Britain’s AV referendum: May 5

British voters go to the polls on Thursday to decide whether to introduce the “alternative vote” – what Australians know from state-level experience in New South Wales and Queensland as “optional preferential voting” – in place of the first-past-the-post system which has been in place since the dawn of electoral time. The lead-up to the referendum has proceeded much as an endeavour of this kind would have done in Australia, with the fundamental issues at stake held hostage to the basest of short-term partisan motives. Without question the worst tosh has come from the no camp, whose remorseless misrepresentations have been keeping Antony Green off the streets for the past two months or so.

The main argument has been that the system will in effect deliver a “second vote” to supporters of dangerous fringe elements such as the British National Party. This rather glosses over the fact that a preference vote is activated only when it has been established that the first preference has failed to achieve anything. In the final analysis, the BNP voter ends up with exactly as much influence over the final result as everybody else. In any case, the invocation of the BNP bogey should amuse supporters of its nearest Australian equivalent, One Nation, to the extent that this breed can be noted for its sense of humour. Despite enormous public support, Pauline Hanson herself failed to extend her parliamentary career beyond a single term entirely due to the workings of preferential voting.

Another favourite has been that only a tiny number of countries have been silly enough to introduce AV, with Papua New Guinea and Fiji more frequently invoked as cautionary tales than our own modestly successful polity. What they don’t point out is that it is all but unknown in the modern world for those establishing new electoral systems to favour that most notoriously archaic and dysfunctional model known as first-past-the-post. Outside the similarly hidebound United States, presidential elections around the world are mostly determined through some manner of “run-off” vote, in which under-performing candidates are excluded in the second round. This is essentially a more expensive and protracted variation on preferential voting, which is accordingly known in some quarters as “instant runoff voting”. If the wisdom of crowds is your metric for determining the merits of an electoral system, first-past-the-post emerges a big loser.

It is true that a Newspoll/Institute of Public Affairs survey of Australian voters after the 2010 election showed 57 per cent favouring first-past-the-post over the existing federal system of compulsory preferential voting. However, as Antony Green points out, earlier polling suggested the public would far prefer optional preferential voting to either alternative, and it is this that is being proposed in Britain. The complaints most commonly levelled in Australia relate to the compulsory aspect: a ranking must be given to every candidate no matter how obscure, and those who hold the major parties in equal contempt are forced to jump off a fence they have every right remain seated on. Without these consequences of compulsory preferences, much of the opposition would vanish – opposition which is obviously not too strongly felt in any case, given the complete absence of any campaign for change.

The one convincing argument from the no camp is that the likely boon to the Liberal Democrats will indeed increase the likelihood of minority and coalition government, if that is to be regarded as a bad thing – as it is by many, both in Britain and Australia, who associate it with indecisiveness and blurred lines of accountability.

Just as the campaign has proceeded exactly as Australian experience suggested it would, so will the referendum itself: with victory for the status quo. The most recent polls recorded by UK Polling Report have no leading yes 55-45 (YouGov), 60-40 (ComRes), 59-41 (YouGov again) and 58-42 (Angus Reid). This reiterates the well-known lesson from Australia that unambiguous bipartisan support (possibly tri-partisan in the British context) is required for a constitutional referendum to succeed. This has not been forthcoming in Britain and was never going to be, which the Liberal Democrats should probably have factored in when they extracted the referendum as a condition for entering into coalition with the Conservatives.

There is little question that AV would be a disaster for the Conservatives, who haven’t polled anywhere near 40 per cent of the national vote since 1992, but can still hope for majority government on the back of vote-splitting among the myriad parties of the centre and left. Labour’s formal support for the referendum proposal has proved meaningless as MPs have been given latitute to pursue their own course, and many have thrown their weight behind a “Labour Against the Alternative Vote” campaign. Their motivation is scarelessly less transparent than that of the Conservatives: to drive a further stake into the floundering Liberal Democrats, and by extension into the coalition government itself.

Given that the Liberal Democrats are the only party to wholeheartedly support the proposal, the wonder is that the margin of defeat won’t be even greater.

UPDATE: New YouGov poll: 39 per cent FPTP, 38 per cent AV, others don’t know/won’t vote.

UPDATE 2: That poll, related to me via Twitter, turns out to be a few months old. The late polls have it pretty solidly at about 60-40 against.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

56 comments on “Britain’s AV referendum: May 5”

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  1. I assume that the polls there take expected turnout for each side into account. Otherwise the only hope for this good reform would appear to be apathy by the No supporters. Extremely bad weather across the UK on 5 May would help the Yes cause.

