Gordon Brown managed to get his proposal for a referendum on the Alternative Vote passed by the House of Commons yesterday.
So, 1) What does this mean? 2) What would it do? 3) Why did he do it?
Short answers: 1) Not very much. 2) AV could marginally alter outcomes, AV would dramatically alter incentives for tactical voting, and AV should increase both the perceived and real legitimacy of both those elected to Parliament and concomitant Government. 3) To make him and Labour more fanciable to the Liberal Democrats considering the increasing possibility of a hung Parliament, and / or to create a wedge issue for the putative governing Conservatives.
What does it mean?
It doesn’t mean very much for a several unrelated reasons. It needs to get past the House of Lords, first. Usually, the Lords are meaningless; their power to delay legislation is limited to two parliamentary sessions over one year (and only one month for so-called “money bills”). However, since the delay can not extend the life of a Parliament past its maximum tenure, all the Lords have to do on this is sit quietly and chat about the plight of Portsmouth FC until the next election, expected to be held on May 6th. In other words, the chances of this passing the Lords is close to nil.
Second, the operation of a referendum in the United Kingdom is not exactly comparable to this variant of direct democracy as understood in the United States. Referenda are not binding. Parliament can simply ignore the results. While this could possibly expose the Government to political problems, constitutional or statutory considerations are not relevant. Furthermore, a future Parliament can choose to overturn a decision made by a previous Parliament to accept the results of any given referendum.
That said, referenda are rather rare in the United Kingdom. There has only been one UK-wide referendum, held in 1975 to see whether or not the UK should remain part of the European Community.
Finally, should this Act make it through the Lords (again unlikely, but not theoretically impossible), the referendum is supposed to be held by some point in 2011. In other words, beyond the tenure of the existing Parliament. The next Parliament can simply overturn this decision.
What would AV do?
The Alternative Vote is a form of STV applied to single-member constituencies. Wikipedia has a solid overview of how it works, and Renard Sexton further discusses AV over at fivethirtyeight. Note, both refer to it as “Instant Run-Off”, and Sexton erroneously states that IRV is how AV is known “to the rest of the world”. It’s not; it’s known to most of the world, the egghead electoral systems community to which I belong, and the Republic of Ireland where it elects the Irish President, as AV, and it’s commonly known as preferential voting in Australia, where it’s been used for something like the last 100 years (though in most of the literature on electoral systems that I have consumed, it is referred to as AV when examining the Australian case).
Briefly, instead of only having a single vote in a single-member constituency election, AV allows (but does not normally require) voters to rank order their preferences among the candidates. This severely reduces the incentives to tactically vote in contexts where your first choice candidate or party has a vanishingly small probability of success; in such cases it is rational to opt for the least undesirable of the two leading candidates / parties. If AV were used in the 2000 US Presidential election, Nader voters would have had the ability to rank either Gore or Bush as second choice (I wonder where most would have drifted?) When the votes are counted and no candidate has a clear majority of 50% +1, lesser candidates are eliminated and their votes redistributed to those remaining until a candidate receives a clear majority.
As only about a third of constituencies were won in the 2005 general election, Sexton suggests that this could have a marginal effect on outcomes. It would take a detailed constituency-level analysis of the 2005 results to examine this properly, and even then this would require making assumptions regarding the 2nd choice of voters supporting parties that finished third, fourth, or fifth in the various constituencies. Furthermore, as constituency boundaries and in many cases names have changed for the 2010 election, an additional layer of complexity is added to any such analysis.
However, as AV would virtually eliminate the incentive to vote strategically, the party finishing second in any given constituency should ultimately receive a boost (especially in cases where the Lib Dems finish 1st or 2nd), and the Lib Dems should see both their percentage of the popular vote (as measured by first choice ballots) increase, and even their seat percentage increase.
Finally, regarding legitimacy, as only a third of constituencies elected an MP with an outright majority in 2005, two thirds of sitting MPs in the current parliament were rejected by a majority of their voting constituents. Furthermore, Labour only received a shade over 35% of the popular vote in 2005, which translated into 55% of the seats, the democratic legitimacy of a government that was rejected by 65% of the electorate is open to question. AV solves this, at least superficially.
So, why did Gordon Brown do this?
Brown is no supporter of electoral reform. The Guardian article linked above quotes “Liberal Democrat spokesman David Howarth said Brown had undergone a ‘deathbed conversion’ on electoral reform.” This is accurate. Brown has known for a couple of years that the 2010 election was going to be dodgy at best for Labour, and his best bet at remaining in power, admittedly while being forced to share some of that power with the Liberal Democrats, was to adopt STV or some form of PR at least a year ago in advance of the 2010 election.
Sexton suggests, as does most of the British media, that Brown is doing this to soften up the Liberal Democrats in advance of a hung parliament, hoping that the Lib Dems would support Labour, and not the Tories, in such an outcome. The Lib Dems have long supported electoral reform for obvious rational reasons — it’s got to suck when 23% of the vote returning 9.6% of the seats is one of your best vote / seat ratios in generations.
There is another possible reason: Brown attempted to create a wedge issue between Labour and the Conservatives. Knowing the Tories embrace electoral reform with the same zeal that Thatcher embraced the coal miners (or the Argentinians, or Scottish independence, or society . . . you get the idea) he was hoping that either the Tories would boycott the vote banking on Labour rebels voting the bill down, or come a prospective Tory government, they would reject holding the referendum. The potential payoff in either scenario for Labour is limited.
Barring a hung Parliament following the 2010 election that results in a minority Labour government propped up by the Lib Dems, or an outright coalition between Labour and the Lib Dems (which I suspect is what it would require), electoral reform for the UK is off the table for a while.
But, I quipped in class on both Monday and Tuesday that this wasn’t going to pass in the first place, so what do I know? My students are likely contemplating that very issue at present . . .