The AV Referendum Debate: a timeline

A timeline of the Alternative Vote referendum debate, chronicled by Ryan Gallagher over the last 15 months

For the last 15 months, Ryan Gallagher has here been chronicling the debate around the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum for OurKingdom.

Throughout this period there has been strong argument, controversies and bickering. At times the coalition government's relationship has appeared fragile as a result of differences on AV. Lib Dems accused the No campaign, which is heavily funded by Tories, of lying. While Tories, including prime minister David Cameron, refuted the claims, branding AV as "undemocratic".

Polls showing the level of support for both Yes and No camps have lacked any consistency. The Yes campaign enjoyed a substantial early lead, however gradually their support has waned. In recent weeks there has been a surge in support for a No vote, and two of the most recent polls put the No2AV campaign in a huge lead.

The outcome still remains uncertain. But whatever the result, when the polls close on the 5th May, it is clear that the AV referendum will have changed British politics for better or for worse – depending upon which side of the fence you are sitting.

With less than 24 hours until the ballot boxes open, both Yes and No sides both claim to believe they will win. It is now up to the voter to decide.

If you have not yet made up your mind, help inform your judgement by reliving the months of debate below....

May

There is more infighting in the coalition government over AV. Prime minister David Cameron distances himself from the official No2AV campaign, amid criticism of its campaign strategy. Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and David Cameron vow not to let their differences damage the government. The final Yes to AV rally is held in London.

April

Support for AV falls. Prime minister David Cameron describes AV as "undemocratic". New Statesman magazine endorses AV. Cracks begin to appear in the coalition government over AV disagreement.

  • AV mounts pressure on to an uneasy coalition, writes former conservative MP, Paul Goodman.
  • Australia shows AV can stop an unfair outcome, writes professor Benjamin Reilly in a letter to the Financial Times.
  • No2AV enters the final week of campaigning with a huge lead, according to two new polls.
  • No2AV rolls out last-minute marketing push, reports Marketing Magazine.
  • AV's not perfect, but we need it for plurality, argues Hilary Wainwright at the Guardian.
  • Lib Dem president Tim Farron causes controversy at a Yes to AV event, describing Thatcherism as "organised wickedness".
  • London election chiefs issue referendum advice. Barry Quirk, the London Regional Counting Officer, said: “We want to make sure every Londoner who wants to have their say in this referendum, can.
  • AV would not bring radical change, but it would empower the voter - argues Glenn Gottfried, research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research.
  • The No campaign takes an 18 point lead, according to a YouGov poll for the Sun.
  • Former Eastenders actor Ross "Grant Mitchell" Kemp wades in to the AV debate, urging a No vote.
  • Prime minister David Cameron says AV is "undemocratic".
  • Former Labour business secretary Peter Mandelson tells Sky News a Yes vote could "destabilise" prime minister David Cameron and "might even cost him his leadership".
  • Channel Four "fact checks" some of the claims made about AV.
  • An AV legal threat "widens damaging coalition rift," reports the Guardian.
  • "Vote Yes for evolution, not revolution," writes Mary Ann Sieghart in the Independent. "Decide on the facts, not the frenzy."
  • "AV is suited to the modern British voter," argues ourKingdom's Guy Aitchison.
  • New Statesman endorses AV: "For now, the priority is to deliver a death blow to the unfair, undemocratic and unrepresentative FPTP system. It is for this reason that we encourage progressives of all parties to vote Yes to AV on 5 May."
  • There is more controversy around campaign strategy, as energy and climate change secretary Chris Huhne claims the NO2AV campaign has told "straightforward lies".
  • A Guardian/ICM poll finds that support for AV is "collapsing", with the No campaign at a 16 point advantage.
  • Labour leader Ed Miliband and Lib Dem business secretary Vince Cable unite to pledge support for AV.
  • Prime minister David Cameron says a vote for AV would be a "backward step".
  • Cracks begin to appear in the coalition government over AV, as former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown accuses Chancellor George Osborne of cheap mudslinging and scaremongering to push the “no” vote through, reports City A.M.
  • "This is a referendum on the voting system. Not on Nick Clegg," writes Ed Miliband in the Independent.
  • The Constitution Society publish an AV explainer, including a comparison between AV and First Past the Post.
  • No2AV are accused of being a "Tory front group" by Liberal Democrat peer Lord Oakeshott.
  • At a debate organised by the London Evening Standard, the public vote in favour of AV. During the debate, former London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, says: "I want to see a situation where parties fight for every vote. There is nowhere where you can say 'it doesn't matter here', and this is a big step."
  • No2AV demand that the Electoral Reform Society stop backing the Yes vote in order to protect “the integrity of the British electoral system", reports the Telegraph.
  • "Should we be having a referendum at all?" asks ourKingdom's editor, Anthony Barnett.
  • City billionaires, Tory peers and trades union barons are backing the campaign to oppose a change in Britain’s voting system, reports the Daily Mail.
  • Former Tory leader Michael Howard makes his case against AV live on the BBC politics show. "AV would be disastrous for our democracy," he argues.
  • The Telegraph's Robert Colville begins compiling a list of "reasons not to vote AV".
  • The No2AV campaign claims AV would "disenfranchise" poorer voters and lead to five times more spoiled ballots.
  • Public support for AV is waning, reveals a new poll conducted for The Times.
  • Senior Tory MPs have warned David Cameron that an AV Yes vote could see him branded a "loser", according to the Evening Standard.
  • Useful and informative piece from Channel 4 News – Alternative Vote: your questions answered.

