Pizza and Electoral Reform

Politicians have recently been spouting a lot about the inefficiencies of the public sector. Well if it’s true, no better example could surely be found than the politicians themselves. After literally months of hundreds of them pissing around at our expense they finally decided yesterday that there would be a referendum on electoral reform. In the referendum we will be given two choices and asked to vote for the one which we think is the fairer system of electing future governments. The choices will be:

  • First Past The Post (FPTP) – our current system
  • Alternative Vote (AV)

I will be honest – I don’t know which system is fairer and that is a bit of a problem. I don’t consider myself badly informed with what is going on in the world. I am reasonably good at maths yet still I don’t know off the top of my head which system is fairer.

This is a problem not because of my personal dilemma but because I strongly suspect that I am not alone in not knowing which system is fairer. I am fairly sure there are a large number of people in the country who, like me are going to be asked to decide something they don’t have the information to properly decide.

Yesterday, I asked my Twitter followers which system they preferred. It looked like this:

Wow – almost 1 in 3 of us don’t know. If you are one of those people then look no further. I am going to work it out here on this blog and then we’ll all know. Hoorah! So let’s do it with an example.

15 friends are ordering a pizza to share from The Very Big Pizza Company. There are three options:

  • Meat Feast
  • Pepperoni
  • Margherita

Between them they need to decide on which pizza to get and so they take a vote. Their preferences look like this:

The voters

Summarised, their preferences look like this:


If they use a FPTP system then only their 1st choice preferences are taken into account so, with six votes, they will get a Meat Feast.

If they use AV however then it works like this:

Round 1

  • Meat Feast – 6 votes
  • Pepperoni – 4 votes
  • Margherita – 5 votes

In AV, Pepperoni with the fewest first choice votes at the end of round 1 gets eliminated and the Pepperoni lovers’ second choice votes are added in for round 2…..

Round 2

  • Meat Feast – 7 votes
  • Margherita – 8 votes

Margherita is the winner.

Two different systems – two different results. While we’re here though, let’s look at another system called the Borda Count. In this system 3 points are awarded for a first choice, 2 for a second and 1 for a third. Points are all added up to determine the winner. It’s a bit like what happens in the Eurovision Song Contest.

In this system we find the following:

Borda Count Results

Pepperoni, with 34 points has won.

Three different systems – three different results. So what does all this tell us? It tells us that the voting system we employ can make a big difference to the outcome of the election. With three different systems and the same set of preferences we observe 3 different outcomes.

You might think I intentionally set the group’s preferences such that this would happen. Yup, I did. But it may not be too far from reality. Imagine that it’s May 2010 and Meat Feast is the Conservatives, Pepperoni is the Lib Dems and Margherita is the Labour Party. The different outcomes here have essentially occurred because:

  • More people preferred the Conservatives as a first choice than preferred either of the other two (but importantly not an overall majority)
  • The Lib Dems are most often the second choice of both Conservative and Labour voters
  • Lib Dem voters are more likely to prefer Labour than Conservatives*

* I’m not sure whether this is actually the case but it doesn’t make it an implausible set of preferences.

So I have looked at three different voting systems and they produced three different winners but which is the fairest? Nope, I still don’t know. Let’s keep going.

First, let’s go back to the FPTP system where the group have decided to vote for Meat Feast.

They phone up The Very Big Pizza Company. Before they can place their order, they are informed that unfortunately there are no more Pepperoni pizzas left. Doesn’t matter, right? In the vote Meat Feast came first, Margherita second and Pepperoni came last. The fact that Pepperoni isn’t on the menu doesn’t cause a problem. Or does it?
Anna, on the phone relays this message to the group and they do the FPTP vote again based on Meat Feast or Margherita. Now Margherita wins on the FPTP method!

To me this seems like a big problem. In a fair electoral system, if people prefer Meat Feast to Margherita then the outcome should always reflect this, irrespective of whether or not Pepperoni is available.

FPTP says that if Pepperoni is on the menu then Meat Feast is better than Margherita and if Pepperoni is not on the menu then Margherita is better than Meat Feast!

So FPTP is cack then. Let’s look at the AV in comparison. After the AV vote they phone up The Very Big Pizza company to order their Margherita and find that Meat Feast is off the menu. Now Pepperoni wins. Bollocks.

If AV is a fair system then if it prefers Margherita to Pepperoni when Meat Feast is on offer, it should prefer Margherita to Pepperoni when Meat Feast is not on offer.

Aaargghh. All I have done so far is to find that neither is fair.

When you look at the summarised table of votes above, AV does have a clear problem. Pepperoni had loads of second place votes but these all got ignored because it was eliminated before they could be taken into account. 11 people liked Pepperoni second best but the system treated it the same as if no one had liked it second best.

When you look at FPTP though – it doesn’t just ignore all the second and third place votes for Pepperoni. It ignores, by definition, everything that wasn’t a first choice vote.

My view is that when you need to make a decision about something, you should take as much of the available information into account as possible. AV, while not perfect takes more information into account than FPTP and it is on that basis I think, a fairer system.

