Nick Palmer ponders the politics of the AV referendum

Let’s suppose that the coalition holds for the next couple of years at least. If so, we can assume that the LibDems will insist on the referendum on the alternative vote without delaying it for years.  Regardless of the rights and wrong of AV, what are the political implications?

First, cui bono? Well, AV is great for medium-sized centre parties, since they are normally everyone’s second choice, and their voters often get to choose between the other parties, effectively giving them an extra vote.

It’s also quite good for small parties: they probably won’t win more seats (especially if they’re on the political fringes), but at least their supporters can show their support on the first round before giving others their second preferences. It is correspondingly not so good for big parties, especially if they think that the other big party will get more of the second preferences.

Up to now, it has looked as though LibDem second preferences would go to Labour rather than Tories by something like 2-1, which made some commentators claim wildly that AV would mean there would never be a Tory government again (and which conversely encouraged Labour agnostics to decide it was a Good Thing).

The margin used to be even more, but Labour’s decline in popularity rubbed off on the second preferences too.  In fact, during 2009 the polls showed Lib Dems leaning slightly to the Tories, though that proved transitory.

What we don’t know is the impact of the Coalition on this. It’s clear that LibDems can expect Tory second preferences, but what of the reverse? Will Coalition solidarity turn most LibDem voters to go Tory on second preference? My guess is that the LibDems will lose quite a chunk of first preferences to Labour outright as the coalition medicine gets nasty, but that the remaining loyalists will start to lean Tory on second preference.

Labour voters, meanwhile, may simply decline to lend a second preference.  Certainly, I wouldn’t bother to express a preference between the coalition parties, unless the LibDems started to hint that they’d be willing to switch sides if the arithmetic added up.

Second, what does this mean for the referendum? Will it get through Parliament? Some Tories may vote against, though the leadership will be worried about the impact if it’s lost, so it is likely to get most coalition votes. And Labour can’t really vote against, since it was in our manifesto. But once it is put to the referendum, polls suggest it will pass easily.

Tricky, isn’t it? In the worst case, the outcome could be deadly: an AV system with two parties locked in anti-Labour embrace could shut us out for decades. So I’d suggest this: Labour should seek to amend the Bill to allow for an STV option (which is much less dangerous in coalition-era politics as it delivers a result more or less proportional to party strength). This would win most LibDem support since it’s their traditional cause, yet go further than most Tories would accept – quite possibly it would break the coalition.

And, if not, we’d have a good case for supporting STV and opposing AV, avoiding the worst-case scenario altogether.

Nick Palmer was MP for Broxtowe 1997-2010.

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9 Responses to “Nick Palmer ponders the politics of the AV referendum”

  1. The additional benefit of STV is that intending coalition partners can both stand candidates in an area without having to attack each other personally, since STV constituencies are multi-member by definition. Thus by creating a single Sussex constituency with, say, fourteen or fifteen MPs, you avoid the situation in May, where Green and Labour attacked each other’s candidates in Brighton Pavilion, and Lib Dems and Tories ditto in Eastbourne.

  2. Tom Freeman says:

    This prediction of life under AV is fair enough, but only in the short term.

    As the parties and their different groups of supporters adjusted to the new system, they’d come to realise that they could split into smaller, more ideologically comfortable parties without letting the ‘enemy’ in, because of the reallocation of their second preferences. It’d take a while to happen, but AV could mean we end up with five or six parties polling in the 10-25% range.

  3. Neil Harding says:

    Nick, I am an admirer of yours and really sad you lost your seat, especially by such a small margin. However, I think you need to expand your conclusion here. This should never be about party politics. FPTP really distorts how people vote. Maybe the Euro parliament elections held under closed list PR give a better fit to how people will vote. The Tories got 29%, UKIP 16%, Labour 15%, Lib Dems 14%, Greens 6%. I know the EU issue will always favour UKIP but a lot of their support give their vote to the Tories under FPTP. Also in the constituencies Labour, Lib Dems and Greens swap votes to help each other out, Labour to Lib Dem in those seats where Labour cannot win being the most important.

    In terms of breaking the coalition up, Labour supporting STV is a great idea, but we need to make the case for a proportional system in terms of democracy rather than party advantage. Also we need to point out that there is a big difference between STV in a 3 seat multi member system and 5 or 6 seat member constituencies. Only the latter is proportional enough to be democratic and comparable to PR used in Europe. Saying that any change from FPTP has got to be progress.

  4. Nick Palmer says:

    Fair comments (and thanks to Neil for his commiserations). As a supporter of propiortional systems I agree that we should put the case for them separately from party advantage. However, it’s also worth bearing in mind the implications, not least when discussing the issue with colleagues who are agnostic on AV, STV, or other options. AV is really quite risky for us despite its attractions, in a way that STV is not.

  5. Andy JS says:

    The interesting thing is that in Australia the AV variant they use requires every candidate to be given a preference by voters; otherwise the vote is invalid. Simply voting for one candidate is not allowed.

  6. James Kelly says:

    Nick, unfortunately you’ll never persuade many of your colleagues to support an amendment on STV, so how about Roy Jenkins’ AV+? Probably it would still be a step too far for FPTP dinosaurs like Tom Harris, but it oughtn’t be as it produces single-party parliamentary majorities on most occasions. I’m sure such an amendment would still provide the Lib Dems with a big enough dilemma if it was put to the vote.

  7. Nick Palmer says:

    James Kelly, agreed – AV+ isn’t a bad system and it fits with the British tradition of being comfortable with hybrids (Commons/Lords, varying devolution and electoral systems in different parts of the UK).

  8. Hassan Tyra says:

    If we take your advice and pursue a path towards early retirement, who will the government tax to pay for its ever increasing deficit and annual budget? As a boomer myself I find myself conflicted with the thought of my children having to pay higher taxes to fund my early retirement. Dont we all, as Americans, have some shared responsibility to rescue our country from the decades of mismanagement? Or do we punch out early and suck what littles left in the coffers dry?

  9. Ash Walsh says:

    If we cannot get an STV amendment, then Labour should back AV. I think it is speculative to say the era of coalition Governments will shut Labour down becausr of Anti-Labour rhetoric.
    They’ll be enough Tories throwing everything they’ve got against changing the system at all, and if they suceed, no one will remember us rejecting AV but everyone will remember us embracing FPTP if AV gets voted down. This would be unforgivable!

    On the other hand, the Tories were reluctant to offer another referendum (from AV to STV) if the FPTP to AV referendum passes. Where would this leave the prospects of another Con-Dem coalition? This is why, Dr Palmer, I think Labour has less to fear from AV than you seem to think!

    And I said you were speculative! 🙂

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