In the last UK election campaign, the Labour Party made an election manifesto call for a referendum on the alternative vote (AV). Of course, they made this when it was fairly likely they were going to be out of power after the election, which indeed they are.
Then came the Conservative-LibDem coalition, with its agreement to hold a referendum on AV, something the Conservatives would never have pledged to do had they won a majority at the election. Indeed, the parties agreed to disagree on the value of AV: the parties would each commit to passing legislation to put the referendum on the ballot, but Conservatives, including PM David Cameron, would be free to campaign for a “no” vote on the AV question. The Liberal Democrats, of course, would campaign in favor.
In last Thursday’s Independent were two items that suggest the opposition to AV within the Conservative ranks may be fading. First, Prof. John Curtice notes how the coalition itself has changed the likely impact of AV on the Conservatives’ chances under such a reformed electoral system.
At the May, 2010, election, had there been AV, the LibDem voters would have split their second preferences between Conservative and Labour, but more would have gone for the latter. Both big parties’ supporters would have tended to give second preferences to LibDems. Thus, says Curtice,
The figures suggested that if the Alternative Vote had been in place, the Liberal Democrats would have won 79 seats, rather than 57. The Conservatives would have won only 281, not 307. Labour would have been marginally better off with 262 instead of 258.
However, things look quite different now, six months into Britain’s coalition government. More Conservatives would likely give their second preferences to a LibDem, but fewer Labour voters would do so.
At the same time twice as many Liberal Democrats might prefer the Conservatives to Labour. If voters had behaved that way in May the Liberal Democrats would still have gained most, with 83 seats. But the Conservatives might have won as many as 316; Labour could have had just 223.
The second item suggests that this changed dynamic has not gone unnoticed among Tories. The Independent‘s Political Editor, Andrew Grice, reports that Conservatives are already considering an “informal pact” in the event that AV passes, in which each coalition party appeals for its voters to give their second preferences to the other partner.
An unofficial pact is seen as more realistic than a more formal share-out of seats under which the Tories and Liberal Democrats did not stand against each other in some seats, including the 57 held by Mr Clegg’s party. A formal deal on seats has been suggested by Nick Boles, a Tory MP and prominent supporter of Mr Cameron’s drive to modernise his party. But the Tory and Liberal Democrat leaderships admit that would provoke strong opposition from local party activists and have reassured them the two Coalition parties will both fight every seat at the next election.
It should be emphasized, but is not mentioned in the article, that a “share-out of seats,” whereby there are mutual stand-down agreements between the partners, would practically be required if FPTP remains the electoral system–if, that is, the parties go into the election with plans to continue their coalition in the next parliament, given a favorable electoral result. Obviously, if the parties are competing against each other in districts decided by plurality, they could tip many districts to Labour, as well as be practically forced to stress their disagreements in the campaign.
So AV might not be so bad in Conservative eyes, after all.
There has been a growing recognition in Tory circles since the formation of the Coalition that a switch to AV could help the party’s prospects. […] Tory MP David Mowat, who had a majority of 1,553 over Labour in his Warrington South constituency in May, said: “If we did have AV and we put Lib Dems second and they put us second, it would be very likely to give us a better result than we might achieve under first-past-the-post. There could be a squeeze effect on Labour.”
The existence of a pact would make it much harder for the LibDems to bargain with Labour after the election in the event the latter party should emerge with the most seats. Making a return of a Lib-Lab pact difficult is obviously in the Tories’ interests.
Current polling looks good for Labour, showing the party within striking distance of a parliamentary majority on around 40% of the vote. Of course, it is only six months into a government committed to deep spending cuts, and Labour has just elected a new leader. Still, the polling is a reminder that the Conservatives could very well have trouble forming a government without some sort of pact in 2015, whether it is pre- or post-electoral. And AV would seem to make a pre-electoral pact more palatable to each party’s activists and voters than would a retention of FPTP.