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Why the Conservatives should not fear AV

The possible consequences of voting for the Alternative Vote System

Given that the coalition agreement ensures a referendum on AV, it is worth examining what the consequences might be if the voters do not defend the present electoral dispensation and vote instead for The Alternative Vote System. Tories tend to be hostile to electoral reform. Conservatives see electoral reform as a covert assault on the possibility of a centre right majority government ever taking office again. The fear that systemic changes would empower and formalise Britain's centre left majority to the long-term detriment of the Conservative party are genuine. The reality, however, is somewhat different and it is in the interests of the possible adoption by the UK of AV that we write this piece.

First, the current system already prejudices Conservative chances to a very great and still unrecognised degree. Secondly, there is no cast iron rule that electoral reform need empower a centre left rather than a centre right majority. Not least because electoral reform need not and does not necessarily mean PR – it could mean a more effective and representative variant of First Past the Post (FPTP). Also and by way of an aside PR is not an unthinkable nightmare either – many centre-right parties rule elsewhere (Germany for example) under a sensible proportional system. Thirdly, as the current electoral system concentrates rather than extends representation, the status quo is often an unacknowledged political dead end for the Conservatives. It, for example, offers no way back for the Tories in areas of the country where they have little or no representation: Scotland or the great northern English cities like Liverpool or Manchester. If FPTP concentrates representation in large voting blocks, it becomes possible for voters in Scotland for example to argue that an English Conservative government has no legitimacy north of the border. As such one might make a further case that FPTP as it stands actually undermines the legitimacy of the union and therefore the united nature of the Kingdom itself.

A conservative case against the current system can therefore be cogently made. Its reform need not be an act of conservative political suicide. Let us begin to outline the case against FPTP and the case for reform.

FPTP's bankruptcy is apparent at the local and national levels. Being a constituency MP is a position of enormous local power and responsibility and in multi-party politics FPTP often awards this to a candidate who fails to have the backing of a majority of those voting, and sometimes has a large majority of local opinion against them. At a national level, it creates ludicrous possibilities, some of which surfaced during the 2010 campaign. An election result that put all three parties on the same share of the vote would see Labour with nearly enough seats to form a government (305), Conservatives trailing far behind in second place (210 seats) and the Lib Dems with only 103 MPs. A system that translates a vote ratio of 1:1:1 into a seat ratio of 3:2:1 is indefensible, and clearly disadvantageous to the Tories. It even looked possible for a while that Labour could come third in vote share, and the Lib Dems first, but for Labour to still have the largest number of MP's and the Lib-Dems the smallest. Academic analysis has conclusively demonstrated that re-jigging the constituency boundaries or gerrymandering in favour of a powerful incumbent will not introduce a fair relationship between seats and votes. To rebuild the legitimacy of Parliament, a more fundamental change is surely needed.

The existing First Past the Post (FPTP) system is creaking at the seams, it was defensible when the threshold for winning an election was around 45 per cent of the vote and the two parties that alternated in power could each rely on 40 per cent or more. As recently as 1992 and 1997 the two leading parties shared three quarters of the popular vote, but in 2010 this had shrunk to around 65 per cent. To replicate Labour's achievement of sneaking back to power on 36 per cent of the vote in 2005 is not an admirable ambition, and an insufficient basis of popular consent to make radical changes. It betrays an instrumental view of democracy that feels profoundly unconservative.

But what changes can and should we be discussing? The Alternative Vote (AV) – on which the referendum will be based - is a simple adaptation of the current system, and is in effect a more representative variant of FPTP. It keeps single member constituencies but instead of voting with an X, voters rank the candidates in order of preference, casting a ‘1' for their favourite, ‘2' for their next choice and so on for as long as they like. It is not a proportional system, but it does make more votes count and enables an appeal for votes on principle rather than tawdry ‘X can't win here' tactical electioneering. By creating a difference between voting with your heart and trying to block the candidate you like least, FPTP creates a fundamental dishonesty in the relationship between voter and vote, and AV does at least remove this.

