Stuart Weir yesterday criticised the Electoral Reform Society for leading “a foolish crusade” in support of the Alternative Vote (AV). His attack would have been unremarkable were it not for the fact that it came from a seasoned advocate of democratic reform. Why then is a natural ally of the reform movement so unhappy with recent developments?
Like many commentators, Weir questions Brown’s motives (his “deathbed conversion”, as Chris Huhne memorably phrased it). But given that the referendum is to be written into law and can’t happen until after the next general election, Brown’s motives should be of little concern to campaigners - this isn’t an empty manifesto commitment that can be withdrawn at a later date. And of course, by putting it to a referendum, the matter is left to the better judgment of the British people.
The crux of Weir’s argument centres on the political consequences of the referendum - the consequences not only for the parties, but for the electoral reform movement as a whole. I believe that his analysis here is flat-out wrong. Before demonstrating why, it might be helpful to explain the basics of the Alternative Vote system.
As Weir rightly states, the Alternative Vote is not proportional representation. In common with First Past the Post (FPTP), one MP is elected in each constituency, and parties’ shares of seats in parliament do not reflect their share of the national vote. Winning parties normally achieve parliamentary majorities far in excess of their share of the vote. AV improves upon FPTP by allowing voters to list candidates in order of preferences (writing a “1” by their favourite, “2” by the next, and so on). Candidates need to achieve 50% of the vote to win a seat, so if no candidate has 50% of first preferences, then the lowest placed candidate is eliminated and their second preferences redistributed. This process continues until one candidate crosses the 50% mark. At the constituency level this would be an important reform, requiring candidates to appeal to a broader section of local communities. It would bring to an end the ridiculous situation we have at present where some MPs have barely 30% support in their own constituencies.
At the national level, though, questions are often raised about the fairness of AV results. Weir points to an LSE/Democratic Audit simulation of the 1997 general election under AV rules, which he nonsensically describes as “the one practical (rather than theoretical) simulation [of an AV election in Westminster]”. Reasonable modelling of AV outcomes has in fact been conducted for several UK general elections. Of course, with Blair’s landslide in 1997 being the election that would have produced the most freakish AV outcome - an even bigger Labour majority, at the Tories’ expense – it is convenient for Weir to limit his analysis of AV’s fairness to this extreme case.
Political scientists know that the proportionality of AV vis-à-vis FPTP varies from election to election and is contingent upon party-political dynamics. In the three elections before 1997, AV would almost certainly have delivered more proportional results. In all six elections from 1983 to 2005, the Liberal Democrats (or their SDP-Liberal predecessors) would have come closer to a fair seat share under AV. Besides, the whole point is moot because the standard mathematical methods for measuring proportionality were not designed with “1, 2, 3” voting in mind.
We now move on to the more serious accusation levelled our way: that the Electoral Reform Society and others involved in the Vote for a Change campaign have failed to consider the long-term implications of an AV referendum. So what are the political consequences of the move? Stuart Weir makes several predictions. First, he says that AV will consolidate the sanctity of the single-member constituency and the so-called constituency link. Second, it will “bind into the establishment” the Liberal Democrats, neutering the one significant parliamentary force for proportional representation. Third, it will damage the prospect of us ever achieving more significant electoral reforms. This is blatant scaremongering.
On the first point, I agree that the sanctity of the constituency link needs challenging. But it seems a touch histrionic to claim that AV would consolidate a feature of Westminster politics that has already been set in stone for over half a century - and has been the basis of the system since 1885.
Weir then enters the realm of fantasy with his assessment of the Liberal Democrats in an AV-elected Commons. It is true that under AV they would almost certainly win a few more seats (perhaps ten to fifteen more in a 650-seat parliament). But it is madness to suggest that these extra seats would be enough to silence their demands for a proportional voting system. The Liberal Democrats regularly poll over 20% of the national vote, yet AV would only push them from their present seat share of just below 10% to one slightly above that figure. They would still be shockingly under-represented in parliament.
Stuart Weir is not the only reformer to question the Society’s tactics. Many of his views are shared by others. But it is indefensible to suggest that our recent work has undermined the cause of proportional representation. This is the closest we have come in living memory to achieving a break from the outdated First Past the Post voting system. AV would improve MPs’ legitimacy, introduce voters to preferential voting, and help persuade the political classes that the public has an appetite for reform. It is an important step in the right direction.