  2. It throws up some independents, for sure, but not as many as proportional representation taken to extremes such as in Israel where the whole country is a single electorate.

  3. Its worth pointing out that PNG *doesn’t* have OPV, actually – it has LPV (limited preferential voting). Voters are limited to 3 rankings only.

    More importantly, for the UK debate – it replaced FPP (which PNG had from independence to 2001) because the results from that electoral system were so goddamn awful! In 1992 and 1997 the Majority of MPs were elected on less than 20 per cent of the vote. It had the disastrous effect of reinforcing wantokism – since you could get elected with as little as 9% of the vote (and YES – that has happened, many times) you didnt need to look beyond your own language group or clan for support – ever.

    PNG is hoping LPV forces candidates to at least appeal to a couple of other groups in the electorate. Fancy that.

    As for Fiji – oh please, its a military dictatorship. Last vote was in 2006 – and yes thye had preferential voting, but they also had reserved ethnic seats.

  4. Quite right ShowsOn — it seems at this stage that the Conservatives will get more than 53% of the seats with less than 40% of the vote while the remaining 60% will divvy up the remaining 40%.

    It would be interesting to work out the number of those 54% of the seats seats in which the Conservatives won 50%+1 of the vote.

  5. Not to drag the discussion too far off topic, but the above arguments might be more compelling if you were arguing for a proportional system. Preferential (e.g. AV) still produces outcomes which inflate the representation of certain parties over others.

  6. The Israeli Labour Party and the Canadian Liberal Party have both combusted. Surely there’s an Honours thesis in there somewhere.

  7. Interesting to see what effect the Canadian debacle will have on the UK, particularly in terms of turn out.

  8. Unlike the pundits above, my view is that the LDP would be the biggest loser from a change in the voting system as they are the biggest benificiaries of tactical voting. The LDP win seats now as Labour voters have taken the anyone but the Tories line. Conversely the LDP have won seats where normally Tory voters vote against Labour rather than for the LDP. And of course with OPV, there is the chance not to preference at all.

  9. I am a young Canadian who just witnessed what first past the post can do to a country. The conservative party took 55% of the seats with less than 40% of the vote. The thought of a Stephen Harper led majority government for the next four years actually makes me sick to my stomach. His views for Canada are extremly right winged and leave over 60% of Canadians without a voice. Our only option is to sit back and brace for impact. I have been following the UK referendum a little because electoral reform is an important issue here in Canada. If you are successful at obtaining AV I think it will give hope to Canadians that change is possible and that 60% of the population is the majority…not 40%

  10. Some numbers to muse over (apologies if this is out of place or already covered in detail).

    Australia in 2010 if under FPTP (assuming everyone votes the same, not tactically):

    Coalition: 81 seats (54%) total vote: 43.62%
    Labor: 66 seats (44%) total vote: 37.99%
    Green: 0 seats (0%) total vote: 11.76%
    Other: 3 (2%) total vote: 6.63% (FYI: that’s Katter, Oakeshott and Windsor)

    (2PP: Labor: 50.12% Coalition: 49.88%)

    Actual result:

    Labor: 72 seats (48%)
    Coalition: 72 seats (48%)
    Green: 1 seat (0.67%)
    Other: 5 seats (3.33%)

    And, just for extra interest information, the seat result had it truly reflected the vote proportions:

    Coalition: 65 seats
    Labor: 57 seats
    Green: 18 seats
    Other: 10 seats

  11. New ComRes poll shows a big lead to the No campaign

    ComRes has a new poll in tomorrow’s Independent, presumably their final call for the AV referendum. Topline referendum voting intention taking into account likelihood to vote and excluding don’t knows and won’t votes stands at YES 34%, NO 66%. 32 points is by far the largest lead we’ve seen for the NO campaign, up from 20 points in the last ComRes poll a week ago.

  12. Cameron has played Clegg for a complete sucker. He enticed Clegg into coalition with nice words about electoral reform but no clear commitments. Now the Tories (supported by much of the Labour Party) have sunk AV, so that Clegg will be left with nothing, facing an election under the current system in which he will be wiped out, because all his “left” vote will go to Labour and much of his “right” vote will go to the Tories. A sad end to the party of Fox, Grey, Palmerston, Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George.

  13. That YouGov poll seems to be a few months old.

    AV will lose big time, thanks largely to the No campaign having the biggest lies.

