Could tactical voting dilemmas in 2015 revive calls for AV?

Meg-Russell

The growth in minor party support in the 2015 general election looks set to create very difficult tactical voting dilemmas in some constituencies. Meg Russell reflects on how a move to the Alternative Vote (AV), which was rejected in a referendum in 2011, might have eased such dilemmas – suggesting that a messy election result could unexpectedly put AV back on the political agenda.

Almost exactly four years ago the British public rejected the option of changing the electoral system for the House of Commons from ‘First Past the Post’ (FPTP) to the ‘Alternative Vote’ (AV). The May 2011 referendum result was decisive, with fewer than one in three voters backing AV. This made the prospect of Commons electoral reform look distant, and particularly the prospects for AV. Nick Clegg had famously described it as a ‘miserable little compromise’ between FPTP and a more proportional system – a quotation used ruthlessly against him by opponents of reform in the referendum campaign. And indeed most electoral reformers, before and since, have been more focused on introducing greater proportionality. Hence many ‘yes’ voters did see AV – which retains single-member constituencies and simply introduces preferential (1, 2, 3) voting, with second and subsequent preferences redistributed as necessary until a candidate has 50% support – as a compromise. This half-hearted attachment even by some supporters of change probably did little to further its referendum prospects.

But in the increasingly multi-party environment of 2015 – as most visibly reflected in the TV leaders’ debates – it’s worth considering how things might have been different had Britain voted yes. One of the notable features of AV is that it greatly reduces the dilemmas of tactical voting. And in 2015, those dilemmas seem greater than ever before.

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Consequences of an AV failure for the coalition and Lords reform

Press Release

The Constitution Unit has issued warnings for the past year that the AV referendum was likely to be lost. The government allowed far too little time for public information and debate on a subject which generates little interest or enthusiasm. Recent referendums on electoral reform in Canada were also defeated, but the UK government learned nothing from those defeats.

Director of the Constitution Unit Prof Robert Hazell said: “Research has long shown that the public know little about electoral systems, and care even less. It was always going to be difficult to get people interested in electoral reform. This was made worse by the government’s rushed timetable; and by the choice of AV, which is little different from first-past-the-post”.

Prof Hazell added: “A further difficulty resulted from the government’s decision to hold a referendum on the same day as elections. The political parties understandably made the elections their first priority. The public were left ignorant and confused. This was not helped by the mud slinging and exaggerated claims from both the Yes and No campaigns. It is no surprise that when voters feel confused, they either abstain or cling to what they know”.

Impact on the coalition

The coalition will survive the referendum defeat. But the result is inevitably a setback for Nick Clegg. He cannot blame the Conservatives: they wisely left him in charge of the referendum bill, and the timing of the referendum. To keep the Liberal Democrats happy the Conservative leadership will now be pressed to offer strong support for his next big constitutional reform, an elected House of Lords.

Prospects for Lords reform

But the Conservatives cannot necessarily deliver support for an elected second chamber in either the Commons or the Lords. Any package will contain numerous controversial details, from the electoral system, to the bishops, to the powers of the second chamber and the threat to Commons’ primacy.

Dr Meg Russell, the Unit’s deputy director and expert on the House of Lords, said “Nick Clegg may press David Cameron to give him Lords reform as a consolation prize, but this is not in Cameron’s gift to give. There will be strong resistance to the government’s proposals in the Commons, as well as in the Lords. Many Conservatives in both chambers oppose this reform, while support from Labour is unlikely. Rejection of electoral reform by the people may be a blow to Clegg, but a parliamentary ‘death by a thousand cuts’ for his Lords reform proposals may come next.”

Prof Hazell added: “If Nick Clegg had wanted to overcome resistance in Parliament to his proposals, he should have taken more time. He might also have gained from a ‘democracy day’ referendum on both issues: electoral reform for the Commons, and elections to the Lords”.

Watch Robert Hazell’s video predicting the outcome of the AV referendum

Notes for Editors

  • Robert Hazell is discussing the referendum on BBC News Channel at 8.30am on Friday 6 May, and from 10.15 to 12 noon, and at 16.45. Our Press Officer, Brian Walker, can be contacted on 07802 176347.
  • The Constitution Unit first predicted in June 2010 that the AV referendum would be lost. These warnings were repeated in the Unit’s newsletter Monitor in October 2010, January 2011, and on the Unit’s blog (‘Five reasons why the AV referendum will be lost’ 2 April 2011).
  • In Canada, referendums on electoral reform were held in British Columbia (2007) and Ontario (2009), in circumstances more propitious for a Yes vote than in the UK, and both voted no.
  • The government plans shortly to publish a draft bill on Lords reform (which was initially promised by end of 2010). This will first be considered by a joint committee of both chambers of parliament, before being formally introduced.

Is the alternative vote worth voting for?

This was the subject of a debate at UCL last night, where leading figures from the yes and no camps met alongside electoral experts and UCL students to argue the point.

For the yes side, Billy Bragg and Katie Ghose argued that the referendum provided an opportunity to offer greater choice to voters, to combat the sense of disenfranchisement among those who do not identify with the parties likely to win under first past the post, and to challenge MPs to target the wider population rather than swing voters.

For the no side, Jane Kennedy and Charlotte Vere called AV a timid reform, a shield for Liberal Democrat unpopularity, and a change that far from combating safe seats would just make different seats safe.

A third camp too emerged, of those who didn’t care for AV or FPTP, but wanted change of a different kind. For them different questions were important: if AV passes, will it be the start or the end of reform? Is AV a compromise worth making?

A quick poll at the end of the night indicated that the vast majority of those attending were in favour of the change to AV, but with a little under a month to go, it’s still all to play for. Last night showed how much we need this debate so, what do you think? Whether you think AV is progressive or regressive, a step towards or away from greater democracy, a political fix or a non-event, let us know…

Further information:

The AV referendum will be lost

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.

Should the UK adopt the alternative vote system?

A UCL debate on the AV referendum

Monday 11 April 2011, 6.00pm

The UK faces its first national referendum for over 30 years and has an unprecedented opportunity to change the voting system and reshape the future political landscape. The referendum also raises profound questions about electoral reform in the UK.

This debate will provide an opportunity to discuss the arguments underpinning electoral reform and the AV system and to hear speakers from both sides of the argument, as well as insights from an expert panel.

Have your say: questions from the audience will be a key feature of this event.

Speaking in favour of a ‘yes’ vote:

  • Billy Bragg, singer and political campaigner
  • Peter Facey, Chair, Unlock Democracy

Speaking in favour of a ‘no’ vote:

  • Jane Kennedy, National Organiser of Labour No to AV
  • Charlotte Vere, Finance Director / National Organiser, ‘No to AV’

Expert panel

  • Professor Justin Fisher,Magna Carta Institute, Brunel University
  • Peter Kellner, YouGov
  • Dr Alan Renwick, University of Reading
  • Professor Tony Wright, UCL Constitution Unit

UCL Bloomsbury Theatre
15 Gordon Street
London
WC1H 0AH

To register for this event or to read more about UCL Public Policy, please see our website:

http://www.ucl.ac.uk/public-policy/events