While I have resisted blogging about them, I have been regularly reading a variety of columns and articles on the May referendum on the Alternative Vote. One thing in particular continues to baffle me: I simply do not understand why so many AV opponents believe that AV will lead to more hung parliaments and thus make coalition government the norm in the UK.
This “fact” is repeated almost every single time anyone posts anything against AV, and I’m including reader comments on articles in this. A recent example would be this column by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian in which he writes:
The case against AV is that it would increase the likelihood of a hung parliament and uncertain government. Voters must sit for days (or in Belgium months) and await the smoke from the party conclaves. This in itself weakens any electoral mandate and devolves power from voters to the political establishment. It is elitist. It also usually leads to unstable administrations as minority coalition partners wax and wane in support and, usually, decide to cut and run when the going gets tough. Every country is different, especially those that are complex confederacies, but many people in Germany, Italy, Belgium and Denmark scream for the clarity of a two-party system, with governments in or out.
As opponents of AV are fond of pointing out, AV is used in only 3 jurisdictions, and the only one anyone ever discusses in any detail is Australia. Yet, if one is going to use Australia as the main example of how AV works, then the argument that it leads to more hung parliaments falls apart immediately. The UK, and also Canada, have had more hung parliaments using FPTP than has Australia using AV. It’s not AV that leads to hung parliaments, but the growing breakdown of two-party politics in countries like the UK and Canada that still use FPTP.
There have been five hung parliaments in the UK since the beginning of the 20th century. There have been 12* hung parliaments at the federal level in Canada since Confederation. Australia, which introduced AV in 1919, has had two hung parliaments under AV.
The overwhelming reason why Australia has had far fewer hung parliaments is because unlike Canada and the UK, Australia really does have a strong two-party system. From 1901 to 1910, when it used FPTP, no party had a majority in the House of Representatives, as there were two competing non-Labor parties. As a result, there were frequent changes of government, several of which took place during parliamentary terms. The 1910 federal election was the first contested by the Commonwealth Liberal Party, the result of a merger between the Protectionist Party and the Free Trade Party. The new party lost to Labor, but this marked the first majority government in Australia since the inaugural federal election in 1901. If anything, AV in Australia has reinforced the two-party system, making it far more difficult for smaller parties to win seats.
Proponents of FPTP assert that its main advantage is that it returns strong, decisive election results, and Jenkins is no exception:
Because yielding a clearcut and stable administration is the dominant requirement of democratic election, I opt for the electoral system that most delivers it, which has long been first-past-the-post. In crude historical terms, it has served Britain well. It clearly leaves Liberal Democrats on the sidelines, but we are talking about choosing a government, and the Liberals have never come first or even second in popular votes since they handed the torch of leftwing representation to Labour a century ago. Votes for Liberal Democrat candidates are not “wasted”, as some claim, but failed.
However, in Canada and the UK, what has been happening, despite both countries’ use of FPTP, is the breakdown of the two-party system in favour of multi-party politics. In Canada, this is further complicated by the increasingly regional support of the main parties. This is what is causing hung parliaments to happen, despite the fact that FPTP is used. The trend away from the two traditional parties, Labour and Conservative, is expertly explained in this post by Patrick Dunleavy.
Whether AV, if adopted in the UK, will slow this trend remains to be seen. However, if hung parliaments continue to occur even with the adoption of AV, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the same results would have been returned under FPTP. It is not the voting system that is responsible for these outcomes, but the fact that multiple parties contest each election, and that increasingly, more and more voters are giving their support to these other parties.
*The 2nd Canadian Parliament was a minority for 56 days under prime minister Alexander Mackenzie after he took power from Sir John A. Macdonald following the Pacific Scandal. However, this event is generally not counted because Parliament was not in session when Mackenzie took over and he immediately called an election in which he then won a majority.
On a related note, ABC’s Antony Green addresses claims that AV leads to lower voter turnout.