I don’t mean to drudge up the good ol’ Alternative Vote anew, but let’s think back a bit to early 2011. AV, although it seems amazing to think of it now, was ahead in the polls against the retain First Past the Post bunch. The Conservative Party was at a cross roads: should it let whatever was going to happen happen, or should they slide in hard against changing the voting system? None of us need reminding what path they chose.
This was before the UKIP surge, which may have made them think twice (I stress, may have – never underestimate Tory antipathy to electoral reform). But in an age of six party politics, with the current world and domestic situation being what it is, I think AV as a voting system would help the Conservatives by far the most. People being able to vote UKIP one, Tory second is only one of the ways they would have benefitted; in a great deal of Lib Dem-Tory marginals they could have tried to convince Lib Dem voters to put them second to keep UKIP, Labour, whomever, out. Given how close some of those races will be, it could have made the difference.
This brings us to the flip side of the irony: the party who would be sweating most right now had AV won the day in May 2011 would be the Liberal Democrats. Okay, the Lib Dems are sweating the most anyhow, but it would be considerably worse if they were facing an election to be decided under AV. Back in 2010, the Lib Dems would have almost certainly been helped to great degree by AV (always hard to say how people would vote under a different system, but estimates put it at around 20 -35 seats). But the party isn’t everyone’s second choice these days. After the coalition, the Lib Dems have a much larger marmite factor going against them, which means that under AV they would be punished.
The party who has campaigned most vociferously against First Past the Post may just about to be saved by that voting system. The consequences of this could be vast: the difference between a Tory majority and a Tory minority/Tory-Lib coalition could amount to whether Britain remains in the EU or not. Would the greatest irony then be the fact that those who campaigned the hardest against the Alternative Vote, the Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers, ended up creating a result that ultimately kept the country in the European Union? I do love a good political irony.
Andrew Mell says
Agree that Tories would probably be helped by AV while Lib Dems would be punished by it had the referendum gone differently. But I think the most interesting “what if…” analysis for the coming election and the AV referendum probably concerns Scotland. The SNP’s poll boost post independence referendum would be less likely to translate into Westminster seats if the constituencies were decided under AV as there would be a lot of vote transfers going on between the three main unionist parties. The main beneficiary of this in terms of Westminster seats would probably be Labour. So they may now be regretting their somewhat half-hearted effort in the 2011 referendum campaign.
PS. During the referendum campaign I built a model to estimate how 2010 would have gone had it been under AV rather than plurality voting. The central estimate was that the Lib Dems would probably have got an extra 25 seats, roughly evenly at the expense of Labour and the Tories. There was a paper by some academics at the University of Essex which suggested they’d get 32 more seats, they had most of these coming at the expense of the Tories.
Stephen Johnson says
The debate about electoral reform has been blighted by speculation about which party would benefit – the speculative answers tend to be short term, or even very short term, as you demonstrate.
Electoral reform is not just for the next election, but every election yet to come.
The debate about electoral reform should include firstly attitudes to political parties and secondly the importance of the individual candidates and their significance in our democratic system.
Political parties are not currently well regarded, but this is perhaps principally a fall out from our electoral system, which not only picks the winner, but shapes the behaviour of all the parties and politicians – and it is not a constructive influence.
FPTP has also degraded attitudes to Politics and MPs in general, but generally not MPs voters know personally.
In the debate, concerns about the mechanics of the vote should be important – democracy has to be open, transparent and inclusive, so this is right and proper. Ideally voting should be simple and thus inclusive. Counting should be simple and quick. The electoral process needs to be transparent, understood and trusted.
How important is the local contest, and how large or small should the constituency be?
MPs must represent their electorate but should, or perhaps more significantly, can they, as a collective group of individuals, reflect society as a whole in terms of its gender, education, work experience, age, ethnicity, religion, sexuality etc etc.
Should the system be party proportional? The electoral system influences whether or not a party with minority support can rule alone, or whether parties have to join together in coalition. Linked to this is the question of whether or not it is good to have a system that makes a complete change of Government after a five year period more likely.
However all too frequently the debate is partisan and shaped by short term advantage, and as a result FPTP is likely to self destruct, and our politics with it, before we manage to have a constructive dialogue on electoral reform.