Next May, the UK is due to vote on whether to elect MPs by using the alternative vote (AV) instead of first past the post.
We have some signposts available, to show how AV might work here. Australia’s constitution is based on the Westminster model. But the Aussies have used AV (or, as they call it, preferential voting) to elect their House of Representatives – the equivalent of the House of Commons – at every national election since 1919.
Australia is to go to the polls for a federal election on 21 August. Today, the Australian Greens have said they have chosen to direct preferences (or “transfers” as Brits might say) to the Labor Party ahead of the conservative coalition in an unspecified number of House seats. The arrangement will apply in all but a handful of constituencies, where Greens branches will exercise their right to choose otherwise. In return, the Labor Party will direct its preferences for the Senate, which is elected by STV, to the Greens ahead of all other political parties in all states and territories.
The preferences swap could make a big difference next month. Current polls indicate that the election will be very tight and, with the Greens on around 13 per cent of the primary vote, the governing Labor party may need their preferences to stay in office. The deal will surely help Labor to retain many of their key marginal seats.
Labor and the Greens have been somewhere like this before. In 1990, Bob Hawke’s Labor government seemed headed for defeat and the opinion polls showed a slide of public support towards the Australian Democrats and Greens, due to a combination of protest votes and a new concern with environmental issues. Hawke’s environment minister, Graham Richardson, developed an impressive programme of conservation policies and assiduously courted the “green vote”. In the end, the Democrats and Greens combined won 17 per cent of the primary vote. But two thirds of their preferences went to Labor, who narrowly won the election, despite winning less than 40 per cent of first preference votes.
Deals or no deals, Green voters’ preferences have flowed to Labor in recent national elections by ratios of more than 3:1 in 1998 and 2001 and 4:1 in 2004 and 2007. The latter contest saw Labor restored to power and the generous allocation of Green preferences inflated their majority in the House.
The ABC’s Antony Green, the indispensable guru of Aussie elections, has found that for House seats, the main drivers of Green voters’ preferences to Labor have been the size of the primary percentage vote for the Greens, whether the party decides to direct preferences in particular seats and the presence of a donkey vote.
Green says that the real importance of today's deal concerns the election for the Senate, where either party may be able to gain seats at the expense of the Coalition.
It has to be stressed that this deal won't be responsible for delivering the balance of power [in the Senate] to the Greens. . . . The purpose of the deal is to weaken the Coalition’s position beyond what would naturally occur if the Labor government is re-elected.
The UK does not have an elected upper house (at least, not yet). But the developments in Australia raise some important questions about how the parties would behave under AV. A few months ago, I would have suggested that most Liberal Democrat voters would usually give their second preferences to Labour candidates, and vice versa. With the advent of the Cameron-Clegg coalition, that’s not nearly so clear. Still, we can’t be certain that either of the coalition partners would try to direct their supporters as to how to channel their preferences. Deals or directions might cramp their style for post-election coalition talks, alienate potential voters or cause internal party ructions. As Senate-based parties, Australia’s Democrats and Greens have never had to face those sorts of dilemmas.
Perhaps the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats -- and Labour -- would leave it up to local, state or regional parties to decide whether and how to direct preferences. But that could create other problems for party strategy and branding (“Lib Dems say one thing in Tory seats, another in Labour areas” . . .). The other option is to leave it up to individual voters to decide and hope they follow the subtle clues and dogwhistles.
We may hear claims, based on the Australian experience, that AV could skew future governments’ policies towards “minority” concerns, as the larger parties worked up special policy planks in order to woo third and fourth party supporters. But the way Labor played green issues in the Australian election of 1990 seems to have been a one-off. The reality is that AV seems always to pull Australia’s main parties towards the middle ground of politics.
One thing is for sure: whatever voting system is used, politicians will be politicians. I make no claim to be an expert on the Australian Greens and have no axe to grind with their leader, Senator Bob Brown. But Liberal Democrats in the UK will either laugh or marvel at the way he has distanced himself from today’s deal with Labor. [Click here and here] Here are a few quotes:
I've got enough to do without sitting at tables discussing preferences.
I'm saying to people, vote one Green and put your preferences where you want to.
I don't like backroom preference negotiations with other parties. In fact, I'm sick of it.
There’s one lesson from Australia: cross party deals that are about votes always look messy. So you have to keep your brand as clean as possible.