Feature: Drawing the AV referendum battle lines

Would the alternative vote produce more hung parliaments?
Would the alternative vote produce more hung parliaments?

The chiefs of the 'yes' and 'no' electoral reform campaigns make their cases to politics.co.uk.

By Alex Stevenson

Last May the country struggled to decide which political party it wanted to rule Britain. This could have been disastrous for David Cameron's Conservatives. But help was at hand from the Liberal Democrats, who agreed to enter into a coalition on condition that a referendum take place on electoral reform. As a result, this May Britain will cast judgement on whether the system it used to vote last summer needs changing.

First past the post (FPTP) will be retained if the number of 'no' votes exceeds those voting 'yes' on May 5th. Under this system the MP who gets the most votes in each of the newly redrawn 600 constituencies is the outright winner. Under the alternative vote (AV) system, it's slightly more complicated. Voters will rank their candidates in order of preference. MPs need an absolute majority before they're elected. If no candidate achieves that, the second-preference votes from those who voted for the candidate who received the lowest votes will be redistributed. The process continues until one candidate has an overall majority. Straightforward, right?


So that's the choice. Only - unfortunately - it's not. This is a three-way battle. It's not just about FPTP or AV; there's also the voting system that's not going to be on the ballot paper, proportional representation (PR), to be considered. This would divide up the Commons in more or less direct proportion to how the votes are distributed nationally between the parties. The Liberal Democrats have lain in bed dreaming about PR for many years, for it would always give them more MPs than they have at present. AV would deliver a few more seats, but nowhere near as many. It's why Nick Clegg called AV a "miserable little compromise" before the general election. Still, he's playing the long game. Perhaps AV will work as a halfway house before fully-fledged PR is achieved in the future. That's the plan, anyway.

The PR factor isn't a problem for the 'no' camp. Its supporters recall the recent Australian referendum about whether to replace the Queen with a president elected by MPs. The 'no' campaign was mostly composed of monarchists, as you'd expect. But it succeeded largely because of an alliance with republicans who wanted a directly elected president, with MPs having nothing to do with it.

Matthew Elliott, head of the No2AV campaign, thinks a similar situation is developing in the UK. "A lot of people are dissatisfied with the fact that it's AV on the ballot," he says.

"A lot of people who want PR will be fearful that if we move to AV we'll be stuck in a rut and the real change they want wouldn't actually happen."

His opposite number in the Yes To Fairer Votes camp, Katie Ghose, simply doesn't want to talk about PR at all. "What's on offer is a simple choice - first past the post or an alternative vote," Ghose says. In keeping with her campaign's positive message, she paints AV as an "upgrade" from the existing system.

"One of the good things about it is it builds on the foundations of what we've got," she says. "It keeps the relationship between parliament and the constituency, but it will strengthen it."

Two-thirds of MPs at the last general election won without achieving an overall majority in their seat. That would change to zero per cent under AV. And this would be good news for Mrs Smith, the hypothetical voter Ghose presents to make her case. Mrs Smith is a Conservative voter, but living in a safe Labour seat doesn't see much of her local MP. She's a visitor at her local hospital and volunteers at her local hospice, so she cares about local services. Under AV, candidates would have more of an incentive to talk to her. Even if she's not going to give them her first vote, she might give them her second. "I think it's going to change the nature of politics," Ghose says enthusiastically.

Katie Ghose makes the case for an 'upgrade':

This is all very well, the 'no' campaign replies, but it hides the alternative vote's biggest weakness: what Elliott calls its "schizophrenic" nature. In some elections it will deliver the governing party a much bigger majority than they would have won under FPTP, while in others it may not even hand them an overall majority. Worse still, as we're seeing with the present government, the coalitions which he claims would be more likely under AV will mean national parties could be less prone to keep their promises.

As Elliott puts it: "It's not a good move for a stable democracy and would reduce the accountability of government, because voters would not be able to hold parties to account about their manifestos."

