Supporters of the Liberal Democrats, Greens and UKIP should vote Yes to AV. For the Conservatives and Labour – the balance of advantage is much less clear
The AV referendum campaign has produced some strange political alignments, more because of its perceived strategic consequences than the nature of the alternative electoral systems. Writing in a personal capacity, Lewis Baston finds that for some parties rational self-interest is clear: supporters of the Liberal Democrats, Greens and UK Independence Party should vote Yes on AV. For others –the Conservatives and Labour – the balance of advantage is much less clear, and may differ between different bits of the party. Arguably, looking only at rational self-interest, the Conservatives should be divided, rather than mostly for No.
How to make a partisan choice on AV
It is not unreasonable to examine the effect a change such as moving to the Alternative Vote will have on the fortunes of the parties. To do so is rational self-interest, but also more than that; its effects on party performance imply consequences for the range of economic, public policy and social outcomes towards which few people are neutral. Given that the difference in terms of democratic values between FPTP and AV is not large, it need not trump a medium-term partisan calculation. What one should ask of such calculations is that they should be rational.
For a Liberal Democrat, supporting AV is a no-brainer. The Liberal Democrats are (and even in 2015 can be expected to be) a fair-sized centre party. If a centre party has enough first-preference electoral support to come first or second (and therefore not be eliminated during the early stages of an AV count), it will tend to attract more transferred votes than its less centrist main competitor and therefore win more seats than it would otherwise. AV also suits the campaigning culture of the Liberal Democrats, in that the party is experienced in the techniques of attracting tactical votes and gathering local and personal credibility for individual candidates, and this is easily adapted to casting a net for second preferences. They tend to have more trouble winning votes in actual PR elections, like the European Parliament, London Assembly and devolved parliaments.
The SNP and Plaid Cymru are also capable of attracting transfers and would probably be helped by AV.
For Greens, Yes to AV is also logical. They are likely, whichever system is used, to hold their Brighton seat but not gain any more in the medium term. The benefits from AV would be in increasing the party’s overall share of the vote, because sympathisers could afford to give them a first preference without fear of letting in a hostile candidate. They would gain the credibility that goes with a significant vote share and encourage more voters to consider the option of voting Green. They would also encourage other candidates to adopt parts of the Green agenda in order to attract second preference votes from Greens, and give the Green Party itself more power in politics by giving and withholding endorsements for second place. For UKIP, AV probably helps for the same reasons as it helps the Greens. UKIP could influence the other parties, particularly the Conservatives, towards its objectives.
For the interests of the BNP – if indeed there is a BNP in recognisable form for very much longer – AV is not an attractive system. They may get a few more first preferences than they currently get FPTP votes, but AV would make it extremely difficult for them to win any seats. It would also be less successful at using AV to influence the other parties, because a BNP endorsement of a second preference for one candidate would be likely to put off more voters than it would encourage (in London in 2008 Boris Johnson repudiated such a dubious BNP benediction). The BNP would be better off with FPTP (which allows it to win on 30 per cent of the vote when its opponents are divided) or PR (which represents minority parties), not AV.
Much of the Conservative Party has displayed a bafflingly intense hostility to AV, on the assumption that it would prevent them winning a majority. This is very doubtful indeed; looking back on the history of modelled AV election results, there would have been no election when a Conservative majority under FPTP would have disappeared under AV, with the possible exception of 1992. The Conservative Party has generally been a very adaptable creature – the secret of its success. Cameron has demonstrated considerable skill in adapting to the situation, as shown in his strategic brilliance after the 2010 election result. The Conservatives are in a position to benefit from AV and Cameron is probably the man to navigate a path to that point.
AV tends to help the side of politics which is divided between parties with overlapping sources of support, and – in contrast to most of the 20th Century – this is the centre right. The Tories could go into a 2015 AV election well placed to pick up second preference support from UKIP and Liberal Democrats voters and overturn Labour voting leads on first preferences. While the party in general should not fear AV, if one looks within the party the traditionalist right and Cameron’s opponents may have reason to fear an electoral system that takes Cameron even further out of their influence. The party may have to share power a bit more, and may need to tack a bit to the centre in order to pick up second preferences. The old right may prefer not to take the opportunities that AV provides, and take its chances with a core vote strategy under FPTP.
Another potential worry for some Conservatives (and others) would be that AV might weaken the Union, by representing in exaggerated form a centre-right majority in England and left-of-centre majorities in Wales and Scotland. A future centre-right government might have next to no representatives outside England because the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats would be crushed by preference transfers in Wales and Scotland. Conversely, a Labour government could find itself dependent on lopsided majorities in Wales and Scotland to outvote a centre-right lead in England. Either scenario would put pressure on the constitutional settlement – perhaps another argument for an SNP Yes vote.
The range of interests and views within the Labour Party is, as it should be, varied, because the strategic situation is far from clear. In the short term, a narrow Yes may be best because of the ructions it will cause in the Conservative Party, but looking beyond that, things are more complicated. In the politics of the 1990s and 2000s, AV would have worked strongly in Labour’s favour, and a generation of Labour reformers is accustomed to thinking in terms of a ‘progressive majority’. This is not a permanent feature of politics – AV would probably have expressed conservative majorities in the 1950s and 1980s. It may well not be a feature of politics again for some time.
The Liberal Democrats have a co-ordinated political and communications strategy which reinforces Conservative messages and systematically disparages Labour; even in his 21 April ippr lecture, when he might have concentrated on persuading the undecided Labour vote, Nick Clegg could not resist the opportunity to make a strident partisan attack on Labour. The Liberal Democrats vote of 2015 will have absorbed five years of this and be broadly happy about it. Some polling in 2011 has started to show Liberal Democrats second preferences skewing towards the Conservatives, and that is only logical. Among the stupidest arguments for Yes – though less stupid than ‘Make Your MP Work Harder’ – is that it is in the self-interest of the Labour Party.
AV and the coalition
AV would solve a coalition management issue for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, in that they could run candidates in each constituency (satisfying their partisan activists) while campaigning on a more targeted basis and recommending second preferences for their coalition partner. AV can be the glue that keeps coalitions together and prevents realignments, as historically with the National and Liberal parties in Australia. The relationship between Tory and the Liberal Democrats in 2015 is much more vexed under FPTP; actually standing down in a constituency is a much more radical and controversial step than suggesting how second preferences might be used. FPTP might hasten a split in the Liberal Democrats and the emergence of a left-liberal element that could even reconstitute that fabled progressive majority and reactivating the push for electoral reform. How the true believer in electoral reform (or majoritarian rule) should vote is the subject of my next article.