Will Alternative Vote lead to more coalitions?

British Prime Minister David Cameron claims that Alternative Vote (AV) could lead to coalition governments becoming the norm in British politics:

But there’s another argument I want to make – and one, again, you might find surprising coming from a Prime Minister leading the first coalition government since the Second World War: we shouldn’t vote for a system that could make coalitions the norm rather than the exception.

Cameron’s recent speech also claimed that AV would make coalition government much more likely:

The more people see a clear link between the pledges in a manifesto and the action taken in government, the greater the sense of accountability.

And the real, unavoidable truth about AV is that it would damage that chain of accountability…

…because it makes coalitions much, much more likely.

Furthermore, on Have I Got News For You this week, Tory MP Louise Bagshawe (about 16 mins in) claimed we’d end up with coalition governments under AV “every single time”.

The problem with this claim, is that the evidence for AV making coalition more likely than FPTP is inconclusive, but does suggest that a strong 2 party system makes coalition under AV unlikely, whilst under a multi-party system it will still tend to produce a majority for one party, even if coalitions occur more often in such cases. For example,  according to Channel 4’s Fact Check blog:

  • Australia has been using AV since 1919 and, according to the IPPR, has only had 2 coalition governments since then (compared to 5 for Britain since 1900, and 12 for Canada since 1900 under FPTP). However it should be noted that this comparison is complicated by the fact that the Australian National Party and Australian Liberal Party have for decades fought general elections under a coalition agreement both in and out of power, but this agreement has operated to such an extent that they’re effectively treated as one party for general elections. If you treat them as 2 separate parties, then they had coalition governments from 1949 to 1972, plus after the 1980, 1998, 2001 and 2010 elections. Whilst this amounts to a sizeable period of coalition government, it’s not the norm, not as much as you’d get with PR, and certainly isn’t a coalition “every single time”. Also, it’s not clear whether FPTP would have led to fewer coalitions under circumstances where you have a multi-party system with 2 parties having such an entrenched agreement — they could equally have had a pact not to oppose each other in constituencies where this would “split the vote”.  It does suggest that coalitions and even long-running cross-party agreements may become quite common under AV when voters move decisively away from voting for one of two big parties, but then consider how often Britain had national governments and cross-party agreements in the 1920s and 1930s when the Liberals were split and in decline but Labour had yet to decisively supplant them — that was all under FPTP.
  • The British Election Survey(BES) has run simulations of how British general elections would have turned out under AV since 1983, assuming voters preferences were the same as they were at each election. Only in 2010 does a coalition government definitely result (and we know FPTP delivered one then), though possibly we might have had one in 1992.

Of course assessing the likely outcome of switch to AV is inherently speculative, e.g.  the BES assumes voters preferences would be unchanged under AV, whilst Australia has a different political culture to that of Britain and the form of AV used there is different to that proposed for Britain making extrapolation from their experience rather uncertain.

It’s worth noting though that much speculation that we’ll end up with hung parliaments rests on the idea that the Lib Dems will benefit by being the second preference of both Labour and Tory voters, however given their rapid drop in the polls since forming the coalition with the Tories in 2010, that does not seem a safe bet anymore. Furthermore, under the projections of the BES, where the Lib Dems were often a second preference,  the Lib Dems did gain more seats but coalition rarely resulted partly because, in the simulation, AV actually increased the government’s majority in landslide elections such as that of 1987, 1997 and 2001.

In the end, given that AV will not produce a proportional outcome, and can result in amplified majorities in landslide elections in a similar manner to the way FPTP does, it seems to me that it is unlikely to make coalition government the norm, but it is possible it’ll make coalition occur more often if voters continue to vote in sizeable numbers for parties other than the 2 main parties. It’s hard to say whether FPTP would avoid coalition in such circumstances.

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One Response to “Will Alternative Vote lead to more coalitions?”

  1. lurid tales of doom Says:

    Thank you, this was very informative.


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