Was the AV Referendum a good exercise in democracy?

AV vote will not break the Coalition, insists Cameron – Channel 4 News
The AV Referendum took place on the 5th May 2011.

In 2011 Britain’s second nationwide referendum. This was on the issue of whether to replace the First Past the Post voting system with the Alternative Vote system for General Elections. Many people have questioned the effectiveness of this referendum and whether it turned out to be a good democratic exercise.

The Liberal Democrats have long been the major party that have consistently advocated for electoral reform in the UK. As the third party, they are severely punished by the disproportionality of the First the Past system. For example, in the 2010 General Election, the Lib Dems secured 23% of the national vote. This was just 6% behind the Labour Party, however, they received 30.9% less seats than the Labour Party received. Famously, the comedian John Cleese appeared in a party political broadcast for the SDP-Liberal Alliance (a forerunner of the Liberal Democrats) in 1987:

Minor parties such as the Greens and UKIP have also consistently supported electoral reform.

Labour Grandee Roy Jenkins headed the Jenkins Commission.

The Labour Party’s position of electoral reform has been more nuanced. In 1997 their General Election manifesto called for a referendum on the voting systems to the House of Commons following an independent report into to the issue. This report was completed by Roy Jenkins and found that the best system for UK General Elections would be the Additional Member System with the actual voting using the Alternative Vote. Following devolution and the Jenkins Report Labour introduced new voting systems across the devolved regions of the UK:

  • Welsh Parliament – Additional Member System
  • Scottish Parliament – Additional Member System
  • Northern Irish Assembly – STV
BBC News | UK POLITICS | Health pledge confirmed by Blair
New Labour’s position on General Election voting reform became dominated by self-interest.

By 2001, the party dropped its pledge of a referendum and instead said it would wait until it could gauge the success of the the new voting systems across the UK. However, by the 2005 General Election, they had dropped the issue of General Election voting reform entirely. Although a variety of arguments have been put forward for why this is, undoubtedly, a large factor is because bringing about such change would damage their electoral prospects. Majorities of 179 seats in 1997 and 2001 seats in 166 clearly dampened the appetite for electoral reform within the Labour Party. First Past the Post favours the main two parties and in the early part of the 21st century was particularly favourable to the Labour Party in this regard.

Highs and lows of the UK's coalition government | Financial Times
The Coalition Government of 2010 allowed Nick Clegg to get electoral reform on the political agenda.

As a third party under First Past the Post, the likelihood of the Liberal Democrats being able to bring about reform to the system was always unlikely. However, in 2010 there was a hung parliament and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats entered coalition talks with the Conservatives. As such, they were able to ensure that a referendum on introducing AV was part of the Coalition Agreement:

” We will bring forward a Referendum Bill on electoral reform, which includes provision for the introduction of the Alternative Vote in the event of a positive result in the referendum, as well as for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies. We will whip both Parliamentary parties in both Houses to support a simple majority referendum on the Alternative Vote, without prejudice to the positions parties will take during such a referendum “

The Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition Agreement of 2010

Notably, even this was a compromise. The Lib Dem manifesto called for the introduction of the Single Transferable Vote, a much more radical change that the introduction of AV would have been and the chosen system of the Electoral Reform Society. However, a move to AV was seen by the party as a reasonable step in the right direction – what Nick Clegg called “a baby step in the right direction”.

The Alternative Vote would have resulted in a relatively minor change to the way General Elections were conducted. This excellent CGP Grey outlines how it works in the video below:

Essentially, the Alternative Vote requires a slight change in how actually voters cast their vote. Instead of simply selecting the candidate they favour, voters rank their candidates in order of preference. The votes are then counted, with the candidate who wins 50% or more of the votes cast winning the seat. The following procedure is followed under this system:

  1. All the first preference votes are counted.
  2. If a candidate receives 50% of the first preference votes, the result is declared.
  3. If no candidate receives 50% of the vote, the candidate with the least votes is removed. The voters who voted for this candidate then get their votes reassigned to who they had put as their second preference.
  4. This process is repeated until a candidate has 50% of the vote.
The 2017 General Election in East Fife is a good micro-study of the problems of First Past the Post.

