The claim

“This (Margaret Thatcher’s Government) was organised wickedness given the veneer of legitimacy by an electoral system that gave 100 per cent of Government power despite being opposed by 60 per cent of the population.”
Tim Farron,  President, Liberal Democrats, at AV cross-party event, 27 April 2011

The background

This time next week our first national referendum in a generation will take place. Yet from the outset, as FactCheck has repeatedly found, the campaign has been a somewhat shameless political skirmish littered with lies on both sides.

Tim Farron yesterday attacked the No to AV camp, pointing to first-past-the-post as the system that kept Margaret Thatcher’s “organised wickedness” in government.

Is he right or was this an attempt to get Labour voters on side?

The analysis

On the face of it, yes FPTP did give 100 per cent of power to a party opposed by 60 per cent of the population. But would AV have curbed Mrs Thatcher’s power?

Joan Ryan, former vice chair of the Labour Party and director of Labour No to AV, was quick to point to research by the British Election Study (BES) unit at the University of Essex.

The debate over how voting would go in AV is purely based on research and strewn with caveats – because so few countries subscribe to the system. But the BES analysis is the best we have to go on.

Since 1983, researchers have been simulating how AV would have changed the outcome of our General Elections by surveying voters shortly after the poll.  This means we have no estimates of what might have happened in 1979.

What BES research does show however, is that under an AV system Mrs Thatcher’s landslide victory in 1983 would have been only slightly less pronounced, with the number of Conservative seats down six to 391.

But Labour would have lost 19 seats, whittling their total down to 190 – thus under AV the ’83 election would have seen the gap between the two main parties widen.

Meanwhile, in 1987 AV would have boosted Mrs Thatcher’s Government by six seats. Again, the gap between the Labour and Conservative Party would have widened – with Labour potentially losing 27 seats in 1987.

The Lib Dems would have boosted their number of seats during both elections however, up by 25 seats in 1983 and 22 in 1987.

So AV wouldn’t kick big landslide victories to the curb.  In fact, the Political Studies Association (PSA) concluded that AV tends to exaggerate landslides: “This is because of the boost it can give to a party with a large national lead.”

The verdict

Labour’s No camp deemed Mr Farron’s rant about Mrs Thatcher a “crude bid” for Labour support. And, to be fair, it was.

The leader of the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign reportedly looked uncomfortable during his tirade, and UKIP leader Nigel Farage – who backs AV, but is more favourably inclined towards Lady Thatcher – said: “Too many on the ‘Yes’ side are resorting to personal abuse”.

But it was Tory grandee Norman Tebbit who stepped in for the final blow, calling it a grossly offensive, forlorn attempt by a “wet-behind-the-ears Lib Dem non-achiever”. Ouch.

Neither camp has played a clean game, but with a week to go until the first national referendum in a generation, voters deserve better.

By Emma Thelwell