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Matt Qvortrup

The Alternative Vote Referendum in Britain : A Comparative Perspective

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Thèmes : Grande-Bretagne - Référendum - Système électoral


Le référendum britannique sur le système de vote alternatif : une approche comparative

Le 5 mai 2011, les électeurs britanniques devaient prendre position, par référendum, sur le système de vote alternatif (VA). La question était posée en ces termes : « Jusqu’à présent, l’élection des députés à la Chambre des Communes se faisait par un scrutin majoritaire uninominal à un tour. Un système de vote alternatif devrait-il remplacer ce mode de scrutin ? ». Le « non » l’emporta par une écrasante majorité (67,90%). Cet article propose une analyse comparative de ce référendum et suggère plusieurs raisons permettant d’en expliquer le résultat. Il constate ainsi que les référendums relatifs au système électoral connaissent un succès plus important qu’on ne le pense couramment.

Intervention présentée au colloque « Referendums in France and the UK » qui
s’est tenu le 28 septembre 2011 à la Chambre des Lords (Royaume Uni) à
l’initiative du Franco-British Council :

La revue adresse ses remerciements au FBC


The Alternative Vote Referendum in Britain : A Comparative Perspective

On 5 May 2011 the British electorate voted on a referendum on the
Alternative Vote electoral system. The question posed was : "At present, the
UK uses the first past the post system to elect MPs to the House of
Commons. Should the alternative vote system be used instead ?” The result
was an overwhelming « no » (67,90 %). This article analyses the British
referendum in a comparative perspective and makes suggestions as to why the
proposal was defeated at the polls. It is found that electoral reform
referendums have been more successful than is commonly believed.

This paper was delivered at the Franco-British Council meeting on
referendums in France and the UK", held at the House of Lords on 28
September 2011 :

We are grateful to the FBC for allowing us to publish this piece.


Das Volksentscheid zum Wahlsystem 2011 in Grossbritannien : eine vergleichende Perspektive

Am 5. Mai 2011 sollten konnten die Wähler in Grossbritannien über das Wahlsystem zum Unterhaus befinden. Sie hatten die Wahl zwischen der Beibehaltung des traditionellen relativen Mehrheitswahlsystems in Einerwahlkreisen und dem sog. alternative Wahlsystem. Die Reform wurde mit grosser Mehrheit (67,90%) verworfen. Der Beitrag liefert eine vergleichende Analyse dieses Volksentscheides und bietet verschiedene Ergebnisanalysen.

    “...Under the electoral system, which this Clause proposes to set up [the Alternative Vote], no one is to have what he wants but everybody is to have their second preference. Why is a proposal of this kind brought before this House ? It reminds me of a saying of Oscar Wilde regarding Whistler that : Whistler had no enemies, but he was intensely disliked by his friends. It would not be quite true to say that this Clause has no enemies ; I am one, but it is true to say that it is intensely disliked by its friends”.

Sir Austen Chamberlain in H.C. Debs, March 4, 1931 Col. 524

On the 5th of May 2011 a majority of 68.9 percent of the British voters rejected a proposal to change the electoral system from the-First-Past-the-Post to the Alternative Vote (AV). The turnout was 42 percent. In the wake of the referendum several questions were asked ? How could the yes-Campaign (which had enjoyed a double digit lead in January 2010) lose by a similar margin ? Did the better financed side win by virtue of deeper pockets ? Was the result driven by cues from party-leaders rather than based on enlightened decisions by the voters ? And are referendums on electoral reform always unsuccessful ?

Table One : Outcome of the 2011 Referendum on the Alternative Vote in the United Kingdom

Turnout : 42 percent

Yes : 32.1 percent (6152607)

No : 67.9 percent (13.013123)

Source : The Electoral Commission

Needless to say, some of these questions cannot be determined with any degree of certainty especially as we still await comprehensive survey data. However, based on referendums in other countries on similar and related issues, as well as compared with previous referendums in the United Kingdom, we can put together coherent picture that enables us to rise above the apparently idiosyncratic and seemingly unique factors that ostensibly determined the outcome of this plebiscite. In doing so we can conclude that the referendum was not, in fact, that unique, but rather followed some familiar patterns identified in other referendums around the world on electoral reform.

