European Affairs

Are Brit Voters Fed Up With Party System? Referendum Will Tell     Print Email

(5/4) No sooner was street debris from last week’s Royal Wedding cleared away than British voters were finally required to square up to a less enjoyable civic duty which most of them had been avoiding for months: whether or not to support a change to their traditional way of electing lawmakers to the Westminster parliament in a national referendum Thursday.


The referendum - only the second in British history (the first confirmed membership of the EU in 1975) -- has been a dirty contest. Both sides have exaggerated their case in lurid terms (democracy or decay!) and voters have been unimpressed. Turnout is expected to be low, but a “yes” outcome could open the way for smaller political parties to gain more traction in a system that has traditionally favored two strong parties.

If Brits were inclined to blame Americans for their problem (and we all know they never do), they could point the finger at William Robert Ware, Harvard graduate and professor of architecture at both MIT and Columbia, who invented the “instant-runoff” variant (IRV) on proportional voting in 1870 – the idea that is being put to British voters this week as they go to polls for local elections. Britons call it the “alternative vote” (AV) but the idea is the same. Instead of a simple plurality (more votes than anyone else) being enough to decide the victor, the new system would require a winner to garner 50% of all votes cast -- if not outright then via vote transfers from ballots naming him or her as second, third or eighth choice.

As such, AV/IRV is widely used to elect mayors, church or party leaders and - since 2009 - winners of Hollywood’s Oscars. But, as advocates of a No vote in today’s UK referendum never tire of saying, in national elections it is used only in Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.

It works in its own way, with its quirks and unintended consequences like most systems do, including current “first-past-the-post” (FPTP), the system used for the House of Commons at Westminster, but not in the three devolved parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  They use a version of the German “additional member system” (AMS) which elects most lawmakers directly in constituencies, but keeps some “top up” seats in reserve for any party which has too few seats in proportion to votes cast.

In Britain, the longstanding current system usually means a diminished role for the centrist third party -- the Liberal Democrats (historically called Whigs, later Liberals) which almost perished after Labour overtook them in the 1920s. In recent decades, however, the smaller parties have enjoyed a revival. Why so? Because, as in other advanced democracies, voter disillusionment with the two-party duopoly has seen their vote share drop from 95% (1951) to 65% with Greens, nationalists, stay-at-homes, EU-bashers and Lib Dems all doing much better – so much better that the Lib Dems emerged from last year’s British elections as the junior partner of the Conservatives in coalition government of the sort that has been rare in postwar British government.

That is the moral case for switching from FPTP to AV: to reflect greater pluralism among voters. It is, of course, buttressed by low political calculation. AV has been on and off the British political agenda for almost a century, usually when a center-left government - Labour or Liberal - has been in trouble and grasped a potential lifeline: 1918, 1929 and again in 2009-10 when Gordon Brown, Tony Blair’s less-than-charismatic successor, stared defeat in the face.

Politics being an unpredictable art form, today’s referendum is a result of Brown’s doomed offer of a ballot on AV, but in wholly unforeseen circumstances. When Labour lost power on May 6, 2010, but David Cameron’s Conservatives failed to clinch an overall majority in the House of Commons, the nimble Cameron persuaded the Liberal Democrats to join him in the first fully-fledged UK coalition since Churchill lost office in 1945.

And what was the Lib Dem price for tarnishing their progressive credentials in a deal with Tories - the Conservatives ancient nickname - bent on savage cuts in public spending? A Brown-style referendum on voting reform. Ideally, Nick Clegg, poised to become the coalition’s deputy prime minister (the highest office held by a Liberal since Lloyd George’s fall in 1922), would have obtained a spread of options from which voters would be invited to choose, as countries like New Zealand did when switching systems.

But Cameron’s party is historically hostile to tampering with time-honored process and AV was all he would concede. Clegg himself once called AV a “miserable little compromise” which sometimes delivers even more ”unfair” (ie disproportionate) results  than the current system, and so many AV advocates are privately unenthusiastic. The outcome has been a strikingly unsatisfactory campaign on the issue

As for Labour’s new leader, Ed Miliband, he is voting Yes, but his party is split. Cameron promised to soft-pedal his own opposition in deference to his coalition partner’s sensibilities, but has stepped up his rhetoric rather than risk a Yes victory, which would enrage the Tories’ already skeptical hard-line quasi-“Tea Party” wing.

Polls say the No camp may win by a 2:1 ratio, but turnout is all.  Experts say a low turnout will favor proponents of change.

It is likely to leave the hitherto amiable coalition in a fractious mood, just as spending cuts and higher taxes make the business of government much harder. Voters were already cross with politicians, not least over Westminster’s 2009 expenses scandal, modest though it was by international standards. They were told AV would cure all this, make MPs work harder and listen more closely to them.

Academic experts say that not much will change with a Yes or a No vote. Reformers will say British voters (and politicians) botched a golden opportunity if the No’s win.
Disillusionment all round? Blame Professor Ware.

Michael White has written about politics for the Guardian from London and Washington for over 30 years.