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by GK Strategy 5th February, 2015

On Second Thoughts… UK Politics and the AV Referendum

Back in May 2011, the Liberal Democrats led an ill-fated campaign to change the voting system for general elections in the UK. A referendum was held on the Alternative Vote – a relatively small adjustment to the voting process which would allow voters to indicate a list of preferences rather than backing one candidate.

As we all know, the result was a decisive rejection of AV, by 68% to 32%. The campaign also saw the final demise of the Coalition’s happy-go-lucky, rosy-cheeked demeanour, replaced by deep suspicion and badly-disguised ill-feeling between the erstwhile partners.

Yet as we approach the 2015 general election, each of the major parties must, in their quieter moments, look back and wonder… what if?

For the Lib Dems, there is huge irony in the No vote. At their high watermark in May 2010, under AV they may have gained as many as 25 or 30 seats based on being everyone’s second favourite party. But now, they are tainted to say the least in the eyes of both Tory and Labour voters, and it’s questionable whether they would pick up so many consolation prizes. It’s even possible, given their low standing and the rise of smaller parties such as UKIP and the Greens, that they will hang on to more seats under First Past the Post (FPTP) than they would have under AV.

But spare a thought for the big two. The Tories decisively rejected AV on the basis that they preferred “strong government” and by whipping up confusion over the process involved. But had they backed it, they would have far less cause for concern over the rise of UKIP. Such voters might clearly have backed the Tories as a second preference – shoring up their majorities in some seats, and making them genuine contenders in marginals in the North of England.

And what of Labour? They officially backed AV, but were far from clear-throated in their support, with many senior party grandees rejecting the system. But had they backed it, they could perhaps hope that transfers from other unionist parties in Scotland could stave off a rout at the hands of the resurgent SNP.

It could all have been so different. And perhaps party strategists will be thinking through the implications if the outcome of the election is as expected. The electorate seems likely to give us a complex result; can a system designed for simple choices cope for ever?

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