The Guardian today has an interesting report about Tessa Jowell pushing for a referendum on electoral reform on election day, backed up with some polling findings from some private polling by the Electoral Reform Society. By the wonders of the BPC disclosure rules the actual polling is no longer secret, and is now up on the YouGov website.

The Guardian’s article suggests giving a referendum on election day could put Labour on the verge of being the biggest party. There really is very little in the actual polling to suggest such a massive impact.

There was clearly a voting intention question asked in the YouGov poll, since it gives a split by it. Depending on how much support they found for others though, it equates to a Conservative lead of 12 or 13 points. The projected seat shares given in the Guardian article are bonkers – if nothing else, they add up to 649, leaving just 1 seat between the SNP, PC, independents and all the Northern Ireland parties. The most likely explanation I can see is that someone has mislabeled “Lib Dem and others” as just Lib Dems – if so, this is roughly the equivalent of a Conservative lead of 9 points, so doesn’t seem related to the shares in the YouGov poll.

The first question mentioned in the report is about a referendum on AV making people more likely to vote Labour appears to be the question YouGov asked for the Electoral Reform Society back in August, which I dealt with back here.

In short are you more or less likely to vote for X if they do Y questions are of very little worth. “More likely” is very undemanding, it doesn’t mean you are definitely going to switch, and people tend to use it just to express support or opposition to the thing being tested. It also gives false prominence to an issue which in reality would be thrown into the mix with other (normally more salient!) issues like the economy, crime, unemployment and so on.

Moving onto the new questions published today, YouGov asked whether people would prefer FPTP, the alternative vote system (which was explained in the question) or a system of proportional representation. The answers were actually pretty balanced – 39% of people preferred the status quo, 22% each backed AV and PR.

YouGov then asked a list of questions on how people would react to the way David Cameron responded to a referendum. Boiling it down to the key figures, if David Cameron opposed holding a referendum on election day, 1% of Labour and Lib Dem voters would be much more likely to vote for him. 5% of Tory voters would be much less likely to. If David Cameron opposed changing the voting system, 1% of Lib Dem voters would be much more likely to vote for him. 6% of Tory voters would be much less likely to.

So 5% or 6% of current Conservative voters say they would be much less likely to vote Tory if they opposed the referendum, or the change in the electoral system. With the Conservatives on 41% or thereabouts, that’s 2.5% of the vote – definitely not to be sniffed at. In reality though questions like these overemphasise one particular policy, not everyone who says likely would actually change, and since only the Conservatives were asked about we don’t know how many voters Labour might be losing in response to their stance.

Regular readers will know that my view is that party image matters far more to voting intention than specific policies, so from my view far more interesting were the next set of questions. These asked how people would view David Cameron if he opposed or supported a referendum/change in the electoral system. In short people associated supporting the referendum and a change in the system with being “forward thinking”, but also with being “opportunistic”. People associated opposing the referendum and a change in the system with being “resistant to change” and “stuck in his ways”.

Again, what we can’t see here is the other side of the coin, how would people view Gordon Brown if he called a referendum on the electoral system on polling day? Even so, I think it tells us enough to see what the balance would be – Labour would call a referendum hoping it would make Gordon Brown appear forward thinking and David Cameron appear backwards looking and resistent to change, and this polling suggests it would do so (though of course, we can’t tell to what degree). The counter to it though would be to what extent it made Gordon Brown look opportunistic or self-interested.

= = =

(As an aside, I’m still surprised that those in favour of electoral reform are supporting the idea of a referendum on election day so energetically. It will not be an easy referendum to win at the best of times – there isn’t a large majority in favour of AV as we can see from this very poll. With this timing it would be extremely vulnerable to a narrative that it is Labour gerrymandering the system before they lose office.

Furthermore, it will get tangled up with the election campaign itself – the referendum will influence the election, but the election will influence the referendum too, and the election is by far the bigger game. A YES vote will be associated with a moribund and unpopular Labour government, a NO vote with an energised and resurgent Conservative party. My view is that it would be very difficult for the YES campaign to win the referendum if was held on election day, probably killing the issue for a generation.