AV has had few Conservative admirers in the past. As has been suggested, it is often perceived as a way of institutionalising the mythic ‘progressive front' and enabling voters to transfer support between Labour and Lib Dem to gang up against the Tories. This would probably have happened in 1997 and made the party's defeat worse, but this should not be an objection now on the simple grounds that we are not in 1997 any more. Politics has moved on, the Blair-Ashdown axis is no more, and the positive relationship between Cameron and Clegg suggests that the future could be very different indeed. There is nothing intrinsically anti-Tory about AV – the common ground between Tories and Lib Dems that has been explored at high-level talks exists among their voters as well. Many Lib Dems would prefer to give their second preferences to Conservatives, both Lib-Dems and Tories share a decentralising and localist agenda, both care about civil liberties and both want to free the poor from their current servitude. Current research though patchy and too small suggests a considerable number of Lib-Dems would put the Tories as their second choice in a national vote. A ComRes poll (fieldwork 24-25 April 2010) put the second preferences of Lib Dem supporters as being Labour a little over a third at 34% and Conservatives under at 26%, but remember the Tories would benefit hugely from UKIP supporters and the same poll showed that nearly 50% of second preferences from them would be for the Tories. And the way AV realigns UKIP votes to the Tories should deepen Conservative interest in AV, why? Because UKIP polled not far short of a million votes on Thursday 6th of May with no MPs to show for it (something which highlights how the system is increasingly unfair). Under AV, most of its voters would channel their second preferences towards the Conservatives.

Also once AV kicks in and these second votes really count, support for the main parties is likely to rise not lessen. And of course these figures will respond to political change. David Cameron's affability and positive approach might well boost rather than lessen Tory second preferences, and if the next election is at the end of a period of Con/LD Government that can be expected to also increase the LD to Con transfer rate. In short there is no good reason to think that Conservatives could not proper under an AV system – after all London elected Boris Johnson under its auspices why not David Cameron. It might even be in the party's interests to have AV rather than FPTP.

A variation on the AV system that might also be an advantage to the Conservatives is AV . The creation of Lord Jenkins in 1998 , AV is ingenious electoral system which combines several desirable properties. Most MPs would be elected in single member constituencies using the Alternative Vote. There would also be a number of MPs, 15 per cent or so of the House, representing cities or counties as a whole. A smaller county like Bedfordshire would have, say, 5 constituency MPs and 1 county MP, and a larger one such as Derbyshire 9 constituency MPs and 2 county MPs. These members would be chosen by the voters from short lists of candidates from the parties (and any Independents who enter the fray), and they would be allocated to compensate for parties that are severely under-represented in the local area. For instance, these members would give some voice to the considerable number of Conservative voters on Tyneside and Labour voters in Kent.

Under AV , MPs would have a clear local link, either through the single member seat or through a broader role that still corresponds to an actual community. It would also balance out the regional polarisation that is setting in which threatens any government's credentials as speaking for the nation as a whole. The 2010 election saw a Conservative sweep in the South East and East of England. Of the 306 Tory MPs, 127 (41.5 per cent) are from these two regions. In 1983, the 119 Tory MPs from these regions were 30 per cent of the parliamentary party, and back in 1951 when the Conservatives returned to government it was around a quarter. Lopsided dominance of particular regions is an even worse problem now for Labour, who are dependent on Scotland, Wales and the big cities and have very little rural representation. AV would at least give representation for parties across the nation – after all, there are voters for each main party spread across the country – and do something to make whichever government emerges from an election a national endeavour and crucially give excluded parties (dare we mention the Tories in Scotland?) an electoral base on which to build their support.

AV is also not subject to some of the usual objections to PR. It was designed to give parties that had a high share of the vote and/or a large lead in votes over its nearest competitor a working majority in the Commons. Labour would have won majorities in 1997 and 2001, and the Conservatives in 1979, 1983 and 1987. It would merely reinstate what we used to think FPTP demanded and delivered, a working majority of MPs reflecting a majority of opinion in the country. AV is also highly unlikely ever to elect members of extremist parties like the BNP.