  14. Following the link from William’s post takes you to this article, which does indeed seem to be a few months old

    Wed, 09/02/2011 – 12:03
    by Anthony Wells

    AV or FPTP: Anthony Wells looks at the latest results as race between Yes and No campaigns tightens

    On UK Polling report, the most recent YouGov poll I can see (from the 1st May) shows

    A final chunk of polling from the weekend – the YouGov tables should be up on the website shortly, but looking at what is available on the Sunday Times website the latest YouGov AV polling has YES on 45%, NO on 55%

  15. [Following the link from William’s post takes you to this article, which does indeed seem to be a few months old]

    I see. You mean we should actually check out links before posting queries about the content there? 🙂

  16. Psephos, given that the party of Fox, Grey, Palmerston, Gladstone, Asquith, and Lloyd George managed to survive Fox, Grey, Palmerston, Gladstone, Asquith, and Lloyd George, I would hesitate a little before giving it extreme unction just yet. But I agree that it’s cruising for a bruising.

    It’s only fair to say, though, that they had a difficult hand to play after the last election. What else were they supposed to do? I don’t like the choice they made, but what was the alternative that would have been not just more pleasing for me, but better for them?

  17. Don’t forget the local government elections also taking on Friday(Australian time) – Labour tipped to pick up more than 1,000 council seats.
    The Liberal Democrats are finished – Psephos is quite correct, Cameron has spectacularly dudded Clegg.

  18. Such a referendum would fail here too. That’s because eople fear what they don’t understand, and the overwhelming majority don’t understand preferential voting (going by how many are completely dependent on How To Vote cards).

  19. LOL

    How did Cameron dudd Clegg?

    The parties a FPTP election benefits are the Tories, Cameron and Clegg both knew that.

    Cameron also said he will have a referendum, but reserves the right to campaign against it. Which Clegg agree to and knew he would do.

    Clegg did expect more support from the UK Labour, since AV would benefit UK Labour too, but Labour took the chance to try to destroy the LD, rather then benefit from reform. That is why the AV will fail

    The problem with the LD, is the same one that faces the Democrats in the 2000s, the Liberals in Canada and the ALP in Australia. They are/try to be a centrist party, while most people who are interested in politics are either Left (fairness) or right (efficiency).

    In time where both the left and right are doing badly, a centrist party can get good support. But when the Left and right goes to war, people are less likely to choose a centrist party

  20. Another poll points to a crushing victory for the No campaign

    The century-long dream of electoral reform in Britain looks likely to be dashed for more than a generation, with a Guardian/ICM poll predicting that voters will back keeping first past the post by a crushing majority.

    The survey, before the referendum on whether to introduce the alternative vote (AV) for elections to the Commons, predicts a 68% no vote with just 32% for yes. The hopes of yes campaigners that there was going to be a late tightening of the polls have been dashed.

  21. Final YouGov AV poll.

    One more final poll for the referendum tomorrow – YouGov for the Sun have topline figures of YES 40%, NO 60%. That’s in the same sort of ball park as YouGov’s AV polling over the last fortnight or so, a very substantial NO lead (unless the polls are horribly, horribly wrong a NO victory appears a certainty) but not as large as suggested by ComRes and ICM. The poll was conducted yesterday and today, with a sample of 5,725.

  22. [The problem with the LD, is the same one that faces the Democrats in the 2000s, the Liberals in Canada and the ALP in Australia. They are/try to be a centrist party, while most people who are interested in politics are either Left (fairness) or right (efficiency).]

    The ALP would have been in government far less than it has been if it didn’t try to be a centrist party.

  23. [This assumes people would have voted the same in a FPTP system. Many wouldn’t have. I voted Green, but I wouldn’t have risked wasting my vote in a FPTP election, and would have voted ALP.]

    Yes. Thus this line:

    [(assuming everyone votes the same, not tactically):]


  24. I’d be wary of what Psephos says – he’s a member of the Labor Right and the LR are not real progressives but keep one foot in the Tory camp.

  25. I think the anti campaign having all the credibility and honesty of an Abbott presser would be the Tories dudding them, least the tories know their ‘partner’ wont run away and force an election ….

  26. Adam in the Labor right – blow me down with a feather, I miss your gentle caring observations and reports Adam.

    Wait aren’t we all in the labor right? In WA the old and the new and the combined and the not as combined as you might think right all has me a bit confused …

  27. [I’d be wary of what Psephos says – he’s a member of the Labor Right and the LR are not real progressives but keep one foot in the Tory camp.]

    Ah, the good old argumentum ad hominem. Why don’t you try playing the ball instead of the man?

