British voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed change in their election system earlier this month. The referendum on the alternative vote[1] failed when more than two-thirds of those participating voted “no”.  Three factors contributed to this outcome.  First, the leadership of the three major parties was divided on the issue.  Second, the main proponents of the proposition, the Liberal Democrats, suffered significant setbacks in other contests on the ballot.  Finally, the public did not feel any sense of urgency necessitating a change.

A first key to enacting change is some degree of unity on the part of the political elite. That unity was notably absent on this issue.[2] The governing coalition was divided from the very beginning of the partnership.  The Conservative leader Prime Minister David Cameron, and a large part of his party, opposed the referendum while Deputy Prime Minister Nicholas Clegg of the Liberal Democrats supported it as did the rank and file of his party.  The Labor Party was perhaps the most divided with its leader Ed Miliband advocating a vote in support of the referendum while the backbenchers of his party largely opposed it.

A second factor relates to the Liberal Democrats poor showing in other elections on the ballot. That party has long endorsed election change because it often receives a respectable percentage of votes in parliamentary elections, but that percentage seldom translates into a similar number of seats in the legislature.  In the 2010 election, the party won 23 % of the vote, but only 9% of the seats.  It would have been the major beneficiary if the referendum had passed.

The party’s problem in the most recent voting was that it suffered major losses in elections to local councils and regional legislatures.  Large numbers of voters deserted the Liberal Democrats in the elections for candidates and may have also voted against the Liberal Democrats’ favored issue – the alternative vote.

Finally, and most importantly, a major change in the nature of the political process usually requires a sense that the proposal will rectify a serious problem.  Staying with the known is always easier than adopting change unless there is an overwhelming reason to try something new.  In following this issue for a year, I never felt that the British were convinced that they had a problem that needed to be addressed.  Without that sense of urgency, a change is unlikely to be approved.

A “reform” proposal will often attract negative votes for three different reasons. Some will oppose the measure on its merits, or demerits.  Two other groups will be in the opposition because the change goes either too far or not far enough.  The nearly 70% who voted against the alternative vote undoubtedly included voters of all three persuasions, but I believe that the demerits of the proposal contributed the most to its defeat.  Too many thought that is was simply not necessary.

The journalistic and academic debate on the issue will continue but we are not likely to see another proposal to change elections to the House of Commons for a long time.  However, another debate is about to begin.  The government has initiated discussions on changing the membership and selection process for the House of Lords.[3]

Notes

[1] For an explanation of the alternative vote and other systems see http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/article.php?id=5.

[2]  See this author’s “Election Reform in the United Kingdom,” Foreign Policy Journal, June 10, 2010. https://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2010/06/10/election-reform-in-the-united-kingdom/.

[3] See Marc D’Arcy, “Nick Clegg’s Lords reform battle,” BBC, May 17, 2011. Web 18 May, 2011.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-13432694.