The Referendum of 2011 on AV
Electoral reform: A referendum was held in May 2011, with the two parties taking up entrenched positions: the Conservatives campaigned strongly to retain first past the post, while the Liberal Democrats argued for the adoption of the Alternative Vote (AV), only to see their proposals rejected by 68 per cent of those who voted. This was a major disappointment for the Liberal Democrats, for whom progress towards a change in the voting system had been a priority in negotiating the coalition agreement. They had in fact preferred the proportional Single Transferable Vote system, but had opted for AV as the maximum that they expected to gain at the time.
The Liberal Democrats’ main constitutional demand in forming the Coalition was electoral reform for the House of Commons. The party had long favoured proportional representation, ideally using the STV system, while the Conservative manifesto had firmly supported ‘first-past- the-post’. The commitment in the Programme for Government to hold a referendum on the introduction of the AV , a system that is usually only marginally more proportional than ‘first-past-the-post’, was therefore a compromise, and, as it turned out, a compromise that failed.
In a context of Liberal Democrat unpopularity, and with Cameron and the Conservatives campaigning strongly for a ‘no’ vote in the referendum, the option of AV was rejected in May 2011.
AV has some clear advantages as an alternative to FPTP. These include that it would involve the simplest change, requiring no alteration to the established constituency structures. It can also be seen to maintain some of the alleged benefits of FPTP – a firm link between an MP and his or her constituency, and the possibility of strong and stable government, achieved through the existence of a single majority party – whilst at the same time increasing voter choice (through preferential voting) and ensuring that MPs enjoy at least 50 per cent support in their constituency. Under FPTP, this does not occur in about two-thirds of parliamentary constituencies and, exceptionally, as in Inverness in 1992, seats can be won with as little as 26.6 per cent of the vote.
However, AV also has drawbacks. Chief amongst these is that it would create little prospect of greater proportionality, and may even result in less proportional outcomes (for instance, under AV, Labour’s majority in 1997 would have been 245 instead of 178). The defeat of the AV referendum in May 2011 brought to an end this attempt to reform the Westminster electoral system. In so doing, it appeared to damage badly the prospects for electoral reform in the near future.