Let’s not though, forget about our third option – the Borda Count which we sadly will not get the option to vote for. That system takes every preference into account and I therefore think it is a fairer system than either of the two from which we can choose.

Formula 1 uses something not too far from the Borda Count to decide the world champion. Would Formula 1 be fairer if driver’s second places, third places etc were not taken into account when deciding the World Championship? Bernie Ecclestone thinks so but I don’t. I think a driver with 5 wins, 8 second places and 2 third places has more claim to be World Champion than a driver with 6 wins and 9 races that they didn’t finish.
The Borda Count system is by no means perfect but it allows us to take a lot more information into account than a simple FPTP.

This is not the whole picture though. Even if everyone agreed on the fairest system they would not all necessarily vote in the same way. For a start, some systems are more likely to benefit certain political parties. The Conservatives don’t really think FPTP is the fairest possible electoral system, they just think they will have a better chance of winning a majority than they would with the others. If the party you like the best is going to do better out of a particular system why would you want to vote for an alternative in which they would do worse?

Also, the best system may not be the fairest system. FPTP is the simplest system by far – one cross in one box and you’re done. The more complex the system becomes the harder it is for people to understand and cast their vote. A clever mathematician could come up with a brilliantly fair voting system but if a significant proportion of the electorate didn’t understand it or couldn’t work out how to fill in their ballot papers, it would be worthless.

Some people also praise FPTP for its strength in delivering a majority government with a minority of votes. That doesn’t necessarily sound like a good thing to me but if people really think it is a good thing then why should they not vote for a less fair system in order to achieve it?

Irrespective of these there is something much worse which will undoubtedly have a strong influence on the result of the referendum – the campaign of misinformation which I can see on the horizon, heading for our shores like a giant wave of bullshit. Political parties, unions and other groups will no doubt know which of the two systems benefits them the most and they will undoubtedly be feverishly preparing their campaigns to scare the public into believing that one system means 100 years of darkness to the UK.

On the Today Programme the other day, James Frayne who ran the successful campaign for the Conservative Party to vote No to a North East regional assembly said that because Nick Clegg is so unpopular, the best tactic for the No2AV campaign (yes, they’ve already made a name like a fucking X-Factor band) would be to say if you vote AV you will get Nick Clegg in government again.

It’s shameful that on one hand we will be given a chance to vote to change the electoral system and on the other hand we will be drowned in this kind of crap designed solely to mislead us. Will any political party in the next few months spend time and effort really trying to explain the underlying good points and bad points of each system in a bid to assist the voters into making an informed choice? I hope so but I don’t think so.

So – what have I concluded?

  • AV has big problems and probably isn’t a great system but it is fairer than FPTP
  • The Borda Count is fairer than either of them but isn’t available
  • A fair system is not necessarily the best if it is overly complex to understand
  • Even if people agree on what the fairest system is they will still not necessarily vote for it
  • There will be a massive campaign of misinformation which will significantly influence the choice of voters

Well, to be honest, I’m disillusioned by the whole thing now. Bollocks to this. Anyone for Pizza?


Facts Evasion

When I’m not tweeting or blogging, I sometimes have to do some real work. Last year, I was asked to put together a report to analyse the performance of a particular strategy my company was pursuing and then present it to my CEO and the board.

“That sounds well important,” I thought. So I did this:

  • I clearly set out what I was going to measure and why
  • I gathered as much information as possible and analysed it
  • I accounted for any uncertainties in my measurements
  • I accounted for any external factors which could have influenced the results
  • I summarised how the strategy was performing based on these factors and tied it back to the things I said originally that I would measure
  • I made recommendations as to how we should proceed based on the gathered evidence and uncertainties

While I would like to think I was the first to think of this nice structured way of doing things, in fact I wasn’t. This is just, at a high level, the way you approach changing anything important, even if you’re doing it subconsciously.

If for example you were buying a house, you would not do it this way:

  • Buy a house
  • Gather as much information about houses as possible
  • Selectively discard any evidence which suggested you’d bought the wrong house
  • Selectively include any evidence which suggested you’d bought the right house
  • Set out what your house buying criteria were based on the bits of evidence you had not discarded

Well, you wouldn’t do it this way unless of course, you were a politician. Politicians, you see, work in the opposite way to everyone else. Let me explain with an example.

At the moment, the government is proposing a reform of the NHS. This is the evidence they are putting forward for why such radical changes are necessary:

Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, speaking on PM:

You are twice as likely to die of a heart attack in the UK as you are in France.

Prime Minister, David Cameron, on the same day:

We’ve fallen behind the rest of Europe. We spend similar amounts of money but we’re more likely to die of cancer or heart disease. I don’t think we should put up with a second rate… errrr… with coming second best.

Note he actually almost called the NHS a second rate health service but thought better of it.

Well it all sounds extremely scary. But is it?

John Appleby, Chief Economist at the Kings Fund, London thinks things aren’t quite as bleak as the government is making out and writing in the British Medical Journal he explained why.

