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 between Labour and the Tories. In 1951, Winston Churchill would probably have returned to office with a larger majority than 19; in February 1974, AV would have caused Edward Heath to be ejected more comprehensively. But despite its biases, AV would always have given Britain the “right” government: that is, the prime minister most voters preferred.
Until this year. YouGov research shows that those Lib Dem voters who took sides would have given their second preference to Labour rather than the Tories by three-to-two. So Labour would have held around 20 of the seats it lost to the Conservatives—but would have handed around ten seats to the Lib Dems. Meanwhile the Lib Dems would have won extra seats from the Tories with the aid of Labour supporters’ second preferences. This means that Conservatives would have won 277 seats (30 fewer than under FPTP), Labour 269 (11 more), and the Lib Dems 76 (19 more).
So the Tories would still have been the largest party, but by only eight seats. And Labour plus the Lib Dems would have had an overall majority of 40—making it easier to form a coalition. (One obstacle to a Lib-Lab deal in May was that together they were still 11 seats short of a majority.) For all its faults, then, FPTP did deliver the prime minister that most voters actually preferred: David Cameron rather than Gordon Brown. AV may not have.
But the past is not always a guide to the future. We have already seen a shift in the second preferences of Lib Dems since Nick Clegg and Cameron embarked on their very civil partnership. Now, slightly more Lib Dems say they would give their second preferences to the Tories rather than Labour—while Labour voters would be far less likely to help out Lib Dems.
This illustrates a more basic truth about voting systems. They affect political dynamics in ways that cannot always be predicted. It’s a bit like the offside rule in football or LBW in cricket: change the rules and you change the way people play the game. Under AV, both Labour and the Tories would want to court the second-preference votes of Lib Dem supporters. This could alter the way they act towards the Lib Dems, and perhaps influence their policies. In short, it’s not just election results that would be different, but the way we do politics.
One other prediction can safely be made. Under AV, far-left and far-right parties would find it much harder to win seats. They would win more votes because supporters could use their second preference for one of the larger parties and would not be wasting a vote. Yet because of the lack of second-preference votes the chances of them winning a seat at Westminster would virtually disappear. AV, then, rewards mainstream parties that tack towards the centre and punishes large and small parties that occupy or shift towards the extremes. So here’s a modest proposal: let’s drive the BNP right out of British politics by introducing AV for local elections.