Under a "fairer system", the Conservatives would simply be the largest party in a "balanced parliament", and we would have the Rose Garden moment as Labour leader, Michael Foot, back from Buckingham Palace, and the Liberal leader, David Steel, have a joint appearance in front of the press. And the following week, re-elected Social Democrat MPs cheer and wave their order papers as Foot stands at the Dispatch Box for the first time as Prime Minister - despite them having left the Labour party a couple of years earlier after he was elected that party's leader. And Labour MPs overlooked for promotion have no hard feelings towards the
traitors Social Democrat MPs who have got Cabinet jobs.
Just as I did when I considered the impact that the UK Independence Party had on the Conservative result at the May 2010 general election, we can look at this divided opposition argument. Is it really the case that there were loads of seats that the Conservatives won due to a divided opposition?
You could argue that if the number of Conservative votes in a seat is less than the sum of the Labour and Liberal/Social Democrat Alliance votes, then of course the Conservatives won it due to a divided opposition. However, that assumes that in the absence of one of the opposition parties its supporters would have voted for the other one.
The way to examine this is to look at what voters' second preferences would be, and so I decided to have a go at re-running the 1983 election using the Alternative Vote.
There are a couple important things to note when considering what an election result would be under a different system - firstly, we have to assume it is the first election under the different system. When I looked at what the Scottish Parliament results would have been if the Sainte-Laguë system had been used, I noted that in May 1999, the Socialist Labour Party would have returned 2 Members of the Scottish Parliament (in reality they returned none) and the Scottish Socialist Party would still have returned 1 MSP. If the elections had been under Sainte-Laguë from the start, then in May 2003 it is possible that the SSP breakthrough (and their disintegration and loss of all their MSPs in May 2007) would not have happened, due to the SLP having been the main left-of-Labour party.
For example, consider a seat which was held by the Conservatives in 1983, with a narrow majority over the Social Democrats. At the June 1987 election, the Conservatives still hold it, but Labour has moved up to second place. And at the April 1992 election Labour win, with the Liberal Democrats a poor third. You might replicate these elections under AV and conclude that in 1983 it would be Social Democrat, but Conservative in 1992. However, if the 1983 election had been under AV, then by the time we get to 1992 there is a sitting Liberal Democrat MP, and the idea that it would be a battle between the Conservatives and Labour is less credible.
Secondly, each number is a person. When Foot became Labour leader in November 1980, he defeated Denis Healey by 10 votes. If a different set of Labour MPs had been returned at the May 1979 election, then it is possible that Healey would have won. At the May 1997 general election, the Defence Secretary Michael Portillo lost his seat. Now, in a less severe meltdown, not only would he have remained an MP - and able to be a candidate in the following month's leadership election - but there would have been plenty of others who would have held on. And these would have been voters in that leadership election, which was a close one.
There would have been another possible ramification of a less severe Conservative meltdown in 1997 - and that is that the Conservatives holding Stafford. In 1997, the sitting MP, Bill Cash, followed the more Conservative part of Stafford into the new seat of Stone, winning it in 1997, June 2001, May 2005 and May 2010. Meanwhile, Labour's David Kidney won Stafford from the Conservatives in 1997, held it in 2001 and 2005, before losing to the Conservatives in 2010.
If you look at the 1997 result for Stone, you see the unsuccessful Conservative is David Cameron, now the Prime Minister. Suppose he had won. Yes, his parliamentary career would have started earlier, but surely when he stood for leadership, MPs would be noting that he would be having to defend a marginal - something he doesn't have to worry about in Witney.
When I look at these results, I see politicians who careers would have ended (or stalled) due to AV, ones whose careers didn't end, ones whose careers would have started earlier than they did in reality, and ones who never made Parliament under the Single Member Plurality but would have done under AV.
Now, there are assumptions I have made:
- I am ignoring second preferences for "Nationalist/Other" as they are low
- This was a fractious time for Labour, with a consequence of there being "Independent Labour" candidates in a few seats. I am assuming their voters transfer en masse to Labour when that candidate is eliminated, and then act as Labour voters when it comes to second preferences
When it comes to Northern Ireland, there are no second preference figures available, so I have made these gut-feeling assumptions:
- Voters give their second preferences along community lines - Social Democratic & Labour Party voters give their second preferences to Sinn Féin, and vice versa; while Ulster Unionist Party and Democratic Unionist Party voters give their second preferences to each other
- If having to decide between candidates from the other community, second preferences are given to the more centrist - so Nationalist/Republican voters would choose the UUP, and Unionist voters would choose the SDLP
- In Belfast West, Unionists and SDLP voters prefer Gerry Fitt to any other Gerry
The 1983 election result was:
- Conservative - 397
- Labour - 209
- Liberal - 17
- Ulster Unionist Party - 11
- Social Democrat - 6
- Democratic Unionist Party - 3
- Plaid Cymru - 2
- Scottish National Party - 2
- Social Democratic & Labour Party - 1
- Ulster Popular Unionist Party - 1
- Sinn Féin - 1
If we re-run the election under AV then we get:
The Social Democrats would gain 9 seats from the Conservatives and 7 from Labour - a net gain of 16.