Reforms of the electoral system are seen as fundamental constitutional changes ; i.e. changes that should not be undertaken lightly as the dangers of gerrymandering are ever present [1]. In the United Kingdom - it has almost become a convention of the constitution that electoral reforms and changes to the electoral system must be preceded by a referendum [2]. It was, therefore, not surprising that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government included this commitment in the Coalition Agreement :

    The parties will bring forward a Referendum Bill on electoral reform, which includes provision for the introduction of the Alternative Vote in the event of a positive result in the referendum, as well as for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies. Both parties will whip their Parliamentary Parties in both Houses to support a simple majority referendum on the Alternative Vote, without prejudice to the positions parties will take during such a referendum [3]

That this pledge was included was a result of bargaining. The Conservative Party – having campaigned against all forms of electoral reform – made a referendum on AV their “last offer” and the Liberal Democrats (a party that had campaigned for the more proportional Single Transferable Vote or STV) accepted this offer [4]. This concession from the Conservatives came after Gordon Brown had ostensibly proposed to put AV into law without a referendum, though the latter has not been independently confirmed [5]. That the Liberal Democrats choose not to go with Brown – despite this offer – may suggest that electoral reform without a referendum would be illegitimate, though it is probably equally, if not more, plausible to cite fundamental personal differences and the sense among the Liberal Democrat leadership that Gordon Brown and Labour – having just lost the election – lacked legitimacy [6]. In other words, the decision to hold a referendum was a result of bargaining ; an agreement to disagree. Writing about the referendums in the 1970s, Dennis Kavanagh concluded that “the referendum had more to do with political expediency than constitutional principle or democracy” [7]. The same conclusion could safely be drawn in 2010-2011.

The Legislation and the Run-Up to the Campaign

Following the publication of the coalition agreement, the government moved swiftly and introduced the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill in the House of Commons on 22 July 2010, which only met with cosmetic challenges [8]. The Bill passed its Third Reading in the Commons on 2nd November by 321-264. The aim of the legislation was two-fold, 1) to reduce the number of Constituencies from 650 to 600 (A Conservative manifesto commitment) and 2) to introduce (subject to a referendum) the Alternative Vote. Somewhat to the embarrassment of the Labour leader Ed Miliband (who was in favour of AV), several Labour peers (who were opposed to AV) sought to wreck the passage of the Bill in the House of Lords by imposing a forty-percent turnout threshold. Such a threshold had effectively sealed the fate of devolution in Scotland in 1979 [9].This threshold would almost certainly have condemned the proposal to failure, as it has elsewhere. The amendment proposed by Labour’s (Lord) Charlie Faulkner (a former cabinet minister) failed – though only after all night sessions and bitter debates. The Bill was finally enacted on 16 February 2011 when it was passed by the House of Lords by 224 votes to 210.

Perhaps paradoxically, it was the Labour Party’s Manifesto A Fair Future for All which had included a commitment to holding “a referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote for elections to the House of Commons”, in order to “ensure that every MP is supported by the majority of their constituents voting at each election” [10]. Yet, despite their commitment to this system, many Labour politicians grew sceptical of the proposed change. While not officially hostile to AV, the Labour Party leadership seemed to have second thoughts and prominent members sowed doubts about the commitment to changing the system and to their contribution to the campaign. Andy Burnham – Labour’s Election Campaign Co-coordinator - expressed the view that Labour will not campaign for alternative vote, but will instead “focus…on [the] Scottish, Welsh and local elections taking place on same day” [11]. To be sure Ed Miliband, the party leader, threw his weight behind the change, but he was hampered by the fact that many prominent members of his party, such as Margaret Beckett (the former foreign secretary), John (now Lord) Prescott (the former deputy prime-minister), and former Home, Defence and Northern Ireland Secretary John (now Lord) Reid campaigned alongside David Cameron for a no-vote. In the end more than 150 Labour MPs were opposed to AV, and only 50 declared their support.

While many in the Labour Party campaigned against their manifesto commitment, the reverse was true for the Liberal Democrats. The small government party had forgotten their misgivings about the Alternative Vote and was actively campaigning for its introduction [12]. This was a bit of a volte-face, especially as the Liberal Democrats were at best lukewarm at the idea of introducing AV before election. Indeed Chris Huhne, the Climate Secretary, had observed that “the alternative vote is not the solution”, and opined that “only the single transferable vote will remedy the unfairness of the present system”, though he did admit that AV was a small step in the right direction” [13]. Similarly Nick Clegg had referred to AV as a “miserable little compromise” [14].

