Backing AV is the best hope for progressive reform

26 March 2008

Sunder Katwala (London, Fabians):The British electoral system is broken. Few people have noticed because close general elections are so rare. 2005 was the first election for over 30 years where the major parties finished within five per cent of each other (and the narrow defeat of an unelectable opposition by an unpopular government was hardly a genuinely competitive contest).

The next election could be the first since 1992 when we can't all predict who will win when the campaign opens. But a return to competitive politics without electoral reform leaves us all playing Russian roulette with British democracy. So the government's apparent willingness to put electoral reform back on the agenda is important. The reforms being mooted - the Alternative Vote for the Commons, alongside a PR-elected Senate - could be the basis for an elusive consensus, though this will require a willingness to compromise on all sides.

Steve Richards makes a powerful case for Gordon Brown promoting such a reform. He reports too that Nick Clegg seems open to AV. (His deputy Vince Cable hinted that he thought an AV deal was possible on the Labour fringe last Autumn). Richards urges Brown to move quickly so that Labour's manifesto can commit to a referendum after the next election. (That would make the politics of any hung parliament interesting, though it would remain difficult for the LibDems to rescue a Labour government which had lost its majority). Perhaps the reality is that time is running out for any reform before the next election. However, with a 2010 election seeming increasingly likely, an audaciously simple way to introduce electoral reform would be to draw up a single clause Bill to change all 'X' voting in Britain into '1, 2, 3' preferential voting. And perhaps a closer look at how wobbly the current system has become could make the necessity and urgency of reform clearer - and persuade Conservatives that they should have an interest in reform too.

It is worth stressing that this 'broken system' claim is not about the traditional argument between supporters and opponents of proportional representation. Supporters of PR oppose a system which usually gives one party a majority of seats for a minority of votes. But others see this 'majoritarian' feature as the central virtue of our system: rough justice to smaller parties is a price worth paying to give voters a clear chance to kick governments in and out without the confusions of coalition.

The rights and wrongs of that argument miss a deeper crisis of first-past-the-post. It has become a majoritarian system which can not be expected to do what it says on the tin: pick the right winning party. I sketched out one possible consequence in my Fabian Review essay last Autumn:

It is one minute past ten pm on Sunday 4 May 2013. After a hard-fought campaign, the most expensive pie chart in BBC history spins towards the viewers. Has the New Tory call for 'change' finally worked? Their fetching new sky blue segment at 39 per cent edges the Prime Minister's deeper red back to 37 per cent, and the Lib Dems are squeezed to 21 per cent. Seven nail-biting hours later, Labour is back for a fifth term with a slim working majority of 14. Not because the exit polls got it wrong - they turned out to be uncannily accurate - but because the electoral system did.

Result: meltdown. "Democracy crisis as losing party wins" reports the Times. "Labour's Strange Victory - half a million votes behind", says The Guardian. "Disunited Kingdom: Tory England denied" complains the Telegraph. "Stolen: The Great Election Shambles", shouts the Mail. "No Mandate to Govern", declares The Independent. One question dominates angry radio phone-ins: why weren't we told this could happen?

Such an outcome is hardly unpredictable. The conditions for such a crisis have been in place for two decades. Look at how John Major led by 7.5% in 1992 to win a slender majority of 21, while Tony Blair's 2.9% lead last time was worth a majority three times as large. The causes of this electoral bias are complex: too few marginals as the country has polarized politically, and uneven falls in turnout are not factors which boundary reviews can fix. (Compulsory voting without any broader reform could remove part of the pro-Labour bias). Next time around, Labour could expect to be 90 seats ahead of level on votes, and still be the largest party in the Commons when up to five points behind. David Cameron needs a nine point lead just to escape hung parliament territory. But all previous reform efforts have ended in stalemate.

However, Jack Straw's conversion to the Alternative Vote, having been Labour's staunchest critic of PR, highlights the retention of many features of the current system: single-member constituencies, with the MP-constituency link strengthened, and a tendency to deliver single-party majorities in parliament.

While supporters of PR would not get all they want, the Alternative Vote offers several pluralist advances on the current system. Every MP would need to seek majority support in their constituencies, encouraging them to reach out beyond their core vote. Every party could poll its full support everywhere, ending the dilemmas of tactical voting and wasted votes, allowing southern Labour voters and northern Tories to come out and the Greens to develop bargaining power in close contests. The historically strong bias against the LibDems would not be eliminated, but they might expect to double their representation in parliament. And AV decides close elections by a politically relevant factor (voter preferences) rather than an arbitrary one (the geographical concentration of votes).

Supporters of PR lack any alternative strategy likely to bring about full PR within the next five years. The Jenkins Report's analysis is excellent, but its hybrid reform ("AV plus") is literally unworkable. After a referendum, it would not be possible to redraw every constituency boundary so as to implement reform in time for the next General Election. Could one final general election really be held under a system already rejected by the voters?

Probably the worst strategy of all is to hope for PR as the price of coalition in a hung parliament. Gifting opponents the charge of a political fix, not a principled reform, could lead to rejection in a referendum and so scupper reform for generations. Still, many will expect reform to fizzle out. Some of my Labour colleagues are unlikely to be moved by an argument about anti-Tory bias (though they might want to reflect on whether a party which won in such a fashion could escape serious long-term damage). Others such as David Lipsey have stressed the broader democratic principles at stake.

But why has the Tory party remained in denial? The party's submission to Jenkins (PDF file)was a study in ill-informed complacency. Nostalgia for the Thatcher era, a failure to pay attention to the evidence, and the party's failure to think seriously about power for most of the last decade have all played their part.

The Tories' uniquely toxic unpopularity in 1997 means AV would have increased Labour's majority. A party stuck on its core vote and unpopular across the country will do badly under AV (whether Labour in 1983 or the Tories in 1997). But such a party is also unelectable under FPTP and uncoalitionable under PR. The impact of AV now would be to lock in the modernisation of the Conservative party.

The issue needs to be publicly settled. If the current system, warts and all, were endorsed in a referendum then even bizarre results might be considered legitimate. But making electoral reform part of the Brown 'constitutional settlement' could yet breathe life into hopes of a broad progressive consensus.

Sunder Katwala is General Secretary of the Fabian Society, and is writing in a personal capacity.

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