The image questions in the poll show why it is a attractive idea to the Labour party, but I’m surprised the ERS are pushing for a referendum under what would probably be very disadvantageous circumstances for the YES vote. Then again, I suppose the alternative is what the Guardian says John Denham is suggesting – passing legislation now for a referendum on PR in a year’s time, I think the YES campaign would stand a much better chance of winning it then, but the ERS would face the the risk that David Cameron would win power and cancel the referendum (politically damaging, but it might be a price he was willing to pay to keep FPTP).)

UPDATE: Before anyone gets excited about the voting intention figures, the poll was conducted at the end of October/beginning of November, so there’s nothing new here on that front.

30 Responses to “Would an AV referendum on election day save Labour?”

  1. The reason for referendum on the day is that it would maximise turnout for the referendum.

    The problem is that people would instantly get confused as they would assume it would apply for the election in which they were also voting. Even with the best will in the world (such as, the changes to apply the election after next…) many would not be able to get their heads around two things at once and so vote no.

    So the referendum should be on a different day.

    I’m all in favour of getting rid of FPTP for a different system–and the sensible first step would be to abolish the Lords (and reconstitute it with the same powers) and have the Upper House elected (hey, then we could live in a democracy rather than a part democracy) on a non-FPTP system. The same people can return if they are elected.

  2. I had a look at the Scottish figures for those who said they would/wouldn’t vote Tory regardless.

    Seems that some had different views depending on the question!

    Would you be more or less likely to vote for a Conservative
    government if David Cameron SUPPORTED a change in the voting
    Not applicable: I would vote for the Conservative party anyway – 9%
    Not applicable: I would NOT vote for the Conservative party anyway – 58%

    Would you be more or less likely to vote for a Conservative
    government if David Cameron OPPOSED a change in the voting
    Not applicable: I would vote for the Conservative party anyway -7%
    Not applicable: I would NOT vote for the Conservative party anyway – 60%

    Or is it just that 4 people got confused by the large amount of text and ticked the wrong box?

  3. This late into a Labour government? Since Labour dropped the idea in 1997 like a hot potato as soon as their majority was clear, then reconceived it prior to a 2010 hammering, this will be construed as gerrymandering on a vast scale.

    Cameron has suggested realigning constituencies based on nos. of votes, not voters, which should be worrying Labour. Unlike PR, Cameron gains proportionately in such a move, whatever the size of his majority.

  4. OldNat,

    You should have realised from the 144,000 who got confused by their 2007 ballot papers in Scotland that the variation is almost certainly due to the latter explanation.

    In that, Jack is quite right, and however one tried to present it, holding a referendum on a constitutional issue on the same day as a GE simply does not make sense.

    If Labour were serious about AV, and believed it to be a real vote-winner, then surely the proper thing to do is to include a pledge to alter the electoral system in their manifesto. If they win a majority, then they can implement the change in time for the election after – no referendum needed.

    Even if they don’t win a majority, but are the largest party in a hung parliament, this gives them negotiating room with the LDs, who would presumably prefer an offer of AV over no PR at all.

    The current policy appears to be political manouvering for selfish party advantage and has nothing to do with democratic principle.

    The ultimate irony is that while some senior Labour personalities may believe that AV will work to their advantage, there is no evidence that this would actually be the case, and the only thing of which one can be sure is that it will make the outcome in most seats less predictable.

  5. The Guardian is two peachy chunks short of a full yoghurt on a whole lot of issues. PR/AV is a huge deal to Guardian staff – the holy grail of sandal-wearing liberalism. But it’s just not a high priority for the other 60+ million people in this country. Yes, many will tick a box saying they’d like PR but they don’t care about it anywhere near enough to make a referendum on the matter something that will decide how they vote at a General Election.

    Then there’s the little matter of Labour’s record on promising referenda that it then wriggles out of delivering …

  6. I have to agree with your commentary in italics.

    It’s too late to hold a referendum pre-Election (and it’d still be tainted by Labour’s unpopularity). Holding it on the same day is stupid for several reasons, not least those you enumerate and those mentioned by Jack in the first comment here. Any referendum post-Election could be cancelled by an incoming Tory government.

    If Labour really wanted vote reform, they should have done it in 1997, despite the large majority. That they didn’t suggests, to me, that they were using it as a way to curry favour among Lib Dem supporters (I’m not a fan of New Labour, but I have to admit I’d prolly have done the same thing).

