No-one actually cares what the electorate thinks about changing the voting system from FPTP to AV. Only once previously has the UK held a referendum, in 1975 to approve British entry into the then European Economic Community. Conventionally, a referendum is regarded as appropriate when a policy is proposed that fundamentally changes the constitutional settlement, especially when the governing party has no electoral mandate through having proposed the policy in its manifesto. Thursday’s question is both fundamental and without a formal mandate. Crucially, too, it splits the government itself; Liberal Democrats suffer under FPTP, winning 25% of the vote but 10% of the seats in 2010, while Conservatives fear a permanent Lib-Lab lockout under a more proportional system.
But AV is far from a major upheaval. Predicting how it might have affected the last election is difficult, since data on second and third preferences is not always readily available. Rough estimates based on polls taken shortly after elections have shown a range of impacts, but a common theme is that the Liberal Democrats would be likely to gain, primarily at the expense of the Conservatives. Labour stands to benefit too; in fact, the BBC’s figures (based on the British Election Study) suggest Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide could have been even more catastrophic for John Major’s party. They are shown finishing third, behind the Liberal Democrats, with just 70 seats to Labour’s 445. Nevertheless, the overall effect is likely to be limited. The proposal stops short of a switch to a fully proportional system of representation. Indeed, Nick Clegg once called AV a “miserable little compromise”.
So why the fuss? Why the expense and effort of a referendum? The answer is simple. It is the lynchpin of the coalition. Nick Clegg could not have struck a deal with David Cameron without obtaining at the least the chance to make his case for electoral reform direct to the voters. Cameron, meanwhile, could hardly have sold the deal to his own sceptical right flank without settling for the most minimal of possible reforms. Both agreed to fight their own campaigns, and accept the result as it came without it necessarily becoming an acid test for the coalition.
What the actual consequences of a yes or no vote may be is unclear. What is clear is that the referendum, the very prospect of changing the voting system at all, has come about solely as a result of politicians’ self-interested efforts to set the rules of the political game in such a way as to benefit themselves. Liberal Democrats want a more proportional system because they lose out under FPTP. Conservatives want to keep FPTP because it is they who gain at the Liberal Democrats’ expense. Both have agreed to hold a vote on a switch to AV so as to facilitate their formation of a coalition government. There are genuine proponents and opponents of reform on both sides, motivated by belief in the rectitude or impropriety of AV, but their beliefs came in to play only after the political calculation was made by their leaders that a referendum represented the optimum compromise between their opposing viewpoints, and that such a compromise was needed if they were to do business together at all.
So no-one in power really cares about AV. The referendum is a tool to hold together a coalition government. The ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps are motivated more by a desire for power than by any strong commitment to democracy or to the voters themselves. For the strongest argument against AV is that put by Nick Clegg himself. It isn’t enough. Anyone from the ‘No’ campaign who says it’ll be a disaster is exaggerating. Anyone from the ‘Yes’ campaign who says it’ll fix politics is unrealistic. It is a small change, to slightly increase the link between voting behaviour and political power in Britain. It is being offered as part of a political compromise, brokered by men who wanted to be in government. No-one cares what you think about AV.
PS I’m still voting yes, by the way. Because as much as I like coffee, I’d rather go for a beer…