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David Alexander: The Australian experience suggests that the Conservatives should not fear electoral reform

Picture 17 David Alexander was a senior adviser to John Howard's government in Australia and is now resident in the United Kingdom.

With the Labour Party having suffered a massive swing against them, the only hope of Gordon Brown retaining government is to offer the Liberal Democrats major electoral reform. Nick Clegg will be very tempted to grasp this rare opportunity. For the Conservatives this possibility should focus their minds on whether voting reforms should be countenanced as part of a negotiated deal in order to form government.

In my view there are many misconceptions amongst Conservatives about what voting reform might mean if applied in the United Kingdom, particularly as it relates to the Conservative Party itself. The significance of this is that these misconceptions may cost the Conservatives government.

Only one country in the world actually operates both Nick Clegg’s favoured voting system and Gordon Brown’s now-favoured voting system – Australia.

The Alternative Vote system now championed by Gordon Brown has operated in Australia’s lower house, the House of Representatives since 1918, and the Single Transferable Vote system that Nick Clegg likes most has been operating in the Australia’s upper house, the Senate, since 1949.

The first error is to think that the Alternative Vote (called preferential voting in Australia) would leave the Conservative Party in “permanent opposition”. In Australia, conservatives have been in government for 65 of the 92 years since the Alternative Vote was introduced. The Alternative Vote is no inherent hindrance to centre-right parties. To suggest that Australia is more conservative than the UK would be silly. In the medium and long-term the Conservatives would have nothing to fear from an Australian-style Alternative Vote, it is only the short-term that it could be an issue for the Tories, and more on that below.

The second error made by some Tories is to claim that the Alternative Vote is less stable than First Past the Post, but again, since it was introduced in Australia in 1918 there have been fewer changes of government than in the United Kingdom - 9 versus 12. The Alternative Vote in Australia tends to lead to quite stable two party politics as preferences drift up to consolidate the major two parties. This benefit to the two major parties is no doubt why Gordon Brown suggested the Australian system as his preferred option recently.

The Australian Alternative Vote system maintains the constituency link, with one Member per constituency. Australia's House of Representatives has always been overwhelmingly composed of the two major Parties.  Conservatives in Australia are strongly supportive of the Alternative Vote because the system produces a more efficient reflection of the popular will, and this builds public trust in governance.

Australia has also had Nick Clegg's preferred option of Single Transferable Vote operating in our Senate for many years, and when you see the greater representation of small parties in our Senate you can see why the Liberal Democrats have been attracted to this idea. This radical option is the most complex system and would lead to less accountable and less stable government if introduced in the lower house.

Now that the electorate has delivered its verdict, Gordon Brown will be desperate to offer anything to stay in power, even including the Liberal-Democrats most-favoured radical option of Single Transferable Vote.
 For the Conservative Party confronted with this scenario, it may be in their interests to consider the more moderate Australian Alternative Vote system in preference to the more radical options.

The key concern for Tories moving to such a system would be the short-term effects, but in my view these can easily be overstated. If Alternative Voting were introduced in Britain my guess is that opinion polls would translate immediately into a lift for the left as Lib-Dems and Labour preferences flowed mostly to each other. But this static analysis, which is accepted by pessimistic Tories, neglects the dynamic feedback that results from such polls.

To illustrate the fallacy of static analysis, let’s say for example, that Alternative Voting had been suddenly legislated in the lead-up to the election. Opinion polls would have shown Labour set to return, with Gordon to Win headlines everywhere. The electorate would have instantly adjusted its voting intentions to account for the fact that this was manifestly not their desired outcome.

If an Alternative Vote were introduced in Britain my view is that the polling feedback effect would very quickly stabilise the situation into a normal two party contest in which the Tories battled with a major centre-left party within a band of around 40-60 per cent two-party preferred support (Just as has been the case in Australia for as long as polling has been done).

A lot of the misguided commentary on the Alternative Vote seems to derive from the observation of particular voting systems in Europe, but this is akin to condemning all modern music as awful having only ever listened to a Eurovision song contest.

Of course, it may be that even correcting for these misconceptions about voting systems that the Conservative Party takes the view that an Alternative Vote is not a price worth paying.

But the important point is that any consideration of the issue should not be based on a misunderstanding of the options.


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