Show me the future v. computer says no

By February 15, 2011Presentation Skills

Two articles in the news today on Britain’s upcoming electoral reform referendum – one widely mocked, one well-received. Why?

Exhibit A (mocked) is from the No2AV campaign. They say the cost of AV would run to £250 million. Their campaign director, Matthew Elliott, said “the simple fact is that our country can’t afford AV”. The emotional connection he wants you to make is: AV – a waste of my money.

This is a practical argument, on whether or not it can be done. It isn’t made very well, as Alex Massie points out – it turns out £91m of that is on the referendum and £130m on phantom voting machines that aren’t actually needed to implement AV. Oops.

But the bigger point is – so what? Democracy costs money. We value democracy. We don’t reject ways to improve our democracy because they are expensive. The Egyptian masses didn’t flock to Tahrir Square shouting “we want democracy, unless it costs too much”.

Practical arguments against something are strategically weak. They are last-ditch objections: nice idea but it won’t work, it’s too much trouble. Even if you agree with them, they rarely do enough to move you. If you don’t agree, they look a little desperate. Consequential arguments are more powerful.

Exhibit B (well-received) is pollster Peter Kellner’s spoof memo to the leader of the British National Party, an extremist political party. He argues that changing the electoral system to Alternative Vote would stop extreme parties from getting into parliament because they are Marmite parties – you love them or hate them – who won’t pick up second preferences. The emotional connection he wants you to make is: hate the BNP, vote for AV.

It is an argument about consequences. It has problems – he ignores the most common view that AV helps small parties, because people who currently vote tactically for Labour or the Conservatives will have a new incentive to cast their vote for their real first choice. More to the point, it is far from conclusive – why would you choose a voting system based on who benefits from it? A benevolent dictatorship might stop the BNP for all time but it isn’t a better electoral system.

Kellner’s article suffers from the same problems as Matthew Elliot’s argument. It isn’t well supported and even if it were, it isn’t remotely conclusive. But it creates a plausible picture of the future – one that many people like when they visualise it. People gloss over the technical flaws because they want to believe that a better system would prevent the BNP from achieving success.

The lesson? Don’t get hung up on practical arguments unless there are overwhelming reasons why something is impossible to achieve. Consequences, especially when presented visually, give people a place to work back from. They will be motivated to forgive you not dotting every ‘i’ if the destination is sufficiently attractive.

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