The roles of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the upcoming AV referendum have often been ignored by the debate. While these countries have experience with a variety of voting systems, recent polls suggest that voters in Scotland and Wales are moving to an anti-AV position. Alistair Clark examines voting in these devolved countries and finds that holding the referendum on the same day as the devolved elections brings up some questions of political accountability and depending on the result, possible constitutional issues.
Coming toward the close of the AV referendum, the polls have seemed to show a hardening of opinion in favour of the ‘no’ campaign. Headline figures of a Guardian/ICM poll conducted across the UK reported on Monday 18th April showed 58 per cent against, compared with 42 per cent in favour of AV. Other polls also consistently show the no camp to be ahead.
It should be remembered that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, all going to the polls on the same day for their devolved institutions, have extensive experience of different electoral systems. Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) is used in Scotland and Wales, while the single transferable vote (STV) is used for the Northern Ireland Assembly. Like England, all utilise some form of PR for European elections, while Scotland and Northern Ireland both use STV for local government. It might therefore be expected that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish voters, with their greater experience of different electoral systems, would be in favour of AV.
However, in the Guardian/ICM poll, which unusually includes a Northern Irish sample, the swing in favour of the no camp appears to be replicated in two of the devolved territories. When only looking at respondents certain to vote and also weighted for turnout, the gap in favour of the no campaign remains at 36 points in Wales. It was also 8 points ahead in Scotland, and many feel that Scotland may have a decisive influence on the outcome.
Only in Northern Ireland, where voters are well used to preferential voting, is the gap 14 points in favour of the yes campaign. Interestingly, in England these data also show voters in areas that are only polling for the referendum slightly more in favour of AV, by 51 per cent to 49 per cent . That these are small samples and that turnout may also play a role should undoubtedly be noted. Yet, these figures seem to show the case for electoral reform failing to wholly convince in the devolved territories.
Does this mean that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish voters no longer favour the electoral systems they have for their new institutions? This seems unlikely; voters have clearly got the hang of these electoral systems; voting patterns consequently are somewhat different for devolved elections. For example, around 20 per cent of Scots take the opportunity to split their vote in Scottish parliament elections, while STV gives voters the choice between candidates and parties. Other polls, such as the YouGov poll conducted on 14-15th April appear to show the yes camp ahead in Scotland by 39 to 31 per cent (not including the 25 per cent don’t knows).
This raises the question of the appropriateness of holding the referendum on the same day as the devolved elections, which are now major contests in three of the four of the UK’s territories. This has been justified, albeit seldom explicitly, on the need to minimise the cost, and the fact that voters were already going to the polls for devolved and local elections. Yet serious questions of political accountability are at issue here. To what extent can and do voters hold their representatives properly accountable when elections for different purposes are being held concurrently? And in the three devolved territories, does holding the referendum on the same day as major legislative elections merely muddy the waters of what is a major decision over the voting system? It also raises an uncomfortable constitutional question; what happens if Scottish and Northern Irish voters are decisive in helping carry the referendum, yet English voters largely vote no?
So, what does this mean for the prospects for electoral reform for Westminster? Even if the referendum fails, as most polls suggest, first-past-the-post looks increasingly untenable. The main party of government – the Conservatives – was elected on around a 23 per cent share of the electorate in 2010, while campaigning is hardly a model of democratic engagement since it increasingly focuses on the small number of marginal seats across the UK. Voters in different regions clearly use different electoral systems quite well to vote for party options other than the main two, and the vote has fragmented considerably from the British two-party heyday of the immediate post-war period.
Interestingly, the need for a proportional system was part of the broader narrative of ‘consensual’ politics and the desire to restrict one-party majority government in the run up to devolution in Scotland, while STV for Scottish local government was the price of Liberal Democrat participation in the 2003-07 Scottish Executive and had already been recommended by the Renewing Local Democracy Working Group.
If the lessons of devolution tell us anything then, it is that the prospects for electoral reform are unlikely to be advanced unless there is some form of elite understanding over the need to do so in the first place. In other words, just the sort of understanding that did not exist prior to the referendum. If the referendum is won, the yes campaign will have earned a notable victory. But even if it is lost, electoral reformers should not give up hope. Instead, the longer term battle for hearts and minds on electoral reform for Westminster is likely to be a long process and will arguably have only just begun.
Please read our comments policy before commenting.