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Britain’s forgotten referendum

Supporters of the 'No to AV' campaign celebrate their referendum victory, including, left, Matthew Elliott, later chief executive of Vote Leave - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Its 10-year anniversary has just passed unheralded, so what did we learn from another divisive single-issue poll?

When the 10th anniversary of the Brexit referendum rolls around in 2026, it’s a fair bet it will pass amid much clamour. The celebrations – and the criticism – are likely to be loud.

Yet the ten year anniversary of another referendum has just passed by almost unnoticed. In May 2011, the UK went to the polls to give their verdict on a proposed change to the electoral system for general elections. They were asked if they wanted to replace the first-past-the-post system with the Alternative Vote, a system little used around the world, and with which most of the electorate was unfamiliar.

It is one of only three national referendums in UK history (the others being the 2016 EU vote and the 1975 one, which confirmed parliament’s 1973 decision to join the European Economic Community) and like the other two was the product of political compromise.

Just as 1975’s was an attempt by Harold Wilson to keep his Labour government together and 2016’s to draw a line under long-simmering Tory divisions over Europe and keep Nigel Farage at bay, so 2011’s AV vote was part of the deal struck between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats following 2010’s hung parliament.

Not for the first time, electoral reform was a sticking point in the negotiations.  This had happened in February 1974, when Edward Heath’s Tories lost their majority and sought coalition with Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberals. Talks collapsed after Thorpe insisted upon proportional representation as part of any deal.

Both the Conservatives and Labour know all too well that PR means they will almost certainly never govern alone again. The Tory-Lib Dem 2010 proposed alternative, AV, is not actually a proportional system like the Single Transferable Vote favoured by most British electoral reformers.

Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg described it as a “miserable little compromise”.  SDP founder David Owen, a supporter of proportional representation, penned an article saying he would vote for the status-quo.

AV allows voters to rank their preferences, meaning electors can choose their genuine first choice as opposed to voting tactically to keep their least-desired candidate out. And it does ensure that on first and subsequent preferences that the winner must earn 50% or more of the vote. This is arguably an improvement on FPTP.  However, AV can be less proportionate than even FPTP.

In the closely-run 2015 general election, in which the Tories won 37% of the vote and 51% of the seats, their overall majority of 12 would have doubled to 24 under AV. Labour’s huge 1997 landslide, in which the party won 43% of the vote and 63% of the seats, would have been an even larger majority under AV.

This propensity to exaggerate the victory of the winners also leads reformers to oppose AV. It is not widely followed. Australia’s lower house, the House of Representatives, uses the system, as does the US state of Maine, Papua New Guinea and Nauru. FPTP is used for national elections in around 60 countries, including the UK, the US and Canada.

British Election Study analysis of six general elections from 1983 to 2005 found that AV wouldn’t have changed the overall result, and that the biggest difference would have been more seats for the SDP/Liberal Alliance and later the Lib Dems. Its other main impact would have been to inflate the majorities of the victorious parties.

The last British government to propose AV was Ramsay MacDonald’s ill-fated second administration in 1931, presumably because it was thought it would assist the rising Labour Party to displace the Liberals, which happened anyway. At the time, Winston Churchill said of AV that elections would be decided by “the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates”.

The UK’s referendum in 2011 saw a 42% turnout, with 68% of voters rejecting AV.  Every English region, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland voted against, as did every parliamentary constituency. The 10 counting areas with the highest ‘Yes’ vote were either metropolitan, gentrifying or with high shares of highly-educated voters.



A referendum can boil down to trying to force a binary choice by voters on a complex issue of which they may have just basic awareness. The EU referendum falls into this category, as does the AV vote: enthusiasm among the coalition partners and the public was low.

Constitutional change requires specific approval in a referendum, which is how in time it has become a feature of our system. The Scottish parliament, Welsh senedd and even the London mayoralty and Greater London Authority were established after such votes. We might also recall Northern Ireland’s vote on sovereignty in 1973 and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

But public enthusiasm has not always been particularly evident. Turnout for the 1998 London GLA referendum was 34%.  It is often forgotten that the first devolution referendum for Scotland failed because a turnout threshold was included in the legislation. In 1979, only 33% of Scotland’s voters turned out, although devolution ‘won’.

More recently, voter participation has been rather better. The vote to establish a Welsh assembly – later the senedd – in 1997 attracted 50% of voters; in Scotland, the referendum to establish the Scottish parliament achieved a more impressive 60% turnout.  The 1998 Good Friday referendum in Northern Ireland earned 80% of the electorate’s interest. And the 2014 Scottish independence vote reached 85% turnout: higher than any general election.

Britain’s three nationwide and 10 national – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and regional referendums that have been held since 1975 illustrate what a recent constitutional innovation the referendum is, in contrast to many European neighbours. But the idea has a long heritage in British political thought.

Perhaps best known for coining the phrase ‘the rule of law,’ the conservative jurist Albert Venn Dicey first advocated using the referendum in 1889, while trying to ensure that Ireland remained inside the Union. In 1910, a Royal Commission recommended the adoption of AV. In 1917 and 1930, bills including provisions for reform of the electoral system were put before parliament.

So, what future for this method of reaching decisions outside of general elections? Referendums have added strength to major constitutional decisions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But some, like the 1998 London and 2004 North East devolution referendums, met a lukewarm response from voters.

Additionally, the narrowness of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and 2016’s EU referendum is a reminder of how much change can hinge on an extremely close result and cause huge division in the process, raising the prospect of ‘neverendums’ for the losing side. Parliamentary votes generally don’t do this to the same extent, arguably allowing for calmer, more considered, cohesive results.

Whatever tomorrow holds for the referendum, politicians will likely continue to see it as a way to pursue perceived political advantage. One can imagine a scenario where MPs vote to limit the use of referendums, but under the British constitution, no parliament can bind its successors. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act, for example, will likely have a shelf life of about a decade. So it’s unrealistic to imagine political leaders will stop reaching for the referendum option when they feel the wind is in their sails. 

Perhaps the solution is yet another referendum, asking people to endorse a set of principles for referendums that would make it harder for politicians to abuse such votes in future.

THE AV VOTE

While the Tories campaigned against AV and coalition partners the Lib Dems supported it, Labour had no official position.

Several of its leading figures, including leader Ed Miliband, backed the ‘Yes’ campaign, while others opposed it.

The No2AV campaign, which was accused of exaggerating the costs of implementing an AV system, presented the referendum as an opportunity to punish the unpopular Nick Clegg.

What do you think? Have your say on this and more by emailing letters@theneweuropean.co.uk

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