Category Archives: Constitution

Devo-max: So popular, nobody wants it

You might be forgiven for thinking that the recent wranglings over the Scottish independence referendum have played overwhelmingly into the hands of Alex Salmond and the SNP. After all, the UK Government’s plainly transparent concern trolling over the legality and decisiveness of any referendum held unilaterally by Holyrood has allowed the Nationalists to bang the usual drums of “Westminster domination,” with Salmond even suggesting that David Cameron’s intervention may persuade more Scots to back independence.

But we’ve also seen the mask slip a couple of times, and the deeply unpleasant, bullying core of nationalism force its way briefly to the fore. South of Scotland MSP Joan McAlpine this week branded opponents of independence “anti-Scottish,” provoking (predictably) widespread indignation. While Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon and other leading SNP figures represent an outwardly tolerant, “friendly” nationalism – “civic nationalism,” as the SNP brand themselves – you don’t have to dig very far before you reach the kind of backward, bigoted attitudes held by their followers, and exemplified by McAlpine’s outburst.

Anyone who reads “below the line” on the Scotsman website, or any of the increasing number of news sites where readers can comment, has seen this sort of thing before. While the SNP leadership have always sought to distance themselves from the “cybernat” phenomenon, it’s increasingly clear that their attitudes are shared relatively high up the party hierarchy.

The SNP’s successes in recent elections have been ascribed to their effective presentation as a party that stands up for Scotland and Scots, eschewing the divisiveness of former years. Nationalism thrives on divisions, but the SNP have always been careful to place the dividing line between “us” – Scotland – and “them” – Westminster. If the ill-considered remarks of the likes of Joan McAlpine redraw that line between “us” – Scots who back independence – and “them” – Scots who don’t – then it could be much more difficult for the Nationalists to gain the kind of electoral traction that saw them win a landslide victory in May’s Holyrood elections.

The other major obstacle in the road for the Nationalist juggernaut is the persistent polling evidence that Scottish voters, given the choice in a referendum, would vote to remain in the UK. Playing up the divisions between Holyrood and Westminster is but one way the SNP will attempt to win round enough Scots to secure a vote for separation, but it may not be sufficient.

The same polling evidence also suggests that what most Scots want is for Scotland to remain a part of the United Kingdom, but for more powers to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. This is what Nationalists mean when they state that the “status quo” is untenable – most Scots are unhappy with the present arrangement, or at least would prefer something else. Never mind that the “status quo” is currently in a state of upheaval with the Scotland Bill currently making its way through Westminster, which proposes to devolve more powers to Holyrood, albeit not enough to placate the SNP administration.

Perhaps the holy grail in the quest for the perfect amount of Scottish autonomy is the much-referenced, never-quite-defined option known as “devo-max,” which may yet be included as a “third option” in the independence referendum. Loosely, devo-max seems to mean that all policy areas and powers would be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, with the exception of defence and foreign affairs. But quite how such a transition would work, or what arrangements would be hammered out between Scotland and the rest of the UK in this case, remain unexplained.

The reason the details of devo-max are not really explained are quite deliberate. The SNP suggests it is for the parties that oppose independence to elaborate fully on what devo-max would mean, arguing that it is not for the SNP to define its opponents’ political positions. The opposition, on the other hand, point out that it is the SNP’s referendum, and that the inclusion or exclusion of any options on the ballot paper should be a matter for the SNP government.

As an option that falls short of full independence but grants substantially more powers to Holyrood, it is easy to see why the non-nationalist parties are reticent about the idea of fully defining devo-max. It would still be perfectly possible for Alex Salmond to run Scotland as his own personal fiefdom under a devo-max arrangement, with the other parties being marginalised still further. While nationalists argue that it is not for them to define the positions of other parties, opponents argue that it is not for them, either, to define potential “consolation prizes” for Salmond and the SNP.

