Thursday, 5 May 2011

Today Britain votes on how to vote

Today's the big day in the UK – the nation goes to the polls for a referendum on whether the country's voting system should be changed from a US-style first-past-the-post method to something closert to a European-style proportional system.

Polls going into the voting today indicate that the likely result will be a 'no', which would be a crushing blow for the Liberal Democrats who made this referendum their central demand for entering into a governing coalition with the Conservatives. Then again, so much about this referendum depends on who actually turns out, and voter interest in this referendum is incredibly low. No matter how people have been responding to the pollsters, it may only be the people who are enthusiastic about switching to a new system that turn out today.

Right now the UK has a first-past-the-post system, which means that whoever gets the most votes in each region wins that seat. This is a system familiar to North Americans, but most parliamentary democracies don't work in this way. Most parliamentary democracies (which includes all EU member states except France, which has a presidential system) use some form of proportional voting which strives to give representation to the parties on the basis of how many votes they received overall.

Small parties in the UK have long complained that the country's voting system locks them out of the parliament. These include parties ranging from the environment-focused Greens to the anti-European UKIP to the far-right BNP (interestingly, the BNP is campaigning for a 'no' today). The UK currently has three main political parties, and the smallest of the three – the Liberal Democrats – have made getting a proportional vote one of their main policy goals. They say it would translate into a fairer representation for them in the parliament.

When the 2010 British general election resulted in a hung parliament, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg became a kingmaker. He could either form a government with Labour to keep them in power or join with the Conservatives to put David Cameron on the prime minister's seat. In the end he went with the Conservatives, but he demanded one major concession – a referendum on changing to a proportional voting system. David Cameron was resolutely against this, but they agreed on a compromise that would allow a referendum on an alternative vote system, arguably the least proportional of the various methods of proportional voting. Many Liberal Democrats saw this as a poison pill, staking the party's future on a new voting system which is not completely proportional and might not benefit them much anyway.

Many countries in Europe such as Germany, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands use party lists where voters vote just for a party and those parties are given a number of seats in the parliament proportional to the votes they received (and the parties get to decide who takes those seats). Some countries do this regionally while others do it nationally. Other countries use a single transferable vote system where voters ranks their preferred candidates or parties and their votes are distributed according to a specific mathematical formula. Ireland uses this system.

But what is on the table in the UK is an alternative vote system, otherwise known as instant-runoff voting. The only major country that uses this system for their general elections right now is Australia. Voters would rank the candidates in their order of preference. The votes are first distributed based on everyone's first choice. But if no candidate gets a majority then the candidate with the fewest number of votes cast has their votes elimated, and those people who put him or her down as their first choice then have their second choice votes applied. This would continue until a winner is declared.

The result of today's referendum will have big political implications, even if the British vote to keep their voting system the way it is. If the result is 'no', it will be a humiliating defeat for the Lib Dems and in particular for their leader Nick Clegg, who is now the deputy prime minister. There is already huge discontent among Lib Dem members, who have already defected in massive numbers in anger over the austerity cuts the coalition government is persuing. They are also angry about Clegg's failure to keep his promise not to raise tuition fees. Now if they think the party leadership has blown the one chance in a generation to change the British voting system, there could be no Lib Dem members left by the time of the next general election. Nick Clegg's low profile during the AV campaign has already infuriated party members. But it appears Clegg is eager to dissassociate himself with the campaign, fearing that it will turn into a referendum on him.

On the other hand, if today's result is a 'yes' it could reinvigorate Lib Dem voters and make them think that it was worth it for the party to get into bed with the Conservatives in order to achieve this result. It will be a huge nerve-wracking day for Nick Clegg.


Nicola said...

I am unaware of any European country that has AV. They mostly have proportional representation. AV is used in Australia and Papua New Guinea. Not sure how this is European style?

Dave Keating said...

Ah yes I should have been more clear, I meant to say that having a proportional system is in the European style, not specifically AV (which is just one type of proportional voting). Thanks for spotting!

Rob Richie said...

Good to see you pick up on this story. Note that the alternative vote (instant runoff voting in the USA) is a winner-take-all system, but one that allows voters more freedom of choice and ensures the winner is more popular than his or her top opponent.

Unfortunately, David Cameron has run a highly unprincipled campaign against AV, with much of the media falling into the old "he said, she said" kind of lame reporting that fails when one side doesn't tell the truth. AV is highly unlikely to win, but we'll see what this does to Cameron's credibility over time, as if he can deceive voters over something like this, what else might he do in a less high-profile setting? Here was my blog on Cameron and the failures of the British media:

Francis said...

I don't think anyone would call AV a system of proportional voting. You have to use AV+ or Additional Member systems before it starts to introduce any kind of proportionality.

It's just a better way of choosing one person per constituency.