The Labour Government left the Jenkins recommendations on the shelf, and when self-interest made Labour look again at electoral reform in 2009 Jenkins was ignored again in favour of AV. Politically, it would be difficult and embarrassing for Labour to criticise making progress along the lines established by Jenkins.

There may be a case for revisiting some features of the Jenkins model. The two ballot structure, with one AV constituency ballot and one open list top-up ballot, is workable but a bit complicated (though Danish and Hungarian voters manage much more complicated systems with no problem). There are several possible ways to simplify Jenkins. One method with considerable appeal is instead of having a separate ballot for the top-up member, to use the pool of constituency votes that have not elected anyone to allocate the top-up seats to the best performing candidates of the under-represented parties. This principle is used in several European electoral systems and is the basis of a serious proposal (‘Total Representation') to reform the over-proportional electoral system in Israel to provide a more stable and coherent political system there. It has intuitive fairness, in that it explicitly uses otherwise ‘wasted' votes and gives all parties a democratic base from which they could campaign.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats both went into the election talking about reducing the size of Parliament. This makes the numbers a little different from those envisaged by Jenkins, but there is no problem in principle. Reducing the Commons to 585 seats with single member AV or FPTP seats would involve an average electorate of 77,000 per constituency (rather than 70,000 at present). If instead constituencies were to have 90,000 electors each, there would be 500 of them and 85 top-up seats under AV .

So: neither AV nor AV should be anathema to Conservatives. We have already had a thorough review of electoral systems from the Ministry of Justice (published in 2008 to no fanfare at all) and we do not need to repeat this exercise; a review now can be short and practical and lead quickly to a referendum.

And this referendum can be as great and as groundbreaking as Disraeli's reform act of 1867. Though the referendum options seem constrained to AV, I would argue that all major UK parties with over 20% of the vote should be offered the chance to put their version of electoral reform to the public. This would allow a thorough and open public debate and we could finally get the maximal degree of consensus behind the option that gains public approval.

Such a multi-option referendum would be easy to do. It could be run either as a two-stage process in which choice was whittled down to the leading options (as it was in New Zealand's electoral reform) or through a multi-option referendum conducted under AV rules to ensure majority consent for the outcome. This process could be a basis for consensus not only between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, but encompass Labour and the many strands of opinion who currently feel shut out from politics.

The biggest experience Britain has had of preferential voting systems (akin to AV) is the election for Mayor of London. By strengthening the demonstrable support for the Mayor, the electoral system has enhanced the authority of the role and enabled both Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson to represent London as a whole and expand the informal powers of the mayoralty. The Mayoral elections have also shown that fears of AV being a Lib-Lab stitch up are unfounded. When Ken Livingstone was winning the election in 2004, Lib Dem second preferences split 29 per cent to 22 in his favour (the others not transferring at all). In 2008 Lib Dems were swayed by the popularity of Boris Johnson and the margin for Livingstone was down to only 31 to 30. A progressive Tory vision, therefore, can at least break even and more probably gain the support of Lib Dem voters (as well as those for UKIP).

Disraeli's audacity at outflanking his opponents on reform was a laudable and transformative model of statesmanship and good politics. David Cameron has already rewritten the rules of modern politics and the coalition has initial popular support – Conservatives can still campaign against any changes to FPTP when the referendum comes – but if the voters disagree and AV comes in they shouldn't worry too much – wild predications of 80 seat losses are wide of the mark – it will just change the rules of the game – and AV or not the Tories will still be able to win that game gain a majority and govern from a position of strength.

I would like to thank Lewis Baston for the considerable amount of research, insight and work that he provided on this post.