The overriding concern about the referendum debate is that it is being framed within the context of party politics, and all the mud-slinging and point-scoring that goes with it. Nobody – not even the SNP, despite their protestations to the contrary – is interested in conducting this debate in the interests, and for the benefit, of the Scottish people. If devo-max is a viable third option it is for all parties to come together and agree what it means and what it would entail, and present it as an honest possibility for inclusion in the referendum.

If the SNP’s preferred referendum date of autumn 2014 is accepted, there are two-and-a-half years before the Scottish people vote on their future. Plenty of time, then, for all sides to set aside their differences and agree a coherent set of options. A shame they seem pathologically incapable of doing so.

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The Boundary Review: Ask a silly question…

So, here we are. After months of speculation, the Boundary Commission for England has finally released its provisional proposals for the parliamentary constituencies on which the next general election will be contested. The headlines focus on high-profile MPs, such as Ed Balls, Nadine Dorries and George Osborne, whose seats have been abolished in the review, but this masks the fact that the proposals themselves are largely, as widely feared, a horrible mess.

The reason for this? The Boundary Commission was tasked to redraw the parliamentary boundaries with a couple of criteria in mind. Firstly, the number of constituencies was to be fixed at 600. Previous boundary reviews have not been so constrained, with the number of MPs returned fluctuating after each review – usually somewhere around 650, which is incidentally the number of MPs we have at present.

Secondly, the constituencies were required to be of equal size, within a 5% margin of error. Therefore, with a few notable exceptions (which I’ll get onto in a moment), every parliamentary constituency in the UK has an electorate of between 72,810 and 80,473.

And that’s it. No regard for pre-existing administrative divisions, local communities, geography or anything else. Add to this the Boundary Commission’s apparent phobia of splitting local government wards between parliamentary seats, and you have some truly hideous proposals. One seat, for instance, crosses the River Mersey.

This flagrant disregard for the reality on the ground would be easier to stomach if it weren’t for the previously noted exceptions. The Scottish constituencies of Orkney & Shetland and Na h-Eileanan an Iar (known before 2005 as the Western Isles) will retain their status as individual seats. These seats are grossly undersized anyway (Na h-Eileanan an Iar is the smallest constituency in the UK with an electorate of a little over 20,000) and will be even more so after the review is completed. In addition, the Isle of Wight has been granted two undersized seats, whereas previously it had one oversized one. Yet other considerations reflecting local culture and geography – such as the retention of the Devon-Cornwall border and the independence of Anglesey – were rejected.

Conservative supporters have long griped about parliamentary boundaries favouring Labour. It is true that if Labour and the Conservatives got the same number of votes nationwide, Labour would have more seats – after all, Labour secured a comfortable majority in 2005 with 36% of the vote, while the Tories got 37% in 2010 and still ended up 19 seats short. It is also true that, on average, Labour seats are slightly smaller than Conservative ones.

However, it is not the case that this is the sole, or even the main, cause of Labour’s electoral advantage over the Tories. Analysis by Electoral Calculus in 2006 showed that the main reason for Labour’s advantage was that, in Labour seats, voter turnout was generally lower. It takes fewer votes to elect a Labour MP because, in those seats, fewer voters (for all parties) tend to come to the polling station on election day. Even with equal constituency sizes, therefore, Labour will still find it easier to win a majority than the Tories.

I say “equal constituency sizes,” but what is “equality” anyway? The constituencies are calculated according to the electorate sizes received by the Boundary Commission at the start of the review several months ago, so they are already out of date. People moving around changes the number of electors in a given area, but this information was unavailable to the Boundary Commission. By 2015 the boundaries will be even further out of date, and since demographic trends are that people are moving out of (generally Labour-voting) inner cities to the (generally Tory-voting) suburbs and countryside, the boundaries in 2015 will still favour Labour.

