If there is one policy with which the Liberal Democrats are identified in the minds of the public, it is electoral reform – not, however, the Alternative Vote but proportional representation. The Liberal Democrats are unsparing in their criticism of the unfairness of first-past-the-post and they have a strong case. In the recent general election, it took 33,000 votes to elect a Labour MP and 35,000 votes to elect a Conservative MP, but no fewer than 119,000 votes to elect a Liberal Democrat MP.
The electoral system was perhaps no less unfair a hundred years ago, during the heyday of Liberal rule. In 1906, the Liberals won a landslide majority of 400 seats out of 670 on just 49 per cent of the vote. Yet Liberal prime ministers were unanimously opposed to proportional representation, which Gladstone called a ponsasinorum – literally, “a bridge for asses” – something that neither he nor the ordinary voter could be expected to understand. Gladstone’s hostility was shared by the radical Joseph Chamberlain, who told John Lubbock, a founder of the Proportional Representation Society, that he would prefer the most reactionary Conservative government to a proportional electoral system.
John Morley, Gladstone’s biographer, told the House of Commons that schemes of proportional representation “were but new disguises for the old Tory distrust of the people”. During the debates on the Reform Bill 1884, Gladstone, Chamberlain and Morley joined together with John Bright and Charles Dilke to resist amendments proposing proportional representation. Perhaps no other issue could have united such disparate personalities.
Herbert Asquith, admittedly, did establish a Royal Commission to inquire into the electoral system in 1908. Giving evidence to it, J Renwick Seager, secretary of the registration department of the Liberal Central Association, declared: “Proportional representation is a matter scarcely ever talked about – the Liberal agents as a whole, so far as I know, are none of them in favour of it; and as to the organisations, I do not know of one Liberal organisation that has ever passed a resolution in favour of it.”
Seager similarly was opposed to proportional representation, because “the effect to my mind would be that the number of bores and cranks in the House would be largely increased”. Instead, it was “the duty of the minority to turn itself into a majority by reason and in course
of time” – exactly what Margaret Thatcher, Tony Benn and Jack Straw, three noted contemporary opponents of proportional representation, might have said.
Asquith’s Royal Commission recommended not proportional representation, but the Alternative Vote. In 1917, however, the first Speaker’s conference unanimously recommended proportional representation for urban areas. This was the only unanimous recommendation of the conference that the prime minister, David Lloyd George, refused to accept, telling C P Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, that proportional representation was “a device for defeating democracy, the principle of which was that the majority should rule, and for bringing faddists of all kinds into parliament and establishing groups and disintegrating parties”.
Asquith, too, showed no interest in it, saying: “The matter is not one which excites my passions and I am not sure that it even arouses any very ardent enthusiasm.”
It was not until the general election of 1922, by which time Asquith led only a small rump of independent Liberals in opposition, with little hope of winning an electoral majority, that he came out in favour of proportional representation. By 1925, Lloyd George, too, was a convert, confessing to Scott of his mistake: “Someone ought to have come to me in 1918 and gone into the whole matter. I was not converted then. I could have carried it then when I was prime minister. I am afraid it is too late now.”
As a party of government, the Liberals were as sceptical towards proportional representation as recent Conservative or Labour administrations have been. The party’s stance, indeed, was driven as much as those of the Conservatives and the Labour Party by considerations of party self-interest.
The only chance that the Liberals had of implementing electoral reform, as a third party, would come with a hung parliament. With Ramsay MacDonald’s second minority government, they seemed to have won their chance and, in 1930, Labour promised to promote an electoral reform bill, offering not proportional representation, but the Alternative Vote. The aim was, as with Gordon Brown in 2010, to create a progressive, Labour-Liberal alliance. There was talk of MacDonald reconstructing his government – removing the obdurate deflationist Philip Snowden from the Exchequer and replacing him with Lloyd George.
Such a move might have had momentous consequences, as Lloyd George was advocating a programme of public works to take Britain out of the slump. But, alas for progressive hopes, the Alternative Vote Bill, having passed the Commons, was met with wrecking amendments by the Lords. Before the Commons could consider them, Labour was swept from office by the financial crisis of August 1931. The National Government coalition that replaced it won an overall majority of 493 seats in the ensuing general election – the greatest landslide of modern times – and had no inclination to revisit the subject of electoral reform.
The Liberal Democrats have been offered a second opportunity with the hung parliament of 2010. Once again, it is the Alternative Vote rather than proportional representation that is being dangled before them. This time, however, reform has to leap over a further hurdle – the referendum – in addition to approval by both Houses of Parliament.
Supporters of the Alternative Vote make much of how it gives electors a wider choice than first-past-the-post. Votes are not wasted under preferential voting, because, if a vote is cast for a losing candidate, it can be transferred to a second preference: if, for example, I cast
my first preference for a Green candidate who comes bottom of the poll, my vote is then transferred to my second preference – Labour, for instance – rather than wasted, as under first-past-the-post. The vote may be seen as a direction to the returning officer to use it where it can be most effective. Because there are far fewer wasted votes, third parties are likely to gain more first-preference votes, while the Liberal Democrats, the second choice of many Labour and Conservative voters, are likely to benefit disproportionately from transfers.
