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Electoral reform

May 3, 2011

Britain’s AV referendum: May 5

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 an

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.

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ALL the “No to AV” arguments were rubbish. They didn’t even seem to have any of the pro FPTP arguments that were true, but I suppose they usually seem unjust. It was a well funded scare campaign using ignorance. Effective.

Tom the first and best
Tom the first and best


If the UK had AV in 1992 Kinnock would probably have been the PM (and I agree that he would have made a better PM than Blair). Compulsory preferences would have made it more likely.


Real shame that the referendum did’nt get up. From what I have heard Tony Blair did’nt comment on the referendum but sources say he opposed AV. Although former labor leader Neil Kinnock supported the referendum though which is good, Kinnock would of made a better PM then Blair in my opinon. Referendums are bloody hard to win if you don’t have the support of all the major parties you don’t have a chance in hell.

Just on a side note one english paper reported that Australia has a preferentail voting system but wants to get rid of it. I don’t know where the paper got it’s info because it’s hogwash. The only thing that I have read about Australia wanting to get rid of preferntial voting was from some concervative think tank in Australia. Who are only lobbying for this change to first past the post because the Green vote is sky rocketing and it fractures the Labor vote. Thats it!


Shame the constituencies that voted for AV couldn’t get it. That would be fair. As to the elite non elite thing, it sounds like informed and ill-informed. Thats nothing new either.


[I thhink this tells us that as the traditional left-right divide weakens, a deeper divide between elite and non-elite is emerging.]
What makes you think there was a time when the left-right divide was stronger than it is now?


I thhink this tells us that as the traditional left-right divide weakens, a deeper divide between elite and non-elite is emerging.

I am not a fan of this ‘elite’ vs ‘non elite’ perspective.

It basically says that an academic working at a university earning <$100,000 per year is an 'elite' while Twiggy Forest, or Alan Jones, or Janet Albrechtsen are 'non elites'…

Tom the first and best
Tom the first and best


Move importantly the Northern Ireland electoral system is the preferential STV the multi-member version of “AV”. They have also been using it since 1973 for local government and the Northern Ireland Assembly but the latter fell apart in 1974 due to political problems over the Sunningdale Agreement and was not tried again till after the Good Friday Agreement.

Oakeshott Country

The closest yes vote for a large region appears to have been in Northern Ireland where there has been a form of PR for 12 years. The Northern Irish are less ignorant/scared of changes in voting than the rest of the electorate but even they did not come up with a yes majority.


The divide in this vote is very similar to the divide we saw here in the 1999 republic referendum. The only areas to vote Yes were inner London and the university towns. Just as we saw bipartisan elite support for the republic and bipartisan non-elite rejection of it, so the UK sees elite support for Yes and non-elite support for No. The difference here was that the ALP was solid for the republic, so the majority of safe Labor seats voted Yes (although at nothing like the usual Labor vote), whereas in the UK a large chunk of Labor supported No, so no Labour seats outside inner London voted Yes. I thhink this tells us that as the traditional left-right divide weakens, a deeper divide between elite and non-elite is emerging.


The North/South divide is firmly entrenched again in England – Labour back in control of major Northern English cities & towns, the Conservatives retaining their southern English strongholds.
You wonder how much longer Nick Clegg can survive as Liberal Democrat leader, or will he do what I predict and join the Tories?

Oakeshott Country

Meanwhile in the devolved assemblies:
1. Scotland – Massive swing to SNP mainly at expense of Lib Dems but some Tory and Lab losses – SNP govt
2. Wales – swing to Lab from Plaid Cymru – Lab to form government
3. N.I. – much the same – slight increase in Catholic vote, swing to Alliance of 2%, Democratic unionists and SF easily outpoll SDLP and Ulster unionists in that order

Kevin Bonham

And of those 440 counting areas the only ones to vote yes were:

Cambridge, Camden, Hackney, Haringey, Islington, Lambeth, Southwark, Oxford, Edinburgh Central and Glasgow Kelvin.

The skill differential between the two sides was enormous. The No campaign just set out to play dirty, lie and scare and was remarkably talented at it, some really fine ads. The Yes campaign neither effectively took the intellectual high ground nor effectively sold its message.

Sir Mad Cyril

AV cops a right royal thrashing!

Supporters and opponents alike have acknowledged that the alternative vote would never be introduced for Westminster elections after the proposal received a thumping defeat in the national referendum.

With 439 of the 440 voting areas counted, the no campaign had established a lead of 68% to 32%, another wounding blow to Nick Clegg, whose Liberal Democrats had secured a referendum as one of their cherished prizes in negotiations with the Conservatives to form the coalition last year.

Oakeshott Country

In council elections 10% swing from LibDem to Labour
Lib Dem 15%
Lab 37%
Tory 35% (no change)

Lib Dems well and truly done over

James J

No wins with 69%



My prediction/guess is 40% Yes, 60% no.

I base this on the following:

– the Sky projection that the Council and Assembly election results so far equate to a nationwide result of Labour 37%, Conservative 35%, LibDem 15%, Other 13%
– a poll I saw somewhere or other that support for Yes is 50% amongst Labour voters, 10% amongst Conservatives and 75% amongst LibDems
– assuming that the Other voters are 50% for Yes
– ignoring the impact of the uneven turnout across the country (noting that London, in particular, with no local elections, is expected to have very low turnout for the referendum).


William um is that an original or is it a well established saying with a history that would be interesting.

To risk wandering on topic is there a 5 pm ish expectation on the expected determination of the poms keep things so simple even local councillors can understand it ( a reference to the walga campaign against fair local elections in WA for eastern staters)


LibDems are getting absolutely smacked.



[a Newspoll/Institute of Public Affairs survey of Australian voters]

A “survey” I’m sure was dutifully and exhaustively covered by Their ABC.