Additionally, the Boundary Commission only takes into account registered voters, rather than total population. The highest proportion of unregistered voters are in poorer areas, which tend to vote Labour. Unregistered voters (and people who are ineligible to vote, such as children) are surely still entitled to parliamentary representation – so why weren’t the boundaries drawn on the basis of overall population, rather than voter registration?

The other unfortunate consequence of the boundary review is the loss from Parliament of 50 MPs. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, in their pre-election manifestos, promised to “cut the cost of politics” by reducing the number of MPs. But this move makes MPs less accountable to voters by increasing their electorate, reduces the possibility of minor parties winning Commons seats (because they have to win over more voters to do so – indeed, preliminary notional figures indicate that Caroline Lucas would not have been an MP on the proposed boundaries), and also reduces the opportunity for women and minority candidates to be selected to contest seats. Moreover, it is alarming that the government regards democracy as a commodity, the costs of which can simply be cut.

The boundary review will not improve representation for ordinary people, or make our electoral system “fairer” in any meaningful sense of the word. A truly fair electoral system would include a measure of proportionality, to ensure that all votes are counted and all voters represented. The resources expended on redrawing the parliamentary boundaries would have been better invested in strategies to boost voter turnout across the board, improving representation and probably correcting for some of the current electoral imbalance as a side-effect.

None of this, incidentally, is the fault of the Boundary Commission (except for the silliness about not splitting wards). They were simply performing the task that they were asked to perform, by a government that either did not understand or did not care about the consequences of its policies. Instead, it is an example of the old adage, “ask a silly question, get a silly answer.”

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The coalition should look at reform of local government before the Lords

Since the AV referendum was so roundly defeated, to the disappointment of many Liberal Democrats, there has been a bit of talk about what will be next on the constitutional reforming agenda of the coalition government. Most sources seem to agree that reform of the House of Lords, which was mentioned in the coalition agreement, might be offered to the Lib Dems as a way of compensating for their AV defeat.

Lords reform is an important topic. An upper house composed of an assortment of unelected “friends of the establishment,” nobility and even bishops of the Church of England is hardly a sound endorsement of a modern, thriving democracy. It has long been recognised (and was even voted upon by a majority of MPs in the last Parliament) that the upper chamber should be mostly or wholly elected. A new upper house – a Senate, perhaps – elected by proportional representation seems to be the most likely option.

Most likely, that is, if there is any change at all. Since Labour came to office in 1997, partly on a platform of constitutional reform, meaningful change to the upper chamber has come slowly. The abolition of hereditary peers was watered down, with 92 of them allowed to keep their seats. The establishment of the Supreme Court, replacing the Lords as the highest court in the UK, is the only substantial reform to come in thirteen years of Labour government.

Not all of this was for want of trying – on two separate occasions, the Lords rejected attempts to establish an elected upper chamber, voting instead in favour of a fully appointed house – despite the Commons having expressed a preference for a mostly or fully elected house. There is no reason to suggest that Lords reform would be any easier for the Coalition government – especially as the Lords has had no reservations about making trouble for the government before, with the wrangling over the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act last year, and last night’s rejection of government plans for elected police commissioners.

In short, the obstinacy of the Lords makes reforming the chamber no easy task. It would probably require a government with a massive majority and a mandate for Lords reform (which the Coalition arguably does not have), to make it both legally and politically difficult for the Lords to block reform of their own house.

Instead, why don’t the Coalition, the Liberal Democrat part of it in particular, look at reforming local government? Since the Lib Dems failed to achieve electoral reform for general elections, perhaps they should look at changing the way we elect our councillors instead. Scotland and Northern Ireland both already use the Single Transferable Vote for local government elections – there is no reason why this shouldn’t apply in England as well.

There are a number of advantages to STV. It is more proportional than the present First-Past-The-Post system, which would produce a greater diversity of represented parties. Too many councils up and down the country are essentially single- or dual-party fiefdoms, with significant numbers of electors having no representation at all. STV would ensure that practically everyone’s preferences counted towards the election of some of their representatives, giving virtually every voter a stake in their local council.