    A shame, but it’s now too late to do anything about vote reform without persuading the Tories that it’s in *their* interests. Not an entirely impossible feat and certainly worth us trying, I’d suggest :o)

  7. Some elementary mathematics: AV does not equal PR

    Please use the right terms – AV is not a proportional system (look at Australia’s House of Representatives); PR stands for “proportional representation”.

  8. @Richard Manns – “Cameron has suggested realigning constituencies based on nos. of votes, not voters..” – I missed that one, but if true it’s a dreadful idea and totally undemocratic – about the worst kind of gerrymandering in my view.

    I’m with Paul HJ on this one. Labour’s sudden conversion to PR/AV is all about selfish party politics. In 1997 I said that if Labour had any sense they should reform the voting system and pass stringent laws on media ownership. Like all politicians with a grip on power they were engulfed by a sense of their invincibility and lacking any basic humility failed to think ahead to the tougher times. Now its pretty shabby to look for reforms that might help them. What goes around comes around.

  9. Alec – don’t worry, it isn’t true. They are looking at equalising the electorate to a greater extent across constituencies and speeding the review process up.

  10. Anthony,

    Very Interesting, although Margaret Beckett seems to have dismissed it today on Daily Politics, on the grounds that there isn’t enough time left in this parliament to get it through!

    Have you any idea yet what polls are coming out this weekend?


  11. Wayne,

    That will be because Beckett has been around long enough to know that the idea is
    a – impractical and simply won’t happen in time (any bill is likely to be blocked/delayed in the Lords)
    b – blatantly transparent self preservation – and so may backfire badly
    c – not in the best long-term interests of the Labour party anyway

    Just to prove that AV will not save Labour, we have had this system now for all Mayoral elections and since 2007 for Scottish Council By-elections. The record indicates that it has not helped Labour one jot. While there was one instance in Aberdeenshire where LDs came from a poor second to overhaul a Con with over 40% of first preferences, I am not aware of any examples where Labour came from second to win. And just look how many Independents have won mayoralties under the system.

  12. Paul H-J

    Absolutely right. Of all the systems we use, my preference is STV in the council elections, as it puts power in the hands of voters as opposed to parties – which is exactly why parties won’t put it in place more widely.

    Although there is no need to change the system for council by-elections – it’s still better than FPTP – it is nothing like a form of PR then.

  13. test

  14. try this

  15. It seems to me the best bet for the reform movement is to campaign for the progressive parties to commit to AV now, its the most Labour & the least the Libdems will accept.

  16. Personally, I dislike coalition governments as they are often weak, but find it difficult to reconcile that with having a party win barely over one-third of votes getting a solid majority.

    I heard during the coverage of the recent Greek elections that it is set up so if a party gets 42% of the vote, they get a majority in parliament. This seems a better system than PR, but requires a high level of popularity for a majority.

    From the sounds of things, Labour want AV as they are convinced Lib Dems would vote Labour as second choice and vice-versa, hammering the Conservatives. I don’t think this would be true and that it would backfire heavily.

  17. It seems to me that those on the left who support AV or PR (and I know they are not the same thing) do so in the hope/belief that whilst the Tories will always be a very strong party in the UK, they will never command the support of more than 45% of voters. The assumption is that either AV or PR would rule out the possibility of a future Tory government having a majority of seats.

    That may work in the short term, but it is the nature of politics that eventually people want change. After 15/20/50 years of Lib/Lab/Green coalition governments there would eventually be a breaking point where the public would return the “Other Side” to power, even if that meant gifting them 50% of the vote. In the short term changing the voting system would definitely hurt the “Right” but in the long term the “Left”would be playing a dangerous game.

  18. Call me an old cynic, but I agree with those who say that holding a referendum on the same day as the election would confuse the voters, but perhaps that is the point?

    As a chess player, I know that one tactic when losing is to complicate the position to try to confuse your opponent. Are Labour just trying the same tactic in the real world?

  19. Neil A, Libdems back PR because we think its right.

  20. > Personally, I dislike coalition governments as they are often weak, but find it difficult to reconcile that with having a party win barely over one-third of votes getting a solid majority.

    Haha, that old chestnut again. Presumably weak coalitions are the reason why Germany has such an appalling record over the last 60 years, and why the Lib-Lab coalition in Scotland never lasted 8 years and while Wales is currently really going down the drain.