Although statistics from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) confirm that in 2006 the age standardised death rate for acute myocardial infarction was around 19/100 000 in France and 41/100 000 in the United Kingdom, comparing just one year—and with a country with the lowest death rate for myocardial infarction in Europe—reveals only part of the story. Not only has the UK had the largest fall in death rates from myocardial infarction between 1980 and 2006 of any European country, if trends over the past 30 years continue, it will have a lower death rate than France as soon as 2012.

You see, the government selectively chose one data point on the graph and discarded the rest of the data. This is what the data looks like if you don’t discard the rest of it:

Heart Disease MortalityThis doesn’t look quite so scary, does it? You see, when you look at all the available data, you get a very different picture. The UK’s death rates from heart disease have been plummeting and if the trends shown in the graph continue, argues Appleby, then we will have a lower rate than France by 2012.

This looks to me, (and John Appleby) like things are going in the right direction with our current system. Also, as Appleby points out, Lansley and Cameron chose quite a tough comparison. France has the lowest death rate from heart disease in all of Europe. A lucky choice, or cherry-picking a number to support an argument?

Either way – good for France, right? Well, not yet. Something Lansley and Cameron didn’t take into account which is absolutely massively important is this:

Are France and the UK using the same criteria to determine their causes of death?

As it turns out, possibly not. Speaking on More or Less on Radio 4 on 21st January*, Dr. Pete Scarborough, a Senior Researcher at the British Heart Foundation Health Promotion Research Group at Oxford University (get a shorter job title) noted that in the UK, if a person with a record of high cholesterol or high blood pressure dies, the coroners are much more likely to record the cause of death as a heart attack in comparison to France where the cause of such a death unless a heart attack is clearly shown to have happened, is generally recorded as “unknown”.

An additional point which Lansley and Cameron failed to mention is death from heart disease has a lot to do with lifestyle. The best way of avoiding death from heart disease is to avoid getting heart disease in the first place. Diet, smoking rates and exercise were all omitted from their conclusion.

Appleby in his article stated:

The trajectory for many causes of death swoops up and down over decades—often linked to changes in lifestyle behaviours rather than spending on healthcare.

Which makes perfect sense. Perhaps due to lifestyle, a higher proportion of people in the UK turn up for treatment for heart disease than they do in France. If that’s the case we should hardly be blaming the NHS.

You’ll recall, David Cameron also brought cancer death rates into the equation. On that, Appleby noted this:

As Cancer Research UK has pointed out, although the Eurocare data often feed headlines that the UK is the “sick man of Europe” for many cancers, trends from Eurocare actually show improvements in survival rates for the UK. These are confirmed by the Office for National Statistics, which last year reported improvements in five year survival rates between 2001-6 and 2003-7 for nearly all cancers. But Eurocare is problematic; the latest study includes diagnoses only up to 2002, and coverage is patchy (French data cover around 10-15% of people with cancer, the UK, 100%). Furthermore, differences in survival rates may reflect variations in how early diagnoses are made, not the state of healthcare in different countries.

Overall, I think again, this doesn’t seem quite as clear cut as we were led to believe but there is yet another important statistic they failed to mention. If our substandard healthcare is really causing a significantly higher death rate then shouldn’t our life expectancy be significantly lower than France’s? I went to the World Health Organisation’s website to check this out and found this:

The most recent figures for average life expectancy they have are for 2008. In France it was 83 for women and 81 for men. In the UK it was 82 for women and 80 for men. Irrespective of what people are finally dying of, the average life expectancy between the two countries is extremely close.

The WHO also conveniently shows average life expectancy by global region and here we can see whether we are lagging behind the rest of Europe, as claimed by David Cameron:

Oh. As you can see, the average for Europe for 2008 was 79 for women and 71 for men.

So much for us lagging behind the rest of Europe but, anyway, if we truly are experiencing significantly higher death rates from heart disease and cancer than the rest of Europe it is a bit puzzling. If they aren’t dying of that but have lower life expectancy then what exactly is it that they are all dying of? Rabies?

My conclusion based on this data (which was by no means all of it but a lot more than Lansley or Cameron used) would be that we are doing well and heading in the right direction. So where is the big problem? Where is the big need for a radical NHS reform?

Let me move back to my initial example of the report I had to do at work. If I had made a conclusion in advance, backed it up with one or two pieces of cherry-picked data and gone in front of the board with it, my audience would have torn me to shreds.
My report was important to me but compared with the importance of the NHS to the UK it was really nothing at all. This is the NHS we’re talking about – people’s lives.

My audience wouldn’t have accepted such a poor analysis of the data for my crappy report – so don’t you dare do it either. You are the audience now and this is really important. Don’t accept these arguments as the complete story – understand them for what they are. A couple of cherry-picked, airbrushed, bullshit numbers selected to back up a plan that the government wanted to do anyway, regardless of the what the actual evidence suggested.

If I couldn’t get away with such behaviour in front of my board then why should the government get away with it in front of the British public?

Pulling basic information from the British Medical Journal and the World Health Organisation is not hard to do – I did it with no trouble at all. The government’s position is nothing more than pure deception and when we look at the real evidence – their position fucking stinks.


*More or Less’s excellent piece on this same subject helped a lot with putting this post together. It’s available as a free Podcast so have a look for it.