Five reasons why the AV referendum will be lost
Yes to Fairer Votes launched their formal campaign for the AV referendum on 2 April. Electoral reformers fondly suppose that if only the public were offered a better alternative to first past the post, people would be bound to vote Yes. This piece does not go into the respective merits of AV and first past the post. It simply forecasts that AV will be defeated, for the following reasons:
- The public know nothing about electoral systems, and care even less. The Constitution Unit did detailed research on public attitudes to different voting systems for the Independent Commission on the Voting System, and we found we were plumbing deep wells of ignorance. The Yes campaign have a huge mountain of ignorance and indifference to overcome. The government have given them very little time.
- Even if the Yes campaign manage to engage people’s interest, they will find it hard to explain the difference between AV and FPTP. AV is not a proportional system. The overall result will not be that different from FPTP. In the 2010 election it is estimated that the Conservatives might have gained 30 seats less, the Lib Dems 20 seats more, and Labour about the same.
- The public will be confused by the arguments in the referendum, some technical, some contested, some misleading. Research shows that when the public find political issues difficult or confusing, they look to political leaders that they trust to give them a lead on how to vote. But the AV referendum offers no easy cues. The Conservatives will campaign against, the Lib Dems for, and Labour are divided.
- Clear signals from political leaders will be masked by the elections also being held on 5 May. There are devolved assembly elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and local government elections in 80% of England. The political parties will put their time and energies into campaigning in the elections, and not the referendum.
- This is what happened in Canada, where they held referendums on electoral reform at the same time as provincial elections in Ontario (2007) and British Columbia (2009). The political parties were silent about the referendum issues, and electoral reform was defeated in both cases. The same is likely to happen in the UK.