The Liberals would gain 7 seats from the Conservatives and 2 from Labour - a net gain of 9.
Sinn Féin would gain 1 seat from the Ulster Unionist Party, 1 from the Democratic Unionist Party, while losing 1 to an Independent Socialist - a net gain of 1.
An Independent Socialist would gain 1 seat from Sinn Féin.
The Ulster Unionist Party would lose 1 seat to Sinn Féin.
The Democratic Unionist Party would lose 1 seat to Sinn Féin.
The Conservatives would gain 10 seats from Labour, while losing 1 to Labour, 7 to the Liberals and 9 to the Social Democrats - a net loss of 7.
Labour would gain 1 seat from the Conservatives, while losing 2 to the Liberals, 7 to the Social Democrats and 10 to the Conservatives - a net loss of 18.
This gives us:
- Conservative - 390
- Labour - 191
- Liberal - 26
- Social Democrat - 22
- Ulster Unionist Party - 10
- Sinn Féin - 2
- Democratic Unionist Party - 2
- Plaid Cymru - 2
- Scottish National Party - 2
- Social Democratic & Labour Party - 1
- Ulster Popular Unionist Party - 1
- Independent Socialist - 1
Hence, AV would reduce the Conservative majority from 144 to 130 - still a landslide.
We can look at the 39 seats that would have produced - on the assumptions above - a different result under AV. The notional 1979 result is based on David Boothroyd's site:
|Constituency||Notional 1979 winner||1983 winner||Winner under AV|
|Belfast West||SDLP||Gerry Adams||SF||Ind Soc|
|Birmingham Erdington||C||Robin Corbett**||Lab||C|
|Blyth Valley||Lab||John Ryman*||Lab||SDP|
|Bradford North||Lab||Geoffrey Lawler||C||Lab|
|Bradford South||Lab||Thomas Torney||Lab||C|
|Cardiff Central||C||Ian Grist||C||L|
|Chelmsford||C||Norman St John-Stevas*||C||L|
|Clwyd South West||C||Robert Harvey||C||SDP|
|Crewe & Nantwich||C||Gwyneth Dunwoody*||Lab||C|
|Croydon North West||C||Humfrey Malins||C||L|
|Derby South||Lab||Margaret Beckett**||Lab||C|
|Durham, City of||Lab||Mark Hughes*||Lab||SDP|
|East Kilbride||Lab||Maurice Miller*||Lab||SDP|
|Edinburgh Leith||Lab||Ron Brown*||Lab||SDP|
|Edinburgh Pentlands||C||Malcolm Rifkind*||C||SDP|
|Edinburgh South||C||Michael Kerr*||C||SDP|
|Edinburgh West||C||James Douglas-Hamilton*||C||L|
|Erith & Crayford||Lab||David Evennett||C||SDP|
|Fermanagh & South Tyrone||Ind Rep||Ken Maginnis||UUP||SF|
|Great Grimsby||Lab||Austin Mitchell*||Lab||C|
|Hackney South & Shoreditch||Lab||Brian Sedgemore**||Lab||SDP|
|Hazel Grove||C||Tom Arnold*||C||L|
|Islington South & Finsbury||Lab||Chris Smith||Lab||SDP|
|Norfolk North West||C||Henry Bellingham||C||SDP|
|Renfrew West & Inverclyde||Lab||Anna McCurley||C||SDP|
|Richmond & Barnes||C||Jeremy Hanley||C||L|
|Sheffield Hillsborough||Lab||Martin Flannery*||Lab||L|
|Southampton Itchen||Lab||Christopher Chope||C||SDP|
|Strathkelvin & Bearsden||C||Michael Hirst||C||L|
|Ulster Mid||Ind U||William McCrea||DUP||SF|
|West Bromwich East||Lab||Peter Snape*||Lab||C|
|Wolverhampton North East||Lab||Renée Short*||Lab||C|
[* Sitting MP at the 1983 dissolution]
[** Former MP]
An AV winner in bold is a sitting MP re-elected, and if in bold italics is a by-election victor re-elected.
Under SMP, only 4 of the MPs who defected from Labour to the Social Democrats were re-elected - John Cartwright, in Woolwich; Robert Maclennan in Caithness & Sutherland; David Owen in Plymouth Devonport; and Ian Wrigglesworth, in Stockton South. These were joined by by-election winner Roy Jenkins in Glasgow Hillhead, and newcomer Charles Kennedy in Ross, Cromarty & Skye. The message is that defection is not a good career move.