  21. More to the main issue, I’d disagree with Anthony about the timing, I believe election day would be a very good time for a PR referendum.

    To win such a referendum would need Labour to convince their supporters and get them to vote. The latter is obviously easier on election day, concerning the former the election campaign will enable Labour to closely associate supporting Labour with electoral reform. In fact in my cynical mind I am wondering whether Jowell is only interested in electoral reform because the issue could give the Labour general election campaign a message – to be(come) the progressive party (again).

  22. Christian Schmidt

    But what might happen ISN’T a PR referendum! As Paul H-J pointed out above, we actually have real polling evidence about the minimal effect of AV.

  23. @ Christian Schmidt. “Haha, that old chestnut again”

    I could quite easily say that about your response. The fact that Welsh and Scottish coalitions have lasted does not make them ‘strong”; Germany has a very different recent history, making a different kettle of fish to the UK.

    I think the voting system needs a change, though whether PR or Cameron’s changes I’m not sure. I agree with those who think a referendum at the election is a bad idea. The election should simply be about manifesto; if a party wants a referendum, include it in the manifesto (which, given recent history, needs to be legally binding)…

  24. @mike r
    Yes Mike I have to agree with you. I think CS was picking on one European success story (Germany) and not bothering to mention others who have had govenments running into four figures since 1945.

  25. What’s the alternative to “weak” governments?

    Is it a government with no support an one part of the UK which imposes an unpopular policy in a try it on the dog manner?

    Is it sofa government which marginalises parliament and its own backbenchers “strong” enough to bully them into voting for an illegal war?

    I’d rather have “weak” government that might be forces to listen to its own supporters and even sometimes the opposition. We’re doing fine with a minority government in Scotland.

  26. If, as is very widely predicted, the election is on May 6th. 2010 in many places there will also be District Council elections, with all the complications that involves. And now various Labour people and “The Guradian” are suggesting a referendum too. It will be a shambles.

    Election campaigns typically concentrate on one topic. In 2010 it will be the economy. Unless a referendum is held separately, it will not represent the considered judgement of the people.

    I have posted it before, but I cannot do so too often. ONLY ONE ELECTON ON A SINGLE DAY.

    I am in favour of PR providing it is between individual candidates, not parties, in multimember constituencies. Otherwise, traditional first past the post. There is no best system (Arrow’s impossibility theorem shows this), so we should have something simple to vote at (it doesn’t matter if the counting is complicated) and transparently fair. As all the different systems Labour have inflicted on London, Scotland, Euroelections etc show, this is the one thing the self-interested cynics in Labour will not give us. In particular, they keep on at lists.

    The expenses scandal, and the recent conviction of a folrmer UKIP MEP elected on a lists system, highlights how important it is that voters can vote for or against individual candidates. NO LISTS.

    Of course, the overwhelming question will be: Why didn’t they propose it in 1997? Plenty of Labour people favoured PR before 1997: I did when I belonged to Labour in the 1980s.

    Frankly, if Labour propose a referendum on PR now I will almost automatically vote against change on the assumption that what the Government is doing is simply for self-interest. And I think very many other people will think the same.

  27. @ MIKE R :-

    “The election should simply be about manifesto;”

    @ FREDERIC :-

    ” It will be a shambles.”

    In two nutshells.

    Any government with 12 years of administration behind it seeking a referendum on the last possible day ,when it is also
    seeking re-election would have no legitimacy for that referendum.

    It would deserve to pay the price -win or lose-of the resulting shambles which Frederic rightly predicts.

  28. @Frederic Stansfield
    A great many people will agree with your last paragraph. The previous actions of these people leaves no room for doubt about their self interest.

  29. While debating the possible outcome of the next election on this board I am still puzzled a to what would be the best system for a better representation of the electorates wishes.
    The FPTP has problems the PR has problems the AV ha problems the boundaries set in favour of Labour.
    Maybe something approaching the Swiss style system with more referendums on major changes or the USA where you can force a referendum with enough signatures.
    Not that any of this will ever happen in GB, too many vested interests. It can not be right to have landslides with 25% of the total votes, have unelected Lords in the government. Not good for democracy may be that is why nearly half the people can’t be bothered to vote. As friend of mine said to me “ I don’t vote, it only encourages them”