Why the Lib Dem vote goes down (even collapses) under AV or PR

Much of the speculation about what happens with AV or proportional representation  (PR)  is based on the assumption that the 3 major parties remain the same. Then in the case of AV what the transferred votes would do (and they are often assumed to boost the Lib Dems) or in PRs case they assume that the vote share remains the same and it is reflected in parliamentary make up.
Both assumptions are deeply flawed.
Change the rules of the game and the effect on the players is totally different.
Imagine you are playing Monopoly with a friend and you have just started building up a property portfolio. Then the rules change…  the price of property halves, the price of houses halves. Perhaps another friend of yours who didn’t like the rules before decides they can join in. (In Monopoly you’d need to give permission for that, but in politics a new political party could start anytime, especially if it was easier to get elected.)
Suddenly the nature of the game has changed – often many of those changes are subtle.  People buy themselves out of prison faster and hence buy more and different property. It can be hard to predict what will happen but things certainly change.
A change to AV or PR changes everything….
Both AV and PR encourage more political parties to be formed. AV because votes don’t get wasted if they go a party that has low support , so it is worth risking people voting for them and giving later preferences to larger parties. PR because it’ll it ensure a party gets representation once you have a certain (usually pretty low) percentage of the vote.
In Great Britain we have the choice between 3 major parties. Under AV or PR the choice will be much broader.
And what happens to the vote of the Lib Dems in those circumstances?
They have PR across much of Europe. They also have Liberal parties that are in the same party grouping as the Lib Dems in the European Parliament. And though European may speak different languages they still have many of the same liberal urges. Perhaps increased by their experience of war.
The UK Lib Dems polled 23% in 2010 (support increased by lack of choice between political parties). My brief click round at http://www.eldr.eu/ has revealed many of European Liberals polling around 13%, and in the past some have polled around the 5% mark.
With more choice at the ballot box the Liberal vote always go down. Unsurprisingly.

Only about 10-15% of the electorate are likely to support Liberals (and their parties) in the ballot box.
So about 10% goes off the Lib Dem vote (before people hit them with disgust over fees) There are more political parties to choose from. Lots more options if a coalition government needs forming.
This is NOT a recipe for Lib Dem power.
And I know at least one man who knew full well it wasn’t.
Paddy Ashdown. (Lib Dem leader 1988-1999).
My first job was working for Berwick-on-Tweed MP Alan Beith. One day Ashdown spoke to the parliamentary researchers and told us about the European parties and how he expected the Lib Dem vote to collapse. It’s his commentary, not mine. That’s why I recall the 5% figure. It was that bad then.
“So what’s the point of PR?” I blurted out, unaware how stupid my question was in front of a load of Lib Dem researchers.
Paddy looked off into the middle distance (you know how he did), his tone changed so much softer and he declared “Oh, PR. PR changes everything.”
Beyond that he was lost for words…. Novel.
So why did he campaign to cut his support in half? Was he mad?
Why be a Lib Dem?
It goes back to this. Why get active in politics? Why give up all those hours?
Everyone gets involved in politics for the promotion of highly cherished beliefs. Later on they may be corrupted by the desire for power, sadly.
For Conservative Party members they may well voice it as a desire for people keep the money they have earned. For Labour re-distribution of wealth is often a key concern.
For Lib Dems (and the Liberals / SDP before them) fair votes is a key rallying crying. It is vital that people’s votes count, that parliament reflects the will of the people.
And they will follow that even it puts them out power.
And it usually does!
2010-11 is a complete aberration. For most of this and last century voting reform is a topic of odd-balls. Neither of the two major parties was in favour nor was there any hope they would be.  To campaign effectively you must accept the powerlessness of 3rd party status with an electoral system built for two. Only when the 3rd party vote started climbing (as it did) would the discussion become more mainstream.
But to finally get fair votes and bring in a new plural democracy with parties of different competing views and, ideally, a system that encouraged parties to talk and have mature discussions rather than the mutual expressions of hatred often thrown across the Commons benches. That, they believed, would make it all worth it.
If he had done it then it would have been Paddy’s life time achievement,  even if his party started to wither as a result.
It never happened….
What about AV and coalition?
AV gives a real chance of additional political parties. It increases the chance of them getting elected as well, though not as much as PR. Nor does it guarantee seats in proportion to vote – shame!
But especially with the Green Party on up we have a real chance of 4 major British parties pretty soon. More choice for voters and options for coalition that leave the Lib Dems out.
The Lib Dem vote really could sink (even without tuition fees) .
However, the new parties are likely to favour of PR (vested interest & also, maybe, principle).
Because people vote for their real first preference under AV it will reveal just how distorted the electoral system is (Labour voters will appear in the South; Conservatives in North. Both were previously hidden by voting tactically for the Lib Dems) More parties will probably make the system APPEAR even more distorted whereas FPTP would hide these differences by people voting for the large and highly diverse parties called Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats.
This makes it easier to switch over to some form of PR.
(Sadly STV/PR for the Lords is likely to lead to a serious break in the 2.5 party system because people will still be looking to the Commons because the Commons forms the government. I think we could get some interesting characters elected by STV though!)
Rightly or wrongly, the Lib Dems didn’t believe they could get PR in the coalition negotiation (there were serious concerns about whether Labour could deliver its MPs to vote for a referendum containing that option).
So they opted for AV. It gave them some of the characteristics of PR (including multi-party potential) and an increased chance of further reform. In no way was it a sell out – remember Ashdown’s dream.
How to keep the Lib Dems in power?
According to the IPPR with FPTP we are now trending towards more hung parliaments. http://www.ippr.org.uk/publicationsandreports/publication.asp?id=798
If someone actually wanted to keep the Lib Dems in power then keeping FPTP would probably be the best strategy.
FPTP mainly allows 2 parties to complete but can just about allow another in some seats. That party is almost exclusively the Lib Dems in England and often in Scotland and Wales too.
Since no others have a reasonable chance of getting through the Lib Dems hold the privilege of being third party and if either of the 2 parties doesn’t have enough seats for a government. They are likely to turn to the Lib Dems and often that may lead to coalition government.
Ironically, FPTP gives far more power to the Lib Dems.

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About 123voting

Imogen Caterer campaigns for the alternative vote (AV) in the UK referendum on May 5th, 2011. The alternative vote is sometimes called IRV (Instant Run-off Voting) and is becoming increasingly popular in the USA. It is also used in a number of internal party elections in the UK But some believe it isn't good enough for the voters! For a dramatically different topic she also blogs on go to: http:www.inspirationcatalyst.com
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One Response to Why the Lib Dem vote goes down (even collapses) under AV or PR

  1. “Both AV and PR encourage more political parties to be formed.”

    Not necessarily true: it depends entirely which PR system you are talking about. A list system will tend towards that effect, other things being equal. But STV (traditionally the PR system favoured by LibDems and many other electoral reforms in the UK) has if anything the opposite effect, because it allows the voter to choose between different strands of the same party without splitting that party’s overall vote. This tends to encourage parties to stay together that might otherwise have splintered. Look at the Irish Republic. They have had STV for 90 years and they still have only two main parties and three smaller ones, a state of affairs that has barely changed over decades.

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