Defending the AV referendum: a final response to Stuart Weir

Andy White
18 February 2010

An OurKingdom conversation. [History: Stuart Weir > Andy White > Stuart Weir > this post > Stuart Weir]

In his last article, Stuart Weir fired another volley of abuse at the Electoral Reform Society over its support for a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV). It is a reflex response from someone who is unwilling to look contextually at the present debate.

Accusing us of dishonour and a lack of principle is both inaccurate and spiteful. The Society remains committed to working for the Single Transferable Vote (STV)—the system that would do most to change the nature of politics. Back in 1998, when Weir and others were enthusing over the compromise options put forward by the Jenkins Committee, the Society made it clear that it could only support Jenkins’ recommendations on the basis that they were a step towards something better.

Neither has the Vote for a Change campaign (which includes the Society, Unlock Democracy and others) colluded with Brown. Indeed, it has targeted Labour MPs in key marginal constituencies with a variety of stunts designed to keep voting reform on the agenda. Earlier this month, the Society put its name to a letter deeply critical of Brown’s efforts on constitutional reform.

The AV referendum instead represents a convergence of objectives. On one side, some see a prime minister seeking electoral gain—a point which I addressed in my previous article. On the other, reform campaigners have found an opportunity to further their own cause. Weir is right to question the control the governing party wields in framing the terms of the debate. But the fact that we have managed to involve ourselves in this process is hardly indicative of a conspiracy.

Weir praises the “new” politics of Power2010. It is an admirable project, and both the Society and Vote for a Change are working to promote it. Nonetheless, we don’t yet know if it will deliver any results. I am delighted that proportional representation sits at the top of their online poll, but how will that translate into political action? In the wake of the financial and expenses crises, and with the looming possibility of a hung parliament, the opportunity for widespread constitutional reform is sometimes overstated. It is true that the public is hungry for change, but the power to drive it still rests in the hands of the parties.

We have a situation where a prime minister with a track record of dithering cautiousness is set to be replaced by a Tory leader with no appetite for meaningful reform. The Labour and Conservative parliamentary parties still cling to single-party government and the constituency link. The best we can get is a promise of a referendum on AV. Remember 1931: then, the Commons voted for AV, but the Lords wanted STV. The Lords were right in their choice of system, but their refusal to compromise gave us 79 years of First Past the Post.

I dispute the accusation that we have praised the Alternative Vote at the expense of more proportional systems. We have made it clear that AV falls a long way behind the Single Transferable Vote in delivering representative government, voter choice, and accountability. As I argued in my previous article, though, it is an improvement upon First Past the Post.

A final point concerns the prospects for further reform after a successful AV referendum. A reader asked whether AV would gain popular legitimacy over other systems and become just as entrenched as the present model. The answer is simple: AV could only be legitimated in relation to First Past the Post. The campaign for improvements to the voting system would continue—either towards the Single Transferable Vote, where AV is combined with multi-member constituencies; or the Alternative Vote Plus, where a proportional top-up list is added.

Some view the theory behind our tactics as pure fantasy. But which group is really guilty of misplaced optimism: is it those who seek incremental change? Or is it those who are prepared to wait until their exact demands are met in a single seismic shift? A quick look at the history of suffrage in the United Kingdom suggests that ambitious reformers can succeed by making small and frequent gains.

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