David Alexander: The Australian experience suggests that the Conservatives should not fear electoral reform

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David Alexander was a senior adviser to John Howard's government in Australia and is now resident in the United Kingdom.

With the Labour Party having suffered a massive swing against them, the only hope of Gordon Brown retaining government is to offer the Liberal Democrats major electoral reform. Nick Clegg will be very tempted to grasp this rare opportunity. For the Conservatives this possibility should focus their minds on whether voting reforms should be countenanced as part of a negotiated deal in order to form government.

In my view there are many misconceptions amongst Conservatives about what voting reform might mean if applied in the United Kingdom, particularly as it relates to the Conservative Party itself. The significance of this is that these misconceptions may cost the Conservatives government.

Only one country in the world actually operates both Nick Clegg’s favoured voting system and Gordon Brown’s now-favoured voting system – Australia.

The Alternative Vote system now championed by Gordon Brown has operated in Australia’s lower house, the House of Representatives since 1918, and the Single Transferable Vote system that Nick Clegg likes most has been operating in the Australia’s upper house, the Senate, since 1949.

The first error is to think that the Alternative Vote (called preferential voting in Australia) would leave the Conservative Party in “permanent opposition”. In Australia, conservatives have been in government for 65 of the 92 years since the Alternative Vote was introduced. The Alternative Vote is no inherent hindrance to centre-right parties. To suggest that Australia is more conservative than the UK would be silly. In the medium and long-term the Conservatives would have nothing to fear from an Australian-style Alternative Vote, it is only the short-term that it could be an issue for the Tories, and more on that below.

The second error made by some Tories is to claim that the Alternative Vote is less stable than First Past the Post, but again, since it was introduced in Australia in 1918 there have been fewer changes of government than in the United Kingdom - 9 versus 12. The Alternative Vote in Australia tends to lead to quite stable two party politics as preferences drift up to consolidate the major two parties. This benefit to the two major parties is no doubt why Gordon Brown suggested the Australian system as his preferred option recently.

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