Sunday, 15 May 2011

Was the UK ready for electoral reform?

So it’s now been a week and a half since AV failed on a miserable margin of 32.1% to 67.9%. It is fair to say that ‘yes’ was trounced. Inevitably, after such a referendum, there is need for a post-mortem, for why AV failed.

Different arguments are banded around, and there is truth in all of them. Perhaps the best and most honest analysis came from Andy May, the Yes campaign’s National Manager for Regional Staff. There is an abridged version of his report here. It’s rather excellent, give it a read.

On another note it is definitely true that the campaign itself was shocking and it was not restricted to either side. While the No side were perhaps guilty of the more blatant untruths (the £250 million price tag claim being revealed as ‘made-up’ by David Blunkett for instance) the reality is that Yes also pedalled some questionable statements of their own. It is hard to see how AV would ‘end safe seats’ for instance, and the connection of FPTP to the expenses scandal has always struck me as being rather spurious.

The truth is the referendum, too, followed a familiar pattern for those of us who have seen referendums on such changes before. Typically such a referendum starts out with quite strong numbers but as polling day closes there is a last minute run towards the status quo. Often voters report afterwards that they simply do not feel informed enough about the changes and so a ‘devil you know...’ mindset takes over. The reality is that the general public has, typically, a very low interest in electoral systems. It is therefore the Yes campaign’s job not just to persuade, but also, most importantly, to inform. From this POV the No campaign’s tactics seem clearer, by mudding the waters and spreading misinformation the No campaign hoped to engender this confusion and a desire for the status quo. The fact remains, however, that the Yes campaign failed to properly rebuke these claims.

Another problem is the nature of AV itself. The truth is it is not what I would call a particularly transformational electoral system. Against the claims of both campaigns I, and most people I know who have a deep knowledge of electoral systems, long ago came to the view that AV would really not change very much at all. Even in the most optimistic projections only 30 seats were shown as changing hands due to the system, my gut instinct is that, in reality, even less would. I think this is also part of the reason for the myth-making on both sides of the campaign. ‘It’s not that much different to First Past the Post’ is an argument that does not really engender much desire to vote either way. Clearly the two campaigns had to campaign on something so they primarily campaigned on untruths and exaggerations. The murkiness of the campaign only spread confusion further.

In general passing electoral reforms via referenda is very difficult anyway. I only know of two Western countries that have succeeded in such an endeavour – Italy and New Zealand. As one of those countries is Italy, which is perhaps best referred to as a ‘special case’, we’ll stick with New Zealand, which is, in any case, the most similar case, using a Westminster-style FPTP system until 1996 when it held its first election under the Additional Member System or Mixed Member Proportional representation (MMP) as it usually known in New Zealand. This followed two separate referendums on the subject in 1992 and 1993.

Why did New Zealand come to change systems? Quite frankly, the reason is simple, New Zealanders saw FPTP at its worst. In 1978 and 1981 the centre-right National Party won a majority of seats though the New Zealand Labour Party won the most votes. The feeling of animosity towards FPTP was only increased because the third party, the Social Credit Party, was also left-leaning and received 1-2 seats for performances ranging in the teens to the low 20s. Labour set up a royal commission in 1984 which recommended AMS, they didn’t particular like it and nor did National, but both parties tried to outmanoeuvre the other by promising to hold a referendum on electoral reform. In 1992 a two question referendum was held. The first question asked if voters would like to change the electoral system or retain FPTP and the second asking whether voters preferred AMS, STV, AV or Parallel Voting. Huge majorities favoured changing the system on the former question and AMS on the second. There was then another referendum in 1993 which was simply between AMS and FPTP. This passed much more closely, 53.6% to 46.1%.

These two referendums demonstrate something quite important. Firstly the second referendum was much more passionately contested than the first, which may account for the thinner margin, but also the nature of the questions provides a clue to the differences as well. In the first the first question asked is purely about FPTP. Therefore FPTP must be evaluated purely on its own merits. Whatever you think of FPTP it must be obvious that FPTP is easily attacked from a range of directions. In the second referendum the only question is between a preference between FPTP and AMS, which allowed those against change to attack AMS rather than defend FPTP.

Coming back to Britain there is another important difference between this process and the one we saw in Britain – in New Zealand a very large amount of the political elite were in favour of, or were willing to accept change. In Britain the largest party was almost monolithically against AV, the largest opposition party was largely split and only the third party was consistently in favour, a third party that has become increasingly unpopular since the last election. For all the anti-politics of our times on subjects like these politicians still carry weight.

The truth is, too, that the UK has not yet had an equivalent of New Zealand 1978 and 1981. Criticise results detractors may but the reality is that the gut feeling of most Brits is that as long as the party with the largest number of votes has the largest number of seats things are fine. FPTP can produce results which violate this principle, but has not done so in the UK since 1951. Coalition politics is also very much a novelty, seen as a one-off to most Brits and views of future coalitions are clearly coloured by this one.

The good news for electoral reformers is that the majority of political scientists, psephologists and so on generally agree that as long as the last 50 years worth of trends continue then hung parliaments become more likely. Any system with constituencies also has inherent bias and therefore it can only be a matter of a time before FPTP throws up the ‘wrong’ winner as well, even with the coming boundary changes. The bad news is that probabilities are not certainties and no one has a crystal ball on this. Certainly, however, if there is a series of ‘dodgy’ results, frequent hung parliaments, second placed winners and the like then that will greatly weaken the case for FPTP in the public’s mind. If the trends in the system across the last 50 years continue then there will inevitably come a point where FPTP simply becomes untenable. The defeat of AV in this referendum may have also, ironically, fatally undermined it`

Of course, the thing is no one has a crystal ball, no one knows if this is certain or, if it does happen, when it will stop. In the short-term, at least, the next general election looks likely to produce a homogenisation of the vote around the largest two parties. It is my gut instinct that this will be temporary but if it isn’t than FPTP will engrain itself.

When all’s said and done, however, the AV referendum itself is, in a sense, a victory for electoral reformers. For the first time the government of this country has acceded to the viewpoint that there is enough questions about the functioning of the electoral system of this country to justify considering reform. The loss of the referendum will probably put off another referendum for 20-30 years at least but that is nonetheless an important statement. Lessons can also be learned from this process. The Yes campaign also managed to create an infrastructure of dedicated electoral reform activists some of whom will probably filter into organisations like the Electoral Reform Society.

To learn more about New Zealand’s electoral reform process this history from the New Zealand electoral commission is an excellent jumping off point.


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