Over on Left Foot Forward there is a paper by a Dr Matt Qvortrup arguing that the introduction of AV would help Labour and hurt the Conservatives, and therefore it would be in the Labour party’s partisan interest to support it.

The paper is almost all made up of polling evidence from elections between 1997 and 2010 which demonstrate that the Labour party would have gained more seats under AV (or at least, lost out less than the Tories!), and reference to the 2008 London mayoral election where Labour performed better under AV (Ken Livingstone still lost, but the re-allocated second preferences split in his favour, so AV was a plus for Labour)*

I wouldn’t make any argument with any of this, throughout this period AV would certainly have helped the Liberal Democrats and been kinder to Labour than to the Conservatives.

Where I would depart from the argument is the assumption that the same pattern would apply now. Normally, in the absence of other information it is a fair assumption that people will keep on doing what they have done in the past. In this case though, there has been a massive shift in British politics and it is fair to question whether that assumption is safe.

AV voting would have helped Labour between 1997 and 2010 because Labour voters were likely to give second preferences to the Lib Dems and vice-versa. To put it simplisticly the left-of-centre, anti-Conservative vote was split between two-parties, and AV would have effectively united that vote behind the better performing of the two parties in each seat.

The formation of the coalition will likely have changed that. People who voted Liberal Democrat seeing it as a left-of-centre, anti-Conservative party probably aren’t voting Lib Dem anymore. The rump of remaining Liberal Democrat supporters are likely to be more positively inclined to the Conservatives, and Conservative supporters themselves will likely see the Lib Dems more positively.

In his paper Dr Qvortrup acknowledges this with reference to an article by John Curtice floating the same possibilities, but handwaves it away by saying there is no evidence of it and Curtice is just making assumptions. As Carl Sagan once said, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”.

As it happens, while John Curtice didn’t cite it, there is evidence to back up Curtice’s assumptions. YouGov asked a “how would you vote under AV?” question at the time of the general election and found a similar pattern of second preference distribution as everyone else – Labour voters were more likely than Conservative voters to give second preferences to the Lib Dems, and Lib Dem second preferences broke in favour of the Labour party. However, YouGov then repeated the exercise in July 2010 after the formation of the coalition to test the hypothesis that pattern of second preferences would have shifted.

Indeed it had – Conservative voters had become more likely to give second preferences to the Liberal Democrats, Labour voters much less likely to give second preferences to the Lib Dems, and Lib Dem voters’ second preferences now split evenly between Labour and the Conservatives.

On a crude projection, these splits would still been slightly better for Labour than the Conservatives, but the more important finding was the change in the pattern of second preferences. That evidence comes from July 2010 when the Lib Dems were still in the high teens – my guess is that these trends would be even more pronounced now as the Lib Dems are ever more reduced to a rump of those supporters happy with the Conservative coalitions and Labour supporters become ever more antagonistic towards the Liberal Democrats.

Of course, that is still an assumption. While there are no more recent polls that specifically asked about second preferences under AV, we can at least look at what Liberal Democrat voters say in other questions that might act as a proxy for whether they prefer Labour or the Conservatives. Looking at the most recent YouGov polling this week:

Remaining Lib Dem voters think David Cameron would make a better PM than Ed Miliband by 31% to 1%.
Remaining Lib Dem voters would prefer a Conservative led government to a Labour led one by 60% to 26%
Remaining Lib Dem voters approval rating of Cameron is plus 44, of Miliband minus 31.

The assumption that these voters would still be more likely to give their second preferences to Labour than the Conservatives is, quite frankly, fanciful.

Of course, the main reason for this shift isn’t that Lib Dem voters have suddenly become more right-wing or more pro-Conservative. They haven’t – the opinions of people who voted Lib Dem in 2010 are still tilted towards Labour. The reason is that most Liberal Democrat supporters from 2010 don’t support them anymore! Many or most of those Liberal Democrat voters who in May 2010 would have told pollsters that their second preferences would go to Labour would now give their first preferences to Labour. Those that remain are a more pro-Conservative rump.

And there, as they say, is the rub. AV is not a system that automatically favours right wing parties or left wing parties, nor one that will always favour Labour or always favour the Conservatives. It depends entirely upon the circumstances – during recent decades it will have tended to have been better for the left because we’ve had a political landscape where there were two left-of-centre parties with supporters who were comparatively comfortable with voting tactically or lending their votes to each other.

If at the next election the landscape is instead a Lib Dem party whose support has been reduced to mainly those voters who are reasonably well disposed to the Conservatives, where many Conservatives view the Lib Dems as allies rather than enemies, and where many Labour voters see the Lib Dems as turncoats and Tory stooges, the pattern of second preference voting may be utterly different.

(*As an aside, I’m confused by the rather odd claim that Ken Livingstone would have won the London mayoralty had he secured an extra 11,182 votes. After second preferences had been re-allocated Boris Johnson won the election by 1,167,738 votes to Ken’s 1,028,966, a majority of 139,772.)


61 Responses to “Why AV won’t necessarily help Labour anymore”

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  1. Anthony has a new thread up. Just the YG – but last poll before Christmas. 8-)

  2. If we are seriously discussing escape routes for Clegg, may I suggest Secretary-General of the Council of the European Union?

    It’s about fourth in precedence in EU terms, behind President of the European Commission (Barroso), President of the European Council (Van Rompuy) and FASP High Representative (Miliband, er, Ashton). It’s not HoG level, it’s not allocated to a specific Europarty and could be presented as a viable consolation prize to both the Conservatives and Liberals, who are second-tier in EU terms compared to EPP and PES. The current incumbent is Pierre de Boissieu (French), but I think it’s a jobshare with Uwe Corsepius (German). It’ll become vacant in 2014. It’s a very good fit for a Brit ELDR polyglot technocrat.

