The results are all in, and Britain’s referendum to introduce optional preferential voting, or “AV”, went down to the crushing defeat that was expected: 67.9% voted no to reform. Every region of the country voted against the change — even Northern Ireland, which already has preferential voting in its own elections.

Much has already been written — and no doubt much more will be — on what this means for the Liberal Democrats, for Nick Clegg their leader, and for party politics generally. But just as interesting is the question of what it means for the future of electoral reform in Britain.

The idea that there is something unsatisfactory about first-past-the-post voting is not a new discovery. Reformers have been agitating for change for 150 years; John Stuart Mill advocated a move to proportional representation in the 1860s, based on the ideas of Thomas Hare (later immortalised as half of the Hare-Clark system).

And most democracies have heeded the lesson. Only four major countries continue to use the old system of first-past-the-post and single-member districts, all (loosely speaking) members of the “anglosphere”: Britain, the United States, India and Canada.

India, with its vast geographical diversity, usually manages to produce a roughly proportional result (although not always — 1999 was something of a rogue). The United States runs a creaky 19th-century electoral system, but it manages to avoid the iniquities of first-past-the-post by effectively mandating a two-party system — on the rare occasions that that breaks down, problems ensue. And Canada just last week gave an awful demonstration of just why its system desperately needs change.

That leaves the UK, where the old system hangs on in all its absurd unfairness — apparently with the support of a large majority. The Conservatives are triumphantly claiming that this settles the question of voting reform for a generation.

They may be right. The size of the defeat is certainly dispiriting; even Australia’s referendum on the republic in 1999, facing a not dissimilar scare campaign, managed a yes vote above 45% and almost carried one state. Moreover, unlike the case of the republic, there was no serious suggestion that defeat of this proposal might lead to the formulation of a new and better one. It was clear that no meant no.

And the interest of the Conservative Party is the big thing counting against change. The Conservatives are in much the position that our ALP was in the middle part of last century: reliably the largest single party, but with no natural allies among the variety of parties opposed to it. In both cases, first-past-the-post was obviously to their benefit, and the Conservatives last week made little effort to pretend that their position was based on anything other than naked self-interest.

But self-interest can change over time. The ALP, now heavily reliant on Greens preferences, has become the party least likely to support first-past-the-post voting. It’s not impossible that some comparable shift may happen in the British party system.

Nor is it a criticism of the electorate to say that most voters have essentially no understanding of or interest in voting systems themselves. They vote the way they do either to support or oppose a particular party, or to express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the way things are going. Change happens when that dissatisfaction becomes strong enough to overcome the forces of inertia.

That’s the way New Zealand changed from first-past-the-post in 1993 — adopting, incidentally, a system immeasurably fairer than what was on offer last Thursday. It may happen in Britain, if the forces of conservatism (not just the Conservative Party, since much of old-school Labour was opposed to change as well) are sufficiently discredited by bad government or unpopular policies. So far, however, there’s no sign of that happening.

The issue is unlikely to go away entirely. Reform of the house of lords, an equally long-running saga that is next on the government’s agenda, will again cast doubts on the voting system, since even a semi-reformed House of Lords is likely to look more democratic than the house of commons. But it will be a long time before anyone will want to try their luck on another referendum.

The advocates of reform have had to get used to waiting. It might not be 150 years this time, but it certainly looks as if another long wait is in store.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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