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AV is an imperfect solution

25 September 2007

Peter Facey (London, Unlock Democracy): As someone who watches the debate about our electoral system with a keen (if not nerdish) interest and tries to read the tea leaves of what it means for our future, two things are becoming clear. Firstly support for reform of our political institutions and our electoral system is growing among Labour thinkers and leaders. And secondly it’s not a proportional reform but a majoritarian one that is gathering momentum.

Both John Denham and Sunder Katwala have published articles this week calling for electoral reform. Interestingly they are both advocating a complete package with a proportional upper house and a majoritarian house of commons elected by the alternative vote. This is what I have called the Australian settlement as it is basically the system that has operated in the Commonwealth of Australia since 1949. Now it does have the benefit of thinking about parliament as a whole and offering a comprehensive package, and it needs serious consideration. But there is a danger that some advocates of AV are selling it as sort of cheap and easy PR that would allow MP's to retain their single seats whilst giving most of the benefits of PR.

This is not the case. AV would do two important things: ensure that every MP has a majority and ensure that the curse of people being forced to vote tactically will be removed from our political system. It might also reduce the number of safe seats (but probably not by as much as its advocates believe). It will not produce more proportional results (it could even produce less proportional results), it does nothing about parties having a monopoly of power, and certainly does not tackle the adversarial nature of our political system that leaves many of our citizens cold.

The interesting thing is that both John and Sunder have recognised some of this and therefore argue that we need to reform parliament as a whole, with the Lords being elected on a proportional basis to balance the majoritarian lower house. The problem for me is that though this reform package would improve what we have, it will not fundamentally ensure that votes have equal value or break up the existing local monopolies to ensure that representative democracy in the UK has a fresh start. It would be like giving a patient a drug to deal with the pain of a worn hip rather than surgery to replace the whole hip and give the patient a drug free life. But it may be cheapest way of dealing with the problem, and this may be why many in Labour are starting to support it.

For this reform to fly one thing will have to change: the Tories will have to stop seeing this as an anti-conservative reform. Its advocates need to prove that their proposed electoral system is neutral and not loaded in Labour's favour. If they can do that I may welcome such a reform, but I see no reason to campaign for it.

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