AV might not help Labour or hurt Tories

UK Polling Report has a fascinating account of a recent YouGov poll that attempts to answer the question of how the UK parties would fare under the Alternative Vote (which is being voted on in a referendum in less than a month), given current polling trends.

YouGov found that there would be no net change for the Conservatives, a slight decline for Labour, and a substantial boost for the Liberal Democrats. There would still be a Labour majority, but of only 34 seats instead of the 60 that the same poll projects under FPTP.

The poll involved giving respondents a picture of a ballot paper and allowed them to fill it out as much as they wanted with preferences. This is important because “Labour second preferences disproportionately go to the Green party, but given that the Green party will normally have already been eliminated in a count before Labour is, it’s actually their third or fourth preferences that count.”

Perhaps not at all surprisingly, fewer and fewer Labour voters will give the LibDems a preference at all now.

What this all boils down to is that in Con v Lab marginals the lower preferences of Lib Dems would help the Conservatives win seats from Labour, in Lab v LD seats Conservative lower preferences will help the Lib Dems win seats from Labour, in Con vs LD seats Labour lower preferences will help the Lib Dems… but Con losses there will be cancelled out by Con gains against Labour.

For more details and some important caveats, see UK Polling Report and Gary Gibbon of Channel 4.

19 thoughts on “AV might not help Labour or hurt Tories

  1. Perceptive comments, as always, from Vernon Bogdanor on “the referendum that no one wants.”

    “The AV would probably make little difference in most general elections . . . It is paradoxical that politicians are getting so excited about a marginal change. But the paradox is easily explained. For the consequences of referendums can be very great. . . Whatever the verdict, there will be great strains on the coalition. A no vote will increase Lib Dem grassroots disenchantment. Party members will ask themselves what they have gained by accepting Conservative policies on cuts and tuition fees. There will be pressure to leave the coalition, and the fixed-term parliaments bill means that David Cameron cannot threaten them with a general election.

    “A yes vote will annoy Conservatives, who will claim that Cameron has given the Lib Dems extra seats, making a majority more difficult to achieve. But a yes vote will not end the debate. For many Lib Dems will say AV is but a step on the road to proportional representation, and will use their strengthened representation to press for it.

    “When AV was debated in the Commons in 1931, one MP said the system reminded him of Oscar Wilde’s comment on Whistler, that he had no enemies but was thoroughly disliked by all his friends. A referendum ought to be a weapon by which the people can make decisions for themselves. The poll on AV, by contrast, is a weapon by which the coalition partners can offload on the public the onus of deciding on a system that neither of them wants.”

  2. Tempting though it is to dismiss most anti-AV opposition (you’re excepted, Wilf; I know you’re a proportionalista too, mi compadre) as self-interest by the major parties – especially the Tories – I have to admit that doesn’t account for 100% of it.

    95% of it, maybe, but I would have to concede that even if polls showed the Tories would probably hoover up most LibDem second preferences (they certainly seemed the Liberals’ near-universal second choice against Labour in the 1940s and 1950s), a significant number would probably still oppose it for ideological reasons, much as a number of Australian Liberals oppose compulsory voting on Millian harm/consent grounds even though it may have started to help them against Labor.

    There seem to be two reasons:

    1. Procedural conservatism as a method. FPTP and SMDs are the British way. Other countries do as they do (and suffer bad governance as a result), but Westminster’s current system is over seven centuries old, so why change a good thing that works? (This is how former Aust PM Howard managed to avoid buying into a fight with his British counterparts when a BBC interviewer (http://tinyurl.com/3ods293) quizzed him about some of No2AV’s more overheated claims). Simon De Montfort carefully considered STV, AV and MMP in 1265, and rejected them all; that’s good enough for subsequent generations.

    2. Substantive conservatism (Ayn Rand lite) as goal. Individuals should compete vigorously; only the strongest should get to survive. If you choose to throw away your vote on an unwinnable candidate, too bad. Stop complaining and demanding that the government give you a second, third etc chance. AV, PR, etc enable the “losers” to “gang up” on the “winner” and snatch away the latter’s rightful fruits of victory, Little Red Hen-style. (PR is especially bad as it “exalts groups over individuals” and looks like affirmative action quotas – “we want to elect the best individuals, rather than a spoils system with proportions of positions set aside for minority groups whose members can’t get them on their own merits”).

