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Alternative Vote referendum: The YES side is staring at defeat

August 22nd, 2010 Posted in AV referendum by

Guest post by Mark Littlewood.

The news today that Matthew Elliott is to spearhead the NO campaign against the Alternative Vote should send shudders through the pro-electoral reform lobby. There is a very long way to go before next May’s referendum – and it is not yet a nailed on certainty that the referendum will even take place – but the early signs are very ominous for supporters of electoral reform. My judgement is that the NO side are now clear, although not overwhelming, favourites.

The YES side face a number of substantial strategic and tactical hurdles and it’s not yet obvious that any of these have been satisfactorily addressed. Or, in some cases, how they can be.

1. The referendum on AV is, of course, a compromise. It is virtually no one’s ideal electoral system. Most of those supporting a YES vote will actually be committed to a more proportional voting system – most commonly STV. This isn’t to say that Nick Clegg shouldn’t have settled for the coalition deal, but it does raise problems for electoral reformers. Inevitably, people campaign harder – and are willing to give more money – to something they really believe in rather than towards a second best option. I expect the NO side to easily raise and spend the £5m expenditure limit and to have an impressive network of activists – these guys really and passionately believe in First Past the Post.

2. Slow progress to date. It has been known for well over three months that there was going to be a referendum on AV (although admittedly not the timetable).Of course, these are the early stages of both campaigns – but looked at another way, we are already nearly a third of the way to polling day. Peter Facey – head honcho at Unlock Democracy – assures me that the YES side will have a website soon and that staff recruitment is already being organised. It can’t happen too soon. The websites of Unlock Democracy and the Electoral Reform Society are yet to focus on AV to the exclusion of other issues. The NO side isn’t much further advanced, of course. But in fairness they started with a much less impressive national infrastructure.

3. Matthew Elliott’s appointment. This is the single clearest sign yet that the NO lobby is going to be deadly serious and superbly organised. Matthew is one of the sharpest operators and most successful campaigners on the British political scene. Not only is he certain to be an effective leader of the NO side, the mere fact that he has taken the job is significant. He would not have done so without copper-bottomed guarantees about the level of political and financial support he can call upon. Contrary to popular belief, he is not a Conservative and he has a proven record as a coalition builder. Of all possible leaders of the NO campaign, Matthew Elliott is the most daunting possible opponent.

4. The YES side looks set to be run largely by Liberal Democrats. This needs to be avoided. The reason is very simple. On virtually all analyses of AV, the LibDems are set to gain the most – perhaps more than 30 seats. LibDem activists, members or politicians advocating a YES vote will find it very hard to dodge accusations of special pleading. At the very least, the YES campaign should be wholly independent of Cowley Street.

5. The polls show a clear movement of public opinion to the NO side. This doesn’t mean an awful lot at this stage, but it does mean something. The latest polls show the two sides neck and neck, which amounts to a measurable shift against AV in recent months. The polls also show that the elderly are more opposed than the young and, of course, the former have a measurably higher propensity to vote. If the drift away from the YES camp continues, so do the diminishing odds on a YES victory.

6. Body count. The Conservatives and many of the larger trade unions are going to put their weight behind a NO vote. The combination means there will be a strong grassroots presence for the NO campaign in virtually every area of the country. The Liberal Democrat party machine is tiny in comparison, with LibDem membership now averaging less than 100 per constituency – and party membership is heavily concentrated in a few dozen, maybe a hundred, seats. The great imponderable is how the Labour Party might jump, but even if they were united and enthusiastic YES supporters, I’d expect the NO campaign to have many more troops on the ground.

7. The NO campaign may be able to position itself as the anti-establishment, anti-politician option. Electoral reform is not a high priority for a large percentage of the electorate. Being asked to vote on what many will consider a fairly obscure and technical issue – especially during difficult economic times – could well encourage a two-fingered salute from many voters. Expect the NO side to consistently argue that the referendum is only taking place because the LibDems have demanded it in order to promote their own narrow electoral interest.

8. Because AV isn’t proportional, some of the key moral arguments are harder to put. For all the dreadful downsides of party list systems, at least the argument can be made that if you get 18% of the vote, you should get 18% of the seats. This is the sort of principle that voters can easily grasp. The NO side can even say that there might be a case for a proportional system, but that’s not what is on offer.

9. Because AV is fairly technical, the NO side just need to raise sufficient doubts, whereas the YES side need to actually prove a complex case. For example, I expect the NO campaign to argue that if you are a BNP voter, your vote will count twice (because it will be transferred) but if you vote Conservative or Labour it will only count once (because it often won’t be transferred). The argument is spurious, but is superficially powerful. The NO side will benefit from confusion and uncertainty. A confused and uncertain electorate can be expected to vote NO.

