Bernard Jenkin is the Conservative MP for North Essex.
Earlier this month, Julia Gillard – the leader of the Australian Labor party – walked back into Kirribilli House despite having lost the election on first preferences. Last week, Ed Miliband assumed the title of leader of the Labour Party despite, just like Ms Gillard, having polled fewer votes than his nearest rival. There is a common factor in both of these miscarriages of electoral justice: it is the Alternative Vote system, the very same system that British voters will be voting to accept or to reject in place of the current system in next year’s referendum.
In Australia, Julia Gillard negotiated her way back into power. As is often the case in a contest fought using AV, there was no outright winner in the August elections. In such situations, the minority parties become all powerful. Just as the Liberal Democrats became the key political party in May, despite actually losing seats in the General Election, so Australia’s Green Party and the Independent MP’s have been able to determine the country’s political direction until the next election.
In the case of Labour’s leadership contest, the younger Miliband has become the new Leader of the Opposition by targeting a core section of the Labour Party – the trade unions and affiliates, who subsequently tipped the balance in his favour. David, by contrast, tried a broader appeal – to be the Obama ‘change’ candidate (as evidenced by those excruciating dinner party guides). The Alternative Vote lesson learned here is that far from removing the cause of tactical voting, the Alternative Vote creates the conditions where tactical electioneering becomes the only way of winning a tight race.
These two very recent examples of the Alternative Vote’s problems are crucial if people are to understand why the referendum next year is as important as the last time Britain was asked to decide a constitutional issue back in 1975, and could have as big an impact on our way of life. Few people would claim to understand how the Labour Leadership count worked. The air of confusion in the Conference Hall was evident, as the Labour Convention Chair was prompted to counsel the delegates against clapping after each tally was announced, because even they failed to understand the significance of these figures.
So this is what we're headed for in Britain if the country votes yes to the Alternative Vote next year. Firstly, electoral instability and coalition governments will become the norm. As electoral change advocate Professor Vernon Bogdanor has put it: "AV makes hung parliaments much more likely", which in turn removes the decision over who forms the Government from the people and puts it into the hands of politicians doing secret deals behind closed doors . Second, tactical voting is taken to its most extreme; voting becomes about keeping candidates out, rather than electing the most popular candidate.
Our current system, tried and tested, is the most widely used in democracies across the world, including the two greatest democracies, India and the United States. By contrast, the Alternative Vote system in various forms is used by just three: Fiji and Papua New Guinea, and Australia (which has a special variation). However, Fiji has just decided to ditch the alternative vote. If the UK votes for the Alternative Vote next year, how long will it take before we ditch it? Of course, the Alternative Vote is not the system which the LibDems and so-called electoral reformers really want, so presumably they will be plotting to ditch it as soon possible. Let’s live by experience – vote "no2av" next year.