Comments on: Why the Conservatives should not fear AV

Gravatar Jeffrey Marshall 05 May 2011
“Disraeli’s audacity at outflanking his opponents on reform was a laudable and transformative model of statesmanship and good politics”r/>r/>Interesting analogy; although Disraeli wished - at least partly - to extinguish Liberal chances by adopting their reform cause, and - since each reform act was seen as final, not progressive - Liberals in future would have nowhere to go. r/>r/>By contrast Cameron appears to be inviting Liberal Democrats (or some other well-organised third party) to remain permanently in government.
Gravatar Stephen Bosworth 26 February 2011
Given your support for STV, perhaps you would like to consider a more advanced form of it: associational proportional representation (APR). It is a new synthesis and advance upon all the other systems in use and it is outlined in my late February posts on the ResPublica Blog (“Beyond AV: Associational Proportional Representation & Proportional Votes in the Commons”. Its advantage over all the currently used forms of STV is that it also includes single-member constituencies, allows some non-geographically defined 'electoral associations' to elect their own MPs, and allows each citizen to guarantee that their vote will help to elect at least one MP that they know and trust. Complete proportionality is also achieved by giving each MP a weighted vote in the Commons exactly equal to the number of citizens that 'participated' in their election.
Gravatar Neil McCart 04 October 2010
If, as the article suggests, Tories fear that electoral reform means that they as a "centre right" party will never govern again, then they are acknowledging the fact that the centre right only ever gains the support of a minority of the electorate. It seems that they do not mind this "minority" government as long as it is themselves who are in power, or every few years they have a go at government. Personally, I see AV as only a step towards full Proportional Representation and a Parliament that actually represents the way people have voted, and not a gross and dishonest distortion of the vote which is what we actually get under the present system (mind you we have seen just how thoroughly dishonest our Parliamentarians can be when they were caught embezzling public money as so-called expenses which, had it not come to public notice, they would still be doing - as Graham Greene wrote in the 1920s - some embezzlers go to prison, others go to Parliament).r/>r/>Our current system stifles real political debate which, in the 21st century, is about much more than just Labour and the Tories taing it in turns to have a go at government. Generally speaking I would suggest that a great many people are sick of both parties and would welcome much broader based governments, where politicians have to take careful note of what people say, and are not solely interested in partisan politics which generally favours just a few hard-liners.
Gravatar Anthony Butcher 04 October 2010
Interesting article, thank you. However, it does present a very jaded view of Conservatives as self-serving and only interested in what benefits their party. The constant discussion of voting percentages and desired outcomes should really have no place in a discussion about the best electoral system for this country. r/>r/>Either AV offers a better electoral system for Britain, or it doesn't. The ugliness of partisan party politics shouldn't play any role. r/>r/>As the article amply demonstrates, FPTP is no longer suitable for British elections. It fails completely to create a House of Commons that represents the British voting public. r/>r/>AV is one small step closer to a more representative system. At least every MP will have to have 50% support from their constituents.r/>r/>AV will allow the public to voice their true political feelings by safely voting for their favoured party/candidates in order, and will almost entirely remove repugnant tactical voting.r/>r/>So the real reason for Tories, like everyone else, to support electoral reform is that it is the democratic thing to do.
Gravatar Anonymous 03 October 2010
Well put! It really is terrible that in many places there's no way in for another party. It may be a two-horse race and it will artificially remain that way indefinitely as few want to waste their voice by voting for a different party. r/>r/>I hope many Conservatives can support AV and thus do away with tactical voting, giving people the opportunity to vote for whoever they like.
Gravatar Roderick Parks 28 May 2010
Thank you. At last a piece that clearly articulates why the Conservative party need not fear electoral reform.r/>r/>My position is that of a non-partisan voter. I believe I have an obligation to vote, since the right to vote was not won easily and our freedom defended with great loss of life. Therefore I always vote, even though my vote is wasted: where I live the majority is so high that it is wasted whether I vote for or against the incumbent party. However, I appreciate that many people in my position feeling equally disenfranchised simply do not bother to vote at all. This results in a disconnection between the politicians and the people they are supposed to represent. Simply put, Parliament seems alien and distrusted.r/>r/>Furthermore, in common with many if not most voters, there are policies of each party that I like, and policies of each