March

Businessmen and historians clash over AV. The Daily Mail urges its readers to vote No to AV. Several unions form an unlikely alliance with the Tories by announcing their opposition to AV. There is more speculation on the degree to which the AV campaign, if it was to be successful, would destabilise the coalition government.

February

The Daily Mail describes AV as a "threat to democracy" and vows to "campaign passionately" against it. London Mayor Boris Johnson comes out against AV. A controversial No2AV ad causes a stir across the internet, as the Yes campaign is accused of breaking the rules on 'cold calling'. The Yes campaign surges to a ten point lead, according to one poll. A Yes campaigner is embroiled in a 'race row', after tweeting an allegedly islamaphobic remark. Foreign Secretary William Hague calls on the No campaign to reveal its financial donors, after the campaign publicly refuses to do so.

January [2011]

The Independent newspaper urges its readers to vote Yes to AV. A "marathon" two-week debate on the AV referendum in House of Lords gets underway. Labour leader Ed Miliband pledges to be a "vocal supporter" of AV.

December

Labour leader Ed Miliband adopts a pro AV stance, reportedly defying Labour 'grandees' in the process. The House of Lords vote to allow flexibility on the referendum date.

November

The British National Party (BNP) announce their opposition to AV, as do five former cabinett ministers, including David Blunkett and Margarett Beckett There is criticism of the referendum's date from the House of Lords constitution committee. The Yes to AV campaign gets its website up and running.

  • Former Liverpool MP Jane Kennedy is to lead Labour's campaign against AV, reports the Liverpool Echo.
  • Lord Reid makes a case against AV in a piece in the Telegraph.  AV is "obscure, unfair and expensive," he argues.
  • The BNP announce their opposition to AV. "The AV system ... is actually even a greater distortion of the democratic process than the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system," they say in a statement on their website.
  • Simon Hix, professor in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics and Political Science, "lambasts AV" in a Constitution Society interview. “AV is a bad system," he says.
  • Five former Labour Cabinet Ministers – Margaret Beckett, David Blunkett, Lord Falconer, Lord Reid and Lord Prescott – announce they will campaign against AV.  "This is so important it has to rise above party politics," says Beckett. "AV does not help democracy. It stands in its way."
  • The announcement of Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding date [29 April 2011] sparks concerns it will overshadow referendum, reports the Financial Times [subscription].
  • The Coalition urges peers not to fall for Labour "trap" on AV vote, writes  Nicholas Cecil of the Evening Standard.
  • Labour's bid to derail the AV vote fails, reports politics.co.uk's Alex Stevenson.
  • More criticism on the date of the referendum comes from the House of Lords Constitution Committee.  It was "regrettable" the Scottish government was not consulted over the date, the Herald reports.
  • The Scottish Greens say they will back AV while campaigning for PR.
  • With six months to go to the AV referendum, ourKingdom's Guy Aitchison outlines how both the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns are shaping up.
  • "The coalition agreement's commitment to an £80m-plus referendum on the alternative vote (AV) has attracted most publicity," writes the Guardian's Michael White, "but more trouble may yet be caused by sweeping changes to constituency boundaries.
  • Labour will not campaign for AV, according to MP Andy Burnham.
  • Yes to AV website goes live.
  • The Tories could be having second thoughts on AV, writes Stuart Weir in a post on ourKingdom.  "Intelligent Tories are just catching up on the advantages for them and their coalition partners of the alternative vote, just as the referendum has won approval in Parliament", he says.
  • Support for the AV vote has plummeted, writes George Eaton over at the New Statesman.

