Great Britain votes Thursday on whether to adopt a newfangled electoral system in which voters would rank candidates for office in order of preference. Opinion polling suggests the new voting method, called the alternative vote (or AV for short), is likely to lose. Anyone who would like to see Britain saved from unsustainably high levels of entitlement spending and further submerging in the European Union ought to breathe a sigh of relief.
AV is intended to promote the virtue of proportional representation Its early advocates were Victorian liberals who, fearing the socialistic tendencies of the masses in the coming age of democracy, hoped to find an electoral system that would guarantee the election of economists—whom, never having met Keynes or Krugman, they believed would always support limited government.
Today’s liberals champion AV because they cherish the exact opposite. AV would be proportional in name only: it tends to hurt the Tories badly when they are down and to help Labour when it is up, and it always boosts the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third party, which both Labour and Tory voters tend to regard as the more acceptable second choice. Indeed, it would award the deciding vote in over 100 constituencies to the Liberals, who not surprisingly have urged the necessity of proportional representation for decades. Worst of all, AV will encourage candidates in all but the safest seats to run in the center. Far from promoting independent candidates, it would empower bland non-entities and friends of big government, who can always promise to benefit the many at the expense of the few.
In a partisan sense, then, AV runs the risk of making the Liberal Democrats the permanent kingmakers of British politics. More importantly, though, it risks cementing the dominance of establishment convictions. It locks in entitlement spending and the subordination of Britain to the EU. If Cameron loses this referendum he will be a failure, regardless of whatever else he achieves, because then he will have made it extremely difficult to elect a government that would genuinely challenge this faded status quo.
Ironically, having demanded the AV referendum as part of the price for supporting the coalition, the Liberals may end up being the reason the referendum goes down to defeat. Support for the Liberals has collapsed over the past year, from the mid-20s to less than half that today. Their supporters believe that they are getting nothing out of the coalition except reproach for backing Tory measures. Nonsense: for one thing, they got this referendum. But the Liberals’ lack of enthusiasm for this achievement is a measure of just how limited is Alternative Vote’s appeal.