10. The newspapers are likely to be overwhelming opposed to AV. The Guardian and Independent will be in favour – and possibly the Mirror. Pretty much everyone else will be against and quite possibly, vociferously so. Newspapers have a declining influence and a declining readership, but in a campaign in which many people do not have a strong view either way, the editorial position of popular newspapers could potentially carry more sway than in a General Election.

I had often assumed that securing a referendum on electoral reform would be the hardest part of the task. Now I am considerably less sure. As things stand today, I think the NO side may well win.

Mark Littlewood was Director of Liberal Vision from September 2008-December 2009. He is now the Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs. He writes here in a personal capacity.

75 Responses to “Alternative Vote referendum: The YES side is staring at defeat”

  1. Simon Foster Says:

    3. – With regards Matthew Elliot’s appointment there’s an interesting article here – (Mark you’ll be interested as they’ve referenced you!)

  2. John77 Says:

    I wasn’t around in 1945 so I’d take your word for it – EXCEPT that in the first multi-member constituency of which I heard in my youth A P Herbert was elected and re-elected (including 1945) as an Independent MP in a two-member constituency.
    I could go on about multi-member local government elections but we’ve drifted from the main point.
    A truly sophisticated voting system would not give the same weight to second preference votes as they do to first preferences (otherwise it would be “first-equal” preference) so I find the “50% support” argument unconvincing

  3. It doesn't add up... Says:

    AV does NOT ensure that a candidate has 50% support. Even in Australia where ranking all candidates and voting is compulsory that isn’t true. It only guarantees that the votes that remain standing are between two candidates in the final analysis.

    AV is a system that relies on persuading people to vote tactically (i.e. not for their first choice) to secure winners who can’t command a high level of first choice support. It’s interesting to note that of the seats won at the election, Lib Dems had the lowest proportion of outright 50% + wins among the major parties.

  4. youngdegsy Says:

    I simply don’t buy that Matthew Elliott is an effective campaigner at anything. He has founded an organisation whose primarily role is to snipe, whinge, complain and achieve precisely nothing, which is why he’s a perfect fit to lead those marshalled against democratic reform.

    The premise in the press release announcing his appointment was that FPTP has “served us well”. This is the soft underbelly of the No campaign. That premise could be ripped to shreds in minutes by an infant. Really, served us well? Do you remember the winter of discontent? The Miners’ strike? The poll tax? The Iraq war? The expenses scandal? The lies and the spin? Have you been asleep for forty years?

    FPTP gives the political class exactly what it wants – safe seats. Safe seats which mean there’s no incentive for politicians to behave (either on expenses, or against the yah boo political culture). Safe seats which means the political class can ignore the vast majority of the public ALL the time, even during elections.

    The pro-change camp has to be sharp and ruthless. “THEY stole YOUR money – now they’re fighting to save the corrupt system that preserves THEIR privileges. Fight back and vote for change.” “They want to save the system which gave us the POLL TAX and the IRAQ WAR. Don’t let them get away with it – vote for change.” “[picture of MP with fingers in ears] La la la la I’m not listening – No more. Vote for change.” Five minutes, with no advertising background, and already I’ve come up with three messages that are better than anything Elliot could ever dream of. And I know we can still do better than any of this.

  5. Mark Littlewood Says:

    @youngdegsy. Underestimate Matthew Elliott at your peril. You may disagree with his arguments, but he is very effective indeed.

    I think a big question for the YES side if how much to big up the difference AV would make. Would it really have stopped the Iraq war? (a majority of the public and a vast majority of MPs supported the war at the time)

  6. Mark Littlewood Says:

    @dave thalwey. You’re right, it is guess work on how people will vote, but not unreasonable guesswork. People do change their behaviour according to the electoral system – which is one reason why e.g. minor parties do better in the Euro elections.

    I’m not sure AV gives more choice – in the sense that I imagine there will be same sort of type and number of parties on the ballot paper. It does interpret choice in a different way though – and in a better way than FPTP in my view.

  7. Simon Foster Says:


    I agree with you that I don’t think it would have stopped the Iraq War at the time.

    I do think that AV would have fundamentally changed politics if introduced at previous elections, and altered the political landscape. This would have included John Major’s Government losing its majority through by-elections much earlier in the 1992-1997 Parliament, or possibly not having a majority at all in the 1992 election, for example.

    I can see the Lib Dem vote changing in the past – with about 8% of Lib Dem supporters voting Green first and Lib Dem second, and so the Greens gaining more credibility and possibly capturing Brighton Pavillion earlier (2005) than they did (2010) (I’d have to go and check the figures). My basis for this is the drop in support for the Lib Dems at Euro-elections and the corresponding rise in support for the Greens, as a PR system is used here.

    Net, I would see the Lib Dem vote going up (based on up to 46% of people from a number of opinion polls voting Lib Dem if they thought they could win), and thus winning more seats and having greater influence. The extent to which it would go up, however, is highly debatable (I’m not saying it would be 46%, I think it might be higher than 25% though).