    You can recognise these same themes recurring in debates over issues as diverse as criminal justice, welfare policy, etc, as well as electoral systems, whether in The Spectator or National Review. Like most hymns to the wonders of unregulated markets, they glide over such complications as oligopoly, imperfect knowledge, habitus and path dependence (and the restrictive, state-imposed non-compete territories that we call single-member constituencies); but they are still ideologically powerful tropes.

  3. Actually Simon de Montfort must have been a bit of a proportionalist. The 2 knights of the shire for each county in the English parliament were elected from MMDs as were the variable number of burgesses for each borough. Contrary to the fond dreams of the seven centuries of single member greatness types, the English and the British parliaments included large numbers of MMDs until quite recently.

    • Alan, yes, but always with MNTV, right?

      I suppose the argument could be made that had Britain kept multi-seat districts, even with non-proportional formulas (or, if one insists, perhaps also the occasional “semi-proportional” one), PR could have been a more natural solution than it has proven to be as a result of the long tradition of M=1.

  4. As fas as I can tell they always used MNTV because, as Tom says, it was all that was available. There was also a time in Britain when the ultimate penalty short of hanging was transportation to New South Wales was all that was available but for some reason that did not acquire the glorious patina that M=1 has done. The drive to make M=1 a universal rule actually dates only from the nineteenth century Reform Acts.

    More importantly, institutional conservatives frequently claim that a particular institution has always existed (or, in the US, is sanctioned by the semi-divine constitution) when it has not. The unit rule in US presidential elections is another one that comes to mind.

    My favourite example of institutional conservatives and bad history was in Australia’s monarchy debate when John Howard described Elizabeth II as a descendant of Elizabeth I, a queen who famously died without issue.

  5. I understand from reading Hoag & Hallett that, in the 19th century, the few three-member constituencies for the Commons used Limited Vote (ie, your maximum number of X’s per ballot-paper was 2, or DISTMAG, whichever was less) so that, eg, in Birmingham, Joseph Chamberlain’s Liberal Party machine still managed to sweep all three seats by means of prudent Irish/ Japanese-style vote management, ie dividing their supporters into three roughly equal blocs and telling Bloc A to vote for Smith and Jones, Bloc B to vote for Smith and Green, and Bloc C to vote for Green and Jones.

    As often occurs after semi-proportional systems have been successfully “gamed” (see Illinois’ experiment with Cumulative Vote, or Japan in 1993), the backlash against such tactics led to the universal imposition of single-seat FPTP.

    I’ve some idea the three-seaters existed because the Reform Acts allowed extra seats for cities with growing populations and there wasn’t any regular mechanism for re-drawing electoral boundaries. So big industrial hubs like Birmingham went from being two-seaters to three-seaters. According to Antony Green, Australia’s electoral guru, this is similar to why the NSW lower house grew as big as 143 MLAs before Federation.

    • Yes there was, shall we say, limited use of the limited vote in the UK in the mid-19th century. See my recounting of some of Henry Droop’s commentary about that at the time in my essay on Droop that is linked under “core principles” on the left sidebar.

  6. In the unreformed parliament all counties and boroughs (areas separated from a county and given their own parliamentary representation) had at least 2 members. Some very large counties and boroughs had more. London had 4 and Lincolnshire had 10.

    The Reform Acts never envisaged a quota. Indeed the reformers tended to get a little dismissive, gazing across the Atlantic and complaining about ‘numerical representation’ in the US. The reform acts reduced the number of seats for over-represented counties and boroughs and increased them for under-represented areas. Lincolnshire was cut to 2 by the Great Reform Act 1832. The UK does not have a uniform quota for parliamentary representation even now, although the Coalition is moving in that direction.

  7. Regarding “substantive conservatism (Ayn Rand lite [ie, libertarian principles moderated by nationalism and deference to tradition]) as a goal” – I should add, to be fair, that many members of the Labour and/or trades union movements can also square support for FPTP with their own ideological traditions. Ie – why would any loyal left-winger want to express preferences? You vote for our one preselected candidate, brootha, and if he/she loses, we’re all stooffed. Running multiple candidates is a breach of solidarity. Why would we want a coalition with bourgeois left parties like the LibDems? The best outcome of all is a strong government with an absolute majority for The Party Of The Workers, unhindered by checks and balances. The second-best outcome is a clear majority for the Ruling Class Enemy Party, so that it will be tempted into overtly attacking the proletariat, who will then become militant as a result.

