One of my favourite tweeple is Sally Bercow. She’s perhaps best known for being the Speaker’s wife, but this is slightly unfair: she’s a respected freelance writer, broadcaster and Labour activist in her own right, the last of these evoking most of the ire she receives from the right-wing media. (One of the interesting side-effects of this is that, according to the right-wing media, Speaker John Bercow is incapable of making any decisions for himself, and whenever he does anything controversial it is therefore undoubtedly Sally’s fault. But I digress).
The reason I bring Mrs Bercow up is because of her recent article for Labour Uncut, where she espouses the benefits of the Alternative Vote, which we will use in Westminster elections if a referendum on the subject is passed, probably next May 5. She does a good job of explaining the system, which is dangerous ground for someone who hopes for a Yes in the referendum itself – analysis of polls appear to show that people are less likely to vote in favour of AV if they understand what it is. (Many people believe that the Alternative Vote is a system whereby people can vote online or by post, for instance).
But then, opinion polling on electoral reform is tricky. In general, polling suggests that most people want a voting system that allocates parliamentary seats in proportion to votes cast, gives voters a representative tied to a local area, allows representation from a broad spectrum of parties and produces strong, single-party governments after every election.
Of course, no voting system can provide all of this, and when choosing a system it is necessary to weigh up these competing aims. Pinning my colours to a mast, my favourite system of them all is probably the Additional Member System used in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, which satisfies the first three criteria by combining the “local representation” aspect of our current first-past-the-post system with the proportionality benefits of a full PR approach. I suppose I could be tempted into embracing AV+ as well, but as it has never been used in any country, anywhere in the world, we can’t be sure how it would work in practice.
Neither of these systems guarantees single-party government, but then I’ve never seen the benefit of that anyway. Coalition politics allows a much more measured approach to government and marginalises extremists, even if the UK’s current government is making a bit of a hash of it at present.
In any case, as far as I’m concerned the single biggest issue with our current voting system is its disproportionality, and the proposed AV reform does nothing to address this. Advocates of AV do not – indeed, cannot – address this difficulty properly, and have to resort to the same defence Sally Bercow uses in her article:
It is true that AV is not a proportional system and that certainly disappoints some. But it is the only change on offer – and surely something has got to be better than nothing, even if you are an STV or AV+ diehard.
“Something” surely is better than “nothing,” but in terms of proportionality, AV is exactly nothing. And as for AV being “the only change on offer,” since when was electoral reform about bending to the status quo? Advocates of real reform should be up in arms that the debate is being framed in these terms.
What is needed is a real, progressive opposition to AV on the grounds that it does not go far enough. In an ideal world, we’d scrap the referendum, have a full public consultation on what the best alternative to FPTP is for the UK, and have a referendum on that later in the parliament.
But there is no support, even among people who would usually advocate reform to a far fairer system, for an approach such as this. There is a real fear that if the AV referendum goes ahead, and it is rejected by the electorate, the cause of electoral reform will be dead for a generation or longer. Related to this is the idea that AV is somehow a “stepping stone” for further reform.
But this is missing the point. If rejecting AV will kill the prospect of electoral reform, so will accepting it. No government is going to propose another costly and complex change to the voting system so soon after the first one. If the referendum on AV is a once-in-a-generation opportunity as some people believe, we should not be squandering that opportunity on a system that is almost exactly as unfair and disproportionate as the system we’ve already got.
In her article, Sally Bercow reiterates the strongest arguments in favour of preferential voting systems like AV, which are an end to tactical voting and the requirement for candidates to seek a broader consensus among the electorate in order to win. But these benefits are not unique to AV, and while I feel consensus politics are a good thing, without proportionality in our voting system we will never see them at a national level as well as at a local one.
(Incidentally, she also reiterates one of the most common falsehoods about AV: that all candidates will require the support of a majority of voters. This is only true if every voter lists all of their preferences – if people choose not to give second, third or fourth preferences, the proportion of voters required for a candidate to win shrinks to below 50%).
In short, the choice between AV and FPTP is barely a choice at all. Advocates of true change should, rather than focussing on winning a referendum for a sub-optimal system that might well turn out to be unwinnable anyway, concentrate on challenging the terms of the debate imposed on us by the government, and expanding the discussion to incorporate all aspects of electoral reform.