So, the government plans to hold the alternative vote (AV) referendum on 5 May 2011. I for one will be happy to support a change of voting system. It’s not that I think that using AV would radically change UK governance for the better. In fact, I think that hyperbolic predictions and promises are best avoided on this one. But AV has some important benefits. In about two out of three constituencies, more voters would see their choices count for something. All MPs would need the support of at least 50 per cent of those voting. That should enhance the democratic legitimacy of the Commons.
Holding a public vote on changing the voting system is a radical step for the UK. But it has been done before. In 1993, my home country, New Zealand held the second of two referendums to decide how to elect MPs. An established Westminster democracy voted by a 54:46 per cent margin to get rid of first past the post (FPTP) voting and put in its place the German-style mixed member proportional (MMP) system. [For more details, click here; here; here and here.]
Of course, the UK in 2011 will not be New Zealand in 1993 and, for that matter, AV is not a proportional voting system. But I believe that some valuable lessons can still be drawn from the New Zealand experience.
1. Reformers need to convince supporters of at least one of the major parties that a change will be better for their cause than the status quo. In New Zealand, Labour won more votes than National at both the 1978 and 1981 general elections, but ended up with fewer seats. Labour’s sense of injustice helped to kickstart the electoral reform process and kept the show on the road at key stages. Labour voters (whose party was back in opposition by 1993) backed the change by a margin of 2:1. In the UK, current polls suggest that Labour voters may well swing the final result.
2. Reformers should be prepared for attempts by pro-FPTP MPs to booby trap the process and/or make the reform option less appealing to voters. In New Zealand, the government added 21 "much hated" MPs to the MMP option. Sure enough, “more MPs under MMP” became one of the catch cries of the anti-change campaign.
There are already strong signs that some Labour and Conservative MPs are colluding to frustrate the passage of the government bill containing a referendum and reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600.
3. The pro-reform campaign must be grassroots-based and above and across party politics. Debates about electoral reform are always about political party advantage. And when any of the parties weigh in, the public naturally senses that political calculations are involved. New Zealand’s Electoral Reform Coalition (ERC), contained activists from several parties and none, but no well-known political figures. As a locally based, decentralised campaign that contained activists - but not MPs - from all parties (except, I think, National) and none, the ERC may be a useful model for UK reformers. But . . .
4. Reformers shouldn’t be surprised when the forces opposed to reform are well-funded and fight hard. In New Zealand, the pro-FPTP lobby eventually coalesced around the Campaign for Better Government (CBG), which was largely funded by major business interests. A leading light in the pro-reform lobby later recalled how the CBG was able to pay for high quality research material and mount a well-funded advertising campaign against MMP
targeting "the least educated and most gullible" sectors of the electorate by providing "easily digestible, alarming material" warning electors of the consequences of MMP. . . The ERC was ill prepared for this onslaught . . .
Now, who wants to bet the same sort of thing won’t happen in the UK?
5. The government should invest in educating the public about both first-past-the-post and AV. In New Zealand, the government appointed an independent Electoral Referendum Panel, which worked at arm’s length from politicians and public servants, for both the 1992 and 1993 votes. The panel had a substantial budget for the task of providing voters with impartial information about the mechanics of the options that were under consideration. Some of the panel’s output is in this clip.
6. Debates about electoral reform are won by using the most powerful frames. The report of New Zealand’s Royal Commission into the Electoral System provided a high level view of the frames used for discussing different voting systems. When it came to the referendum, those wanting reform framed the choice in terms of fairness between parties and groups in society and the need to place a democratic check on future governments (accountability). Those campaigning against MMP claimed that “faceless” list MPs from minor parties would have too much power (accountability) and that future governments would not be as effective. (Click here to see how the ERC countered the “more MPs under MMP” argument.)
In the UK, supporters of AV will frame the current system as one that allows MPs and governments to take office but without having democratic legitimacy. Supporters of FPTP will use the accountability and voter participation frames, arguing that we need a voting system that is easy for people to understand and enables them to eject quickly governments they don’t want anymore. They will also say that is more likely to avoid coalition governments, thereby promoting stable and effective government. John Prescott is framing the referendum as a pay off for Nick Clegg, part of a dirty political deal between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives.
7. Those making the case for reform will need to engage with the way voters feel about politics and politicians at the time of the referendum. Kiwi voters voted for MMP because, by the early 1990s, confidence and trust in politicians and Parliament had plunged to new depths. Both Labour and National governments had broken election promises and launched radical policy changes that had not been part of their manifestos. Polls showed that politicians ranked alongside used-car salespeople as the least-respected occupational group in the country.
Some of Britain’s “anti-politician” mood may have dissipated since the Coalition Government was formed. But if voters are deeply disgruntled by the time of the referendum, the reform campaign will need to play to these feelings. Even if they are not angry with politicians in general . . .
8. As is usually the case, this referendum will be about the government almost as much as the questions on the ballot paper. New Zealand voters cheerfully ignored warnings from the then the prime minister, Jim Bolger, and other senior members of an unpopular (centre-right) National government about the supposedly dire consequences of using MMP.
Next May, if the UK coalition is not travelling well, or its economic policies are unpopular, voters – especially Labour supporters - will be less inclined to “risk” another coalition. John Prescott is already encouraging Labour voters to use the referendum as a stick with which to beat the coalition and especially the Lib Dems.
9. The reform campaign will succeed by embodying its narrative as the cause of the people against the powerful. There is some evidence that New Zealand’s CBG over-reached themselves, with a big burst of advertising spend in the last week before voting. The political scientists Nigel Roberts and Alan McRobie later concluded that, whereas the ERC campaigners usually came across as sincere and credible, the pro-FPTP lobby suffered from a basic problem:
"built as it was on the fears and uncertainties of people who were not quite sure of the desirability of change, their campaign was remarkably effective.….. the CBG's greatest handicap lay in its failure to convince the electorate that — despite . . . repeated protestations to the contrary — it was not simply a front for the business roundtable."
10. All this suggests that politicians of all parties may be well-advised to take a back seat during the referendum campaign.