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.