"At present, the UK uses the 'first past the post' system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the 'alternative vote' system be used instead?" - the question to be posed to the electorate on the 5th of May, 2011

The orphaned question...

It's a short, inauspicious, nerdy question to pose to the British public; one that isn't even very well composed. The abuse of unattributable quotation marks is a hideous twisting of English and it refers to our elected representatives with the acronym MPs rather than their full title of Members of Parliament - a clumsy turn of phrase. And yet posing this question to the populace is one of the most radical acts in British politics for the last half century. This topic is one that requires an enormous amount of context to make sense of, so we'll begin with some short facts to underline how unusual this plebiscite is:

  • This is the first UK-wide referendum since 1975, and that referendum was the only major act of direct democracy in British political history.
  • The agreement to hold this referendum was the deal-maker that led to the formation of the current government after the inconclusive UK General Election of 2010.
  • It is the change that no-one wants, referred to even by its supporters as a "miserable little compromise"1. To them it's the first step towards bringing British politics out of the 19th century, to its opponents it is a dangerous assault on a sensible status quo, and both sides played a role in phrasing the question.

The guts of the referendum goes thus: in a current UK general election each citizen votes for their constituency's Member of Parliament from a list of candidates standing for their local seat. They stand in a little wooden booth in a community building such as a church, library or school and draw an X next to the candidate they wish to be represented by. The candidate in the area who gets the most X's is elected to Parliament, and in Parliament if a group of MP's possess a majority of all seats they can form a government with all the powers of the Executive. This system is termed First Past The Post (FPTP). Under the Alternative Vote (AV) system the citizen numbers the candidate list in order of preference, and when the counting begins the candidates are ranked in order of first preference votes, the candidate with fewest votes is eliminated and their second-preference votes then come into play. This process continues until a candidate has more than 50% of the total vote in their constituency. Everything else stays the same.

Nowhere in the question, nor elsewhere in the informally composed UK constitution, is any mention made of political parties, and yet everything about this referendum should be interpreted in the light of Britain's ossified culture of party politics.

The framework that went all the way back to 1832...

The current system is a brutally winner takes all way to become an MP, and because the government is chosen by a further winner takes all choice in the House of Commons; it means that the UK's Government and Prime Minister are unusually remote from the people's ballot. By forming into political parties the MP's can present themselves as broad coalitions of interests from the country and using this they can divide themselves into polarised groups. Historically, Britain has a system with two dominant tribes: the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. It's an anti-incumbent system of government - if you want to see the current government out of power the best choice is to vote for the candidate of the other big party. And yet each party is formed from a specific coalition of interests, and they are going to take those interests with them into power. Woe to those who want to see the party that best represents their own interests out of power, just because they are incompetent and really need to leave.

The participation hurdles preventing any other party's election are enormous - in order to get your third party candidate elected you need to persuade the largest group of citizens (typically over 35%) in one specific constituency that they want to be represented by someone who can be virtually guaranteed not to hold power in the next government. And yet over the last 60 years there has been a gradual decline in those willing to vote for the two tribes, from 95.52% of the total vote in 1951 to 65.1% in 2010. A growing percentage chose to vote for regional parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and for Britain's main third party - the Liberal Democrats. In the general election of 2005 the Labour Party managed to form a government with a substantial parliamentary majority, and therefore almost unassailable executive power, with only 35.2% of the popular vote. The BBC has an excellent little online tool for judging proportions of the vote over the course of 5 recent general elections, against numbers of seats won2. Further, the last four elections have seen a rise in independent MP's (a powerless position) which requires an entire constituency to commit the political equivalent of ritual suicide. This status quo is only justifiable on the most nakedly pragmatic grounds.

It's even worse than that...

Unlike the US system where the candidates for office are selected after primaries, the political parties of the UK have complete autonomy. Only the narrow party memberships have any role in choosing their party leaders (who become Prime Minister of the country). Like those willing to vote for the two tribes, the party membership has collapsed over the last sixty years. Party memberships stats are historically very difficult to drag out of party offices, but according to a 2009 study by the House of Commons Library3 for the election of 2005 only 1.3% of the UK population was a member of a political party. In all history, the highest reliable figure for total party membership was 3.8% in 1983. To illustrate what this means: current Prime Minister David Cameron was elected to party leader in 2005 by a party membership of 250 000, meaning he has a personal mandate from only a caucus of 0.41% of the population. Further, the two main parties have bizarre internal constitutional features that lead to participation hurdles against new members - in the Labour Party the Trade Union movement (13.5% of the population) have a major constitutional role in all party decisions, and in the Conservative Party the current MP's have a disproportionate role in leadership elections.

