The growth in minor party support in the 2015 general election looks set to create very difficult tactical voting dilemmas in some constituencies. Meg Russell reflects on how a move to the Alternative Vote (AV), which was rejected in a referendum in 2011, might have eased such dilemmas – suggesting that a messy election result could unexpectedly put AV back on the political agenda.
Almost exactly four years ago the British public rejected the option of changing the electoral system for the House of Commons from ‘First Past the Post’ (FPTP) to the ‘Alternative Vote’ (AV). The May 2011 referendum result was decisive, with fewer than one in three voters backing AV. This made the prospect of Commons electoral reform look distant, and particularly the prospects for AV. Nick Clegg had famously described it as a ‘miserable little compromise’ between FPTP and a more proportional system – a quotation used ruthlessly against him by opponents of reform in the referendum campaign. And indeed most electoral reformers, before and since, have been more focused on introducing greater proportionality. Hence many ‘yes’ voters did see AV – which retains single-member constituencies and simply introduces preferential (1, 2, 3) voting, with second and subsequent preferences redistributed as necessary until a candidate has 50% support – as a compromise. This half-hearted attachment even by some supporters of change probably did little to further its referendum prospects.
But in the increasingly multi-party environment of 2015 – as most visibly reflected in the TV leaders’ debates – it’s worth considering how things might have been different had Britain voted yes. One of the notable features of AV is that it greatly reduces the dilemmas of tactical voting. And in 2015, those dilemmas seem greater than ever before.
Tactical voting is an established part of the British electoral landscape, and has grown since the 1990s. In 1997 such behaviour by Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters reduced significantly the number of constituencies won by the Conservatives. Vote swapping and tactical voting are again being encouraged on the left in 2015, and even David Cameron has urged voters to behave tactically. But the decisions facing voters across the whole political spectrum are now far, far harder. One obvious change is that many left-leaning voters will be reluctant to vote tactically for the Liberal Democrats following their spell in coalition with the Conservatives, and may actively wish to punish them instead. Meanwhile the SNP surge in Scotland, the increased support for UKIP in (at least parts of) England, and the increased visibility of the Greens, create fresh dilemmas. Where there are two leading parties in a constituency, and others with little hope of winning, the tactical decisions may be clear; but the more parties are in contention the more complicated it gets. Meanwhile, while some may want to vote tactically, but struggle to know how to do so, the Greens are urging former tactical voters to vote sincerely instead – which may hurt Labour.
The table below shows data from Lord Ashcroft’s polls in various constituencies. As shown on the left, some of this data is now many months old, so cannot necessarily be considered reliable. But it is illustrative of the kinds of challenges facing voters in some seats in 2015.
The first three constituencies show fairly standard tactical voting dilemmas. In Nick Clegg’s seat of Sheffield Hallam, and Simon Hughes’ seat of Bermondsey and Old Southwark, Labour and the Liberal Democrats appear neck and neck. Conservative supporters thus face a fairly straightforward dilemma of whether to switch their votes to prop up their coalition partner. In Oxford West and Abingdon, which was Liberal Democrat held until 2010, it is Labour supporters who could easily block the Conservatives by shifting to support the Liberal Democrats (no doubt encouraging the kind of ‘can’t win here’ leaflets long employed by the Lib Dems – and now by other parties as well – to encourage tactical voting). But coalition politics mean that Labour voters are now less likely to switch. While AV would have allowed second preferences to be expressed, and generated a clear (almost certainly Liberal Democrat) winner, all three seats look set to be won on less than 40% of the vote. Who that winner is remains uncertain, but it seems clear that they will not enjoy majority local support.
So far, so standard. But the next block of seats in the table shows a different situation, now emerging in some constituencies in Scotland. It isn’t wholly new for Scottish seats to be split three – or even four – ways. In 1992 the Liberal Democrats won the seat of Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber on just 26% of the vote. But the SNP’s increased strength has put more constituencies in the balance, and in doing so created some very difficult tactical dilemmas for voters. In all four seats shown, the ‘Unionist bloc’ (should such a thing be considered to exist) significantly outweighs the SNP’s support. But vote swapping between Labour and Conservatives, in particular, will be counterintuitive to many. Under AV, some Labour supporters might choose to give their second or third preference to the Conservatives, or vice versa, to block the nationalists – but a straight switch of support under FPTP is a lot to ask. Alternatively, voters might naturally organise themselves into left/right blocs in some constituencies, with Labour or Liberal Democrat supporters under AV giving second preferences to the SNP, and vice versa, to block the Conservatives. The winner of any of these constituencies under AV is thus uncertain. But it would at least better reflect the views of the majority, at the same time relieving voters of the agonies of working out how to ‘game’ the system.
The third block of seats perhaps illustrates the biggest dilemma being posed to voters, which is genuinely new in 2015. In all five constituencies the poll suggests a three horse race between Labour, Conservatives and UKIP. Many voters in such constituencies would probably like to prioritise blocking UKIP – but how they should do so is unclear. The decision again involves the counterintuitive option of Labour supporters voting tactically for the Conservatives or vice versa. Plus, the polling offers little clue regarding which group of voters should switch. AV would have largely eliminated such dilemmas, plus of course, should UKIP have been eliminated before the final round, its voters’ second preferences would also have been redistributed. Whether this benefited Labour or Conservatives would vary seat-by-seat, but would again have resulted in representation reflecting the balance of expressed local opinion.
The final two seats also represent something of a novelty (at least in England), with votes split between four fairly viable parties. Norwich North displays a standard tactical voting dilemma, but with both UKIP and Green support (and Liberal Democrats) potentially able to deny either of the two main parties a win. Watford again shows three parties in serious contention, alongside strong UKIP support and some support for the Greens. This presents particular agonies for voters wanting to block one of the main parties, and holds out the prospect of a winner on less than 30% of the vote. Should multi-party politics increase further in future, we can expect the number of such seats to increase.
For many years some academics have warned that the fragmenting of the party system will gradually make FPTP untenable. If the vote splinters as expected in this election many voters may express frustration with the electoral system, which could re-emerge as an issue immediately post election. Indeed some familiar voices have already sought to put it onto the agenda. Minor party supporters will urge greater proportionality, which would of course fragment Westminster representation further (including – on current polls – delivering UKIP up to 16% of seats, or 104 MPs). This will meet obvious resistance from the main parties, and indeed from many voters as well. But a switch to AV would have more subtle effects – allowing more sincere voting, ending the electorate’s worst dilemmas in the increasing number of three and four way marginals, and denying minor party representation where the majority of preferences coalesce around one of the major parties. But it would allow minor party breakthroughs where such parties can attract sufficient preferences, which for example the Greens might well manage in some seats.
Achieving electoral reform is famously difficult. Reform ultimately needs the support of politicians, and following the bruising experience of the 2011 referendum, even Liberal Democrats may be hesitant about trying again. Another referendum in the immediate future seems unlikely. But if citizens’ experience in May 2015 is sufficiently unsatisfactory – and particularly if some constituencies throw up perverse results – reform may soon reach the agenda again. And perhaps, this time round, the merits of AV may be clearer.
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Meg Russell is Professor of British and Comparative Politics and Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit at UCL.