Referendums on electoral reform are not as unsuccessful as most people may be inclined to think [15]. The adage, ‘if in doubt vote no’ does not universally apply to electoral reform referendums. Nineteen referendums held since 1980, nine have been successful (Andorra 1992, Russia 1993, Uruguay 1996, Ecuador 1997, New Zealand 1992, New Zealand 1993, Canberra 1992 and Italy 1992 – and under very special circumstances Iraq in 2005). Ten have been unsuccessful, though of these five were due to failure to meet the turnout requirement, namely in, British Columbia (2005), Italy (1999, 2000, 2009), and in Romania (2007). Though of course, without a referendum things are much easier. Of the 50 electoral system changes enacted without a referendum, law passed by the Czech parliament in 2000 is the only one that was not implemented. The law was vetoed by President Havel on the grounds that it violated the constitutional protection of the principle of PR [16].

While public enthusiasm for electoral reform is not great – the referendums in New Zealand in 1993, the Italian referendum in the same year, and Uruguay poll in 1996 are the only three examples of votes that have recorded turnout of more than 70 percent – it is inaccurate to suggest that electoral reform referendums are invariably a lost cause. Like all other referendums, polls on electoral reform are subject to ebbs and flows of popular support and the miscellaneous factors that determine the fate of political campaigns. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to give a blow-by-blow account of the campaign, and that such accounts have already been published by insiders in each of the two camps [17]. What is interesting in this context, and from the point of view of comparative politics, is the question as to whether the referendum fits the various patterns identified by political scientists studying referendums abroad. While political science studies of referendums were relatively – not to say entirely – empirical and case-studies based until the turn of the end of the 20th Century [18], political scientists have recently developed more advanced and comparative models and theories for studying referendums [19]. While it is outside the scope of this chapter to present a thorough overview of the literature, a few key findings are useful for understanding the 2011 referendum.

Table Two : Outcomes of Electoral Reform Referendums since 1980

Country Yes-Vote Year Success/Failure
Andorra 74 1992 Success
British Columbia 57 2005 Failed due to Turnout
British Columbia 38 2009 Failed
Canberra 65 1992 Success
Ecuador 59 1997 Success
Iraq 78 2005 Success
Italy 82 1993 Success
Italy 91 1999 Failed due to Turnout
Italy 82 2000 Failed due to Turnout
Italy 77 2009 Failed due to Turnout
New Zealand 84 1992 Success
New Zealand 54 1993 Success
Ontario 37 2007 Failure
Prince Edward Is. 36 2005 Failure
Romania 83 2007 Failed due to Turnout
Russia 58 1993 Success
Slovenia* 14 1996 Failure
St. Vincent & Grenadines 43 2009 Failure
Uruguay 51 1996 Success

Sources Australian Electoral Commission, Elections Canada, Zentrum für Direkte Demokratie, Aarau (ZDA)),

Butlletí Oficial del Principat d’Andorra 1993, *Multi-option referendum none of the options secured 50 percent of the votes cast.

As suggested elsewhere by this author, referendums often follow an underlying logic and while it might be difficult to find law-like generalities like in the physical sciences, there are certain patterns which often repeat themselves in referendum campaigns [20]. Two of the most commonly recognised regularities are :

  • Referendums tend to be won by parties that capture the centre-ground and effectively appeal to the median voter [21]. Thus, the Irish referendum on divorce in 1986 was won by opponents as they successfully appealed to the centre ground and turned the issue into a matter of social security rather than a question about Catholic philosophy [22] ;
  • Citizens often decide on the basis of cues, such as ‘who’s behind it’ rather than based on an analysis of the issues [23], thus referendums are often won because voters use short cuts to acquire information rather than studying the finer points of the issues.


[1Blau, A., ‘Fairness and electoral reform’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 2004, Vol.6:1, 65-81. See also Curtice, J., ‘Changing Voting Systems’, in H. Druckner (ed.) Developments in British Politics, 7, London, Palgrave, 2003 and Benoit, K., ‘Models of Electoral System Change’, Electoral Studies, 23, 363-389.

[2Geoffrey Marshall , ‘The Constitution and its Interpretation’ in V.B. Bogdanor (ed.) The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003, 29-68, 62

[3Cabinet Office (2010) Coalition Agreement on Stability and Reform, London : TSO. Cabinet Office (2010a

[4« Hung parliament : Tories’ ’final offer’ on vote reform ». BBC News. 10 May 2010. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/election_2010/8673807.stm. Retrieved 17 May 2010.

