’AV faith

"England," Benjamin Disraeli once remarked, "does not love coalitions." It is perhaps for this reason that the No to AV campaign has warned that the Alternative Vote (AV) would institutionalise hung parliaments and coalition government.

Yet, with the likely exception of the 1992 election, AV would have denied neither Labour nor the Conservatives an overall majority in any of the elections held since 1979. Moreover, in landslide situations, such as 1983 and 1997, AV would have inflated the winning party's majority, as second-preference votes tend to follow first-preference votes.

As the Jenkins commission on electoral reform noted, had the 1997 election been held under AV, Labour's majority would have ballooned from 179 to 245, with the Conservatives reduced to a rump of 96 seats. Unlike first-past-the-post, which can exaggerate the victories of an unpopular party, AV can only exaggerate the victories of a popular party.

If last year's general election had been fought under AV, the parliamentary arithmetic would not have been a barrier to a Lab-Lib coalition. A simulation by the Electoral Reform Society suggests that the Tories would have won 281 seats (down 26), Labour 262 seats (up four) and the Lib Dems 79 (up 22). Thus, a potential Lab-Lib coalition would have had 341 seats - a working majority of 20.

Had the election been fought under the proportional Single Transferable Vote (the Lib Dems' system of choice), Nick Clegg's party would have made a huge breakthrough, winning 162 seats. But until the day that Britain votes to adopt such a system, advocates of first-past-the-post have much less to fear from electoral reform than their propaganda implies.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special