Electoral Reform: no surrender!

I’ve written a piece on Our Kingdom about the debate currently bubbling under in reformist circles about whether or not the campaign for fair votes should be abandoned in favour of a “compromise” in the form of the Alternative Vote system. In my article I seek to show how AV is not a compromise but a wholesale surrender, will not be any easier to get introduced than full electoral reform and won’t do what a lot of its supporters think it will do:

I would summarise the push for AV as a call for a lot of pain in exchange for very little gain. Pushing through this reform will mean facing down the combined might of every single minority party, the Conservatives, the media and a large proportion of the Labour Party. Even if the Lib Dem leadership were convinced of this strategy (which I doubt), a lot of the grassroots will be in uproar. It will mean convincing the potential activist base to curb their enthusiasm and compromise on almost everything that they believe in – that tends not to work as much of a motivator. For every supporter of first past the post who might be prepared to compromise on AV there will be a supporter of proportional representation who would not. The whole thing reeks of stalemate and Whitehall farce.

This is a particularly pertinent discussion to be having at the moment because, on Saturday, the Electoral Reform Society will be having the same debate. I should point out in the interest of political balance that not all Labour people think AV is the only way to go; the alternative “compromise” – 3-member STV – which I write favourable things about in my article is going to be advocated on Saturday by one Recess Monkey.

You can read the full article here.


  1. At the very least Labour should be seeing a referendum on this issue as a positive political tool for them, a win-win situation in fact. I’ll be writing more about this later I think as my mind is just going to burst at the moment with so many things irking me!

    Good read, I do hope that AV doesn’t even come in to the discussion on Saturday, unless it’s to say “AV is a shitbag of an idea, next…” Electoral reform depresses me, every inch of me knows it is needed yet just as much of me knows it is never going to happen.

  2. “Far better to make the case for meaningful electoral reform first while being prepared to fall back on AV as a compromise”

    Nobdody supporting electoral reform would disagree with this. However, I suggest that we have reached the point where, facing hard political facts, we do not have any choice but to “fall back”.

    It seems to me that there is now not a chance of PR’s being introduced before the next election, – even in the unlikely event of the Government’s at last honouring their 1997 commitments – because there is no time to arrange for the necessary boundary changes. AV, even with a referendum, could be introduced quite quickly since obviously the boundaris would remain the same as under FPTP. It may well be that the left-of-centre advantage, that AV might have expoited in 2000, no longer exists; and that therefore AV would not help Labour in 2010.

    However, if the Tories were to get in under FPTP in 2010 (as seems increasingly likely) we could say goodbye to electoral reform indefinitely. If on the other hand they got in under AV they would, I suggest, find it very difficult to reinstate FPTP for future elections.

    Moreover, having got rid of FPTP people would have learned that there are indeed other ways of electing our Westminster representatives. This fact together with the probable change to STV for the Scottish Parliament, the long-standing existence of STV for Stormont , and the probable resulting clamour for common electoral boundaries, would ease the evolution from AV (ie STV in single-member constituencies) to STV in multi-member constituencies.

  3. The problem is Joe, that introducing AV before the general election would be exceedingly difficult as well. If there was a referendum, do you really think we could win it when the marginal benefits would be so slight? How would we be able to enthuse people about it?

    And is there really any chance of Labour introducing it? I am constantly promised that there is a massive groundswell of Labour support for this measure but it is hard to detect. At the ERS AGM on Saturday Mary Southcott assured us that half of the cabinet support AV. So why are they so shy about saying so?

    Fundamentally, the Ministry of Justice has officially stated two things which, combined, explicitly rule out any reform this side of a GE: 1 – House of Lords reform won’t happen before the General Election. 2 – We can’t proceed on debating electoral reform of the House of Commons until House of Lords reform has been completed. Join the dots.