There is some concern that the larger constituencies mandated under STV, and the very existence of multi-member wards, would weaken the link between representatives and their voters. But multi-member wards already exist under the present system of local government. And how is a Labour voter in Surrey, for instance, or a Tory supporter in Barking and Dagenham, any better represented by their local councillors now, than they would be under STV?

Another common argument against STV is the possibility of extremist parties being elected. But First-Past-The-Post hasn’t stopped the BNP from gaining council seats – and what keeps extremists out of power, ultimately (as the BNP have discovered in recent rounds of local elections) is that they don’t make very good councillors, and are quickly voted out of office.

Furthermore, STV is a popular system in use in many places worldwide, including – as noted – Scotland and Northern Ireland. The jibes, directed at AV, about being a “foreign” system in use virtually nowhere would not apply here. It would be more deliverable than Lords reform and would provide real, measurable, democratic change at a level close to people’s lives. If the Liberal Democrats are concerned about the impact they’re perceived to be having on government, pushing for STV for local elections wouldn’t be a bad way to prove a lot of people wrong.

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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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The unintended genius of No to AV, Yes to PR

Let’s face it. The AV referendum is lost. Opinion polls – at least, those that aren’t hamstrung by failing to adequately ensure that respondents know what the Alternative Vote actually is – seem to indicate almost universally that AV will be rejected by the electorate on May 5.

As far as the AV referendum goes, the relatively newly-launched “No to AV, Yes to PR” movement probably sum up my attitude best. The system by which we elect our MPs needs to be changed, but AV is not the change we need. In brief, as I’ve explained before, Westminster needs to adopt a proportional voting system.

That said, I won’t be voting No to AV. As the referendum asks us to choose between first-past-the-post and AV, and I don’t want either of them, I probably won’t be voting at all. There is a small chance, however, that I will vote Yes simply to register my discontent at the disgusting (mainstream) No campaign, but in all likelihood I will simply spoil my paper.

Yes advocates like Sunny Hundal and Sally Bercow, among others, have been making the argument that a No vote in the AV referendum “would kill off any chance of electoral reform for a generation.” In other words, since AV is the only reform on offer, and it might be marginally better than FPTP, we should accept it. Furthermore, a Yes vote might “open the door” to further reform, whereas a No vote would firmly shut it.

I’m sceptical that adopting AV would put us any closer to a truly proportional system (why would we change the system again, when we’ve only just adopted a new one?) but the fear that a No vote could set the cause back decades is a very real one. This is where No to AV, Yes to PR comes in.

By introducing this element into the campaign, “No to AV” no longer automatically becomes “Yes to FPTP.” Conservatives, the authoritarian wing of the Labour Party and others with a vested interest in keeping FPTP will no longer be able to claim that a No vote in May’s referendum would represent a “ringing endorsement” of first-past-the-post. A sizeable proportion of people – we won’t know how many, because the referendum doesn’t ask that – will have voted No not because they like FPTP, but because they don’t believe AV is the change we need.

My own belief is that, in those days of coalition negotiations, the Tories agreed to a referendum on AV because they believed it would not represent a sufficiently radical change to galvanise people into voting for it. The Tories fear electoral reform, because under a system other than first-past-the-post there is a strong chance that they would never again form a majority government. My theory would explain the rumours that surfaced a few weeks ago, that some right-wing Tory MPs were panicked into plotting to bring down the coalition if a Yes vote was secured.

Now it looks like No will win out, and the rumours have quietened down. But with a group openly campaigning for a rejection of AV so that a more proportional system is embraced, the idea that a No vote will kill electoral reform off for the forseeable future no longer seems credible.

The very existence of “No to AV, Yes to PR” ensures that progressives need not be terrified into voting for AV, for fear that real voting reform may not happen in our lifetimes if we don’t. It muddies the waters, relaxed the forced choice, and ensures that voting No to AV is not the same as voting Yes to FPTP. In many ways, it’s exactly the change I’ve been advocating.

