Electoral reform won’t just change the way we choose MPs, but the way we do politicsby Peter Kellner / July 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
Imagine: if AV had been in place in 1983, Michael Foot’s Labour party would probably have been driven even further into the wilderness
There will be time enough before the May 2011 referendum on our voting system to debate the advantages and disadvantages of the alternative vote (AV) and its long- term effects on British democracy. For the moment, though, the low road beckons—and party insiders are busy doing their sums. However much they deny it, what obsesses them is naked self-interest: what would AV mean for them and their party?
A good starting point is the Jenkins Commission’s report 12 years ago, which recommended a scheme called “AV-plus.” AV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. Most MPs would be elected for individual constituencies under AV, but with AV-plus between 15 and 20 per cent of MPs would be elected from mini-region lists. This offsets the biases in pure AV which, as the report pointed out, can be huge. For instance, in 1997 our first-past-the-post (FPTP) system gave the Tories 165 seats, or 25 per cent of the total, when they recorded a vote share of 31 per cent. But AV would have punished them even harder, reducing them to about 100 seats. Why? Because most Labour voters would have given their second preferences to the Lib Dems in close contests between the Lib Dems and the Tories, and most Lib Dems would have returned the favour. The Lib Dems would have gained more seats and Tony Blair’s majority would have been well over 200. AV would also have punished the Tories in 2001 and 2005, while helping Labour and the Lib Dems. AV on its own, Roy Jenkins concluded, “offers little prospect of a move towards greater proportionality, and in some circumstances it is even less proportional than FPTP.”
But it would be wrong to describe it as an inherently anti-Conservative voting system. Rather, it punishes whichever big party is out of favour. So it’s likely that it would have driven Labour yet further into the wilderness in 1983 and 1987, for on both occasions Margaret Thatcher’s party would almost certainly have received more second preferences than Michael Foot’s (1983) or Neil Kinnock’s (1987).
More importantly, it is unlikely that AV would have given Britain a different government at any election since the second world war—with one notable exception. Rather, it would have amplified the swing…