One of the concessions made by the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats as part of the coalition agreement was a referendum on electoral reform. The Conservatives aren’t interested in changing the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system, while the Lib Dems have long advocated for the adoption of STV (single transferable vote). The compromise worked out for the coalition was a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV), which, depending on who you read, is either only marginally better or even worse than FPTP, and will either help the Lib Dems or wipe them out.
On 5 July 2010, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who is responsible for political and constitutional reform, announced in the House of Commons that the referendum on AV will be held next year on 5 May 2011, the same date as the elections to the devolved legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as local council elections in England. Hand in hand with electoral reform, the government will also be tabling a bill to provide for a review of constituency boundaries in order to create fewer and more equally sized constituencies. If passed, this will reduce the number of MPs in the House of Commons from the current 650 to 600.
There is so much to address here.
The choice of the Alternative Vote is problematic on many levels. It isn’t by any means a proportional system. For those unfamiliar with AV, voters rank candidates first and second, and the two candidates with the most votes contest an instant run-off. This way, people still have a single MP who represents their constituency, and all MPs can say they were supported by more than half the voters in their seat.
In February 2010, then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced proposals that would see a referendum called on introducing Alternative Vote as a means of choosing MPs. The Lib Dems rebuffed Brown’s February 2010 suggestion in public – not least because an election was coming, and electoral reform is a major plank of the Lib Dem manifesto that they did not want to cede to a Labour government.
The Lib Dems, as stated above, preferred a more proportional system than AV, but not the purest form of PR as might be found in South Africa or Israel. They advocate moving to a system of single-transferable vote (STV), where large constituencies have multiple members. Voters rank all candidates, and “surplus votes” (the votes that a winning candidate could have been elected without) are redistributed on the basis of second preference, and so on. This was the electoral system proposed for the Canadian province of British Columbia, but that failed to pass in two referendums.
The question following the 6 May 2010 election became whether the Liberal Democrats would compromise on STV, and accept a system such as AV or AV+ as the price of their support in a hung parliament. Although the Liberal Democrat manifesto refers to STV as their “preferred” solution, their commitment is only to “a fair, more proportional voting system” and leaves the possibility of accepting something else open.
Most tellingly, in May 2009, the Lib Dems launched a website called TakeBackPower.org which recognised the practical difficulties of forcing the UK to adopt STV, and instead committed the party to supporting a referendum on AV+, to take effect the next general election after May 2010. AV+ is AV with a “top-up” – an extra group of MPs whose election is based on regional votes for parties. They are added to all the AV-elected MPs to bring the total seat distribution broadly in line with proportions of the popular vote.
As we know now, the Lib Dems did accept the compromise, hence the referendum on AV.
There is a lot of irony surrounding the referendum. As stated above, a referendum on AV was part of Labour’s election manifesto, and now Labour finds itself in the awkward position of potentially campaigning against something it campaigned for only months ago. The referendum will be overseen by a Prime Minister who opposes it, and supported by a coalition partner which believes the reform doesn’t go far enough.
Both Labour and the Conservatives benefit greatly from FPTP, and thus most of the opposition to moving to AV will come from many Tories, allied with a significant number of Labour MPs, who remain stubbornly attached to FPTP and the hope that they will be returned with a majority in the next general election (something the Conservatives also hope will happen for their party). Meanwhile, the Lib Dems will have to campaign for an electoral system Clegg once described as “a miserable little reform”.
But should AV pass, and be implemented in the 2015 election, which is what the government says will happen, how will that impact future elections? Conventional wisdom has held that that AV would hurt the Tories and benefit Labour and the Lib Dems, with most supporters of each party choosing the other party as their second choice. Similarly, most Conservative voters would probably choose the Lib Dems as their second choice. Interestingly, British polling firm YouGov asked about second preferences in their final pre-election poll conducted for Channel 4 – and did so again last week. The very detailed and interesting findings are explained quite clearly in this article.
As we can see, had AV been in place for the 6 May election, it would have returned a much closer result between the Conservatives (277) and Labour (269) – compared to the actual results of 307 seats for the Conservative and 258 for Labour. And the Lib Dems would have 76 seats rather than the 57 they currently hold. This result would have allowed for a Lab-Lib coalition since the Lib Dems combined with either the Conservatives or Labour would have resulted in a majority (albeit a slightly larger one for a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition).
However, that was then and this is now. After two months of Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government, people’s voting preferences have changed somewhat. In the most recent survey, fewer Labour voters chose the Lib Dems their second choice, while Lib Dem supporters were slightly more likely to give their second preference to the Conservatives rather than Labour. Applied to the recent general election, these post-election, post-coalition second preferences would have resulted in the Conservatives with only 2 fewer seats than they got under FPTP, while Labour would be down 13 seats from their FPTP results. The Tories’ lead over Labour would have been 60 seats, meaning only a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition would have commanded a majority in the House of Commons.
Andrew Rawnsley wrote an excellent column in The Guardian about the referendum on AV. His observations on how David Cameron will handle the referendum are particularly interesting:
As for David Cameron, he finds himself in an exceptionally tricky position. Number 10 has let it be known that the prime minister will express opposition to a switch to AV. This may just be tactical to appease hostile Conservative MPs, some of whom are already plotting to sabotage the referendum by mucking about with the legislation. The real question about David Cameron is whether he takes an up-front or a backseat role in the referendum campaign. There will be a world of difference between a “no” campaign which has the full-throated support of the prime minister, the big Conservative beasts and all the resources of the Tory party and a campaign in which they stay on the sidelines.
The prime minister must also be asking himself how exactly he would justify opposing this reform. He could claim that AV is a little more likely to produce indecisive, weak coalitions. That was his argument during the election campaign. But there’s a bit of problem with that now, isn’t there? The self-same David Cameron is king of a coalition which he hails as strong and resolute. Lovers of political paradox are going to be in heaven.
If nothing else, this should be a very interesting campaign.