Matthew Elliott explains No2AV's approach to the referendum:

Coalitions and AV are inseparable; not just at the national level, but in the kind of politics the 'yes' campaign hopes it will engender at the local level. Some commentators have suggested this will lead to a more boring kind of consensus-driven politician - what Quentin Letts calls "gloopers". Ghose disagrees. She points to the remarkable Jean Quan, who became mayor of Oakland, California after fighting a campaign under AV in which she was heavily outspent by the incumbent. She's the first Asian-American woman in charge of a major US city. "I don't think there's anything dull about this woman," Ghose says. She did it by pounding the doorsteps, going beyond her comfort zone to talk to voters beyond her core supporters.

"Wherever you live in the UK your MP is going to have to work harder to earn and then keep your support," Ghose adds. "I'm confident when people understand what the upgrade means they will feel enthused by it."

Campaign headwinds

It's not going to be quite as straightforward as that. This campaign faces a number of obstacles to overcome - not least the fact that getting voters' heads around the nuances of the two systems is hard in itself. Straightforward messaging will be key.

Take this early piece of literature from the 'no' camp: 'Fiji's got it. Papua New Guinea's got it. Australia's got it... ask yourself this: why do so few countries think it is a good system to use?' There's not even any requirement to understand what on earth 'it' is to be able to appreciate that it's probably not desirable.

This is the sort of approach the 'yes' camp need to be able to combat. They're putting their hopes in a grassroots campaign. Local groups, I'm told, are "springing up all over the place". People are being telephoned to establish their views. And support is being sought from all walks of life. "There'll be teachers and nurses, bishops and plumbers, saying I'm going to vote 'yes' when the time comes."

Ghose adds: "I hope as the campaign goes on we get as many opportunities as possible on an even playing field to have an opportunity for people to hear the arguments for and against." Public interest could be critical. It's hard not to read a small dose of satisfaction in Elliott's voice as he outlines the problems which could be faced. "Not being the most sexy subject it will actually be difficult to set the public imagination alight," he says. This is why the timing of the royal wedding, just a week or so before polling day, is such bad news for AV backers. That long Easter weekend is going to distract all but the hardiest political aficionados from the campaign.

As Elliott puts it, "the two weeks building up to the royal wedding will be largely dominated about Kate's dress and where William's gone on his stag night". But, despite the clear advantages apathy could have for his campaign, Elliott hopes that AV will be the biggest political news story around, at least. "Being the first referendum for the first time in 35 years, I'm hoping it will capture the public's imagination," he muses, citing the public's enthusiasm for a referendum on some aspect of Britain's involvement in Europe. Here's hoping.

Coalition politics

For the sad truth is this referendum campaign is hopelessly extricated with the to-and-fro of British politics. The unusual coalition government currently in power is an unavoidable example to be argued over by both sides. The 'no' camp comes closest to politicising the vote by making it a referendum on the current government. The Liberal Democrats' broken tuition fees pledge is the most spectacular example - but the 'no' campaign has both governing parties covered. It cites the votes-for-prisoners debacle in order to cater to Conservative supporters.

Elliott explains: "They'll be dissatisfied with those broken promises you get from coalition government and will be quite pleased we can have a referendum to keep the system which will generally give single-party government rather than one which will generally give hung parliaments."

Ghose disagrees, insisting that AV won't mean more coalitions. Australia has had fewer hung parliaments than the UK since it adopted AV, she says. And a recent report from the IPPR thinktank suggested it's actually the current system which is more likely to produce hung parliaments.

The tensions continue, however. One big surprise has been the way the Labour party, in particular, has been divided by the referendum. Leader Ed Miliband reflects the views of most in his support for AV, but over 100 Labour MPs have come out against the change. "It's rocked Westminster in a small way," Elliott claims. It's so different from the 1975 referendum on Britain's continuing membership of the European Economic Community, when party lines held much more firmly. "With this campaign [we've got] a wide spread of people from both the parties."

The 'yes' camp isn't really interested in Westminster - the target audience, after all, is the people. "I hope we'll hear from people and not so much from politicians," she says. This is a "chance for ordinary people to have their say" - something they don't get every day.

"I don't think we should draw a line in the sand and say we need these people here or we need these people there."

If the 'yes' camp can't drum up enough popular enthusiasm for AV beyond the political community, its arguments could run into trouble. But there's a long way to go in this contest, and with the polls fairly close either side could yet emerge on top.

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