    Northern Ireland would probably change considerably – with people able to express preferences amongst Unionist and Nationalist politicians, and across the sectarian divide.

    I think the nationalists in Scotland and Northern Ireland support would rise and a few more seats would have been won by them.

    For UKIP, I think their support would rise and we’d see the truth in how many people on the right support UKIP first and the Conservatives second. This might turn UKIP into a campaigning force outside of Euro-elections which is able to mount a serious challenge in a number of highly right wing seats (in south-east England?)

    I see more independents winning seats and for longer terms – I’m not convinced John Bercow would be speaker under AV.

    The biggest change I think would be a difference in the tribalism of politics. Instead, as AV rewards cooperation, I think we would have a more consensual form of politics.

    Finally, I think the 2010 election result under AV would have meant that the Lib Dems would have had a much stronger negotiating position in a hung parliament, and the numbers and the ability to do a realistic deal with Labour.

    In which case we could have ended up with a Labour/Lib Dem coalition.

    Overall, I think AV would have and will fundamentally change UK politics, for the better, if implemented, IMHO.

  8. Simon Foster Says:

    Ops. I meant to write nationalists in Scotland and *Wales* in the above article – the dangers of typing fast! 😉

  9. Dave Thawley Says:

    “I’m not sure AV gives more choice – in the sense that I imagine there will be same sort of type and number of parties on the ballot paper. It does interpret choice in a different way though – and in a better way than FPTP in my view.”

    Sorry for my imprecise words. I was attempting to say that AV will allow people to give more information which increases their choice over the available candidates. I agree that there will most probably be no increase in the number of candidates. The extra choice via ranking though will give each voter the chance of more representation. As @itdoesntadup alluded to (although the language s/he uses appeared to me to be misleading) there are mathematical permutations which could possibly allow a MP selection on slightly less than 50% of the vote but from my understanding this would be extremely unusual and in most cases of these statistically abnormal events would be driven by a lot of individuals not using their right to chose more than one candidate. After all if everyone gives just one preference under AV then the result is of course FPTP which would then include all of its inherent unfairness just the same. i do find it ironic that FPTP supporters criticise this fact of the AV system. In fact i would find it humorous if this wasn’t such a serious topic. What the discourse along these lines is really saying is – don’t vote for AV because it can be made to work like FPTP which is crap – so stick with FPTP lol, in fact I have to laugh.

  10. Dave Thawley Says:

    @itdoesntadup I was going to comment on your comment about AV encouraging tactical voting. The fact the referendum will be AV versus FPTP. I think you are distorting the facts so much that black has become white. From my understanding of the no campaign this seems to be the way forward for them so I hope you are not just believing the rubbish they are putting out. If you are not then you must be aware that what you are saying is contradictory and in which case may I ask you have actually typed it in. I’m sorry but this type of misinformation gets my goat.

  11. Mark Littlewood Says:

    I think AV might well encourage tactical voting, but of a very different type to FPTP. FPTP has a strong tendency to encourage people to vote tactically against their least preferred candidate, rather than for their favourite candidate. The LibDems use this aspect of the electoral system very astutely, persuading Lab voters in Lib-Con marginals to switch to them to stop the Tories or Con voters in Lib-Lab marginals to vote LibDem to stop Labour.

    I suspect – but it’s only guesswork – that a new form of tactical voting may emerge under AV. This might be called “the flippant first preference”. A deeply eurosceptic Tory voter, might choose to vote 1. UKIP 2. Conservative. A socially libertarian LibDem might vote 1. Legalise Marijuana 2. LibDem. In both cases, the “honest” first preference choice of the voter is for the party they actually put second. They don’t actually want UKIP/Legalise Dope to win. But they use the mechanics of AV to send a “nudge” to their preferred party, knowing their vote can start on a “protest pile” but end up counting for the candidate they really want to win. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, just that it might well happen.

    Another guess is that the LibDem national vote share would tend to fall under AV. This is because a large number of LD votes under FPTP would actually be second preferences under AV, but becaue of tactical considerations, people use their X to vote for the least bad candidate rather than their genuinely favoured candidate. So, for example, the Labour vote share would probably rise to its “natural” level in seats like Winchester, Eastbourne, Wells, Bath etc., at the expense of the LibDem share. The end result in these seats would probably be the same though, as the swelled ranks of Labour voters would presumably see their candidate eliminated and their 2nd prefs would then go to the LibDems.