    Hence the strong emphasis on caucus discipline over parliamentary representatives (Australian Labor must be one of the strictest in the world, but UK Labour isn’t that far behind). Anything that encourages minor-party rivals on the Left, or requires the Party to deal with “rats” (Ramsay McDonald, Reg Prentice, David Owen, Vince Gair) on the Right, is suspect. Hence John Reid and Margaret Beckett supporting FPTP over AV, and Peter Hain and Gordon Brown supporting AV over PR.

    Also, one can detect some nuances differentiating conservative opposition to PR and/or preferential voting as one crosses the Atlantic. For British Conservatives, these are suspect because they would make it harder for the governing party to win a majority in each elective house of the legislature, and thus harder for the head of government to get his/her legislative proposals passed unamended. Whereas for US Republicans, these are suspect because they would make it harder for the opposition party to win a majority in at least one elective house of the legislature, and thus easier for the head of government to get his/her legislative proposals passed unamended. Either way, society would perish.

  8. Note the recent IPPR-YouGov poll suggesting that these sort of “tribal” voters (“my first-choice party, or nothing”) are a “dying breed”. “… almost two thirds of voters say that more than one political party represents their views and values. Less than one in five say that only one party comes close to reflecting their views and values and that they are strongly opposed to all others…”

    I’m not sure “promiscuous” and “tribal” are terribly flattering adjectives but at least they are even-handedly negative.

  9. The university constituencies used STV between 1918 and 1948 when they were finally abolished. Every graduate of a particular university had a vote which was additional to their regular vote in the constituency where they lived.

    The seven centuries of single seat glory date from the Redistribution of Seats Act 1885 and the exclusive use of FPTP dates from 1948.

  10. One is of course hesitant to post (for fear of offending Brits attached to the Mother of Parliaments (or Icelanders attached to the Grandmother of Parliaments)) that the houses of representatives in Australia, Canada, and the US have a longer history than the UK house of commons as assemblies elected exclusively from single-member districts.

  11. Alan;

    “My favourite example of institutional conservatives and bad history was in Australia’s monarchy debate when John Howard described Elizabeth II as a descendant of Elizabeth I, a queen who famously died without issue.”

    Lateral vs. direct descent?

    Of course your larger point is exactly right. Election reformers in America run into the idea that plurality is in the Constitution a lot — even people who aren’t idolaters of the Founding take that to be an insuperable objection, because of the difficulty of amending the Constitution.

  12. Hi Aaron,

    If you mean plurality as in “election by plurality” – where exactly in the Constitution? I see a lot about two-thirds and three-quarters majorities, and about how the Electoral College or Congress elects the President and VP by absolute majority, but I have missed any clauses to the effect of “the candidate with the most votes is elected” – except perhaps by implication in that House and Senate “shall chuse” their presiding officers, such that repeated failure to elect anyone by insisting on an absolute majority (apparently a problem for many state legislatures when they used to elect Senators before the 17th Amendment) would violate this duty to “chuse”.

    • Tom, I took Aaron to be saying that the alleged constitutional status of plurality is a sort of cultural obstacle in the way of receptivity to reform, not to be saying that the constitution itself actually is an obstacle.

      But maybe Aaron will come back and clarify.

      And it is about time we went back to writing “chuse.”

  13. Alan had said, “More importantly, institutional conservatives frequently claim that a particular institution has always existed (or, in the US, is sanctioned by the semi-divine constitution) when it has not.” The false claim that plurality is in the Constitution was an example which I’ve seen and which I felt like mentioning.

    I once saw a website which used little cartoon Founding Fathers as the author’s mouthpieces — and made Thomas Jefferson the spokesman for religious orthodoxy and Benjamin Franklin to hector the viewer with conservative sexual morals. I don’t think it was a parody. The language was the one conservatives use, not the one liberals use when they impersonate conservatives. I felt a little sorry for whoever had come up with it.

    Also: Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be

    I don’t think you can get a plurality rule, even as a backstop, from the requirement to choose (or chuse) presiding officers, because there are other methods that also reach results without needing majority first-preferences. Lots and lots of them, in fact.

  14. I am sure somewhere in your political mosaic there are orthographic textual originalists who argue the failure to use ‘chuse’ invalidates any and all acts of the federal government since they jackbooted the self-evidently invalid ‘choose’ onto an unsuspecting people.

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