Voting reform: why the campaign really will matter

Peter KellnerPresident
May 16, 2011, 4:39 AM GMT+0

In recent weeks three different pollsters have detected a clear pattern. New YouGov research explains it.

The pattern is this. Voters are more likely to back the Alternative Vote when they are asked, cold, which side they are on, and to favour First Past The Post when they are warmed up with questions or information about the proposed change.

Last week YouGov posed this question for Sky News:

As you may know, there will be a referendum on the 5th May. The referendum question reads as follows: At present, the UK uses the ‘first past the post’ system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the ‘alternative vote’ system be used instead?

  • Yes 37%
  • No 32%
  • Don’t know 24%
  • Would not vote 7%

In contrast, when we asked our standard question earlier last week for The Sun, in which we explained AV. This is what we found:

  • I would vote in favour of switching to the Alternative Vote 30%
  • I would vote in favour of keeping First Past The Post 47%
  • Don’t know 15%
  • Would not vote 8%

Last month Populus found a similar pattern in a poll for The Times. When asking the referendum question without explanation it detected a 12-point ‘yes’ lead (41-29%). But when AV was explained to a parallel sample, 43% backed FPTP and just 29% opted for AV.

Third, ComRes, again last month, asked about AV for BBC Newsnight after posing a number of questions about voting reform. It produced a dead heat – 41% for AV, 41% against. Three days earlier, when it posed its standard ‘cold’ question for the Independent on Sunday, ‘Yes’ enjoyed a 10-point lead (40%-30%). In its Newsnight exercise, ComRes did NOT explain AV, but it warmed people up by asking whether our voting system needs an overhaul, whether a referendum would be a waste of money, whether coalition governments are good for Britain, and whether ‘in voting systems where people rank their choice of a candidate, a person’s first chioice should always count more than another person’s 2nd, 3rd or lower choice’. By the time people had considered these issues, support for FPTP seems to have grown.

So: different pollsters find the same thing – the more people are ‘warmed up’, the keener they are on FPTP; and this is mainly because the number of ’don’t knows’ tend to be fewer than when the referendum question is asked cold.

Why is this? Last week YouGov repeated a question we first asked six months ago. We listed various voting systems and asked people how much they knew about them. Now, as then, large majorities felt they knew and understood First Past The Post. These were the responses for the Alternative Vote:

As those figures show, knowledge of AV has increased since last summer – but, even so, just over half the public has still either never heard of AV or is not sure what it means. This explains the pattern detected by YouGov, Populus and ComRes: when people are asked about AV ‘cold’, at least half of all respondents don’t really know what the choice in the referendum really is. Hence the very large number of ‘don’t knows’. When people are told what AV means, and/or are asked to ponder the consequences of AV, the anti-AV lobby gains ground, mainly at the expense of the don’t knows.

This suggests that – unlike most general elections – the referendum campaigns really could matter. Millions of voters are unsure how AV would work or what change would mean. It’s likely, of course, that many don’t knows will end up not voting. However, as the referendum is being held on the same day as elections to the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland parliaments, and to local councils in most of England outside London, many people will vote who might have stayed at home had their journey to the polling station been only for a referendum.

Meanwhile, here are two more pieces of sobering news for the pro-AV camp (and I write this as someone who has publicly advocated AV for three decades). The first is that the status quo tends to gain ground in referendums on issues where countries are divided. This happened in Scotland in 1979, when a large pro-devolution majority melted away in the final fortnight of the campaign; in Spain in 1986, where the public narrowly voted to stay in NATO after all; and in Australia in 1999, when the apparently dominant republicans ended up heavily defeated in a referendum to replace the Queen as head of state. I would not be greatly surprised if something similar happened here with voting reform.

Second, the shift towards the status quo seems to have started already. Recent surveys by YouGov, ComRes and ICM have all detected a shift towards FPTP. In the case of both ICM and ComRes, clear ‘yes’ leads (when the question is asked ‘cold’) have evaporated.

This does not mean AV will inevitably be defeated when the vote is held on May 5th. When more than half the public admit that they don’t really understand what they are being asked to decide, there is huge scope for effective campaigning to influence public attitudes. Polls conducted this far ahead of the vote can illuminate the terrain, but they don’t tell us which side will dominate it in eight weeks’ time.