Opinion: Must the Alternative Vote benefit the Liberal Democrats?

John Curtice is a God among psephologists. He is not a man to be criticised lightly. But he left me muttering into my cornflakes when I heard him suggest on the Today Programme that we could be sure AV delivers a benefit to the Lib Dems in terms of seats won.

Now, the national media – even Radio 4’s august news flagship – is not happy dealing in nuance but there are at least three reasons why it is dangerous to make assumptions about future elections fought under AV on the basis of past elections fought on FPTP.

First is whether the Lib Dems have already maxed out on their ability to win seats through transferred votes. Since 1997 the Lib Dems have become masters of the art of harvesting tactical votes. In the 50 or so closest marginals involving the Lib Dems we perhaps already see the outcome as it would be under AV – most third party voters having already transferred their vote to their preferred second choice. Indeed it is quite possible that the tactical vote unwind could COST the Lib Dems seats as they could no longer credibly argue for a forced choice between themselves and one of the other big parties

Second is the behaviour of the other parties. They will not sit like beasts for the slaughter waiting for their fate. They will adapt to the new environment, perhaps seeking to appeal more to the very voters the Lib Dems have relied upon in the past in order to boost their second preference tallies. Lib Dem support can go down as well as up.

And third is the new (and slightly surreal) political environment we have been living in for the last year. Polls already show a shift in the way Lib Dem voters’ second preferences would split between Labour and the Tories. They also show strong disapproval of the coalition among Labour voters. That much is not surprising but what is also clear is that Nick Clegg registers massive negative numbers among Labour voters. The top line Lib Dem vote might recover with the economy as the party hopes but will a party led by Clegg really be able to win the second preferences of Labour voters in 2015?

As I suggested in the discussion thread of a post on the referendum campaign, it’s worth pausing to take a look at Australia. There, under AV, the third party has all but died out leaving a two party state currently balanced by a handful of independents. The Yes campaign says AV will force parties to work harder and listen more to voters. If they are right the Lib Dems are not exempt and should not expect the system to reward them without earning it.

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  • It’s worth noting that a big part of the reason why the Australian Democrats’ (and other small parties) generally don’t win under AV is that it is hardly ever a top priority for them. They usually put more effort into Senate seats, where the electoral system is more favourable (PR) and where they can wield more power.

  • Old Codger Chris 17th Apr '11 - 2:15pm

    I agree with all this.

    If next month’s vote is Yes, I wouldn’t be surprised if UKIP benefit in 2015.

  • Paul Griffiths 17th Apr '11 - 4:43pm

    @Stephen W

    Not all AV research makes the assumption you claim. Indeed, since it is such a patently inaccurate assumption, I’d doubt that any serious research makes it, at least without caveat. However, your hunch appears to be correct in that the study of Sanders et all, published in Parliamentary Affairs in 2010, found that (for example), about 90% of Conservative voters voted the same way in an actual FPTP ballot versus a simulated AV ballot, whereas only about 75% of Lib Dem voters did so.

    By the way, your cynical view that Liberal Democrats’ support for electoral reform is founded solely on party interest is wrong, although I suspect that absolutely nothing I could say would convince you otherwise.

  • It’s all very well to say that the Lib Dems are unpopular and will find it harder to pick up Labour second preferences, but that’s beside the point. What would be needed for the Lib Dems to be actually disadvantaged by AV would be for them to be so unpopular that that in Lib Dem/Tory contests, Labour voters gave more second preferences to the Tories than to the Lib Dems. Not only that, but the effect would need to be so large as to cancel out the advantage from Tory second preferences going to the Lib Dems in contests between the Lib Dems and Labour. I don’t buy it at all.

  • So, basically, it comes back to what I’ve been saying to people who ask…. who benefits from AV will entirely depend on how people vote. As it should. No party is safe from the electorates wrath.

    However there is another aspect to the Lib Dem vote I think is being overlooked. That of the disaffected. I think a good number of people are fed up with both Labour and Conservatives (or just governments in general) and often voted Lib Dem to try and make a change… again I suspect these people will abandon Lib Dems now they are in government, and move to the GReen’s and UKIP.

  • “Not all AV research makes the assumption you claim. Indeed, since it is such a patently inaccurate assumption, I’d doubt that any serious research makes it, at least without caveat.”

    Actually I’m pretty sure the majority of research does make that assumption, here’s an example… http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8506306.stm

    The only research I’m aware of that doesn’t make that assumption was done by the IPPR (I think) which carried out a mock AV election. this was done in May 2010… not exactly representative of current attitudes towards Lib Dems now.

  • Tony Greaves 17th Apr '11 - 7:51pm

    John Curtice is the man who forecast that the SNP would win the Dunfermline by-election (the subject of a front page in the local weekly newspaper (whcih I still have as a trophy).

    Tony Greaves

  • @Chris 17 Apr 5:17PM
    Surely you’re missing something though? There is no requirement to enter a second preference.

    So in a marginal currently held by the LD (against the Conservatives for instance), the Con voters may put there candidate first and UKIP or LD second, the LD voters may split their second vote between Lab, Greens & Con and the Labour voters don’t put any second pref or choose another party altogether. I think this sort of scenario could push the LDs right down the pecking order, so the author is right in his statement that LD folks shouldn’t assume that it will work in their favour.

    As a btw, didn’t the beeb run a mock elecction the other week that caused a fair amount of embarassment, something along the lines of the LDs being pushed down the list and the winner not getting 50% of the vote as so many people didn’t enter enough preferences?

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