October

David Cameron urges fellow Tories not to try to "wreck the [referendum] Bill". The No2AV campaign launches its website.

  • No2AV's Dylan Sharpe outlines a "clear and principled case against AV".
  • A bid to prevent the AV referendum being held on 5 May was defeated by 326 votes to 264 in a Commons vote.
  • Welsh Lib Dem leader Kirsty Williams calls for a cross party "Yes" campaign on AV in a letter to First Minister Carwyn Jones.
  • A "Labour Supporters for NO to AV" Facebook page appears.
  • "We believe that AV should be rejected and that the boundary review process should be transformed, not just tweaked," he says.
  • AV is not a democratic solution, writes Robert McIlveen of the Policy Exchange
  • The Times report that Tory 'no' campaigners have heeded David Cameron's call not to "wreck the bill" by making a tactical change.  The rebels, according to the report, will "lift their threat to the date of next year's proposed referendum on voting changes – because they believe May 5 offers the best chance of stopping the alternative vote (AV) system."
  • David Cameron reiterates a similar sentiment to Hague in his own speech to the Conservative Party Conference.  "I don’t want to change our voting system any more than you do," he says, "but let’s not waste time trying to wreck the bill – let’s just get out there and win the vote."
  • Speaking at the Conservative Party conference, Foreign Secretary William Hague warns Tory rebels that they must retain their commitment to an AV referendum.  "The Lib Dems have honoured their word and we will honour ours," he says.  "Let us be clear that we will hold the referendum and hold it on schedule."
  • The No2AV campaign gets its website up and running, while No2AV chairman, Lord Leach, publishes an open letter asking for help with the campaign.
  • A study by leading academics finds that, had the 2010 general election been conducted under AV, the Liberal Democrats would have had a wider choice of post-election coalition partners than it experienced under First Past The Post (FPTP).

September

The second reading of the Referendum Bill takes place in the Commons.  Nick Clegg launches 'Yes to AV' campaign.

  • BBC 'Moodbox' tests Labour opinion on the AV system.
  • Blogger 'Archbishop Cramner' says Ed Miliband's victory in the leadership contest is a "damning indictment of AV."
  • Billy Bragg, Fiona MacTaggart MP and Billy Hayes of the CWU are among the speakers at a Take Back Parliament rally in Manchester.  Prior to the rally, Bragg says Ed Miliband must be "brave and bold" on voting reform.
  • After narrowly defeating his brother David in the race for Labour leadership, Ed Miliband proclaims his support for AV.
  • Researcher Olaf Corry outlines "four reasons why Conservatives should back PR."
  • An unofficial "Vote No To AV" Twitter account appears.
  • "What really motivated Mark Field MP to oppose the AV Bill?", asks blogger Oberon Houston.
  • Robert Halfon over at conservativehome writes advocating the 'Second Ballot' system as opposed to AV, arguing that "the beauty of TSB is both its fairness, and simplicity."
  • Conservative MP Mark Field argues that the referendum should not take place sooner than autumn 2011.  "Better this than being bounced into far-reaching changes whilst the novelty of the ‘new politics’ has yet to wear off", he says.
  • Nick Clegg launches 'Yes to AV' campaign at the Liberal Democrat conference in Liverpool.  "I know AV may not be the favourite voting system of everyone here," he says,  "but whether you prefer this, AV+, the single transferable vote or any another model, we all agree that AV is infinitely fairer than what we have at the moment."
  • The Electoral Reform Society makes "The Case for Change".
  • The compromise of AV is itself being compromised, warns Anthony Barnett in a post on ourKingdom.  "The way it is being legislated stinks of the old regime", he argues.
  • "Who is for AV on its own merits?", asks James Forsyth over at The Spectator.
  • The AV referendum can be seen as "classic Cameron-Clegg ‘modernisation’ – looking both ways at the same time", writes Gerry Hassan.
  • The conservativehome blog lists ten Tory MPs that voted against the AV referendum during the second reading of the Referendum Bill on 7th September.  The blog post also includes key extracts from Tory MPs' contributions to the debate.
  • What is behind Tory MP Douglas Carswell's decision to submit an amendment that would, if passed, offer voters an STV option in the referendum?, asks ourKingdom's Guy Aitchison.
  • The Scotsman reports that Dunfermline and West Fife MP Thomas Docherty, is seeking cross-party support for holding the AV referendum on 8th September, 2011.  "We've gone for the September date because it's a significant period after the assembly elections so that people can recover from political fatigue", he says.
  • Labour and Tory rebels unite against AV vote, reports the Independent.
  • The Green Party’s Caroline Lucas challenges the Milliband brothers to back the inclusion of a PR option in the referendum.  “I am tabling an amendment that would rewrite the referendum question to allow people to choose from a wider range of voting systems,” she writes in an article in the New Statesman,  “including properly proportional options such as the additional member system”.
  • Anti-AV campaigners promise an “exciting campaign” in the lead up to the referendum.
  • Anthony Barnett and Jerome di Costanzo engage in a colourful debate about the merits of AV in a post on openDemocracy.  “The FPTP voting system shouldn't be condemned”, says di Costanzo.  Barnett disagrees: “FPTP needs to go because it is intrinsically undemocratic.”

