Britain’s rejection of a new electoral system in last Thursday’s referendum comes as no surprise. Nor does the predictably low turnout of 42 percent. Alternative Vote (A.V.), the system proposed to replace the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) method of electing ministers of Parliament (MPs) to Westminster, was no one’s first choice. Even the majority of those fronting the Yes campaign viewed the system, in the words of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, as a “miserable little compromise.”
The promise of a referendum on electoral reform was a key condition for Clegg to agree to lead his Liberal Democrats into coalition with the Conservative Party, after last May’s general election resulted in a hung parliament. Punished by the FPTP system for decades, the Liberal Democrats have long championed proportional representation. In the 2010 general election, for example, the Lib Dems received 23 percent of votes, but just 8.8 percent of parliamentary seats. Unsurprisingly, the Conservatives support the status quo; thanks to the peculiarities of FPTP, the Tories won large majorities throughout the 1980s, despite receiving only 40-odd percent of the vote. A.V., which requires the ranking of candidates to ensure that the winner receives support from at least 50 percent of voters, is the mid-point between the Conservatives’ and Lib Dems’ preferred systems. The choice of A.V. has more to do with coalition politics than good governance.
While there are passionate supporters of FPTP and passionate supporters of proportional representation, there are very few passionate supporters of A.V. Former Labour minister Ben Bradshaw, a leading campaigner for a yes vote in the referendum, last year stated: “The reason I’ve never supported A.V. is that it would have given us an even bigger majority in 1997, and it would have given the Tories an even bigger majority in 1983, and probably 1987 as well.” With the Yes campaign itself lukewarm on A.V., it is no wonder that voters rejected the system.
The Yes campaign was further undermined by its failure to clearly explain the workings of A.V. and its association with the unpopular Liberal Democrats. Although Labour Party leader Ed Miliband urged a yes vote, his party split 50-50 on the referendum. Most of Labour’s big beasts, including former Cabinet ministers David Blunkett, Margaret Beckett and Charlie Falconer joined the No campaign. And with the Conservatives almost unanimous in their opposition to electoral reform, the Yes campaign looked like a front for the political ambitions of the Liberal Democrats.
Since joining the Tory-led coalition government last May, support for the Lib Dems has more than halved. In government, the Liberal Democrats have acquiesced to the slashing of public spending, hikes in student tuition fees and the building of new nuclear power plants: all the opposite to what the Party pledged in its manifesto. Many former Lib Dem voters feel betrayed. As a consequence, they and others on the progressive left were loathe to support the introduction of an electoral system that would increase the likelihood of the Lib Dems holding the balance of power after future general elections.
Support for the Yes campaign declined alongside faith in the Liberal Democrats. In June 2010, a month after the formation of the coalition, A.V. had a 10-point lead over FPTP. In the referendum less than a year later, A.V. was defeated by a margin of 38 percent.
While voters do not see A.V. as the solution to the problems besetting Britain’s politics, few deny that the country’s democracy is in need of reform. The underhanded tactics used by both the Yes and No campaigns demonstrate this point. Supporters of FPTP falsely maintained that adopting A.V. would lead to electoral gains for extremist parties, such as the far-right British National Party (BNP). In fact, the BNP favors retaining FPTP. The No campaign also rather condescendingly claimed that A.V. was too complicated for the average voter to understand.
Voters could easily learn how the proposed A.V. system worked, but they may not have found it so easy to work the system. British voters know how to manipulate FPTP to suit their political preferences and prejudices. Many people vote tactically for their second or third choice to block the election of a less appealing candidate. A.V. would have made strategic voting more complicated. In marginal constituencies it would have been difficult for voters to maximize their preferences without knowing the second and third choices of supporters of other parties.
In Australia, the only major democracy to use A.V., political parties negotiate back-room deals to promote each other for second ranking. Parties spend vast sums telling voters how to rank candidates in their local race. Such practices transfer power from individual voters to parties and politicians. Furthermore, the party with the most money to spend on informing its supporters how to order candidates has the advantage. In Britain, this would favor the Conservative Party. In 2010, while the Tories spent the same amount as Labour during the three-week official election campaign, over the preceding five months the Conservatives outspent their nearest rivals by more than a third.
The No campaign disregarded many of the legitimate shortcomings of A.V., instead relying on scare stories to promote their cause. The Yes campaign also made misleading claims. In a speech supporting A.V., Clegg promised the new system would clean up politics: putting an end to cash for honors, ministers for hire, and the abuse of MPs’ expenses. It is hard to see how A.V. would have ended such practices, which tarnish the reputation of Parliament and politicians. But these are issues that voters genuinely want to see addressed.
Britain’s democracy is in need of renewal and reform. A.V. was not the answer. But after an expensive and ultimately abortive referendum, it will be a long time before British voters are offered another chance to change the way they are governed. In the meantime, public dissatisfaction, disinterest, and disengagement with politics will grow.
Tina Burrett is an assistant professor of international relations at Temple University, Japan Campus.