[5According to the BBC journalist Michael Crick, “Brown held two secret meetings with Nick Clegg on the Sunday”. The suggestion of AV without a referendum was made at their first meeting. My source says Brown also suggested at these talks that it might be possible to go ahead with AV without a public vote and then have a referendum later on more radical and proportional electoral reform” (Accessed 22 May 2010) : http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/newsnight/michaelcrick/2010/07/did_labour_offer_av_without_re.html

[6Quinn, T., ‘The British General Election of 2010’, West European Politics, 2011, Vol. 34 : 2, 403-411, 410.

[7Kavanagh, D., British Politics : Continuities and Change, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 60

[8Wintour, P., ‘Cross-Party challenge to May date referendum could hit moves to reduce the number of MPs’, The Guardian, Tuesday 6 July, 2010, A6

[9Balsom, D., and McAllister, I., ‘The Welsh and Scottish Devolution Referenda’, Parliamentary Affairs, Vol.32 : 3, 294-309

[10The Labour Party, The Labour party Manifesto : A Future Fair for All, London, The Labour Party, 2010, 9.3

[11Wintour, P., (2010) ‘Labour will not campaign for alternative vote’, says Andy Burnham, The Guardian, At : http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/nov/05/labour-will-not-campign-alternative-vote, Accessed 14 November 2010

[12http://www.libdems.org.uk/fairervotes.aspx. Accessed 10 November 2010

[13Huhne, C., (2010), ‘The Alternative Vote is Not the Solution”, in the Guardian, 9th February 2010 at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/feb/09/alternative-vote-not-the-solution. Accessed 14th September 2010

[14McSmith, A., ‘Where they stand on PR’, The Independent, 6 July, 2010, A4

[15See e.g. interview with Paul Whiteley in Stevens, N., ‘A Passion for Politics’, The Economic and Social Research Council, Britain in 2011, ESRC, 2010, 50-51, “in almost all referenda over the end result is a no vote”, 51.

[16Birch, S., Millard, F., Popescu, M., and Williams, K., Embodying Democracy : Electoral System Design in Post-Communist Europe, Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2002, 83

[17See : Anderson, P., ‘Just desserts for pro-AV Campaign’, Tribune 13 May 2011, 9 and – on the No-side Hodges, D., ‘No we can’, New Statesman, 16 May 2011, 37

[18See : Butler, D., and Ranney, A., ‘Theory’ in D. Butler and A. Ranney (eds) Referendums Around the World. The Growing Use of Direct Democracy, London, Macmillan, 1994, 5

[19See e.g. : Szczerbiak, A., and Taggart, P., ‘The Politics of European Referendum Outcomes and Turnout : Two Models’, West European Politics, September 2004, Vol.27 : 4, 557-583

[20Qvortrup, M., A Comparative Study of Referendums : Government by the People, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2002.

[21Downs, A., An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York : Harper Collins, 1957

[22Darcy, R., and Laver, M., ‘Referendum Dynamics and the Irish Divorce Amendment’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 1990, Vol. 54 : 1, 1-20, 5

[23Bowler, S., and Donovan, T., Demanding Choices. Opinion, Voting and Direct Democracy, Ann Arbor, Michigan University Press, 1998

[24Hodges, D., ‘No we can’, New Statesman, 16 May 2011, 37

[25The Daily Telegraph, Leader, ‘Referendum voters want clarity – not mud-slinging’, The Daily Telegraph, Monday 25 April, 2011, 14.

[26Reuters/Ipsos MORI Political Monitor - AV Questions, Published:25 February 2011, Fieldwork:18 - 20 February 2011

[27Boston, J., Church, S., Levine, S., McLeay, E., and Roberts, N., New Zealand Votes : The General Election of 2002, Wellington : Victoria University Press, 2003

[28Levine, S., and Roberts, N., ‘The New Zealand Electoral Referendum of 1992’, Electoral Studies, Vol. 12 : 2, 158-67.