August

Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the Taxpayers' Alliance, is appointed to lead the No2AV campaign. The blog Liberal Conspiracy publishes an expose, claiming Tories run the No2AV camapign. Meanwhile singer-songwriter Billy Bragg and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg are among those to pledge their support to the Yes campaign.

  • AV will prevent radical free-market reforms, argues Sam Collins of the Institute of Economic Affairs.  “Changing the voting system may be good for other reasons,” he writes, “but it makes a government that will be willing to enact radical free-market reform less likely.”
  • The Scottish National Party says the AV referendum could delay the Scottish council elections, which are scheduled on the same day.
  • AV will deny smaller parties a chance of winning any significant representation just like FPTP, and will create a dynamic towards tactical voting,argues David Rickard.  “You know your preferred party can’t win, so you end up voting tactically all the same.”
  • Ipsos MORI’s Head of Political and Electoral Research, Roger Mortimore, writes in a detailed post on  the LSE blog that scrapping first past the post will not put an end to tactical voting.  Rather, he says, “new forms of tactical voting could open up under AV.”
  • Liberal Conspiracy publishes an ‘expose’ on “how Tories run the ‘No-2-AV’ campaign.”
  • Guy Aitchison reflects on Littlewood’s analysis in a post on openDemocracy:  “Some of the strategic political reasons he lists should definitely be a cause for concern for reformers, whereas others, relating to the organisation of the Yes campaign and the arguments for AV are wide of the mark I think."
  • Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance, is appointed to lead the ‘No to AV’ campaign.
  • Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs, Mark Littlewood, lists ten reasons why the Yes campaign is “staring at defeat.”
  • John Jackson argues that AVcould accelerate the rate at which we move to a multi-party system covering a wide range of political opinion and reduce the number of ‘safe’ seats.”
  • “Whatever your party, there is now an overwhelming public interest case for adopting the Alternative Vote,” writes Patrick Dunleavy of the LSE.
  • Singer-songwriter Billy Bragg weighs in on the debate.  “Under a fairer voting system, the Tories could be defeated”, he says.  “Although AV is not the proportional change that I had hoped for, it does have the potential to re-engage Labour voters disenfranchised by FPTP.”
  • “I will be backing the change to AV”, writes deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in the Evening Standard.  “AV offers much greater choice.”
  • Anthony Barnett comments that “The 'No' campaign is going to enjoy itself making up reasons to attack AV.”
  • Peter Facey issues a point by point rebuttal of Jenkin’s argument.  “First Past the Post in single member seats has not served the United Kingdom well and certainly not for 300 years, since it only came in for all seats in the House of Commons in 1950,” he says.  “I fear that Bernard Jenkin’s article is an indication from the ‘No’ camp that instead we are going to get half truths, smears and a deliberate attempt to confuse the public.” 
  • Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin writes in the Evening Standard that “the AV system of elections is about the most unloved way of electing politicians in the world,” further commenting: “why abandon the system that is tried and tested, where each vote is of equal value, which has done the UK well for about 300 years.” 
  • Andy May of Take Back Parliament writes that there must be a “separate vote on the referendum and boundary changes.”  It was a mistake of Nick Clegg to “give in to Tory demands to combine the legislation”, he argues. 
  • Jim Sweetman at LabourList argues that “when applied to single seats [alternative vote] is profoundly anti-democratic.”
  • Anthony Barnett suggests there are four possible outcomes of the AV referendum and says which he prefers.

July

The AV referendum question is published, and the date is set.  The legislation is linked in to controversial boundary changes. The ‘No to AV’ campaign begins to take shape.

