Inevitably the focus of the media’s attention will be on the Labour Party conference this weekend, as the party finally announces the result of its leadership contest, revealing for the first time which Miliband will succeed Gordon Brown as full-time party leader.
With a new leader comes a chance for a new direction, and while analysts speculate over whether Ed Miliband will shift the party to the left, or whether David Miliband will cosy up to the crowded centre ground of British politics, it is also perhaps time for the party to re-evaluate its position on electoral reform, now a political talking point as a referendum on that very subject approaches.
Outwardly, Labour is in something of a quandary over the Alternative Vote referendum, scheduled for May 5 of next year: such a referendum was promised in their own general election manifesto; however, less than encouraging noises have been made about the parliamentary bill in which the poll is enshrined. After all, Labour may have committed to a referendum on AV, but they did not endorse the wholesale redrawing of constituency boundaries, the overhaul of the functions and procedures of the Boundary Commission, nor the reduction in size of the House of Commons from 650 members to 600.
So far they have addressed this issue by re-affirming their support for AV, but declaring that the bill in its present form is unacceptable to them – a motion to split the twin purposes of the bill was defeated in the Commons recently.
With a new leader, however, comes the chance for the party to change its stance on electoral reform – and I believe it should be pushing for more ambitious change than has been offered by the Coalition.
For many years the banner of electoral reform has been carried almost solely by the Liberal Democrats, who have a long-standing manifesto commitment to introducing proportional representation to the British Parliament, most likely through the Single Transferable Vote method. A deal on electoral reform was perceived to be one of the biggest obstacles standing between a coalition agreement between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives following the 2010 general election, given the latter party’s long-standing opposition to any reform of a system that, on the whole, benefits them disproportionately.
However, in the end a deal on an AV referendum was struck and the coalition agreement signed, with the Alternative Vote system seen as a compromise for both parties. However, AV fails as a meaningful instrument of reform – like our current first-past-the-post system, it is not proportional, doing nothing to address the failure of FPTP to deliver a House of Commons broadly representative of voter intent.
Furthermore, the most recent poll on the potential outcome of an election under AV shows that the Liberal Democrats stand to gain most under that system, benefiting from second-preference votes from both Labour and the Tories. In fact, if we allow a degree of cynicism for a moment, AV is actually a near-ideal system for the Lib Dems – it allows them to gain on their rivals without smaller parties, such as the Greens or UKIP, benefiting in the same way.
The failure of AV to deliver a proportional result is one of the reasons I cannot support it, even as an alternative to FPTP, and why I will be spoiling my paper in May if the “choice” offered to voters remains the same. But while the Lib Dems have abandoned the cause of electoral reform, in practice if not in principle, Labour should seize the advantage and take up the mantle for themselves.
Kevin Meagher argues in Tribune that Labour should oppose AV as it would erode their advantage under the present system. However, such self-serving arguments are short-sighted, as the same advantages Labour currently enjoys could be eradicated in the Coalition’s boundary review – and, in any case, opposing electoral reform because it will disadvantage their party is totally at odds with democracy: surely the aim is to make the result more representative of voters’ opinions, not less.
I agree that Labour should oppose AV, but not because it does not serve their interests: they should oppose it because it does not go far enough. The referendum on May 5 presents perhaps a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change our voting system for the better, and it would be wrong for that opportunity to be squandered on what Nick Clegg himself has called “a miserable little compromise.” Without the support of any major party, the campaign for meaningful reform is dead in the water. Labour needs to change that – and change it soon.