One of the compromises agreed between Britain's Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties on May 11 was an referendum on replacing the present "first past the post" method of election to Parliament by a mere plurality with the "alternative vote" system, under which voters are able to select candidates in order of preference: under the proposed scheme the candidate with fewest first-preference votes is eliminated from the contest, and their second preferences are redistributed to the candidates so chosen by their voters. The process is repeated until only two candidates remain, giving one an overall majority at the final count.
The system is widely agreed to be an improvement over FPTP, in which MPs generally enter the House of Commons on the basis of only a majority of votes cast. Under AV there will at least be a majority for the members of the new chamber. It's not the proportional representation that LibDems have long sought, but it's a step toward fairer representation that's likely to net the party a few dozen additional seats on the basis of second- and third- preference votes from eliminated candidates of other parties.
LibDem hopes from AV seem to hinge heavily on maintaining or replacing the preferences offered by the traditional permeability of the Lab/Lib margin, lately the “Keep the Tories out” factor which encouraged "tactical voting" between the centre and left parties. There’ll be a good deal less of that in 2015 and perhaps for many years after, because LibDems can’t be relied on to keep anybody out, which as they rightly point out isn’t their job anyway.
Will there be the same opportunities at the Conservative/LibDem margin? I doubt it. Historically there seems to have been far less exchange of tactical votes between the two, but that might be put down to the very expectation of LibDem choice that made Labour sympathisers ready to vote LibDem.
But there’s an alarming warning in to the 2010 British Election Survey: whereas 48% of LibDem and 41% of Labour voters gave each other’s party as their second choice, only 21% of Conservatives put LibDem second. That in itself isn’t so surprising given talk of shared “centre-left” values sufficient to chill Tory blood: the real shock is that 41% of Tory voters put the anti-Europe UKIP second and another 10% the racist BNP, indicating a still larger body of anti-EU and anti-immigration feeling that’s likely to limit LibDem appeal given the large body of non-switchers and preferences for smaller parties common to all three main parties.
Both coalition partners have been fortunate in having the Greek crisis push grand European integration schemes into the background, possibly for the next five years. But that won’t last forever. Nor will the likely easing of immigration to a UK in the doldrums. So both issues could be very “live” to Tory voters in 2015 and beyond. And if they’re not enough there’s always LibDem stances on tax and social policy to cool their ardour.
So what should LibDems do? Go beyond the Orange Book’s critique of EU bureaucracy and regulation by adopting a more sternly Eurosceptic tone? Take a harsher line on immigration and play down their stated social justice aspirations? In short, become a party explicitly of the centre-right rather than of the centre or centre-left? Or should they do their utmost to distance themselves from their coalition partners in order to win over otherwise estranged pro-Labour wellwishers (and doubtless estranged LibDem voters)?
From a purely selfish LibDem perspective the answer has to be the latter. Reaching out to Labour voters offers far greater second-preference dividends than appealing to Tory supporters mostly in diametric opposition to key LibDem positions. It won’t be easy after what many Labour supporters will unjustly see as the "betrayal" of 2010, but the alternative could be bitter disappointment for a party already facing the danger of electoral backlash through association with the unpopular government spending decisions of the next few years.