Contrastingly, under First Past the Post the winner is simply the candidate that wins the most votes. There is no requirement for any form of majority. This can lead to very disproportionate results. For example, in the 2017 General Election in the constituency of East Fife, Stephen Gethins became the MP by just two votes. A total of 32.8% of his constituents voted for him. However, inversely, this means that 67.2% of his constituents did not want him to become their MP and his electoral mandate could therefore be seen to be very limited. The Alternative Vote seeks to mitigate this issue by requiring a candidate to win a majority of the votes.

The referendum on AV was set for the 5th of May 2011 and the question would be ‘at present, the UK uses the “first past the post” system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the “alternative vote” system be used instead?

The parties campaigned as below:

Yes to AV: Lib Dems, SNP, Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru, UKIP

No to AV: Conservative Party and the DUP

Split: Labour Party

Ed Miliband - Wikipedia
Ed Miliband to the brave decision to campaign contrary to the majority of his party.

However, significantly, there was a split in the Labour Party. 84 Labour MPs, led by the leader Ed Miliband, campaigned for AV. Miliband said in a Guardian article that:

“ I respect the views of my Labour colleagues who are for retaining first past the post. But I disagree with them. Why? Fundamentally, because AV offers an opportunity for political reform, ensuring the voice of the public is heard louder than it has been in the past. And given the standing of politics that is an opportunity we should take. It is a system that combines the direct representation of first-past-the-post with one that will make the votes of more people count.”

The Guardian – 16th February 2011
Margaret Beckett - Wikipedia
Margaret Beckett.

However, even more Labour MPs campaigned for No. The former Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, even became President of the No Campaign.

Both sides spent significant money on the campaign but the No side significantly outspent yes. The Electoral Commission announced following the referendum that Yes spent 3.4 million compared to the 2.2 million spent by No. This is despite the No side being supported by a number of prominent electoral reform pressure groups such as the Electoral Reform Society.

The campaign that followed was not a pleasant one in many respects. There were a number of key issues and debates that put questions marks over the democratic exercise of the referendum:

1. The suggestion that AV would lead to more Coalition Governments

One of the tactics used by the No campaign was to claim that AV would lead to perpetual coalition governments. Whilst coalition government is usual in Europe, it is rather more alien in the UK system. By the time of the referendum, people were already questioning whether the Conservatives and Lib Dems should have formed a coalition government. However, this claim appeared hard to evidence. The Jenkins Commission in 1998 had found that “there is not the slightest reason to think that AV would reduce the stability of government; it might indeed lead to larger parliamentary majorities“. Indeed, research by the Electoral Reform Society indicates that the impact of AV on the size of majorities would be limited. This was clearly a scare tactic deployed by the No campaign based on rather unfounded evidence.

If the Alternative Vote had been in use at the 2010 general election, the  Liberal Democrats would have won 32 more seats, and a Labour-Liberal  Democrat coalition would also have had a
The likely difference between the FPTP and AV based on the 2010 General Election.

2. The argument over safe seats

The Yes campaign argued that AV would would eliminate safe seats, therefore making MPs more accountable to their constituents. However, the No campaign strongly contested this claim. In very safe seats, MPs usually win over 50% of the vote quite comfortably anyway. This means that they would win on the first count irregardless. The data indicated that the claim that safe seats would be eliminated was not well founded.

3. The ‘one person, one vote’ debate

Professor Vernon Bogdanor FBA CBE
Vernon Bogdanor is Britain’s foremost constitutional scholar.

The No campaign controversially claimed that the Alternative Vote gave people more than one vote. This would undermine the important democratic principle of ‘one person, one vote’. They even adopted ‘one person, one vote’ as a slogan of their campaign. However, this argument was heavily criticized by academics. For example, Britain’s most prominent constitutional scholar, Vernon Bogdanor said:

” But the no campaign’s claim that AV gives some voters two votes, also made by former foreign secretaries led by Douglas Hurd, is equally absurd. As Jo Swinson, Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire, said on last week’s Question Time, if I ask you to buy me a Mars but a Mars is not available and I suggest you buy a Twix instead, I will not receive two bars of chocolate. A transferred vote is not a multiple vote.”

