Electoral reform is only “dead for a generation” if we let it be

Yesterday, the British public overwhelmingly voted “No” in a referendum to change the way we elect our MPs, from First-Past-The-Post to the Alternative Vote. 68% of voters opted against adpoting the new system, with majorities for No in virtually every local authority across the country. Only a few inner-city areas bucked the trend, with places like Glasgow Kelvin, Edinburgh Central, Haringey and Lambeth voting Yes by small margins.

Already members of the No campaign have declared the result an overwhelming endorsement of FPTP – Labour peer and No campaigner John Reid said exactly as much on the BBC results programme. Far more disturbing, however, is that advocates of electoral reform have already thrown in the towel not just over AV, but over democratic reform as a whole. Writing for the New Statesman, George Eaton wrote:

The dream of electoral reform, and with it that of a permanent “progressive majority”, has been banished for at least a decade. Those who voted No to AV in the hope of securing a more proportional system in the future couldn’t look more foolish tonight. The debate is over.

This kind of capitulation is what will kill the movement for a fairer way of electing our MPs, not the decisive result on a referendum to adopt a system even most of its proponents didn’t really want.

Despite what its advocates say, First-Past-The-Post is utterly broken for any election where there are more than two candidates. In Norwich South last May, Liberal Democrat Simon Wright was elected with 29 per cent of the vote – 71% of those who chose to vote cast it against him. Furthermore, majoritarian systems produce unrepresentative parliaments – Labour’s 2005 majority of 67 seats was won with almost two-thirds of the electorate backing other parties.

AV would have addressed the first problem, but not the second. That’s why I, and others, chose not to vote for AV but instead to spoil my ballot paper on Thursday. The referendum resulted in a rejection of AV – not a rejection of reform in general.

This becomes more obvious when we look at the opinion polls on the AV question. The graph below shows the response to the bare referendum question from various pollsters, from November 2010 until polling day (the last point on the graph is the result of the referendum itself). Figures have been repercentaged to exclude those who responded with “Don’t know” or “Wouldn’t vote.”

From this, it is clear that support for AV was strong at first, but faded away towards the end of the campaign. The fall in the Yes vote really began in April, after a period of small leads, as the campaigns ramped up and awareness about the referendum increased.

YouGov’s AV referendum polling recorded higher levels of support for AV when the bare referendum question was asked, as opposed to an alternative question where the system was explained in detail before the question was posed. At the time I argued that this suggested that as understanding of AV improved, support for it would fall – it’s possible, therefore, that part of the reason for the decline in Yes polling was exactly this.

But the early referendum polling, when people were presented simply with the name “Alternative Vote” without an explanation of how it worked, suggests that the British people are open to change in our electoral system. However, when they discovered what AV actually meant, they decided that this wasn’t the kind of change that was needed.

Campaigners for real reform should be heartened by these results, not discouraged by them. The Alternative Vote has been rejected, but a look at the polling indicates that Britain is open to the prospect of reform of the right type. Perhaps a more proportional system would gather greater support, and it is in our interests to keep pushing for it.

It’s not even a case of “losing the battle, but winning the war.” In the last few months, advocates of reform haven’t even been fighting the right battle – they’ve been fighting one forced upon them for the convenience of the coalition government. But the real battle – the one to replace our archaic and unfair system with something fairer – must resume now, not lie dormant for years as the result of the referendum is spun far beyond its real significance by the usual vested interests.


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