Supporters of the Alternative Vote discreetly hide that it can prove even more disproportional and unfair than first-past-the-post. In Australia, where the system is used to elect the lower house, Labor, in 1990, with just 39 per cent of the first-preference vote, won 52 per cent of the seats. Its main opponents, the Liberal-National coalition, gained more first-preference votes – 43 per cent – but won only 46 per cent of the seats. The Democrats, with 11 per cent of the vote, won no seats at all.
In 1954 and 1961, by contrast, the Alternative Vote kept Labor out of office, even though it gained a higher percentage of the vote than the Liberal-National coalition (in 1954, it had an overall majority of the vote). In 1977, Labor won 40 per cent of the vote but 28 per cent of the seats; the Liberals, with 38 per cent of the first-preference vote, won an overall majority, taking 53 per cent of the seats.
The Alternative Vote ensures that every constituency is won on a majority vote. But it is perfectly possible for every constituency to be won on a majority and yet for the outcome to fail to reflect the majority view of the voters. This occurs if one party piles up large majorities in safe seats, while the second party wins a larger number of seats by much smaller majorities. In South Africa in 1948, when no seat was won on a minority vote, the United Party won 71 seats with 52 per cent of the vote (with its election partner, Labour), while the National Party, with 42 per cent, won 79 seats in a coalition with the Afrikaner Party – and claimed a mandate to introduce apartheid.
Britain has never used the Alternative Vote for parliamentary elections, but one general election in the 20th century – that of 1931 – produced conditions akin to it. That year, in most constituencies, just one National Government candidate opposed a Labour candidate. The outcome was that a 2:1 majority in terms of votes for the National Government came to be transformed into a 10:1 majority in seats.
Between 1918 and 1992, the Conservatives won more seats on a minority vote than Labour at every general election, but they have been over-represented only in general elections that they have won, such as those of 1983 and 1987. In elections that they lost, such as those of 1945 and 1966, they were under-represented. The Alternative Vote system would have made the outcome even more disproportional in 1945 and 1966 by further over-representing Labour. The elections of 2001 and 2005 would probably have resulted in even larger Labour landslides.
An early simulation after the 2010 election suggested that, under the Alternative Vote, the Conservatives would have lost roughly 20 seats and Labour three, with the Liberal Democrats gaining 23 to give them 80 rather than 57 seats. But this simulation was made before the formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, which might encourage Liberal Democrats to give their second preferences at the next election to the Conservatives rather than to Labour. The Alternative Vote, therefore, could serve to cement the coalition in office and make it difficult for Labour to regain power, even if it were to win more first-preference votes than the coalition parties.
Under the Alternative Vote, the most rational strategy for Labour would be to seek to win over the Liberal Democrats to join a coalition
of the left. The Liberal Democrats could, if they so wished, strengthen their bargaining position by threatening to break free of the Conservative embrace at the general election and declaring themselves open to the highest bidder, as Nick Clegg did during the 2010 general election. The Alternative Vote would put him in an even stronger position.
The Alternative Vote would transform the Liberal Democrats into the kingmakers of British politics. Future general elections would decide not who was to form the government – as they have done since the Second World War, with the exception of the two that resulted in hung parliaments, February 1974 and 2010 – but rather the relative power relationships and bargaining strengths of each of the parties in post-election negotiations. There would be a two-stage process of choosing a government – the general election and the post-election negotiations. Governments would be chosen not directly by the voters, but indirectly. The likelihood is that, as in 2010, it would be the weakest of the three main parties that would decide which of the other two is to govern.
Introducing the bill providing for the referendum on the Alternative Vote into the House of Commons, Nick Clegg declared that it was the first instalment of “the new politics”. It takes no more than a glance at the historical record, however, to appreciate that it is but an instalment in a much longer saga, that of seeking to alter or preserve the electoral system for purposes of party advantage.
The Alternative Vote was in neither the Conservative nor the Liberal Democrat election manifestos. It is being presented to the British people as the outcome of a good old-fashioned political deal. But the Alternative Vote – if it were to come to pass – will not end the debate on electoral reform, because the Liberal Democrats will undoubtedly press for a second referendum on proportional representation some years hence.
A genuinely “new politics” would allow the people themselves to choose what electoral system they favour, rather than have the choice predetermined for them by the parties. Back-benchers, therefore, would be performing a public service, were they to amend the Electoral Reform Bill so as to ensure that a wider choice was available to the British people in the referendum next May.
Oscar Wilde once said of George Bernard Shaw that he had no enemies but was intensely disliked by his friends. That is true also of the Alternative Vote.
Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at Oxford University. He is currently writing a book on the coalition and the constitution.