Vernon Bogdanor writing in the Guardian – 11th April 2011

Whilst under AV voters cast their vote via preference, they still only vote once, but their preference will extend further than simply one indication.

4. Majority Support for MPs

The Yes campaign claimed that AV would ensure that every MP was elected by an overall majority. However, this would not be the case. AV simply ensures that a candidate is elected with at least 50% of those who expressed a preference for the final two candidates. If voters did not vote for either of these candidates at any point, these votes would not go towards either candidate. This means that an MP could be elected on less than 50% of the overall vote.

5. Overcomplicating the uncomplicated

One of the tactics used by the No campaign was not make AV sound dramatically complicated. Posters like the one below are illustrative of this:

No to AV – One person, one vote – politicaladvertising.co.uk

The No campaign made it sound like casting your vote under AV was a perplexing process that would require a depth of political knowledge beyond most voters. In reality, any voter who is literate enough read a ballot and place an X next to a name is probably able to write 1-4 in order of their preference. In addition, the fact of casting preference votes might actually encourage voters to become aware of the policies of all the different parties on offer.

6. Nasty Politics

Chris Huhne - Wikipedia
Chris Huhne threatened legal action against the Chancellor

During the campaign there was significant enmity between leading figures – most notably Chris Huhne and George Osborne – both of whom sat in David Cameron’s cabinet. Chris Huhne even threatened legal action after he claimed that George Osborne had claimed AV would require expensive new voting systems. This was not the case, however, using machines could ensure that the results from AV were counted in a similar timeframe to current elections under FPTP. The No campaign utilised this issue to the maximum. They claimed that AV would the country £250 million pounds. However, this was likely based on what the one-off costs would have been under a conversion to STV, not AV. More than that, the No campaign emotionalised this issue. Famously, they argued that spending this money was immoral when it could be spent on the NHS. In the context of the MPs expenses scandal, that made MPs public enemy No.1, and austerity, this argument was extremely effective.

The No to AV campaign is going all Phil Woolas on our asses | Paperback  Rioter
He need's bullet proof vests, not bent political campaigns... | Singletrack  Magazine Forum

In addition, there was also a controversial No campaign advert that saw a fictional character called Alan Bestard promise the world under AV, before then going back in his promises to the voters. The character clearly alluded to Nick Clegg and his ‘u-turn’ on tuition fees. However, this was a u-turn demanded by the Conservatives, who were now exploiting it in a referendum campaign.

7. A referendum on the Liberal Democrats, not AV

Scrapping grants will inspire another wave of student protests – how can  they win? | Red Pepper
The issue of tuition fees saw numerous protests, some of which turned violent. Much of this anger was directed at Nick Clegg and the Liberal Demcrats.

Before 2010 there had been a surge of support for the Liberal Democrats that was dubbed ‘Cleggmania’. Indeed, a Yougov poll on the 18th April placed them ahead of both the Conservatives and Labour. Yet, many people were angry when the Liberal Democrats joined the Coalition with the Conservatives. Most famously, this saw them completely reverse their position on tuition fees. Before the 2010 election Nick Clegg promised to increase tuition fees. However, in coalition, he agreed to increasing them to £9,000 per year. Following the referendum Nick Clegg admitted that the referendum result was, at least partially, the voters showing the Liberal Democrats deserved ‘the brunt of the blame’ for austerity. The very same night that the AV referendum was announced, the Liberal Democrats also lost 700 council seats. AV was seen as the Lib Dems flagship issue and many voters were unwilling to support them, even if they were not opposed to it. This was made even worse by divisions on the Yes side. Even though they were campaigning for the same side, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg refused to share the same stage.

The result of the referendum was a convincing win for No. The result was 67.90% for No and 32.10% for Yes. The turnout was just 42%. This was a very low turnout, especially considering the referendum coincided with local elections across much of England and also with the Scottish Parliamentary elections. The result for No was so convincing that not a single of the 12 counting regions had Yes in the majority.

For supporters of First Past the Post the referendum was a clear rejection of voting reform and the result was comprehensive enough to put the issue to rest, perhaps for at least a generation. For the Liberal Democrat’s, who had pushed for the referendum and led the Yes campaign, it was a humiliating result, but perhaps one that was a result of a pretty dismal referendum overall.

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