  28. Psephos is absolutely right on this one whatever you think of his politics. Though it was a tough one for the LibDems since if they had held out for more Cameron wasn’t forced to have them as coalition partners. It was just the simplest option for the Tories to deal with just one party rather than a mess of little ones (especially if the latter option might have left him a bit short of half the seats and forever at risk of another election).

  29. Early whispers confirm what you’d expect, the no vote will win easily. One report suggested a 70/30 split.

  30. William:

    [a Newspoll/Institute of Public Affairs survey of Australian voters]

    A “survey” I’m sure was dutifully and exhaustively covered by Their ABC.

  31. Christ on a bike, Cuppa, this is a post about a referendum being held in Britain. It’s positively disturbing that your only entry into the matter is a whinge about bias at the ABC.

  32. William um is that an original or is it a well established saying with a history that would be interesting.

    To risk wandering on topic is there a 5 pm ish expectation on the expected determination of the poms keep things so simple even local councillors can understand it ( a reference to the walga campaign against fair local elections in WA for eastern staters)

  33. My prediction/guess is 40% Yes, 60% no.

    I base this on the following:

    – the Sky projection that the Council and Assembly election results so far equate to a nationwide result of Labour 37%, Conservative 35%, LibDem 15%, Other 13%
    – a poll I saw somewhere or other that support for Yes is 50% amongst Labour voters, 10% amongst Conservatives and 75% amongst LibDems
    – assuming that the Other voters are 50% for Yes
    – ignoring the impact of the uneven turnout across the country (noting that London, in particular, with no local elections, is expected to have very low turnout for the referendum).

  34. In council elections 10% swing from LibDem to Labour
    Lib Dem 15%
    Lab 37%
    Tory 35% (no change)

    Lib Dems well and truly done over

  35. AV cops a right royal thrashing!

    Supporters and opponents alike have acknowledged that the alternative vote would never be introduced for Westminster elections after the proposal received a thumping defeat in the national referendum.

    With 439 of the 440 voting areas counted, the no campaign had established a lead of 68% to 32%, another wounding blow to Nick Clegg, whose Liberal Democrats had secured a referendum as one of their cherished prizes in negotiations with the Conservatives to form the coalition last year.

  36. And of those 440 counting areas the only ones to vote yes were:

    Cambridge, Camden, Hackney, Haringey, Islington, Lambeth, Southwark, Oxford, Edinburgh Central and Glasgow Kelvin.

    The skill differential between the two sides was enormous. The No campaign just set out to play dirty, lie and scare and was remarkably talented at it, some really fine ads. The Yes campaign neither effectively took the intellectual high ground nor effectively sold its message.

  37. Meanwhile in the devolved assemblies:
    1. Scotland – Massive swing to SNP mainly at expense of Lib Dems but some Tory and Lab losses – SNP govt
    2. Wales – swing to Lab from Plaid Cymru – Lab to form government
    3. N.I. – much the same – slight increase in Catholic vote, swing to Alliance of 2%, Democratic unionists and SF easily outpoll SDLP and Ulster unionists in that order

  38. The North/South divide is firmly entrenched again in England – Labour back in control of major Northern English cities & towns, the Conservatives retaining their southern English strongholds.
    You wonder how much longer Nick Clegg can survive as Liberal Democrat leader, or will he do what I predict and join the Tories?

  39. The divide in this vote is very similar to the divide we saw here in the 1999 republic referendum. The only areas to vote Yes were inner London and the university towns. Just as we saw bipartisan elite support for the republic and bipartisan non-elite rejection of it, so the UK sees elite support for Yes and non-elite support for No. The difference here was that the ALP was solid for the republic, so the majority of safe Labor seats voted Yes (although at nothing like the usual Labor vote), whereas in the UK a large chunk of Labor supported No, so no Labour seats outside inner London voted Yes. I thhink this tells us that as the traditional left-right divide weakens, a deeper divide between elite and non-elite is emerging.

  40. The closest yes vote for a large region appears to have been in Northern Ireland where there has been a form of PR for 12 years. The Northern Irish are less ignorant/scared of changes in voting than the rest of the electorate but even they did not come up with a yes majority.

  41. 49

    Move importantly the Northern Ireland electoral system is the preferential STV the multi-member version of “AV”. They have also been using it since 1973 for local government and the Northern Ireland Assembly but the latter fell apart in 1974 due to political problems over the Sunningdale Agreement and was not tried again till after the Good Friday Agreement.

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