be with the no-to-av crowd due to them hearing various stories and reports about them (mostly about how it “lets losing parties win”).

    My main hope at the moment is that people voting yes are more likely to actually turn out to vote than those voting no. Voting no is, after all, voting for the status quo. People in favour of the status quo are less likely to take any form of action regarding it than the people who want to change it.

    Hopefully.

  • For the last 30 years or more match of the day has been asking viewers to pick a goal of the month by placing ranking them in order yet i’ve never heard anyone complain that the system is too complex.

    Until a few years ago university applications required people to rank choices in order. Parents applying for places at secondary are often required to rank schools in order of preference. So why is it to difficult for these people to do the same thing on a ballot paper?

  • lateralus says:

    “If we elect a series of racist loons, we need more education, not less democracy.”

    I think this is a very salient point.

    In all honesty i’ve “opted out” of this referendum out of disgust at the way both sides (mainly the No campaign) have run their campaigns – totally negative and celebritary based rather than focusing on the issues. I was sickened by the 2 leaflets i received (one blaming Clegg for all the ill’s since the election, one heavily implying voting yes means you will murder a baby).

    No wonder people are disengaged with policits when this “elite” (although i dont see anything special about them apart from their inherited wealth and arrogance) treats them so badly

  • Mr Larrington says:

    Nick Clegg doesn’t think AV is good, just that it’s better than FPTP.

  • LiamKav says:

    If those are the same two leaflets I had, they were both from the NotoAV group. I’ve never received any YesTvAV stuff. I will be voting for it, but that’s despite the really quite poor campaign the Yes group has run, despite seamingly spending more.

    lateralus: If you think that both campaigns have been bad, but the no has been worse, why not vote for yes? Not voting is essentially the same as saying that you are happy with the current situation, which is the same as voting No.

  • Nuckley says:

    Great post, and great to have you back!

  • mishima says:

    *applause* Every No to AV argument comprehesively demolished.

    “If we elect a series of racist loons, we need more education, not less democracy.”

    YES.

    “I don’t want a simple system to determine this, I want a complex system that better reflects the actual will of those bothering to vote.”

    YES.

    *more applause*

  • Chris says:

    I really enjoyed this article as it made good sensible points, much better than either side of the actual campaign. I even linked it on facebook and the quote about the sewers spread a fair bit.
    I also found it great going back into today to link it to a friend to find a No to AV advert at the side!

  • lateralus says:

    @LiamKav

    the 2 leaflets i refered to were No2AV. I received 1 from the yes campaign which was basically just a list of celebrities saying vote yes because i am, which is a wasted arguement on me as i’m far more likely to NOT do what someone i have no respect for tells me to do….(since when is Eddie Izzard an expert on constitutional affairs…..)

    I fully agree that i “should” vote yes, and if there was a local election (i’m in London where there are not any) i would, but unless i leave work early (no chance) i will not get time to vote and am not impassioned enough by the yes campaign to sacrifice something (my limited time) to vote for them. However, i do agree this is essentially the same as voting “no” – however didnt i read somewhere that the quorum for this referendum to be binding was 70% of the population, which is never, ever, ever going to be reached so this is just a posturing exercise for political leaders to brag over anyway

  • Nick Kiddle says:

    //Until a few years ago university applications required people to rank choices in order. Parents applying for places at secondary are often required to rank schools in order of preference. So why is it to difficult for these people to do the same thing on a ballot paper?//

    I remember when I was about 8, there was a craze for ranking friendships in order: “You’re my best friend, you’re my second best friend, you’re my third best friend…” There is no argument that will convince me something eight-year-olds do *spontaneously* is too complicated for the electorate to grasp.

    Unfortunately, all too many people are convinced. I was arguing last night with a friend who hopes everyone is voting no. I asked him whether he ever wanted to live in a democracy, but he thinks democracy=FPTP :(

  • mark says:

    It’s sad isn’t it. The classic pub game “top 10 <anything from actresses to food" played by drunken people all over the place is deemed "too complex" for the general public

  • Scottie says:

    Unfortunately it seems (If the polls are to be believed) that the No campaign have succeeded in their quest to make AV look complicated.

    It was easy to do with an electorate that wasn’t really interested. David Cameron pulled a masterstroke by pretending to have the argument on the Today show with John Humphries.

    Unfortunately unless you can describe the solution to problems in very simplistic terms (A gives you B – End of) I don’t think the majority of people want to know. No one gives that much thought to issues, they tend to make decisions on gut feel, regardless of whether it’s right or wrong.

  • at says:

    Completely agree with everything in this post, the sorry fact is that tory voters keep increasing! How and why I have no idea, everyone I know voted yes to AV, but there seems to be a large mob of several million ‘troy elite’ that continue to support them, believe everything they say and vote them in and it’s growing for some reason!

    I can only conclude that anyone over age of 50 must be responsible.