Natalie Evans is Deputy Director of Policy Exchange.
This new Research Note is timed to mark yesterday’s return to the Commons of the Bill paving the way for a referendum on changing the voting system, almost certainly next May. It is expected to get through the Commons, even if the Lords is another matter.
But it is impossible to think of any major constitutional development in British history likely reach the statute book with a more lacklustre mandate. Even the Liberal Democrats have set their stall out against AV in the past.
Nick Clegg famously described AV as a “miserable little compromise” and Prime Minister David Cameron has said he will campaign for a “No”. Pro-Yes Tories are virtually invisible. Labour are expected to oppose the Bill – for reasons that many will see as being rooted in the same cynicism as Gordon Brown’s original offer of an AV referendum last year.
MPs report a crushing absence of letters on the subject. It does not dominate local radio phone-ins. The Alternative Vote is likewise rarely a subject of much discussion in the pubs and clubs – and yet the Government will spend as much as £100 million on asking the British people a question that few of them are bothered about answering and proposing a solution that simply will not achieve its aims.
Some new polling from YouGov released yesterday morning shows that only 33 per cent of the population have heard of AV and have a broad understanding of how it works.
One of the few voices calling for a “yes” on AV is The Guardian. In its Monday editorial this week it wrote that AV “allows choice” and that “it requires every MP to get the support of at least half their constituents.” The newspaper added: “It stops votes being wasted. It is appropriate for a democracy no longer dominated by two big parties. Reformers in all parties must shed their reticence and campaign for a yes.”
But our research finds that in only one of these examples does AV actually deliver the claimed benefits. The system does mean that every MP does have to get the theoretical backing of 50% of voters. But that “support” is more like acquiescence than full-blooded approval. In every other measure, AV delivers a less satisfactory voting system than First Past The Post (FPTP) – and one fairly trivial improvement is hardly worth ripping up the political rulebook for.
There is simply no evidence that AV – a system currently only used in Nauru, Australia, Papua New Guinea and which is about to be ditched by Fiji – would provide more proportionality than FPTP. The data shows that some recent UK elections would have been much more disproportionate than under FPTP while some would have been less so. Only a small number of constituencies move from being safe “jobs for life” occupied by complacent MPs to being more competitive contests under AV.
As for providing more proportional results, AV, would probably have produced even larger Labour landslides between 1997 and 2005, but made it harder for the Conservatives to win a majority on a large lead. AV would do nothing to iron out the inherent biases in our current system which are largely based on turn-out and geographical concentration and which give Labour a built-in advantage in UK general elections. On wasted votes, AV may provide a superficial argument for those who claim that too many people are forced to “waste” their vote in constituencies where their favoured party has no chance of winning. But the basic reality is that elections have winners and losers. To argue that everyone must “win” an election and have their choice represented in Parliament is either futile or a demand to go for a Weimar Germany or Israeli model of pure proportional representation. And good luck to anyone campaigning for that.
AV could actually lessen diversity in the Commons. Greens and the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists might struggle to hold on to their seats, none of which were won with more than 50% of the vote.
In Australia, AV has done nothing to encourage third parties, with elections there still swinging on a tiny number of key marginal constituencies and the “third force” Australian Democrats utterly moribund.
Let’s be honest. The only reason we are having an AV referendum is that it was the minimum that Nick Clegg could get away with asking for during the coalition negotiations and the maximum that David Cameron could offer. That is no basis for reforming something as fundamental as our voting system.