However, under AV, there would be other defectors re-elected - Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler (from the Conservatives) in Norfolk North West; Ronald Brown, in Hackney South & Shoreditch; George Cunningham, in Islington South & Finsbury; Tom Ellis, in Clwyd South West; Dick Mabon, in Renfrew West & Inverclyde; Bob Mitchell in Southampton Itchen; and James Wellbeloved, in Erith & Crayford.
On the Liberal side, new MPs would include Michael German - who became Welsh Deputy First Minister, in Cardiff Central; and Alan Watson, in Richmond & Barnes, while on the Social Democrat side, new MPs would include Matthew Oakeshott in Cambridge; and Benjamin Stoneham, in Stevenage.
As I have noted, these results are about people being elected, or not elected, and we can picture how political destinies could have changed, with ramifications beyond the individual politicians.
Take the Labour side, with the sitting Shadow Health Secretary, Dunwoody, being defeated, and 3 future Cabinet ministers - Cook, Beckett and Smith - failing to be elected. In reality, Ann Taylor lost Bolton West to the Conservatives in 1983, and in 1987 returned to Parliament as MP for Dewsbury, and it was not until November 1990 that she was elected to the Shadow Cabinet. Cook was elected to the Shadow Cabinet in November 1983 (and from November 1988 onwards was always in the top 5); Beckett in November 1989; and Smith in July 1992.
If Cook were not an MP, he could not have been elected to the Shadow Cabinet in 1983. There would have been 2 people elected to the Shadow Cabinet thanks to Cook and Dunwoody not being MPs. Both Beckett and Cook would have had their rise through the Labour front-benches in the eighties and early nineties held back by not being in the 1983-87 Parliament. If we take Taylor as our example, then we could expect them to make it to Shadow Cabinet around 1990.
Beckett's base is the East Midlands, so when it comes to 1987 she could have gone for a Conservative/Labour marginal seat in the area (such as Leicester East or Leicester South - which would then stop someone else's career progressing), or the Labour seat of Derbyshire North East, where Raymond Ellis was retiring, which would have made her Tony Benn's parliamentary neighbour.
And if she had had to wait till 1987 before returning, there is the question whether she would have become Labour's deputy leader. If Labour were looking for a gender-balanced leadership team, then the senior female Labour MP in her absence would be Cynon Valley's Ann Clwyd. Alternatively, John Prescott could end up deputy leader 2 years earlier than he did.
In Cook's case he could have gone for a Strathclyde seat in 1987, but if he wanted to stay in the Edinburgh area, then the logical seat to go for in 1987 would be Fife Central, where Willie Hamilton was retiring - in reality, of course, future Scottish First Minister Henry McLeish, was the winner.
With the Conservatives it gets quite interesting. Notice that in Edinburgh there is a little grouping of Alliance MPs appearing, and AV would end - for a while - the parliamentary careers of a couple of politicians who would later hold senior posts in the Conservative party. Firstly, Kerr would lose to the Social Democrats, in a seat that in reality he lost to Labour in 1987. In 1992 he returned to Parliament as MP for Devizes, and eventually became Conservative deputy leader. Considering the way his career went, presumably under AV he would have taken a safe southern England seat in 1987 and achieved ministerial office a bit later (he was Under-Secretary of State at the Scottish Office throughout the 1983-87 Parliament) but had a ministerial career without that 1987-1992 gap.
At the 1983 election, Rifkind was just an Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, a department he would be leading when finally losing his seat in 1997. He failed to win it back in 2001, and in 2005 was elected for Kensington & Chelsea.
And here we need to come to the Westland incident, which led to Michael Heseltine resigning as Defence Secretary in January 1986. In the reshuffle that followed George Younger was moved from Scottish Secretary to Defence Secretary, and Rifkind entered the Cabinet to replace Younger. But if Rifkind had not been an MP.....?