    Ultimately, I’m afraid I just don’t see Labour as an ally in this. They’ve blocked reform for years and it is only now, with them possibly just a few months from relinquishing power, that they are even contemplating a half-arsed reform. No-one has yet explained to me why we should play along.

  4. James, the fact is that if we do not get rid of FPTP BEFORE the next election there is no prospect of electoral reform of any kind for Westminster in the foreseeable future – as I have contended in my earlier post.

    I have no love of AV for general elections, although it is clearly the preferred system for mayors, presidents and the like. However, it would at least ensure that every MP went to Westminter with a quota of at least 51% of the votes of his/her constituents. It would also represent more fairly the WEIGHT of left-of-centre opinion through later preferences on Green etc votes which at present are completely wasted. It is true that these would probably boost the votes of either the Labour party or LibDems which would no doubt annoy the Tories. It would also eliminate the curse of the marginal seats under FPTP and hence decrease the influence of Murdoch. And it would eliminate tactical voting – ie voting against the party you do not want instead of for the party you do want.

    Labour, if they just drift on with FPTP, are on the point of reaping the harvest of their cynical betrayal of the 1997 manifesto PR promises. We could either clap our hands in glee that they are getting what they deserved or we could face the fact that a Tory “victory” would be a disaster for electoral reform. There is at least the possibiltiy – if no certainty – that AV might offer a way forward. In this regard I am not so sure that a referendum would go against AV. In any case would a referendum be ncessary given the fact that even AV offers some clear advantages over FPTP and moreover would retain the present boundaries and MPs’ constituency links?

    Incidentally I stumbled on this blog while researching that psephological expert Kawczynski apparently leading a campaign to revert wholesale to FPTP (which is one of the reasons why we should try at all costs to keep out the Tories even if it means AV for a time). Incidentally his expertise does not appear to extend to the appreciation of the differences between AV and that electoral monstrosity SV.

  5. This all ultimately boils down to a calculation of whether or not you think the current government is capable of delivering AV or not. If they aren’t, but were persuaded to push for it anyway, it could set back other attempts at electoral reform (e.g. local government in Wales where the Conservatives are split/neutral/not actively opposing it [delete as applicable]).

    If I really thought this was a genuine option, my criticism would be muted to be honest. I’m terrified of the prospect of Jack Straw being pushed into announcing it, getting mauled by the media, the Tories and his own rebellious backbenchers, and eventually, after much kerfuffle, kicking it back into the long grass. That has, broadly speaking, been the post-2000 story of Labour’s constitutional renewal programme and everything we’ve seen in recent months suggest they have less authority than they had a few years ago, and thus political capital to expend on this adventure.

    Electoral reform is not a great idea for a government to lead on when they are slumping in the opinion polls. Even if it isn’t a blatant act of gerrymandering, it is all too easy to present it as such. The argument that this is our last chance to get anything on the agenda is a seductive one but one we should be very wary of.

  6. SO…we resign ourselves to an indefinite continuation of FPTP at Westminster; or we keep our fingers crossed and hope that there is a hung parliament at the next election AND that the LibDems under Nick Clegg will still be keen enough on STV to “blackmail” either Labour or the Tories into reform as the price of coalition.

  7. …and even if Clegg did make STV the price of a coalition, would you really see either main party jumping at it? I would’ve thought the very most that Labour would concede would be STV for Lords, AV for Commons, and STV for local government in England (though possibly not Wales – they would try to cop out of that by devolving it to the Assembly).

  8. I’m not suggesting that Clegg should make STV the price of a coalition – indeed it sounds like a terrible idea to me. The point is that no electoral reform can be achieved easily by the backdoor. It simply won’t happen unless two out of the three main parties want it and a significant proportion of the populace is calling for it.

    What is disappointing is that instead of trying to win the argument amongst their peer group, organisations like LCER within the Labour movement have given up and gone down this cul-de-sac of getting AV introduced by stealth. No-one is going to be fooled by it, it will be almost as hard to get through as STV, and it wastes time, energy and resources.

