Tories warming to AV?

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.

9 thoughts on “Tories warming to AV?

  1. The coalition government must have been a remarkable success, if it is true that the Conservatives are considering AV to continue it. But it could be. They seem a lot happier about sharing power than I ever thought they would be.

  2. A preference-swapping agreement would be a boon to supporters of positive campaigns and opponents of non-competitive single-member districts alike. The IRV lobby has long argued that incentives for less bashing are a potential benefit of the reform. The opponents of “gerrymandered” districts (which is not the cause of non-competition in most cases) appear to have several motivations, the lack of meaningful voter choice being one. So this news of IRV/AV potentially obviating a stand-down is good for both sets of reformers.

    The interesting question is why the parties would prefer a preference-swap to a stand-down. In this case, it seems to be that (1) preferences are ordered and the orderings distributed across parties in such a way as to make “IRV behavior” incentive-compliant and (2) the parties understand their incentives to preference-swap in the first place.

    Contextual effects for sure, but good to see.

  3. As Lyndon B Johnson noted, get them by their [sensitive bits] and their hearts and minds will follow, at least when we are talking about political parties and electoral systems.

    All the guff about “My constructed example shows that AV/STV is unacceptably CHAOTIC!” will melt away once the party hard-heads take in that being at the mercy of small-party candidates who refuse to stand down is even more chaotic, and that since vote-shifting occurs under almost any electoral system, one might as well use a system that at least lets us know when and how far it occurs.

    The long, slow conversion of the Australian Labor Party from demanding first-past-the-post to accepting AV is an example. (In fact, Queensland Labor has gone even further and has suddenly discovered the advantages of compulsory over optional preferences).

  4. Yes, the infamous candidate A-B-C arguments and their Alice-Brian-Carter cousins. (Dependent variable is incentive to misrepresent sincere preference ordering.) I’m taking nominations for the strongest form of that argument. Thoughts, anyone?

  5. What miffs me most about the AV-haters (whether “it locks out minor parties” – US version, or “a recipe for hung parliaments” – UK version), is that they seem to have never heard of Australia and instead construct fantasy arguments against an electoral system used for nearly a century by the world’s sixth-oldest continuous democracy. There are certainly ways to improve the system (multi- not single-member districts), but since the opponents are peddling FPTP, Borda or Approval they have already given away the shop on this.

  6. The Victorian state election is getting interesting.

    The duopoly thesis is defeated by the total absence of any sign of the major parties co-operating to exclude minor parties. The sole case of major party co-operation in this way was the decision in the 90s that the major parties would co-operate in putting One Nation (which bore a fairly close resemblance to groups like the VVD in the Netherlands or the Tea Party in the US) last on their how-to-vote cards. Sadly for the duopoly thesis all minor parties apart from One Nation took the same decision. The basis for the decision was that One Nation’s policies on human rights, immigration and indigenous affairs made them an unacceptable presence in Australian politics.

    The one time a major party, the Queensland Nationals, preferenced One Nation ahead of Labor, the result was 11 One Nation MLAs and a Labor minority government.

    Now the more rightwing elements in the Liberal Party are pushing the idea that the Greens are worse than Labor and that the Liberals should preference Labor instead of the Greens. At first sight that looks an attractive idea for them, but its actual effect would be to free up Labor resources int he inner city, where they are threatened by the Greens, and enable Labor to more vigorously contest suburban and outer urban seats where they are competitive with the Liberals.

    The duopoly thesis looks like it is in for some rough treatment from the facts yet again.

  7. Alan, I do not understand this “duopoly” thesis (straw-person?) that you are trying to knock down.

    Has anyone claimed that if AV is adopted in the UK, Labour and Conservatives will collude against other parties? I think the thread in which you raised this is pretty clear: Conservatives and Liberal Democrats could extend their coalition more easily against Labour (and others) if they had AV.

  8. MSS

    It’s been claimed a number of times in comments to this blog that MPV has the effect (and sometimes is a plot) that enables the major parties in Australia to duopolise lower house seats.

  9. The Victorian preference tickets are out. Labor and the Greens are preferencing each other. The Coalition parties are preferencing Labor ahead of the Greens. The Liberals seem to be in bed with the Sex Party. Another bad day for the collusion thesis. And it appears Victoria may be heading for a balanced parliament.

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