[29LeDuc. L., The Politics of Direct Democracy : Referendums in Global Perspective, Toronto, Broadview Press, 2003, 65

[30CBC-News 12 May 2009

[31No to AV, ‘Keep One Person One Vote : Vote No in the Referendum on 5 May’, No Campaign Ltd, London, 2011, 6

[32Hodges, D., ‘No we can’, 37

[33No to AV, ‘Keep One Person One Vote : Vote No in the Referendum on 5 May’, No Campaign Ltd, London, 2011, 2

[34Grice A., ‘Huhne warns of Legal Action over Claims by No to AV Campaign’, The Independent, 25 April, 2011, A10

[35Glover, J., « The Jeeves to Johnson’s Bertie Wooster : the man who may have got him elected ». London : The Guardian (2 May 2008). http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2008/may/02/london08.boris. Retrieved 2 May 2011

[36Personal Communications, Quintin Oliver, Yes-to-fairer-votes Northern Ireland

[37Total Politics, ‘Creating a Landslide’, Total Politics, June 2011, Vol. 36, p21

[38Hodges, D., ‘No we can’, p.37

[40Butler, D., and Kitzinger, U., The 1975 Referendum

[41Gerber, E., The Populist Paradox : Interest Group Influence and the Promise of Direct Democracy, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1999, 110.

[42Lowenstein, D., ‘Campaign Spending and Ballot Propositions : Recent Experience, Public Choice Theory and the First Amendment’ UCLA Law Review, 1981-1982, Vol. 29, 505

[43Anderson, P., ‘Just Deserts for Pro-AV Campaign’, Tribune, 13 May 2011, 9

[44See : Bowler, S., and Donovan, T., Demanding Choices. Opinion, Voting and Direct Democracy, Ann Arbor, Michigan University Press, 1998

[45Lupia, A., ‘Short-Cuts versus Encyclopaedias : Information and Voting Behaviour in California’s Insurance Reform Elections’, American Political Science Review, 1994, Vol. 63 : 1, 63

[46I owe this information to Mr Quintin Oliver, who ran Yes-to-Fairer Votes in Northern Ireland.

[48Widfeldt, A., ’Elite Collusion and Public Defiance : Sweden’s euro referendum in 2003’ West European Politics, 2004, Vol. 27 : 3, 503-17

[49Hobart, S.B., ‘Taking Cues for Europe ? Voter competence and party endorsements in referendums on European integration’ in European Journal of Political Research, 2007, Vol. 46 : 2

[50Karp, J., ‘The Influence of Elite Endorsements in Initiative Campaigns’, in S. Bowler, T. Donovan and C. Tolbert (eds) Citizens as Lawmakers, Columbus, Ohio State University, 1998, 161.

[51Manning, M., ‘Ireland’, in D. Butler and A. Ranney (ed.), Referendums in Practice and Theory, Washington DC, American Enterprise Institute, 1978, 193-210.

[52Colinge, J., ‘Party-Perspectives : National’, in J. Vowles and P. Aimer (ed) Double Decision. The 1993 Referendum in New Zealand, Occasional Paper, University of Wellington, 1994, 15 ; and Vowles, J., ‘The Politics of Electoral Reform in New Zealand’, International Political Science Review, January 1995, Vol. 16 : 1, 95-115

[53Kramer, G., ‘The Ecological Fallacy Revisited’, American Political Science Review, 1983, Vol. 77 : 1, 1

[54Dicey, A.V., ‘Ought the Referendum to be Introduced into England ? Contemporary Review, 1890, Vo. 57 : 1, 507

[55Bogdanor, V.B. The People and the Party System : The Referendum and Electoral Reform in British

[56Vince Cable quoted in Bagehot, ‘Pride After the Fall’, The Economist, May 14, 2011, 42

[57Magleby, D., Direct Legislation : Voting on Ballot Propositions in the United States, Baltimore MD, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984, 181.

[58For example, the 1986 referendum in Ireland was described by two prominent social scientists as “shrill, bitter, sectarian, divisive and unpleasant”, Darcy and Laver, ‘Referendum Dynamics’, 17

[59Hodges, D., ‘No we can’, 37

[60Burell, I., ‘The Mixed Messages of the AVs and the AV Nots’, The Independent, Monday, April 25, B10

[61Butler, D., and Kitzinger, U., The 1975 Referendum, 131.

[62Renwick, A., ‘How Likely is Proportional Representation in the House of Commons ? Lessons from International Experience’, Government and Opposition, 2009, Vol. 40 : 4, 366-384.

[63Machiavelli, N., ‘The Prince’, in Machiavelli : Selected Political Writings, Indianapolis, Hackett, 1994, 19-20.

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