  12. Dave Thawley Says:

    Hi Mark

    I agree that AV can allow the type of nudging you have suggested and there may be more complex ways of tactical voting but what ‘go my goat’ was to quote this out of context. The far more widespread negative type of tactical voting people use nowadays would stop which is a definite benefit. If it was replaced with the type of protest first then serious second type of voting I would be all or it. At least the person would be list their serious votes in order of preference. At the moment people get one vote and many (perhaps millions) vote for their second preference and since they have only one cross they can’t vote for their first preference. AV of course gets rid of this by allowing us to vote for our first preference higher than our second preference but still giving us the option of voting for our number 2 – a far better state of affairs because the system has allowed us to show our real choice and then our second preference. Even if this comes down to a ‘I want A (mark as one) but I definitive don’t want B (so place candidate C number 2) AV is still far better at expressing public opinion than the current system even if local public opinion is against a particular candidate. saying this I seem to be framing this in the negative but if your MP has just spent your money on a house for his ducks then I think people have every right in making sure he doesn’t get in again. Even if he does carry a 35% minority (which under FPTP would ensure he and his ducks say in residence). AV would allow the population to evict them all.

  13. Simon Foster Says:

    @Mark You orginally wrote:

    “The YES side looks set to be run largely by Liberal Democrats. This needs to be avoided.”

    Looks like the fightback has started:

    “He(James Graham) said the Yes to AV campaign was also keen to counter the impression that it will be a Liberal Democrat “front” organisation – stressing it will be a cross-party, non-partisan organisation and not run out of the Lib Dems’ Cowley Street headquarters as some bloggers have claimed.”

  14. Simon Foster Says:


    The opinion poll that I mentioned on political priorities:

    Interesting to see electoral reform 4th at 37%. Of course what we need to see now is some up to date polling on this issue by a range of organisations, before drawing conclusions. Still, interesting to see this.

  15. Simon Foster Says:

    @ Mark

    I can see the Lib Dem vote falling in places like Winchester, but rising in the West Midlands for example, where the Lib Dems often come third.

  16. Mark Littlewood Says:


    Delighted that James indicates the YES campaign won’t be LibDem run. I think that would make it very hard to win, which is not a reflection on the merits or demerits of LibDems as campaigners – it is just a positioning point on outreach.

    The poll is interesting. Although I suppose devout FPTP supporters might be in the 37% (they might think “reforming the electoral system” is an important issue because they devoutly don’tr want it to happen). These sort of “salience” polls are difficult to interpret. You’d get different results if people were asked to list just one issue – or as many as, say, ten.

    I still think my original point stands – there will be a charge that the AV referendum is an unwelcome distraction from the economic problems the country is facing.

    You may be right about the LD vote increasing in seats where the party is third. Interestingly, the SV system for London mayoral elections seems to point in the opposite direction – but I’m not saying that’s at all definitive.

  17. dave t Says:


    “I still think my original point stands – there will be a charge that the AV referendum is an unwelcome distraction from the economic problems the country is facing.” The problem is I can see the no campaign forcing this down peoples throats without telling the truth – in 10 years time the economic situation will be over and another one will be brewing but if they have their way we will still have this duff electoral system. To be honest I hope the no camp do think this is a distraction – to the point they all stop at home and read how bad the economy is while we go and get ourselves a fairer deal :-)

  18. Mark Littlewood Says:

    @dave t

    The economic situation is never “over”.

    I think the truth is that in a referendum people will vote for all sorts of reasons one way or the other. I’m sure this is true in representative elections too.

    Nevertheless, it’s a stone cold fact that if Nick Clegg is a wildly popular politician next May, this will help the YES campaign. And if he’s almost universally loathed, it will hinder the YES campaign. Intellectually, Nick’s popularity should be irrelevant in deciding whether we want FPTP or AV. But it’s futile to believe that is so.

    A large number of people will vote on grounds of an ill-defined “feel for it”. That depends a lot on personalities etc.

    All that said – and although I welcome a lot of what James Graham said in his recent interview – I am nervous about some of the campaign’s apparent approach. These were well outlined by Ian Martin of the Wall Street Journal

    I’m not against fun and music, but I do hope that no one thinks Billy Bragg can somehow busk the reform campaign to a YES vote.

  19. Mikey21 Says:


    1 Cross out the AV question on the referendum.

    2 Insert alternative question
    ” Do you wish to leave the EU ? YES NO

    3 Select your desired answer.

    4. Place in referendum ballot box

  20. dave thawley Says:


    And then your paper will be removed from the box, looked at by the counter, marked as a spoilt paper and thrown in the bin. Your protest will not be registered and will not be reflected in anything + you will have supported those in power to keep the power they have instead of voting for AV which will give the us a chance to start getting the MPs to do what we want. In your case it seems getting a referendum on Europe I important. Your protest won’t achieve that –in fact it won’t achieve anything at all apart from potentially letting the MPs carry on doing what they want to (i.e. not giving us a referendum on Europe). I suggest you use your chance to get a fairer voting system – this starts with AV next year which may allow you to get what you want. Protest positively – protest in a way which will allow you to have more leverage with those in power – AV is the only way.

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