AV: So much pain for so little gain

James Graham
24 June 2008

James Graham (Quaqeuam blog): Stuart Weir's summary of the Combining All Our Strengths seminar on electoral reform was interesting, but it was disappointing to hear so much consensus (group think?) around the idea that the only electoral game in town is the alternative vote. It is disappointing because we have heard this coming out of the Labour camp and some senior Lib Dems for several years now and yet so little progress has been made. If a Labour government was ever going to make this reform, it would have had to have done so from a position of strength not at a time when it is most vulnerable.


Usually presented as the ultimate insider fix, if Labour reformers are serious about this by now they should be able to name at least 100 Labour MPs who are signed up to AV. The fact that instead we just hear the names of the usual suspects (Peter Hain, Charles Clarke, John Denham, possibly Jack Straw on a good day) suggests that the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform (LCER), Fabians et al really ought to spend a little less time telling the rest of us to fall in line and a little more time shoring up their own support.


I would summarise the push for AV as a call for a lot of pain in exchange for very little gain. Pushing through this reform will mean facing down the combined might of every single minority party, the Conservatives, the media and a large proportion of the Labour Party. Even if the Lib Dem leadership were convinced of this strategy (which I doubt), a lot of the grassroots will be in uproar. It will mean convincing the potential activist base to curb their enthusiasm and compromise on almost everything that they believe in - that tends not to work as much of a motivator. For every supporter of first past the post who might be prepared to compromise on AV there will be a supporter of proportional representation who would not. The whole thing reeks of stalemate and Whitehall farce.


For three manifestos in a row, Labour has stated that any change to the electoral system for the Commons would be subject to a referendum. Supporters of AV may believe the change they are proposing is small enough to not trigger this pledge and it could be rushed through before the next general election. They may well be right but it is highly doubtful their most stringent opponents and the general public will feel the same way. For many the journey is as important as the destination and forcing through any constitutional reform by the back door without broad cross-party support - whether it is the Lisbon treaty, detention without charge or even a change in the electoral system - is simply unacceptable.


If this were a rational debate I would expect a lot of opponents of AV to be wild supporters of it and vice versa. For many Labour AV supporters and their Tory opponents, AV would be a way of keeping the Conservatives out of power forever. A "progressive alliance" of Labour and Lib Dem voters would ensure they never got close. The problem with this theory is that it is 10 years out of date. As Stuart states, it largely draws on the Democratic Audit's research in 1997 which found that under AV the Conservative rout in the general election that year would have been even greater. This was based on (well founded) notions about Lib Dem and Labour voters' priorities, yet these priorities have changed. In 2005 we already began to observe what was dubbed "tactical unwind" and this year we saw Lib Dem voters in London split evenly between Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson - an unthinkable turn of events back in 2000.


Even if you do still buy into the idea that there is some kind of progressive alliance, you shouldn't be blind to the fact that in a number of recent opinion polls recently, the combined Labour and Lib Dem support was smaller than the Conservatives' share. If an AV general election had taken place last month, Labour would have been wiped out. Under FPTP their inbuilt advantage would have given them some modicum of protection. So in the best Yes, Minister sense of the word, it is certainly "brave" of Labour supporters to call for AV, but they should be clear that what they are calling for is not a safety net but a high wire act.


Given all that, it is surprising to me that people continue to bang the AV drum given the alternatives. A fully proportional system for the House of Commons may not be an option, but a semi-proportional one such as 3-member STV (the system used for local government in Scotland) would appear to be a much neater compromise. Big swings wouldn't distort the result. There would still be a strong constituency link. Boundaries could be set quickly (it doesn't take a genius to bunch three constituencies together). Voters would still have a greater choice of candidates but in most cases parties would still only field one or two per constituency. Parties interested in gender and ethnic balance could adopt quota-based systems for candidate selection which are likely to be far less divisive than all-women and all-BAME shortlists. Fundamentally, it would certainly not be any harder to implement at a Westminster level and in some respects could be a great deal easier.


Finally, there is a tactical reason why electoral reformers ought to avoid an explicitly pro-AV strategy. You should never enter any negotiation by compromising as far as you are willing to go; it leaves you with no wriggle room. If there really is no prospect of getting anything other than AV past the political establishment, then asking them politely to do so is not likely to achieve anything; worse, it could lead to a national rolling out of the disastrous and offensive Supplementary Vote system. In my view this has been the underlying flaw at the heart of the LCER strategy for a number of years now, which is why so little progress has been made. Far better to make the case for meaningful electoral reform first while being prepared to fall back on AV as a compromise.

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