The UK Looks to Australia

David_archer With a referendum on the Alternative Vote System looming, British voters look down under to gauge its effects, writes David Archer.

As the Australians go to the polls on the 21st of August the eyes of the political classes in the UK will be focused more than usual on their southern cousins.

One of the peculiar compromises to emerge from the coalition government formed following the UK general election in May was the promise to hold a referendum on electoral reform. Specifically, the question to be put to the British people is whether or not to abandon the first-past-the-post constituency system that has been in place on and off since the 13th century and adopt instead the Alternative Vote system (AV) which is already long established in Australia and known as the Preferential Vote.

The reason for this situation is the Conservative leadership’s need to offer their Liberal Democrat coalition partners concessions to join the government. The Liberal Democrats, although charlatan chameleons of convenience on most issues, have consistently supported electoral reform. The measure they have traditionally supported, proportional representation, was unpalatable to the Tories, and thus the soggy compromise of a referendum on AV was adopted as official policy.

The ensuing debate on AV has created splits within parties rather along traditional party lines. Cameron has committed himself to campaign for it, but his backbenchers are under no such compulsion and many are mobilising against it.  The Labour party, proving itself more competent in opposition than they ever were in government, have recently declared their opposition on an apparently technical point. They are, they claim, opposed not to AV –indeed, they were the only party to publically support AV before the election- but are opposed to the reform that will be bundled into the Bill alongside AV:  the plan to equalise the size of mainland UK constituencies. With typically Machiavellian shamelessness they have announced that any plan to improve the in-built bias to Labour in the constituency boundary distribution constitutes the worst form of gerrymandering.

There are few unbiased parties in this debate, although activists outside the three main establishment parties have claimed disinterest. Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) has said that his party would only be excited by AV+, i.e. AV that includes a proportional element with a percentage of MPs to be elected off party lists. It was AV+ that was recommended by the Jenkins Commission, the last serious investigation into voting reform in the UK, which reported back in 1998. The race-motivated socialists of the far-left British Nationalist Party would also stand to gain under that reform, currently off the table.

The Conservative punditocracy appears to be split, and as the planned referendum date of May 5, 2011 approaches we can only expect debate to intensify along with considerable political manoeuvring on all sides.

UK voters have good reason to be cynical about referenda. The last time a national referendum was offered was in 1975 on the question of whether the UK should remain in the European Common Market. Since a majority voted yes on that narrow question, constitution-bending European integration has accelerated through the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties with referenda always promised but never delivered by all the main parties. The presence of Euro-fetishist Liberal Democrats on the governing Tory benches has ensured that European integration is likely to remain the awkward but unmentionable elephant in the House of Commons. The Liberal Democrats are already excitedly talking about AV as merely a stepping stone on their march to full Proportional Representation.

As I see it, arguments against AV are that eccentric and exciting candidates would be penalised (as they would pick up fewer second preference votes) and line-towing party hacks would be rewarded. The coalition we currently endure might become the status quo with the Liberal Democrats as permanent power brokers. The third largest party would unfairly hold the balance of power. The satisfying spectacle of the Prime Minister being chucked out of 10 Downing Street the morning after an election would be less likely as coalition-forming talks could drag on for weeks or months. Some see coalition politics as a civilised contrast to the rough and tumble of partisan debate; others see coalitions producing parliamentary milquetoasts and are concerned by the potential for the formation of a lazy unchallenged consensus.

On the positive side of the ledger, many apparently support AV as helping their own partisan advantage.  On all sides calculations are being made about which parties will do best under which system. Such considerations come with with considerable potential to backfire. They also set a very dangerous precedent for constitutional meddling. It is to be hoped that most peoples’ votes, if not most politicians’ recommendations, will be motivated by principle rather than by any perceived sense of self-interest.

Many people are unhappy with the current First-Past-the-Post voting system. Certainly it is imperfect. AV represents change. That may be enough to convince a majority of voters to go for it, but it is far from clear that it will be change for the better. The decision endorsed by the Electoral Commission, a very dodgy Quango, to hold the referendum on the same day as local elections are held in some but not all of the country, seems suspect and is already a focal point for Tory opposition. It’s ironic that a democratic reform is being proposed and campaigned for by a coalition leadership for whom nobody voted.

Currently Australia is one of very few countries to have an AV system, although it is complicated in the Australian case by the compulsory voting requirement: an odd situation which seems to turn a right to vote upside down into an apathy-breeding obligation.

One prominent Australian Liberal Party activist told me in London last week that he thinks that AV is unfair because some voters end up having effectively two votes. The thoughts of Australians will be welcome in this debate, and at least one psephological analysis has already been posted at ConservativeHome.

I suspect that when it comes down to it I will vote against AV, hoping that no “second preference votes” are added into the mix to confuse matters.

David Archer is a freelance writer, a business risk analyst and a public affairs consultant. He has worked in the FTSE 100, and as a manager and editor at two major Washington think tanks. He currently divides his working life between Washington and London, and ghost writes for an MEP.