In an important new pamphlet, seeking to persuade his party of the need to fight for reform in the forthcoming referendum on AV, Neal Lawson, chair of Compass, sets out why democracy should matter to Labour. Lawson argues that empowering the collective voice of the people will help achieve Labour's aim of building the "good society", drawing on empirical evidence that proportional systems produce more equal outcomes. He argues for the superiority of AV over first past the post and that Labour should embrace the change, as a crucial step in the direction of PR, through an "active intervention" to ensure a "Yes" vote. Here, OurKingdom re-publishes the opening arguments of the pamphlet, which you can read in full here.
Within a year the country is likely to have a vote on whether the electoral system should be changed. The change on offer isn’t the leap to a new politics the country needs through a system of proportional representation (PR) that matches more accurately votes cast to seats won. But make no mistake, the Alternative Vote (AV) is better than the First Past the Post (FPTP) system we currently endure. AV will help change the culture of our politics by making every vote count and therefore challenge the sterile tribalism of British politics. AV would also change the electoral landscape by increasing the number of marginal seats and ending the narrow focus of all political messages to a few swing voters in a few swing seats. And a shift to AV will show that the electoral status quo is not an eternal framework for determining who governs and how. Like it or not, AV versus FPTP is the only offer on the table. It is a choice between a terrible system and a better, but far from perfect system.
If reformers lose the argument for limited change now then the cause of a new politics will be set back decades. This is a vote Labour cannot afford to lose if we want to continue the journey towards a politics that gives the Party a chance to transform our country in the way we know it urgently needs. But to win the country round we must first win over skeptics in the Party. There are four broad objections to electoral reform in general, and the choice the country will face on AV versus FPTP.
The first is that the policy and the idea come from the Liberal Democrats and therefore by definition should be resisted given their treachery in throwing their lot in with the Tories, not least because defeat for the policy might bring the whole Coalition down. But opposition for the sake of it leads us nowhere. If an idea is right it should be supported whoever backs it. And even if it is defeated, Nick Clegg has already made it clear it won’t bring the Coalition down – it is not that big a deal to them. Staying in office is.When the country is crying out for a politics it can believe in Labour cannot be on the side of the status quo when the old ways of doing politics have so palpably failed.
Second is the argument that electoral reform leads to weak government. Britain is now in the bizarre position of having a coalition government, which is often the result of PR systems, but delivered under FPTP. The Coalition though is behaving in an incredibly strong and resolute fashion. Reform does not have to lead to weak government.
Third is the claim that electoral reform is never an issue on the doorstep and is therefore just a chattering class affair and of no concern to ‘the workers’. Of course the doorstep test is a slippery one. I don’t suppose many voters brought up issues like fox hunting, the smoking ban or gay marriage on the doorstep but that didn’t stop thevery same MPs pushing it through parliament, and good on them for doing so. Real politicians cannot just bend to public opinion, they must also shape it. They must lead and not just follow.
Equally I am pretty convinced that MPs would have been confronted with concerns about the Iraq war, the lack of council housing and the privatisation of public services – yet in spite of such doorstep concerns many Labour MPs. pursued all of these unpopular polices and more.
People do not bring up the hegemony of neoliberalism, globalisation and individualisation on the doorstep but these are the causes of their anxious and insecure lives. Should Labour MPs ignore these too? Instead voters complain that their MPs are unaccountable under FPTP and the stock of our political classes has never been lower.
The doorstep issue is really just a smokescreen for the fourth objection to reform, that the current system works in Labour’s favour and that to change would risk Labour ever governing again like it did in 1945. The prospect of electoral reform challenges the central operating framework of the Party, which goes something like this: if you elect enough Labour governments enough of the time then they will usher in socialism. Exactly what that socialism is, is never defined. Rather socialism is what Labour governments do when they win control of the state. The shining example of this strategy was the 1945 Labour government, which brought in the welfare state. What we need is more moments like 1945 and FPTP is the electoral system that will deliver it. The 1945 myth still permeates Labour’s very fibre. New Labour did move on from Old Labour in many ways – but still clung to the rather elitist myth that change comes from a single party controlling the state and changing the world from the top down – a possibility all predicated on FPTP.
So a change to the electoral system challenges the central operating assumptions of Labour. To accept change, Labour needs to understand that the 1945 myth no longer holds and that electoral reform now offers the prospect of both power and the more equal society the Party wants to see.
All five candidates in the Labour leadership election have said they are in favour of AV, although only Ed Miliband has done so with any real force. None of them have yet expressed support for PR. That is because the challenge of such change is disorientating. But change is both inevitable and desirable. The case for electoral reform is growing strongly just as support for FPTP diminishes. In raw numbers campaigns like Vote for a Change have added thousands to the pro-change databases. Important figures like Jon Cruddas and Roy Hattersley have watched, learnt and made the switch from FPTP to PR. They know that socialism is only compatible with deeper democracy, that greater equality of wealth and income can only be based on greater equality of votes.
The AV referendum is a critical step en route to a more equal future. But Labour will only get the choice right on electoral reform if it understands that change makes a better world more, and not less, likely.