Britain is thus ruled by two narrow, self-selecting, cliques that have remained in roughly their current form since 1920. The dividing lines between these cliques are defined by what their leadership believes will matter in winning the next election. This is typically the perceived interests of a small number of swing-constituencies. In these seats one of the big parties is in a position to defeat the other one. The interests of any seats where one party has a reliable majority can be disregarded. The modern Conservative Party is broadly-speaking the rural, asset-owning, socially conservative coalition of interest while The Labour Party is broadly the urban, asset-poor party of a mobile populace. By forcing these apparently disparate groups of interests into the same tribes their relative importance is settled by internal debate rather than through elections. Since these debates are conducted in the partisan parts of the national media (which means newspapers in the UK) the dividing lines are malleable. Basically, the parties coalitions are dictated by issues that the London-based party leaderships and newspaper owners believe will drive the electorate in those swing regions away from their opponent and into their own clique. And the rest of the population can go hang.

Even the redeeming aspect of a winner takes all system (get those damn bums out of Parliament) no longer seems to apply: in the 31 years between 1979 and 2010 the incumbent was only driven out of government twice. Britain has had only 3 separate governments since 1979.

The election that couldn't produce a decision...

So, that is the status quo as things were with only the rarest exceptions before the UK General Election of 2010. This was one of the most unusual elections of modern times and is covered thoroughly by aneurin in his writeup, linked above. In brief summary: in the initial run-up the exceptionally tired-looking Labour party appeared to be on the way to narrowly losing Parliament to a narrow overall majority for The Conservatives. Then, in a bizarre upset, the advent of Britain's first televised leader's debate led to a massive surge of interest in the Liberal Democrat party and their leader Nick Clegg. Projecting the post-debate polls onto the coming election it appeared the election was going to be a three-way dead-heat 30% Con, 30% Lab, 30% Lib Dem. This outcome held out the possibility of a hung parliament where, for only the second time in 70 years, neither of the big two parties would be able to rule the nation without compromising.

The Liberal Democrats up until this point were regarded as an oversized collective of lobbyists pretending they were a political party, a think-tank with delusions of grandeur. Having spent the preceeding 40 years plugging away at election after election without so much as a sniff of power they looked cleaner than the other two (both muddied by decades of self-interest and collectively contaminated by the corruption from the MP's Expenses Scandal). They also benefitted from having spent their lives as political underdogs; it really didn't look like they were career politicians hungry for power for its own sake.

The election did indeed lead to this hung-parliament and the Conservative Party were forced to form a government with the Liberal Democrats in order to get a working majority - Britain's first major coalition since the Second World War. Personally, I am convinced the British public gamed that election with citizens voting in their constituencies for the choice most likely to produce a tie. If the Liberal Democrats stood for anything (and general consensus was that they were the party of looking after grandma, stroking kittens, and being nice to the neighbours) it was for a change in the constitution to break the stranglehold of the big two parties. In the resulting negotiations to form a government the main concession they wrung out was that the joint government would hold a referendum on the Alternative Vote. It was generally believed that of all the possible forms of electoral reform this was the only one the Conservative Party would accept. A date was selected of exactly a year after the election, when the country could see whether coalition government led to meltdown.

The nerds and their tinkering with the terms...

There are numerous alternatives to FPTP, with widely different forms of electoral systems adopted in such western democracies as Israel, France, Australia and the US. This is not a purely academic issue: if you move the tactical landscape of how to go about winning an election, you force the parties to choose different approaches to politics and you change the tone of the national debate. Berlusconi's Italy is probably the best test case of how an absurdly divison based proportional system (up until 1993) can be converted to an elective dictatorship by one miss-handled electoral reform. It's thus an extremely geeky but extremely substantial decision and one that needs a referendum to ensure it is the will of the people.

Almost any change would benefit the Liberal Democrats. Their vote is spread reasonably widely across the country with only a small regional concentration of voters in the south west of England. Their specific interests would best be served by the opposite of the current system: a fully proportional vote. In this system Parliament would be elected purely on the grounds of percentages of the popular vote with no constituencies. Most electoral systems can be viewed as sitting somewhere between the majoritarian aspects of FPTP and the pluralism of proportional representation. Under a fully proportional system most recent elections would have lead to three power blocks, with roughly 30-30-30-10 with much haggling over decisions. However, there are a number of minor parties (The UK Independence Party, The Green Party and The British National Party) who tend to poll across the country with that missing 10% of the vote, and they would benefit enormously from a proportional system. They would fly straight from no seats to many.