that I dislike. Unfortunately, the current voting system does not allow me to express this at the ballot box by preferential ranking of candidates within parties who could represent my views more precisely. r/>r/>Where FPTP, AV and AV would all fail is in proper empowerment of the voters at a local level. Where there are safe majorities, party 'high flighers' are often put in place without any prior local connection and have 'jobs for life'. This is fundamentally wrong and allows such MPs to be complacent (or at least be perceived as such), spend little time in their constituencies and allows excesses such as those uncovered in the expenses scandal to accumulate.r/>r/>I therefore believe that a voting system must empower voters over political parties. This requires multi-member constituencies, where each major party fields as many candidates as there are seats and the voter has the right to rank candidates as they wish - whether due to their stance on particular issues, by past performance in public service, by political party, by residence or in any other manner of their choosing. The obvious candidate electoral system that delivers such choice is the Single Transferable Vote. r/>r/>What is particularly interesting about STV is its flexibility. Its proportionality in allocating seats is a factor of the number of elected members per constituency. A quota is required to be elected, this being v/n 1 votes, where 'v' is the number of valid votes cast in the election, and 'n' is the number of seats. Excess votes over the quota are passed on to second and subsequent preferences proportionally. Lowest polling candidates are progressively eliminated and their votes reallocated according to second and subsequent preferences. Every last vote counts, down to the election of the final member of the constituency. r/>r/>When expressed as a share of the vote, the quota is 1/n. At a high level of granularity such as n = 11, a candidate would only need to receive 9% of the vote to be elected, opening the way to greater political plurality. At a low level of granularity, such as n=3, a candidate requires 33% of the vote to be elected. It would have a similar effect to AV in ensuring that major parties are not excluded from entire regions of the country, but would not improve plurality. However, it would allow the voters to favour one candidate of a party over another, which AV does not.r/>r/>It would seem to me that a switch to STV with low granularity would not change the political landscape too radically, but would facilitate a gradual move to higher granularity and thereby greater plurality in the long term. This offers the best of both: a fair voting system where no vote is wasted and time for political parties to adapt to change. r/>r/>As it stands today, all three major parties are coalitions in their own rights, born out of necessity from the bi-polar nature of FPTP. By allowing voters to choose between candidates of these parties, their future directions would be influenced by the electorate, for the electorate. The only politicians who need fear that would be those who are in politics for the wrong reason: seeking to pursue their personal agenda.r/>r/>Maybe this is what the Conservative Thomas Hare had in mind when he invented the Single Transferable Vote system in 1857.r/>r/>r/>
Gravatar Ben Wellesley 09 June 2010
Dear Roderick,r/>r/>Although I find the STV system interesting, I disagree with its implementation at the moment, because the likely changes over this parliament should hand great power back to the people. r/>When there is a referendum at some point during this parliament, it is highly likely that AV or AV will gain the support of the majority. This newer, better system fixes one problem, whilst another policy that Cameron has said that he will implement deals with the problem of locality that you mentioned. He has said that in any seat where one party gets a majority over a certain amount, say ten thousand votes, that constituency will have a U.S style primary to decide who runs to be the candidate for the party with the majority before the election, so that party central's cannot place people in safe seats, and so that locals can decide who should run for the party with the majority. In my mind, both of these likely changes will lead to positive changes and will strengthen the system of Government in the U.K. These, coupled with a wholly or partly reformed House of Lords, the ability to recall a corrupt MP early, locally elected Mayors like Boris in London all around the country, the ability to force a local referendum if enough people sign up for one and the inclusion of the public in where cuts should be made and which rules and regulations should be scrapped, should really strengthen democracy in the U.K and deserve a chance, at least for one parliamentary term (2015 - 2020).
Gravatar Jon Harvey 26 May 2010
Great post Phillip - and indeed - why not have a electoral reform referendum using AV with a 1, 2, 3 etc way of voting - on a range of systems?
Gravatar mount 26 May 2010
Great articel and reminder that a strengthening of broader based support is not weakness, or even limp centrism, but a recognition of the progressive egalitarian humour of the country.

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Phillip Blond

Phillip is an internationally recognised political thinker and social and economic commentator. He bridges the gap bet...