Speaking with characteristic vigour and clarity, Winston Churchill told the nation in 1931 why it should reject an electoral system based on the alternative vote.
Ramsay MacDonald’s second minority Labour government had brought forward a Bill to authorise the introduction of AV. Churchill proceeded to tear it to shreds.
He denounced it as ‘the worst of all possible plans. It is the stupidest, the least successful and the most unreal [of systems]…The decision of 100 or more constituencies, perhaps 200, is to be determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates…An element of blind chance and accident will enter far more largely into our elected decisions than ever before, and respect for Parliament and Parliamentary processes will decline’.
Churchill’s words remain as true today as they were eighty years ago. He exposed the folly and danger of creating circumstances, for the first time in our history, in which the votes of fringe eccentric or extreme candidates at the bottom of the poll could decide the outcome of constituency contests. Such votes would have greater weight than others. The historic principle by which Britain’s electoral system had been shaped progressively since the Great Reform Act of 1832—that votes should have equal value-would be overturned.
Under an AV system, the votes for a mainstream candidate who comes top of the poll have no further effect: the order of preference they indicate for other candidates is totally disregarded in the further round(s) of counting that ensue. But the votes obtained by the least successful candidates at the bottom of the poll who are knocked out are redistributed in accordance with their subsequent preferences.
If AV were adopted, it would introduce into our national parliamentary elections the grossly unfair proposition that one elector’s vote could be worth five or six times more than another’s, depending on the number of counts that take place. This is the crucial point that Churchill highlighted dramatically with his reference to ‘the most worthless votes given to the most worthless candidates’.
In 1931,when Churchill issued his stark warning to his own generation and to posterity, Britain had just completed the long political journey, begun a century earlier, from monarchical and aristocratic government to full democracy. The process had ended in 1928 with the extension of the right to vote to all adult women.
Throughout the nineteenth century the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Parties rejected with derision all suggestions that Britain should set aside its historic practice of awarding victory to the candidates who came top of the poll. Gladstone led the way in dismissing the case for proportional representation which from the 1860s enjoyed some support (AV was then unheard of).
During the First World War both PR and AV were proposed by a Speaker’s Conference. Bitter and futile wrangling ensued in both Commons and Lords from which nearly everyone emerged convinced that alternatives to first past the post would never secure widespread support. The collapse of Labour’s AV scheme in 1931 reinforced the point.
The lessons of history must not be forgotten in the weeks leading up to the 5 May referendum. We are fortunate that Churchill encapsulated them for us so memorably.
Alistair Lexden is the official historian of the Conservative Party, a position that he took up as Alistair Cooke before his elevation to the Lords as Lord Lexden in January. He was one of the 26 historians who signed a letter published in The Times on March 11 warning that the introduction of AV would pose a threat to democracy.