- Alick Buchanan-Smith (Kincardine & Deeside) had been Shadow Scottish Secretary until Thatcher had sacked him over his views on Labour proposals for a Scottish Assembly - but she given him ministerial office, with him serving as Minister of State at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food throughout the 1979-1983 Parliament, and then Minister of State at the Department for Energy (replacing Hamish Gray, who had been defeated in Ross, Cromarty & Skye)
- John Corrie (Cunninghame North) never entered the Government
- Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth & Kinross) was on the backbenches by then, but had served as Solicitor-General for Scotland
- Alexander Fletcher (Edinburgh Central) was on the backbenches by then, but had been Under-Secretary of State at the Scottish Office throughout the 1979-1983 Parliament, and then Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Trade & Industry until September 1985
- Michael Forsyth (Stirling) had only been elected in 1983 and had not yet achieved ministerial office
- Peter Fraser (Angus East) was Solicitor-General for Scotland
- Barry Henderson (Fife North East) never entered the Government
- Ian Lang (Galloway & Upper Nithsdale) was a Junior Lord of the Treasury (i.e. a middle-ranking whip) at the time, and would become Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Employment in the post-Westland reshuffle
- John MacKay (Argyll & Bute) was, at the time, Under-Secretary of State at the Scottish Office
- Albert McQuarrie (Banff & Buchan) never entered the Government
- Gerald Malone (Aberdeen South) had only been elected in 1983 and never entered the Government
- Hector Monro (Dumfries) was on the backbenches by then, but had served as Under-Secretary of State at the Scottish Office and later Minister for Sport (as Under-Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment)
- Alexander Pollock (Moray) never entered the Government
- Allan Stewart (Eastwood) was, at the time, Under-Secretary of State at the Scottish Office
- Bill Walker (Tayside North) never entered the Government
When it came to the Scottish Office, Thatcher's pattern was a member of the House of Lords as Minister of State and 3 MPs as Under-Secretaries of State. Kerr's absence would have meant that in 1983 she would need to choose someone to serve alongside MacKay and Stewart. A logical choice would have been to keep Fletcher in that role beyond 1983.
If AV had been used, and Thatcher had - as she did in reality - move Younger to the Ministry of Defence, then a new Scottish Secretary would be needed. The only Scottish MP at Minister of State level would be Buchanan-Smith. This could be awkward, given his views on devolution, but such a promotion would send the message that the Government was, at the very least, open to persuasion on constitutional reform. The alternative would be going for a Scottish Secretary from the House of Lords - with Gray, as Minister of State, being the obvious choice. I am sure that not even Thatcher would put an English MP in charge of the Scottish Office.
This all assumes that Thatcher would move Younger from the Scottish Office to the Ministry of Defence. But what if she hadn't?
One solution would have been a simple promotion within Defence - perhaps with one of the Ministers of State (Minister for Defence Procurement, Norman Lamont) moved up to become Defence Secretary. In reality, Lamont became Chief Secretary to the Treasury in July 1989 and then Chancellor of the Exchequer when John Major replaced Thatcher as Prime Minister in November 1990. His promotion to Chief Secretary happened in the wake of Major being promoted from that job to Foreign & Commonwealth Secretary after Thatcher promoted/demoted* [* delete as appropriate] Geoffrey Howe to Lord President of the Council and Leader of the Commons.
Now, if Lamont had been Defence Secretary for over 3 years at that point, is it not possible that he - rather than Major - would have been appointed Foreign & Commonwealth Secretary upon Howe's removal? And in this case, Major would - as he did in reality - become Chancellor of the Exchequer in October 1989 when Nigel Lawson was dismissed, but this time it would be as a promotion within the Treasury rather than being moved from one Great Office of State to another.
Although, in these circumstances, Thatcher might have decided to move someone holding an economic portfolio - rather than someone from the most junior Cabinet post - to become Chancellor. Nicholas Ridley was Trade & Industry Secretary at the time, and Cecil Parkinson had been moved from Energy Secretary to Transport Secretary 3 months earlier. Picture how different the 1990 leadership election would have been with Lamont as Foreign & Commonwealth Secretary and Parkinson as Chancellor of the Exchequer.
AV would have led to some MPs starting their careers early, or indeed some people becoming MPs who were never elected under SMP. Under AV, Patrick Rock would have been the Conservative who defeated Dunwoody.
There would also be interesting consequences outside of England under AV. In Scotland, in 1983 under SMP, the result was:
- Labour - 41
- Conservative - 21
- Liberal - 5
- Social Democrat - 3
- Scottish National Party - 2
As we have seen, AV would have seen 9 Scottish seats producing a different winner - 3 where the Social Democrats won a Labour seat, 3 where the Social Democrats won a Conservative seat, 2 where the Liberals won a Conservative seat, and 1 where the Liberals won a Labour seat. This gives us:
- Labour - 37
- Conservative - 16
- Social Democrat - 9
- Liberal - 8
- Scottish National Party - 2
With 17 seats between them, the Liberal/Social Democrat Alliance would have more MPs than the Conservatives - while in reality, this did not happen until May 1997.
Northern Ireland would have been another part of the United Kingdom where AV would have, like Scotland, speeded up political history. Although Adams would have failed to defeat the Independent Socialist Fitt in Belfast West, Sinn Féin would have been back in Fermanagh and Tyrone, with by-election victor Owen Carron re-elected in Fermanagh & South Tyrone and Danny Morrison gaining Ulster Mid. These would have made Sinn Féin the joint second largest party in Northern Ireland, and they would have overtaken the SDLP - which they had to wait until June 2001 to do under SMP.
If the 1983 election had been under AV, then there would still have been a Conservative landslide, but fortunes of individual MPs would have been very different, with implications that political history would have gone down a different route as various politicians failed to be elected, and Cabinet posts had to be filled by different people.