    Virgilio, comment?

    Regards, Martyn

    * h ttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secretary-General_of_the_Council_of_the_European_Union
    * eyecatcher

  3. @Howard
    I’m a recovering Lib Dem currently floating between the red and green, just for the record.
    Y’know, everytime I made the assumption that nearly all what I’d consider lefties had jumped ship from the Lib Dems, and what few remain would be leaving shortly, I thought of you and your impassioned defence of the Libs’ – I was beginning to think party loyalty would keep those lefties there forever. Labour/Green is pretty much where I’m at.

    @Amber Star
    PR = middle management politics for ever & ever.

    If that’s what people want…….
    What are you talking about?! The whole reason I’m a supporter of PR is that I’ll be able to vote for the type of left which Labour have abandoned in their appeal to the centrists, and until it looks like they’ll be returning there I’ll carry on priotitising it.

  4. prioritising*

  5. Starchief

    “My hope with AV/PR is that the parties become Socialist Labour, New Labour, SDP, Liberals, One-Nation Conservative and Euro-Sceptic Tories. Really, it’s been that for many a year, we just weren’t able to vote for them, just some tight coalition.”

    That’s almost what we had in Scotland when we had
    the Socialists electable.

  6. I think AV may not help labour as there is still LibDem members who actually felt that while they could support conservatives on an item by item policy even if they leaned towards labour, but . It is quite possible particularly those who were longer term members and did not want the party to join in coalition that they just will not vote so there will be no second preference votes to reallocate.

  7. Labour supporters may not rank the Lib Dems second any-more, but what other choice have they got than to rank them higher than the Tories or Abstain from making the preference?

  8. I think AV does favour the left.

    Labour would on average gain very slightly on average 1.33r seats per election (1983-2005), gaining many in some and losing many in others but overall their slightly up on the deal and I think the reality might be a slightly larger number average than that. However Liberals on average gain more from the Tories than they would take from Labour they would on average gain 24 seats per election while the Tories loose 26 on average, so I would guess that Labour should still want it because it will hurt the Tories a lot more than it hurts them. Even if you discount 1997 the Tories would still be more worse off than Labour.

  9. If Clegg is to contemplate, or be directed to, a European job we ought to raise serious issues about conflict of interest. I have, perhaps being foolhardy, already pointed out in on the Sheffield Hallam thread, although not with specific reference to EU appointments.

    As I understand it, Clegg has three foreign, Dutch and Spanish, grandparents. A generation or so ago, this would have failed him on “positive vetting”, particularly when one considers that he has additional foreign connections by marriage and that he appears to travel frequently to the countries concerned.

    I don’t care how friendly the countries concerned are. Britain is (over) friendly with various defence firms too, but that does not mean that most of find it acceptable for ex-ministers and civil servants to “run around the table”. They do, but it revolts many of us.

    I am making the point as one of principle, not out of any specific attitude about Clegg. I would, however, express the view that over the years the Liberals and LibDems have been at least sloppy about foreign connections, over several matters.

    Given that as Deputy Prime Minister Clegg will be involved in Defence and Foreign Affairs, my personal view is that he should NEVER from now on take a position mainly funded by overseas Governments. And I would hold the same view about any former Prime Minister or Deputy Prime Minister. This perhaps affects’ Blair’s role in the Middle East. He should do this as a British statesman out of his British remuneration arrangements – as Balfour did in the 1920s when he performed a remarkably similar role, albeit one hopes Blair will be more successful(Balfour, incidentally, started life as a very rich man, but used up most of his money on matters relating to his political activities).

    Call me old fashioned, but as the UK is a sovereign country our politicians should owe allegiance only to our constitutional monarchy. I don’t think most electors would put it like that, but quite a few of them are voting to preserve our independence (albeit I personally disagree very strongly with many of the other views of many of these people),

  10. “reference to the 2008 London mayoral election where Labour performed better under AV”

    London Mayoral elections do not use AV, they use the Supplementary Vote. In this system voters only get to transfer their vote a single time.

    It means anyone not putting Labour or Tory as a first or second preference will lose their vote. Clearly a deliberate attempt to keep the Lib Dems forever out of this office.

    But more than 200,000 votes were lost because of this in the 2008 election, many more than the difference between Johnson and Livingstone. That nearly 10% loss of votes would have been nowhere near as great under AV.

  11. “The assumption that these voters would still be more likely to give their second preferences to Labour than the Conservatives is, quite frankly, fanciful… If at the next election the landscape is instead a Lib Dem party whose support has been reduced to mainly those voters who are reasonably well disposed to the Conservatives… and where many Labour voters see the Lib Dems as turncoats and Tory stooges”

    The only flaw I can see in this reasoning is that it doesn’t address those new Labour voters who were formerly Lib Dem voters. Yes it’s true that the “rump” Lib Dem vote (i.e. those who put the Lib Dem candidate as a first preference) will be more predisposed to the Conservatives, but we are talking about a much reduced number of voters, possibly as few as 2.7 million. But what of the voters who now place Labour first who were former Lib Dem voters, one muct assume they are still inclined to put the Lib Dems second, one can’t imagine they would put the Tories second. that could well be as high as 4.1 million voters. Many of those voters will Elect Labour MPs with their first preference, for sure, but in seats where the Lib Dems are second to the Tories, or even where the Lib Dems are in first place but without an over all majority, those second preference Lib Dem votes from former Lib Dem voters may well be decisive.

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