  • Gerry Hassan outlines the political and constitutional issues raised by the UK government’s decision to hold the AV referendum on the same day as the devolved elections.  “Voters across the UK would not have an equal experience or be part of the same campaigns,” he argues, “which could distort the result and pose all sorts of problems for the broadcasting media.”
  • The Scottish Government threatens to derail the AV referendum because its scheduled date clashes with Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish elections.  This prompts an editorial in the Scotsman to proclaim “we do not need a referendum on this unloved and unwanted voting system.”
  • Analysing a Channel 4/YouGov Poll, George Eaton of the New Statesman echoes Ashcroft’s suggestion.  “AV would now benefit the Tories more than Labour,” he says.
  • Lord Ashcroft produces research which suggests that the Conservatives "could do as well, and possibly better" under AV.
  • Charles Moore of The Telegraph writes that “[first past the post] seems fairer and more decisive than any alternative vote.”
  • The Daily Mail’s Anthony King describes AV as “nothing if not exotic.”  Adding: “anyone who claims to know how it would work out in practice in the UK is a false prophet.”  Another Mail columnist, Peter Oborne, says AV “enables politicians to break their promises, opening the way to secrecy and deceit.”
  • Alexandra Runswick, Director of Unlock Democracy, releases a statement in which she says: “This referendum must not be derailed by politicians who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.”
  • The shadow Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain, comments that Clegg has “allowed himself to be sandbagged by his Tory partners in his otherwise laudable attempt to introduce a fairer electoral system.”
  • A BBC documentary suggests Nick Clegg “bluffed the Conservative leader, David Cameron, into offering the Lib Dems a referendum on a change to the voting system as part of the coalition talks.”
  • Co-chairman of the ‘All-Party Parliamentary Group for the promotion of first-past-the-post’ (see this document (pg.198) for more info on this group), Daniel Kawczynski MPwrites that he believes the problem with AV is that it “allows... two classes of voter, those who will cast one vote and those who will have two or three bites of the cherry.”  This, he says, results in an “unfair weighting of votes between those who support and often campaign on behalf of a certain party and those who are happy to vote two or three times.”
  • Prime Minister David Cameron will campaign against AV, Downing Street officials confirm.
  • John Prescott MP says AV is “cover for the biggest gerrymandering of seats that I have ever seen in my 40 years in politics.”
  • Blogger Sunny Hundal describes his frustration with “the attitude of many lefties on electoral reform” who are opposed to the Alternative vote.  "AV offers more choice, even if it’s not proportional," he argues.
  • Lib Dem MEP Edward McMillan-Scott believes there are better voting systems than AV.  The single transferable vote (STV), he says, “is the best form of PR because every vote counts.”

June

The hustings for the Labour leadership campaign gets underway, and all five candidates pledge to support AV, though none support PR.

  • “AV isn’t worth having,” writes Anne McElvoy in Prospect.
  • Writing from the perspective of New Zealand, Tan Copsey suggests without adopting AV the UK will remain locked in the past.  “Voting in Britain was like voting in New Zealand in the 1950s”, he says.
  • According to campaigner John Wilhelm, the Alternative Vote has “serious weaknesses” and “does a poor job of reflecting voters' preferences.”  Wilhelm advocates “approval voting” because it “allows a person to vote both sincerely and strategically at the same time to better reflect his or her preferences.”

May

With the general election producing a hung parliament and a mismatch between votes and seats, Take Back Parliament organises a series of rallies in London and across the country. Nick Clegg is taken by surprise during coalition negotiations.  Guest speakers at rallies include George MonboitMark Thomas and Anthony Barnett.  The Coalition Agreement commits the Lib Dems and Tories to a referendum on AV.

April

  • The Third Estate describes AV as a “recipe for an inoffensive democracy,” and asks whether it might result in “permanent inertia.”

February [2010]

Gordon Brown makes a commitment to an AV referendum

  • Next Left list “five reasons to be cheerful about the Alternative Vote.”
  • The New Statesman outlines how AV would have affected the election outcome in 2005
  • Lib Dem MP, Chris Huhne, comments that AV fails “to give voters the power they should have,” and “also fails to remedy the unfairness of the present system.”
  • An interesting exchange between Stuart Weir and Andy White on AV takes place on OurKingdom.  The AV campaign is a “foolish crusade,” says Weir, andas a whole would produce an unrepresentative parliament, and so adds spurious legitimacy to a bad system.”  White counters that AV would in factimprove MPs’ legitimacy, introduce voters to preferential voting, and help persuade the political classes that the public has an appetite for reform.”

Images by Orwell523, Jacksteruk309, The Prime Minister's Office and The CBI.