  9. I don’t think it’s fair to say that the LCER has abandoned “trying to win the argument” – it just refuses to make its ultimate objectives an excuse for reliniquishing the opportunity to make progress where it is possible, however limited and unsatisfactory we might believe it to be. Moving on from AV would at least demonstrate that FPTP isn’t set in stone, and demonstrate that preferential ballot papers aren’t rocket science – it would also have the added advatange of making the introduction of preference voting for local government a logical next step.

    I also think we should be lobbying for government to create some form of binding deliberative process, whereby a representative body of citizens should assess the perfermance of AV over 2 terms of government, and have the power to decide whether either a proportional top-up element or (as I would prefer) a move to multi-member seats could be put to a national referendum.

    There’s nothing stealthy or underhand about this. Who is meant to be “fooled”? Why is this the “backdoor”? At no stage will LCER say that AV is a sufficient or adequate reform. But we take what we can, and then regroup to fight for the next logical stage of concessions. Simply refusing to engage would be the real cul-de-sac.

  10. The policy on the table is not for a binding deliberative process. The proposal is a rushed, “one line bill” squeezed through Parliament before the general election. It is that which I object to.

  11. I think the crucial point is made by Joe, a undeserved stonking FPTP Tory majority in 2010 could be followed by 2 more Tory majorities in 2014 and 2018. At least AV might temper the last 2 ‘victories’. We all know the Tories are the most hostile to change and Kawzcinski will push and probably get an abandonment of PR in the GLA, Euro elections and maybe a return of FPTP for Mayors – taking us right back to 1997.

    Couple this with the changes in broadcast media that are in the Tory manifesto – Daily Mail TV is coming if the Tories are elected and more gerrymandering of the boundaries – enlarging constituencies into suburbs and rural areas to reduce impact of Labour urban votes. Even the possibility of the scandalous suggestion of Peter Oborne in the Spectator – to draw constituencies by turnout rather than size of electorate – thus disenfranchising the most disaffected poor. The Tories would love that!

    No, James, you may hate Labour but without them we are going backwards and AV is better than nothing.

  12. Wow, as conditionals go that is pretty stonking itself. Haven’t you ever heard of Occam’s Razor?

    If the Tories do get a massive majority at the next election, given the inbuilt anti-Tory bias within the system it is fair to say they will have earned it. Ditto if they manage to repeat it over the following two elections, particularly given that demographics suggest that all things being equal the anti-Tory bias is set to increase.

    So what you are really saying is that if the mood of the public fundamentally shifts in the direction of the Conservatives, the public should not be allowed to get what it wants. I can see why that might have some appeal for some Fabianista, but it sure ain’t liberal.

    If you really think that is a real possibility, then why aren’t you pressing for proper electoral reform – i.e. PR – rather than a system which will exaggerate their majority in the first instance and give them an easier ride?

  13. James, the Tories could get a massive majority at the next election with less than 25% of the electorate supporting them and no more than 4 in 10 voters. That is not giving the voters what they want! This could easily be repeated in 2014 and 2018, as the Tories restructure the boundaries in their favour and TV and radio becomes like our right-wing press (Tories propose scrapping impartiality rules if they win)

    There is NOT repeat NOT an anti-Tory bias (as you Lib Dems should know) in the electoral system – it is a PRO Labour bias (bias is probably the wrong word anyway, as it is a systemic problem with the FPTP system Tories and currently the Labour leadership both support).

    AV is a terrible system, but it is better than FPTP. Once this is in place, it will be easier to campaign for PR as we will be closer to it.

  14. So implement it then. My fundamental point, which you appear to have missed, is that Labour is no more likely to introduce it this side of a general election than they are to introduce PR. I would withdraw that assertion if you did just one thing: name 100 backbench Labour MPs who are demanding AV. That’s a little over 25% of the parliamentary party so it shouldn’t be too hard.

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