Vote 2011 – Could Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland swing AV vote?

Ed Jacobs looks at the likely impact the votes of Scots, Welsh and North Irish voters are likely to have on the referendum on the Alternative Vote on May 5th.

Over the past week, two contradictory assertions have been made about the likely impact the votes of Scots, Welsh and North Irish voters are likely to have on the referendum on the Alternative Vote, countries likely to see higher turnouts than the rest of the UK owing to the referendum coinciding with elections to the devolved assemblies.

For the anti-AV campaign, the prospect of the Celtic nations proving decisive fills them with a sense of dread, with fears raised over the prospect of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland imposing a new voting system that the English have voted against.

Speaking recently to the Daily Mail, for example, the former Conservative Scottish secretary Lord Forsyth sought to raise fears over the threat to the union, arguing:

“It is entirely possible that we will have a no vote in England on a low turnout and a yes vote in Scotland on a high turnout.

“If that delivers an overall yes, that would be a disaster for the Union. People in England will say their voting system has been changed by votes north of the border, and that the entire referendum has been rigged so that it is held on a date when turnout would be higher in Scotland.”

However, arguing against this thesis, Andrew Sparrow, writing on the politics blog at the Guardian, quotes from Vernon Bognador’s new book, ‘The Coalition and the Constitution’, which argues that the First Past the Post system is in fact the bigger threat to the union, creating what Sparrow describes as “a serious constitutional imbalance because Labour win too few seats in England, while the Tories win too few seats in Scotland”.

The book argues:

“A government of the right threatens to reawaken the forces of Scottish separatism, while a government of the left, which can secure its measures only through the aid of votes of non-English MPs, threatens to arouse an English backlash against the Celtic nations.

“If this analysis is correct, then the continuation of the first past the post electoral system could come to threaten the continued unity of the United Kingdom. The formation of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition may serve temporarily to obscure the problem.

“It will not, in the long run, resolve it.”

But where do things stand across the devolved nations?

As the Guardian/ICM poll suggests that the no camp has gone into a 16-point lead, a survey of Scots voters, commissioned by The Scotsman, has suggested a slight lead for the yes campaign north of the border, with 41% in favour of AV and 38% against.

Writing in the paper following the results, John Curtice of Strathclyde University has concluded:

“At the last Scottish Parliament election turnout was just over 52 per cent; the last time the English council seats being fought over this year were up for grabs, only 37 per cent made it to the polls. And even fewer people are likely to vote in those parts of England where there are no local elections.

“So in the event of very narrow outcome across the UK as whole, a higher turnout in Scotland together with a more favourable Yes vote could prove decisive.”

In Northern Ireland, the parties remain split down the middle, with unionists supporting the status quo and the nationalist SDLP and Sinn Fein in favour of introducing AV. Interestingly, however, whilst the leader of the Green Party in England, Caroline Lucas, has urged voters to support a change to AV, her colleagues in Northern Ireland will be voting against, arguing that it is not proportional and could exacerbate sectarian tensions.

Following a motion opposing AV being passed by the party last October, the Green’s only MLA at Stormont, Brian Wilson argued:,

“AV was not a proportional system and was no fairer than the present “first past the post”. In agreeing to this referendum the Lib Dems had betrayed all those like myself who had worked for “proportional representation” for many years.

“In addition it will have a particularly detrimental impact in Northern Ireland where it will reinforce sectarian voting and increase polarisation. It will affectively eliminate centre parties and reduce each constituency to a sectarian headcount.”

In Wales, the leaders of Welsh Labour, Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru have signalled their support for a move to AV, although Plaid especially has made clear that their priority remains the assembly elections. However, in a warning to the Yes to AV campaign, Denis Balsom, editor of the Wales Year Book, argues that holding the referendum on the same day as Assembly Elections could stir the anti-AV, Conservative vote.

But will the votes of the Celtic nations be crucial to the outcome of the AV vote? The Guardian’s policy editor, Daniel Boffey, seems to think so, arguing:

“It has been speculated that the vote in London could be as low as 15% because there are no local elections to get people out of their homes and into the polling booths. That may mean that the votes in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales – where AV is already used and accepted – will be crucial.”

Predicting a more Domesday style prediction for the coalition, however, Andrew Rawnsley suggests some Conservatives might be prepared to jeopardise the entire coalition if a no vote in England is cancelled out by yes votes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. He explains:

“The double nightmare scenario for David Cameron is that the result is swung in Scotland and Wales where there is a higher turn-out because the referendum coincides with the elections to the Edinburgh Parliament and Cardiff Assembly.

“Elements of the Conservative party will go demented with fury if England says no but a Celtic yes vote wins it for AV.

“The Thatcherite former Scottish secretary, Michael Forsyth, has already described such a outcome as “rigged”, which implies he and other Tories might try to resist the introduction of AV on the grounds that the result was not legitimate.

“One senior Conservative MP on the right predicts that Tories will go “completely mad” if they lose the referendum – to the extent that they might even jeopardise the coalition.”

Meanwhile, with voters due at the polls exactly two weeks’ today, Left Foot Forward provided comprehensive coverage of the week that the AV referendum finally began to take off.

On Monday, Will Straw highlighted new research by the ippr revealing that the UK had become less tribal in its voting habits. The report went on to explain:

“UK voters are happy to express a range of preferences when voting – certainly up to and including a third choice. For the majority of voters, especially the growing number of non-tribal voters, their sense of allegiance to these top three parties does not vary substantially.”

Shamik Das reported on the day that Vince Cable and Ed Miliband for the yes campaign came up against John Reid and David Cameron from the no camp as a poll for the Guardian gave the “No” camp a 16-point lead. Shamik made clear that the results showed that the yes campaign now “have it all to do”.

On Tuesday, the Green Party’s Darren Johnson outlined why he was supporting AV as a step in the right direction. Arguing that the BNP would find life more difficult under AV, he continued:

“Yes, AV raises the bar candidates have to jump to be elected. But it means a more honest form of voting where people can vote for who they really want. And it means a politics that reaches out more beyond rigid party boundaries.

“We in the Green Party are confident in our capacity to reach out. That is why we are in favour of this change, when extremist parties like the BNP are not.”

Picking up this theme, Rupert Read highlighted flaws in the Political Studies Association’s briefing on AV. He explained:

“The flaw in the reasoning of the briefing paper seems to be that it has not considered the possibility of a small party existing that is not widely hated. Arguably, the Green Party in Britain today is an example of such a party.”

Meanwhile, Chris Huhne began to flex some muscle in defence of electoral change, using an appearance on Newsnight to accuse the No campaign of telling “straightforward lies” and practicing the “politics of the gutter” whilst Wednesday saw Will Straw expose the depths to which the no campaign had fallen.

As the week began with politicians of all parties publicly appearing with some unlikely “colleagues”, Nick Clegg today cut a more isolated figure, going it alone at the end in delivering a speech to the ippr outlying the case for AV.

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