Canadian General Election: Lessons for British AV Referendum

The Canadian General Election on Monday, May 2nd has clear pointers to voters in the UK referendum on the voting system on May 5th.  The Conservatives under Stephen Harper have won an outright majority of 167 seats out of 308 in the Canadian House of Commons on the traditional First Past the Post (FPP) system.  This result has followed 7 years of 4 minority governments, two led by Harper in 2006 and 2008.  Each government has been at the mercy of changing allegiances among the minor parties in the Federal Parliament, among them the nationalist party in Quebec, seeking to extract advantage for themselves, just like the LibDems in the present coalition in Britain.  Voter participation increased from 58.8% in 2008 to 61.4% on Monday, similar to the UK result in 2010.

The actual  results confirm two things: that where 3 or more parties are in contention, the leading party by votes sees its share of seats greatly magnified as in Britain with 38-42% of the vote being enough to secure an outright majority of seats.  In the Canadian election the Conservatives secured 40% of the vote and 54% of the seats in the House of Commons.  This magnification applied to the leading parties in the individual provinces even more dramatically (e.g. Ontario – Conservatives 44% of the vote, 69% of seats; Quebec – New Democratic Party (Labour) 43% of the vote, 77% of seats).

The second point is that after 7 years of unstable coalitions or minority governments, few in Canada are complaining about the FPP system.

In Britain, with a very similar 3-party voting split in England, and a 4-party split in Scotland and Wales, due to the significant nationalist vote (as in Quebec), voting in 2010 has left the largest party on 37% of the vote and 47% of the seats in coalition with the third largest party, satisfying only to that tiny number of whom are actually in government office.

While there are various hypothesises about the effects of the Alternative Vote (AV) system on past elections, the intention of its proponents, the LibDems, is that it should result in more seats for them at the expense of the two largest parties – the Conservatives and Labour.  This seems likely as the centre-leaning voters of both of these main parties have hitherto tended to opt for the LibDems when there has been a chance of defeating their chief political enemy.

If this were the case, and LibDems got something like 90 seats compared with the present 57, the second biggest party would have to sink to around 187 if the biggest party were to have a bare majority of 1 (326 seats).

So it may be reasonably judged that coalitions would be much more likely with AV than with FPP.  In practice this will mean that each main party will have a built-in excuse for not delivering on its manifesto promises, exactly the charge laid against the NDP by the Conservatives in Canada, and by many voters in Britain on immigration controls (Conservatives) and university fees (LibDems).

So if voters want to have distinctive government – as they clearly did in Canada on Monday – they will choose to keep FPP tomorrow (5th May 2011).  If they want the LibDems more or less in permanent coalition with either Labour or Conservatives as major partners in government, they will vote for AV.

Incidentally those inclined to vote for minor parties should note that under the AV system as proposed tomorrow, only the votes of those at the bottom of the poll are redistributed at each round of the counting.  With possibly eight candidates, this could result in seven counts, each of which could theoretically be open to a recount challenge.  Also if a voter happened to put his preferences in the order of those eliminated at each count, his vote could be counted seven times.

Apparently, it is not proposed to publish the second preference votes, so hopes of Green and UKIP supporters that AV would demonstrate large second preference support for them among the Labour and Conservative voters, are unlikely to be realised – at least without considerable pressure being exerted on the Electoral Commission, were the AV system to be implemented, following a Yes vote on May 5th.

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