In my post last week I explained why I am supporting the Alternative Vote (AV) in the forthcoming UK referendum. This case was based on principle. We have a system of single member constituencies. First past the post (FPTP) carries a high risk of unrepresentative candidates being elected. Of the various systems in use around the world to counter the weaknesses of FPTP (primary elections in the US, run-off elections in France, AV in Australia), AV seems to fit the British situation best. I avoided asking what the impact of any change would be: just that the system is more democratic. But there are pragmatic types out there for whom the likely impact of the changes is more important than first principles. Today’s post is for them. It will help show them why it is best to think about principles.
The trouble with most analysis of this in the UK is that it is based on looking at past FPTP results, supported by some opinion polls on second preferences, and then predicting how the outcome would have been with AV. This runs into two problems. First is that the next election is going to be quite unlike the last few, if for no other reason than that the current government is a coalition. The next problem is that AV will change voting behaviours, and the campaign pitches of the political parties. The usual conclusion is that the Lib Dems will benefit quite a bit, Labour marginally, and the Conservatives would lose out. None of these effects would have been enough to change the outcome of elections except maybe the last one. Extra seats for Lib Dems and Labour might have made the current coalition impossible, and even a Labour-Lib Dem one on the cards. That’s enough for most Conservatives. If we had had AV last time, Gordon Brown might still be PM.
The Lib Dems should benefit. About time many will say – since the party is badly under-represented in parliament. More pragmatic types worry that this would give a smaller party too much influence in the choice of coalition partners. But the Lib Dems do face a problem. In order to benefit their first preference votes need to get past either the Labour or Conservative candidates (in England – it’s more complicated in Scotland and Wales). They might then attract second preference votes from whichever of these parties gets knocked out. And yet the classic Lib Dem campaign technique is to persuade voters to vote for them because one or other of the major parties doesn’t stand a chance; this argument has much less resonance under AV. Voters will say that they will simply give the Lib Dems a second preference, and give their first preference to their most preferred party. As a result Conservative or Labour candidates currently in third place might sneak into second, knocking the Lib Dems out. The Littleborough & Saddleworth seat at the last election was a Labour seat that people count as vulnerable to the Lib Dems under AV; but the Conservative vote was strong and under AV they might well have pushed past the Lib Dems into second place, which would, in fact, have made the seat safer for Labour. This could be a big help to the Labour Party in the South West. In Australia the two party system is entrenched (one of the “parties” being a coalition in an electoral pact). The Lib Dems will be desperate for first preference votes under AV, and in the long term it cannot be taken for granted that the party would flourish.
Labour has less to fear. It might help them pick up in areas where they are in third place – now great swathes of England. They may not do so well from picking up second preferences from Lib Dem voters next time – but only because they will have done such a good job of persuading them to vote Labour as first preference. They get some insurance against those voters drifting back. It is a moment of truth for Labour supporters who believe that there is a “progressive majority” – a majority of voters for whom the Conservative Party is toxic. If so the system ensures that the Conservatives never get a majority.
And that is the challenge for the Conservatives. It will be much more difficult for them to sneak in a majority government against the votes of the a majority of the electorate. But many Conservatives believe in something like a “silent majority” – the opposite of the progressive majority. There are lot of people sympathetic to their policies that do not say so, and will not give them a first preference vote. If so, they may pick up a lot of second preferences. This could be particularly helpful to them at the next election, when both UKIP and the Lib Dems will be trying to pick off their voters. If Labour succeeds in pulling past the Lib Dems in South Western seats, then this will make a few seats a bit safer for them, since they will get more second preferences from Lib Dem voters than Labour ones.
For the smaller parties AV is ambiguous. It is difficult to see that extremist parties, like the BNP, will make any headway, since other voters will gang up against them. Their best hope of an MP is under FPTP in a split seat. But UKIP and the Greens may well think they can pick up a majority in favoured seats by scooping up enough second preference votes. In the UKIP case they need to push past the Conservatives, either in what would now be very safe Conservative seats, or in Lib Dem held seats where they can hope to scoop up some Labour voters too. For the Greens the game is to push past the Lib Dems, and scoop up enough of their votes to push past Labour (or the other way round), to mount a challenge on the Tories. In both cases these are long shots, but you need a deal of optimism in politics.
In sum, the impact of AV is very uncertain in the UK. The Lib Dems could assert themselves with a permanently larger block of seats, alongside a scattering of seats for the greens and perhaps UKIP. Or the two party system could reassert itself, with the other parties finding it more difficult to pick up enough first preference votes. But the outcome is uncertain for a good reason: electoral politics will be more competitive. Who knows what voters would do?