This splintering of political parties is a risk of reform, with opponents of change holding out the ogre of far right and far left parties holding the balance of power in coalition governments. Unfortunately for those making this case, over the last decade large British democratic bodies (The London Assembly, Scotland and Wales' regional governments) have learned to function using AV without this happening. And yet, this is also potentially the great benefit of electoral reform - at present we are offered the choice of two parties whose dividing lines are ancient, and who remain defined by their relationship to each other. Within these parties are major issues of contention that are fought out in party conferences and at ministerial tables - in the Conservative Party between the interests of capital and social conservativism, in Labour between the urban middle class and the trade union oriented industrial class. Any time one of the two parties gets a majority there is talk of splits as the internal coalition fights itself for supremacy. To see these discussions conducted in public, between discrete parties, is among the ultimate aims of change - with a party's power reflecting the public mandate for their specific positions.

Any such change would best be made incrementally, with the risk of descending into the mess that Italy and Israel have found themselves in after major constitutional reforms. Leaving the Alternative Vote - the "miserable little compromise", currently used in just Australia, Fiji and Ireland - as the best first step. This is a change which is still constituency based, which is relatively simple to concieve, which under current circumstance wouldn't be enough to let the minor parties breakthrough, but one which would require every MP to represent at least 50% of the will of the people in their constituency. The tactical voting that has plagued Britain for the last 40 years, of voting for the party most likely to defeat your hated political opponent rather than the one that actually believes what you believe, this would be gone for good.

Excuse me, I know you're on the way to the shops, but can I please convince you to grapple with this esoteric body of political theory?..

All of the parties like to pretend they know how the recent elections would have turned out had they been conducted under different systems, but its based on the flawed assumption that the parties own their electorates, not the other way round. Offer me an apple or an orange and I'll go for an orange, but offer me a plum as well and who knows what I'll do? Further, it's becoming clear that while the status quo may benefit the parties as institutions, it doesn't necessarily benefit the people in those parties: David Cameron our current Prime Minister is having a far easier time in coalition than he would with a small Conservative majority. This is because each of the big parties contain a fair proportion of single-issue wingnuts, and when part of a small parliamentary majority these can hold the entire party to ransom. With the current coalition the centre right of the Conservative party seems to be silencing their nutters by making deals with the centrists of the Liberal Democrats. Britain therefore stands on an unusual threshold of ditching the worst parts of our politics, while keeping the same people as our politicians. This is not necessarily good for those who want change: Nick Clegg, previously change's posterboy, has been permanently damaged by the acts of the new government (there are far fewer kittens to stroke when you're in power). Trying to initiate an anti-Liberal Democrat surge is one of the better tools the "No" group has to get their vote out.

The outcome of this referendum is the great unknown in British politics: current polls suggest the vote is swinging marginally towards a "Yes"4, but the campaign has only just begun and a big wedge of the population haven't yet engaged with the issue. The Labour5 and Liberal Democrat6 party leaders have each delivered speeches supporting a "Yes" vote, the Conservative7 leader for a "No", but no party is putting its full partisan machine behind either campaign. The management of the campaigns is being left to a number of unaffiliated think tanks and not-for-profits. The usual partisan newspapers are lining up to defend the old order, over which they have exercised so much influence... The greatest weakness of the "No" campaign is that it will be very difficult to convince their potential voters to pay attention and care enough to vote, whereas the "Yes" campaign have been waiting for this for decades. The greatest weakness of the "Yes" campaign is that they don't really want this reform, and it represents at best a marginal step in the direction they wish to go. A "Yes" vote is something of a leap of faith.

And that is roughly where Britain stands, with a certain unreality as we await the referendum that will reshape politics. A more thorough comparison of FPTP and AV is beyond the scope of this essay, but personally I believe it will likely result in only marginal change. Nonetheless, if that change is sufficient to consolidate the role of coalitions in British politics then the likelihood is of further reform somewhere down the line. There is a certain head in the sands mentality to suggesting the current coalition is just a blip in the monotony of two-party-rule when the electorate is so evenly split; with a full third opposed to the big two parties. It is very difficult to justify a situation that is so unrepresentative, which is why the "No" campaign are currently chasing the man8 (Nick Clegg), not the ball. Should Britain follow this campaign through, it may one day constitute a representative democracy.

1Independent article from before the 2010 election "I want to push this all the way, declares Clegg".
2BBC Election percentages calculator
3Membership of UK political parties.
4Wikipedia article summarising AV polls
5Labour leader Ed Milliband's article for The Guardian newspaper in support of AV
6Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg's speech on AV at commencement of the campaign
7Conservative leader David Cameron's speech on AV at commencement of the campaign.
8The No to AV group's first major press release of the campaign, aimed straight at the Deputy Prime Minister

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