The potential consequences for elections in the UK if AV is adopted have been much debated. But what about the effects on the left and right of the political spectrum? Robin Archer examines what the use of AV in Australia over the past century can teach us, and finds that AV can help divided parties to overcome the disadvantages of First-Past-the-Post. This may benefit the left in the UK if the Greens become more important, or if the social wing of the Liberal Democrats makes a come back. But there is also potential for their more ‘classically liberal’ wing to form an anti-Labour alliance with the Conservatives.
Australian political history suggests that both progressive hopes and conservative fears for AV are misconceived. Australia provides the most important examples of the use of AV and a wealth of evidence about its impact. Not only is there the federal experience but also that of the eight states and territories. Eight of these nine parliaments currently use AV.
In Australia, AV was first introduced by the parties of the right for the parties of the right. In 1892, Queensland became the first state to experiment with a version of AV. The motive was simple. Labor had established itself as a serious contender in earlier by-elections and the existing liberal and conservative parties – then in a coalition – feared that divisions between them would deliver government to Labor. Similar concerns led non-labor parties to introduce orthodox versions of AV in Western Australia in 1907, in Victoria in 1910, and later in other states.
Persistent rightwing initiatives also led to the introduction of AV for federal elections. AV was first proposed when the federal parliament turned its attention to the selection of a common electoral system in 1902. Labor – though at first agnostic – blocked it. Initially, the most important political conflicts were between the Free Trade and Protectionist parties. But the rise of Labor made it clear that, under FPTP, the older parties were now both in danger of losing seats by splitting the non-Labor vote. In 1910 they merged to form the Liberal party, but they still found it difficult to control the number of non-labor candidates running in each constituency. The result was a series of attempts – in 1906, 1909, 1911 and 1914 – to introduce AV. They finally succeeded in 1918, after a split in the Labor party over conscription gave them the numbers to push it through.
Have the hopes of AV’s original proponents been born out by its actual effects? Looked at in one way, the move to AV made little difference. The outcome in federal elections is remarkably similar to what it would be if the winner were decided by a FPTP count of first preferences alone. On average, the distribution of further preferences only changes the result in about 6 per cent of seats. Experiments with optional ranking in contemporary NSW and Queensland produce similar outcomes, while Queensland’s earlier experiment with the London mayoral system had even less effect.
But looked at another way, the proponents of AV were essentially correct. For most of the twentieth century, AV has systematically favoured the right. Altogether, of the seats where the distribution of preferences changed the outcome, about three-quarters were won by the right. In the second half of the twentieth century, the distribution of preferences probably kept Labor out of office twice – in 1961 and 1969 – thereby helping the Liberals – the Australian equivalent of the British Conservatives – to maintain 23 years of unbroken dominance from 1949 to 1972.
Two developments account for this bias. The first is the emergence, after the First World War, of the Country (now National) party as a small rural conservative party alongside the larger urban conservative Liberals. AV enabled the right to maintain two parties – each mobilizing voters with distinct identities and interests – without splitting their vote to the advantage of Labor. It did this by giving their supporters the ability to swap second preferences. The two parties entered into a permanent alliance (the so-called ‘Coalition’) that survives to this day.
This effect was compounded by a second development. A Cold War split in the Labor party gave rise to an anti-communist Catholic-backed splinter party that devoted itself to keeping Labor out of power. It, too, had an identity and interests quite distinct from the business-oriented and then largely Protestant leaders of the Liberals. AV enabled it to mobilize its own supporters, while delivering most of their second preferences to the Liberals.
In the late twentieth century, however, the effect of AV began to change. It started to favour the left. The basic cause was the rise of green politics. The Australian Greens are to the left of Labor on social, economic and foreign policy as well as on environmental issues. By 2010 they commanded almost 12 per cent of the primary vote. For a period, similar voters could also be found supporting the now defunct Australian Democrats – who originally broke off from the liberal wing of the Liberal party. In 1990, for the first time in a federal election, the distribution of preferences from these parties kept Labor in office.
What does this suggest about the likely consequences of AV in Britain? The answer depends on the fate and future direction of the Liberal Democrats. Will they survive their coalition experiment? And if they do, will they be more like the Country Party or more like the Australian Greens?
Leftwing hopes and right wing fears rest on the belief that AV would facilitate the emergence of a pluralist left. The word ‘pluralism’ has come to take on a vague but talismanic quality in certain progressive circles. But, whatever else it means, it certainly connotes a belief in the ability of a multi-party alliance on the left to call forth a (long hidden) progressive majority. This in turn rests on a belief that the Liberal Democrats are a party of the left, or, at a minimum, an anti-Tory party. But are they?
Australian experience shows that AV can help divided parties to overcome the advantages that FPTP would otherwise give to unified opponents. In early twentieth century Britain, a left divided between an established Liberal party and an insurgent Labour party faced a unified Conservative right. Following the revival of the Liberals and their successors in the 1970s and 1980s, a similar situation was often assumed to prevail, especially by those encouraging tactical voting during the Thatcher years. Unlike in Australia, it was the left rather than the right which seemed likely to benefit from the introduction of AV for most of the twentieth century. But who is likely to benefit now?
Perhaps the Liberal Democrats will again become little more than a rump and the Greens will become the most important country-wide third party (as they have in Australia, Germany and elsewhere). In this case, the introduction of AV may come to favour the left much as it now does in Australia, especially if the Cameron government persists with its commitment to introduce PR elections for the upper house. But if, as seems more likely, the Liberals survive with say 15 per cent of the vote, or even with under 10 per cent, like the Country party in Australia, there are two possible outcomes.
Perhaps the social liberals and social democrats (those in the tradition of New Liberals like L.T. Hobhouse or ex-Labour figures like Shirley Williams) will reassert themselves and take their party into an anti-Tory alliance. In that case, the hopes of the left may prove well founded.
But another outcome is also a real possibility. The current leadership of the Liberal Democrats takes its inspiration more from the classical liberalism of the nineteenth century than from the social liberalism of the twentieth. We might call it the Gladstonian strand – or perhaps, better, in honour of Mr Clegg’s formative influences, the Leon Brittan strand – remembering that Gladstone himself formed some of his deepest commits while serving as a Peelite (free market) conservative.
Perhaps these economic liberals will consolidate their position and preside over a smaller but purer classical liberal party. If that were to happen, the AV system would enable the Liberals to do a preference swap with the Conservatives and – taking their inspiration from a century of similar deals in Australia – form a mutually beneficial anti-Labour alliance.
Should this seem implausible, recall that the Liberal Democrats knowingly opted for this strand in the leadership election that elevated Mr Clegg, long before they faced the question of whether to join forces with the Conservatives. Note, too, that those who favoured this direction have been strengthened by the departure of some left-leaning activists; that senior Liberal Democrats and potential leadership rivals become ever more deeply implicated though their daily efforts to prosecute and defend government policies; and that, as a result, some may come to need conservative preferences simply to hold their seats.
If the Liberals opt to maintain their current anti-labour alliance, the partisan consequences of AV would be the exact reverse of the Australian experience. Instead of a long standing rightwing bias being replaced by an advantage for the left, the introduction of AV in Britain would replace a longstanding potential for leftwing bias with a new found advantage for the right.
Are the Liberals Democrats part of a divided right or part of a divided left? If the Greens displace them or if the social liberals recover their bearings, AV may indeed begin to help the left. But if the economic liberals prevail, AV may help to keep the right in power for a generation.
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