If we are ever to have popular and representative government in the UK, then introducing proportional representation for elections to the House of Commons is perhaps the key reform, along with a written constitution that replaces parliamentary sovereignty with popular sovereignty – or to put it simply, with rule by and for the people. We would then have a popular chamber that reflects the choices that the people make and that is sufficiently independent of the executive to be a real check on its actions. So no more vain and disastrous wars driven by one man and a cabal around him.
Yet a foolish crusade, led by the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), Compass and No. 10, has massed behind Gordon Brown and his cunning plan to wrong foot the Conservatives by promising a referendum in which people will be invited to choose between elections by the current wholly unrepresentative first past the post system and the Alternative Vote which has proved consistently disproportionate in elections to the lower house in Australia and more disproportionate in the one practical (rather than theoretical) simulation of results under various systems undertaken by the LSE and Democratic Audit in 1997.At least Baldrick knew better than to tell his intended victims in advance that he meant to trick them. Not so Neal Lawson of Compass and government advisers in Downing Street – we are being so clever, they tell the world (or our bit of it). So the Conservatives are well placed to discredit not only a trick referendum, but also the whole idea of electoral reform. The abuse of the referendum ought also to be an issue since the choice Brown offers is deliberately restricted and is very much a bribe to the Lib Dems (who would benefit under AV with a substantially larger representation in the Commons).
Amazingly, the Guardian has become one of the cheer leaders for this unholy crusade with a naïve editorial that entirely fails to mention the outstanding alternative claims of proportional representation or the manifest flaws of AV – which it describes as “a new and better system” and “an opportunity worth seizing”. Only if you close your eyes and hold your nose, that is, and can convince yourself that Brown is a “true reformer” and that this sordid enterprise will succeed.
It is true that under AV each MP elected would obtain more than half the local vote, that is, more than half of those who are on the electoral roll and can be bothered to vote. This says the Guardian will make for more humble MPs who are in “better touch with their constituents”. But there are difficulties with this idea. Firstly, to some extent the local mandate disguises the fact that AV as a whole would produce an unrepresentative parliament, and so adds spurious legitimacy to a bad system; it would bind the Lib Dems into the political establishment at the expense of other parties (though not the nationalists); it would perpetuate the damaging myth of the constituency MP, a diversion from the weakness in parliamentary scrutiny of the executive; it would consolidate the incumbency advantage of sitting MPs; it would do nothing to end the scandal of the key role that marginals play in British electoral competition; and it would nothing to end the problem of “electoral deserts”.
Then there is the unlikely suggestion that AV will lead onto a proportional successor – or rather a superior preferential system, the single transferable vote (STV). As far as I can understand the enthusiasm of the ERS for this referendum is based on the belief that it could pave the way for STV, the system the organisation has long campaigned for. That is why they are pouring considerable resources into backing Brown.
Well to take another famous fool from British folklore, the Duke of York at least marched his troops up the hill where they could presumably gain an overview of their situation. The ERS is taking its followers into a dubious and shady bolt-hope from which there can be no certain outcome. First, will a political class that has clung onto FPTP for my life-time and longer actually dump a new system that will largely add one major new beneficiary – the Lib Dems – to its ranks and remove the one larger party that has a motive for arguing for proper reform? Secondly, will a choice that consolidates the importance of the single constituency make it easier to overcome the major difficulty that confronts STV –the fact that it requires large multi-member constituencies that polls suggest are deeply unpopular with the public?
Two further points. The ERS’s shift and leadership of the Vote for a Change coalition is depriving the PR constituency of a robust voice at a critical moment while engaging in damaging collusion with a discredited Labour party. Second, a new politics may be emerging. The POWER 2010 poll gives some indication of the lineaments of this politics, and proportional representation is at the head of the choices that people are making. In any event, Compass and the ERS are knee deep in the old politics.