The current Australian federal election is attracting more attention than usual among the British political classes because of Australia’s use of Preferential Voting (known in the United Kingdom as the “Alternative Vote” or “AV”). The UK has long used the First Past The Post (“FPTP”) voting system, but next year there will be a referendum on whether or not to change to using preferential voting, prompting much renewed discussion about voting systems and a greater look at the Australian experience.
(The precise form of preferential voting on offer will be the full optional system as used in state elections in New South Wales and Queensland, whereby a voter can express a preference for as little as a single candidate and still cast a formal vote.)
In any comparison between countries it is important to remember that the wider political system can have an impact. The UK has several significant features that can encourage different voting patterns including:
- voting is not compulsory;
- there is no public funding of parties; candidates who poll above the 5 per cent deposit threshold merely recover their deposit and nothing more;
- unlike Australia, the main conservative and labour forces in the UK are in single parties;
- the UK’s upper house, the House of Lords, is unelected;
- third parties in the UK have had more success in getting elected to the lower house, the House of Commons, than their Australian counterparts;
- in addition to various regional based parties there is also a significant third-force party in the centre ground called the Liberal Democrats. In Australian terms it is probably closest to the Australian Democrats (before the Democrats’ collapse) but it has a firmer core vote, a more entrenched activist base and significant success in the Commons.
The result of this is that the debate on election systems in the UK takes place in somewhat different circumstances to Australia. The UK debate hinges around whether or not hung parliaments and coalitions are a desirable outcome, how closely the outcome should reflect the votes cast, whether or not extremists can get elected, and whether or not one party has any particular advantage.
Preferential voting itself hasn’t featured much as the main advocates of electoral change want to go much further (usually preferring something close to Tasmania’s Hare-Clark system, known as the “Single Transferable Vote” or “STV”) while defenders of the single seat system are generally happy enough with FPTP. But some comparison with the Australian experience is possible.
Can one party can get most votes and not form a majority government?
There are several potential combinations of outcomes involving both hung parliaments and/or results where one party gets the most votes and another the most seats. Australia has seen very few hung parliaments with the last being in 1940. But this is in part because of the lack of a significant third force in the House of Representatives. Australia has, however, seen many elections where one party has won the two-party preferred vote and another a majority: in the 25 federal elections since World War II this has happened five times (1954, 1961, 1969, 1990 and 1998), or 20 per cent.
The UK has had 18 elections in the same period. Fifteen have seen the party with most votes form a majority government. One (1951) has seen another party form a majority government. Another (2010) resulted in a hung parliament where the party with the most votes had the most seats; it formed a coalition with the third placed party. And yet another (February 1974) saw a hung parliament where the party with the most votes was second in terms of seats and the party with the most seats formed a government that called another election after eight months and won a majority. On the surface this is a “failure” rate of 16 per cent, slightly less than the Australian rate, but none of the governments formed had won more than 50 per cent of the primary (and sole) vote and in several cases they had not even won 40 per cent.
The most recent election produced a peacetime coalition government, the first in the UK since the 1930s. But whereas the Australian Coalition joins two natural partners together, the UK coalition of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats combines two disparate forces and there is much speculation about whether the Liberal Democrats could find themselves in a rerun of the Australian Democrats’ decline after supporting the GST.
Can extremists get elected?
This issue gets raised from time to time, but is really one for discussion of proportional representation systems. To date the British National Party, the main far-right body in the UK, has not received anything remotely near the votes that Pauline Hanson and One Nation got at their height in the late 1990s. The latter did win some seats in Queensland state elections under preferential voting, more in fact than they would have won under FPTP. They were beaten not by the voting system but by mainstream politicians addressing the concerns that had fuelled their growth in the first place. The British National Party has not yet reached the levels of One Nation and already UK politicians are trying to deal with the implications. Ultimately though if they do reach a sizeable point then there is no system that can deny them election.
Are voters for any party unfairly advantaged or penalised?
In Australia the most significant third parties of the past 30 years are the Democrats and the Greens. Neither has yet won a House seat in a general election and their House votes have almost always been below 10 per cent bar the Democrats’ 11.46 per cent in 1990. More normally the Democrats polled in the 3-7 per cent range (until crashing and burning) and the Greens are still more or less in this range. And of course Preferential Voting means that voters for these parties get the opportunity to “pick again”.
In stark contrast the UK Liberal Democrats (and their predecessor parties) have not polled below 10 per cent since 1970 and have polled as high as 26 per cent in some general elections. They have always won some seats, but never more than 10 per cent of them. How acceptable this is depends to a very large extent on whether one prioritises the need for single-party government over proportional outcomes, but it is questionable whether the Liberal Democrats would do significantly better under preferential voting as their vote is for the most part spread out across the country and rarely concentrated enough to yield large numbers of seats.
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