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Why complacency could kill the Yes campaign

Will Straw at Left Foot Forward highlights a ComRes opinion poll for the Independent on Sunday, which he claims is “good news” for the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign, as they seek a “Yes” vote in the Alternative Vote referendum, which will be held in May providing it – and its associated legislation dealing with boundary changes – get through Parliament in time.

The poll shows 34 per cent of voters willing to back AV in May, with 30 per cent opposed. Furthermore, 61 per cent of those who answered “don’t know” to the referendum question said that they could be convinced to vote in favour of it, once they have heard the arguments.

Meanwhile, Ed Miliband told delegates at the Fabian Society conference yesterday that he would be campaigning in favour of AV:

We will take every opportunity to reform the way our political system works.  That is the reason I will be campaigning in favour of the Alternative Vote in the referendum. I will keep my promise.

But it is not all good news for the Yes campaign, despite the enthusiastic optimism of Straw and others. As Anthony Wells points out at UK Polling Report, one of the problems with spinning “61% say they could be persuaded to vote for AV” as positive for the Yes campaign is that no corollary question was asked. ComRes didn’t ask, and therefore we don’t know, how many people could be persuaded to vote against AV once they had more information.

The Yes campaign would also do well to consider what other pollsters have to say about AV. YouGov haven’t asked an AV question since late November, but when they did, “No” led by 41 points to 35. YouGov last asked about AV on January 13, where “No” led by nine points, with 41% compared to 32% for “Yes.” There is an underlying difference between YouGov’s and ComRes’ methodology – YouGov lead with a lengthy explanation of what AV is before asking whether people would support it; ComRes simply ask the question that will be posed in May’s referendum.

The problem with the ComRes method is that it assumes, a priori, that survey respondents know what AV is before answering the question (Wells also points out that there is, therefore, no “wouldn’t vote” option). Evidence from other sources indicates they don’t – some voters believe that “alternative vote” involves allowing people to vote by post or online, for instance. When AV is actually explained to respondents, they appear to be less likely to support it – and since the Electoral Commission is sending out pamphlets explaining AV in the weeks leading up to the referendum, we could see a consequent drop in support for change.

While Ed Miliband’s support for AV will be welcome for Yes campaigners, particularly those in the Labour Yes! camp, the Labour leader has previously stated that his and his party’s priority – rightly – will be the local and devolved elections, to be held on the same day. In Scotland, Labour face a tough fight to wrest power in Holyrood from the SNP, and the AV referendum – if it is considered at all – will be an afterthought. The same story is true up and down the country. So the backing of the Labour leader, while it is a boost for the Yes campaign, may prove to be softer than Yes advocates hope.

The Yes campaign have also challenged the No camp to a debate on the issue, with Jonathan Bartley, president of Yes to Fairer Votes, writing to No advocate Margaret Beckett in an open letter:

Ahead of May’s referendum it is only right that both those of us who want change, and those of you seeking to preserve the status quo get the chance to debate our issues fully so that people can make an informed choice. … [Previous media appearances] leave me with this question – what exactly is your argument to keep First Past the Post?

It suits the Yes campaign to paint the referendum as a straight “run-off” between First Past the Post and AV, but the reality is somewhat different. This dichotomy excludes those, like me, who are enamoured with neither system, and groups like AV2011, electoral reform advocates who insist that AV is not a “step towards” a proportional system, as many of the Yes campaign seem to believe.

The point of all this is that it is important for the Yes campaign not to become overconfident in the face of news, however “good” it may appear once it has been spun in a favourable light by Yes advocates. The scale of the task of winning the referendum should not be underestimated – the Yes campaign has a bigger fight on its hands than its leaders seem to suggest.

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I like electoral reform too, but AV is barely a reform at all

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.

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