5 years since the AV Referendum - No to AV was not No to reform

10 May 2016


Five years ago, the UK voted in only its second ever nation-wide referendum, and its first on the idea of changing Britain's voting system. The referendum came about as an uneasy compromise between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats as part of their coalition agreement following the stalemate 2010 Election. As part of their election manifesto, the Lib Dems committed themselves to the abolition of First-Past-The-Post and its replacement with the Single Transferable Vote system (STV). This would have seen multiple MPs elected to serve each constituency, but fewer constituencies overall. There also would have been a reduction in the total number of MPs to 500 (from the current 650).


The Tories, on the other hand, wanted to reduce the number of seats to 600 but leave the voting system as it was. During coalition discussions the Lib Dems set out electoral reform as a red-line issue, which riled Tory MPs and grassroots alike. David Cameron decided that the only way that he could secure a deal with the Lib Dems without disenchanting his grassroots activists would be to offer the Alternative Vote (AV), rather than STV - subject to a referendum. He was then forced to lie to a meeting of his parliamentary party and tell them that Labour was to offer voting reform without a referendum, even though he had no knowledge of such an offer even being considered. Begrudgingly, Tory backbenchers and the Lib Dems both agreed to the compromise, and on the 5th May 2011 Britain thoroughly rejected AV by 62% to 38%. Ever since, when the issue of electoral reform has come up, Cameron has been keen to point to the AV Referendum as a comprehensive rejection of the idea that we should scrap First-Past-The-Post (FPTP). 


However, there are a few issues with that conclusion. 


The first complication with Cameron's claim that no to AV was no to electoral reform is the reality that there are so many different potential electoral systems besides FPTP and AV, which were effectively the only two electoral systems on the ballot paper in 2011. The exact wording of the referendum question was as follows: "At present, the UK uses the "First-Past-The-Post" system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the "Alternative Vote" system be used instead?" A very narrow question by any stretch of the imagination. This should instantly dismantle Cameron's assertion that people prefer FPTP to every other possible system of election. Yet, as recently as 19th May 2015 the Electoral Reform Society published a letter that they had been forwarded by someone who had written to David Cameron about FPTP - in which the newly re-elected Prime Minister (elected on a minority of the overall vote) stated "The British Electorate overwhelmingly voted to retain FPTP in 2011". He did not mention that AV is not a proportional system, neither did he admit that there are many other systems besides the two put to the vote in the referendum. 


AV was famously described by Nick Clegg as a "miserable little compromise" - yet Clegg was meant to be one of its champions. When even he despised the system, how was the British public going to be able to approve of it? It, frankly, appeals to no one, with electoral reform campaigners hankering for a proportional system that links votes to seats, and small "c" conservatives wanting things to stay how they are. There are very few campaigners who want an in-between, yet that's exactly what AV is, giving people the chance to transfer their vote so it's not wasted, whilst ultimately retaining the unfair constituency system, making it neither real reform nor the rejection of reform. AV appeals to neither of the two sides who actually have an interest, not even those who want to see a new system. That can hardly be real reform. 


Another aspect of the AV Referendum which made it an unreliable guide to the public mood was that it became unbelievably party-political, with the No to AV campaign lining up to slaughter electoral reforms's biggest parliamentary champion - Nick Clegg. At this point his approval rating was languishing at around -30, and those opposed to AV used this as a tool against the Yes campaign. They turned a referendum on the voting system into a referendum on Nick Clegg. Even though he kept a low profile, acknowledging that such tactics may be used, the No campaign still targeted him with slurs such as "President Clegg", claiming that second-preference votes would keep Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister forever – a prospect very few people at the time were keen on.


But let us also not forget that we recently had one of the most un-proportional, un-representative and all-round unfair elections in British political history. The Conservatives, who got just 36.9% of the vote (around 24% of the entire UK population) achieved a majority at Westminster with 50.8% of the seats, whilst UKIP (who secured almost four million votes – a 12.7% share), won a single, solitary MP - 0.2% of the seats. Meanwhile, the SNP (on 4.7% of the vote) won 56 seats. Although the 2010 Election wasn't representative either, it was nowhere near as bad as 2015.


These inequalities in our system have always existed, but the 2015 General Election highlighted them to an extent never before seen. According to an Electoral Reform Society poll published just before the election, 74% of people said they wanted a proportional electoral system – despite what Cameron tells us about the AV Referendum result. The verdicts of 6 million voters were completely ignored last year, and I imagine that if they were not already keen electoral reformists they certainly will be now.  


Our electoral system was built for two parties and two parties alone, but now that people are turning away from Labour and the Conservatives towards third and fourth parties, we are starting to see flaws in this system. No matter what Cameron thinks, the AV Referendum was nothing more than a coalition sweetener for the Liberal Democrats. It was not a real discussion on the future of our electoral system – shown most clearly by the meagre 42% turnout. Had it been a real opportunity for change, with a variety of options on the ballot paper, then we would have had a proper debate. But of course, that would not have been in the best interests of the political establishment, who rely on FPTP.


The system is no longer fit for purpose for anyone except the Tories and Labour. The AV Referendum result was not a rejection of reform, it was a rejection of "President Clegg", and of "a miserable little compromise". People want real electoral reform, as shown by the Electoral Reform Society's poll and by the post-election outrage in 2015 at the unrepresentative nature of the results. But AV just isn't good enough to deliver this. Although, five years ago Britain said no to half-baked reform, that referendum result can only be used as an argument against all electoral reform for so long, before the politicians are forced to consider real proportional and fair alternatives.


Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Please reload

Want to respond? Submit an article.


We provide a space for reasoned arguments and constructive disagreements.

Help to improve the quality of political debate – support our work today.