British voters go to the polls on Thursday to decide whether to introduce the “alternative vote” – what Australians know from state-level experience in New South Wales and Queensland as “optional preferential voting” – in place of the first-past-the-post system which has been in place since the dawn of electoral time. The lead-up to the referendum has proceeded much as an endeavour of this kind would have done in Australia, with the fundamental issues at stake held hostage to the basest of short-term partisan motives. Without question the worst tosh has come from the no camp, whose remorseless misrepresentations have been keeping Antony Green off the streets for the past two months or so.
The main argument has been that the system will in effect deliver a “second vote” to supporters of dangerous fringe elements such as the British National Party. This rather glosses over the fact that a preference vote is activated only when it has been established that the first preference has failed to achieve anything. In the final analysis, the BNP voter ends up with exactly as much influence over the final result as everybody else. In any case, the invocation of the BNP bogey should amuse supporters of its nearest Australian equivalent, One Nation, to the extent that this breed can be noted for its sense of humour. Despite enormous public support, Pauline Hanson herself failed to extend her parliamentary career beyond a single term entirely due to the workings of preferential voting.
Another favourite has been that only a tiny number of countries have been silly enough to introduce AV, with Papua New Guinea and Fiji more frequently invoked as cautionary tales than our own modestly successful polity. What they don’t point out is that it is all but unknown in the modern world for those establishing new electoral systems to favour that most notoriously archaic and dysfunctional model known as first-past-the-post. Outside the similarly hidebound United States, presidential elections around the world are mostly determined through some manner of “run-off” vote, in which under-performing candidates are excluded in the second round. This is essentially a more expensive and protracted variation on preferential voting, which is accordingly known in some quarters as “instant runoff voting”. If the wisdom of crowds is your metric for determining the merits of an electoral system, first-past-the-post emerges a big loser.
It is true that a Newspoll/Institute of Public Affairs survey of Australian voters after the 2010 election showed 57 per cent favouring first-past-the-post over the existing federal system of compulsory preferential voting. However, as Antony Green points out, earlier polling suggested the public would far prefer optional preferential voting to either alternative, and it is this that is being proposed in Britain. The complaints most commonly levelled in Australia relate to the compulsory aspect: a ranking must be given to every candidate no matter how obscure, and those who hold the major parties in equal contempt are forced to jump off a fence they have every right remain seated on. Without these consequences of compulsory preferences, much of the opposition would vanish – opposition which is obviously not too strongly felt in any case, given the complete absence of any campaign for change.
The one convincing argument from the no camp is that the likely boon to the Liberal Democrats will indeed increase the likelihood of minority and coalition government, if that is to be regarded as a bad thing – as it is by many, both in Britain and Australia, who associate it with indecisiveness and blurred lines of accountability.
Just as the campaign has proceeded exactly as Australian experience suggested it would, so will the referendum itself: with victory for the status quo. The most recent polls recorded by UK Polling Report have no leading yes 55-45 (YouGov), 60-40 (ComRes), 59-41 (YouGov again) and 58-42 (Angus Reid). This reiterates the well-known lesson from Australia that unambiguous bipartisan support (possibly tri-partisan in the British context) is required for a constitutional referendum to succeed. This has not been forthcoming in Britain and was never going to be, which the Liberal Democrats should probably have factored in when they extracted the referendum as a condition for entering into coalition with the Conservatives.
There is little question that AV would be a disaster for the Conservatives, who haven’t polled anywhere near 40 per cent of the national vote since 1992, but can still hope for majority government on the back of vote-splitting among the myriad parties of the centre and left. Labour’s formal support for the referendum proposal has proved meaningless as MPs have been given latitute to pursue their own course, and many have thrown their weight behind a “Labour Against the Alternative Vote” campaign. Their motivation is scarelessly less transparent than that of the Conservatives: to drive a further stake into the floundering Liberal Democrats, and by extension into the coalition government itself.
Given that the Liberal Democrats are the only party to wholeheartedly support the proposal, the wonder is that the margin of defeat won’t be even greater.
UPDATE: New YouGov poll: 39 per cent FPTP, 38 per cent AV, others don’t know/won’t vote.
UPDATE 2: That poll, related to me via Twitter, turns out to be a few months old. The late polls have it pretty solidly at about 60-40 against.