Thursday, 5 May 2011

Be careful what you wish for

The unstated belief of many on the pro-AV side of the debate is that it would lead to permanent left-of-centre government. The argument goes somewhat like this. Under AV, which would benefit the Lib Dems at their expense, the Conservatives would find it very difficult to form a majority government. Many Conservatives privately fear as much. Labour would have no such problem: indeed, the system would tend to increase Labour majorities (even in 2005, when first past the post gifted Tony Blair a majority of over 60 on not much more than a third of the vote). Most of the time, there would be a Labour government; and when there wasn't, the Lib Dems would be on hand to help out. At the last general election, for example, Nick Clegg wouldn't have been forced to make his Faustian deal with David Cameron, and could have propped up Gordon Brown instead. And how much happier life would have been as a consequence.

Let's unpack this a bit. The underlying assumption is that there exists in Britain something that might be termed "the progressive consensus" or "the anti-Tory majority", and that the Conservatives only ever get elected because the Left is split. That certainly appears to be the case, because the total votes cast for Labour and the Liberal Democrats generally exceed those cast for the Conservatives. One of the AV camp's favourite arguments draws on this belief - that under FPTP candidates are elected even though most people in the constituency "voted against" them - in other words, that every vote not cast for a candidate is a vote cast against them. (Ironically, the AV supporters also claim that their favoured system would reduce negative campaigning.) But it may be false. If there are three major parties of roughly equivalent support, then the votes cast for any two of them will tend to outweigh those cast for the third, regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum. Put a fourth party into the mix, and the picture changes - take the European elections, where right-leaning UKIP is a major player, and consider where the "progressive consensus" has disappeared to. In other words, the "anti-Tory majority" is likely to be an artefact of a three-party system.

Add to that the political dynamic. If AV doesn't lead to a big change in voting patterns, then we may see two types of election results: Labour majorities, and hung Parliaments. In the latter case, the Conservatives would tend to be the largest single party, as they were in 2010. While the mathematics would allow the Lib Dems to do deals with Labour in such circumstances, the politics would make it difficult for them to prop up a Labour government that had just been defeated by the voters. It's likely, then, that most of the time the Lib Dems would find themselves, when they were in government, in government with Conservates. Something that many (though not all) of them have not found to be a particularly happy experience; nor one that is much good for their poll ratings. Yet the alternative - permanently propping up Labour - would consign them to electoral oblivion because voters who did want change would simply never vote for them again.

It's easy to predict where this would all lead: to the return of two-party government, except that the Lib Dems might survive as a nominally independent rump in permanent coalition with the Conservatives. That is what AV has produced in Australia, after all. Far from benefitting the Liberal Democrats, the change would destroy them as an independent force in British politics. If the No side wins today, the Liberals can consider themselves fortunate to have had a narrow escape.