Why is AV and constituency size lumped in one bill? Don't accept this back-room deal.

Just why has the proposed reduction in constituency sizes and number of MPs been linked together in a single bill with the referendum on AV? On one level, it’s a political trade-off. On another, the constituency-resizing plan meant the Lib Dems were compelled to choose AV, rather than any other form of PR.
David Rickard
27 January 2011

Just why has the proposed reduction in constituency sizes and number of MPs been linked together in a single bill with the referendum on AV?

The answer, on one level, is obvious: it’s a political trade-off.  The fact that constituencies sending Labour MPs to Parliament are on average considerably smaller than those returning Conservative MPs has been a bee in the bonnet for the Tories for a considerable time, including in the run up to last May's general election. In reality, as many analysts and commentators have pointed out, this is a comparatively minor factor in the present voting system's bias in favour of Labour: the main explanation is that Labour MPs tend to be elected by narrower margins than Conservative MPs, who are returned by wealthier and / or more rural areas where the Tories are dominant, whereas Labour MPs are mostly elected from urban constituencies where competition for votes is more intense.

But it's clear that, in the negotiations for the formation of the coalition government, the Lib Dems had to concede the measure to equalise constituency sizes in order to get a deal on a voting system that was fairer towards the Lib Dems. This is a straightforward quid pro quo: AV was perceived by the Tories as giving the Lib Dems an extra advantage while disadvantaging the Conservatives; so the compliment, indeed the complement, had to be returned by allowing a measure that was thought to be in the Tories’ favour.

But while this explains the genesis of the linkage, it doesn’t fully explain the substance: it wasn’t really to get a deal on AV that the Lib Dems had to concede the constituency-resizing plan. Rather, it was because they had to concede the measure on constituency sizes that the voting reform had to be AV, and not STV or any other form of PR. You can’t have STV, which is of course a multi-member-constituency system, and at the same time introduce a measure to standardise and reduce the number of single-member constituencies. The Lib Dems were stuck in a double bind: they had to accept a single-member system in order to get any voting reform, but doing so meant they couldn’t have the voting reform they really wanted. Hence, the two measures were wrapped up in a single Bill not just because of political and parliamentary convenience, but because the measure on constituency sizes was part of the very rationale for choosing a referendum on AV.

Constituency resizing is one thing, but why the measure on the number of MPs? For all their duplicitous motivation, the Labour peers currently attempting to filibuster the bill are correct in saying that no adequate rationale has yet been provided for the reduction in the number of MPs, other than the cover-all mantra of cost reduction and an appeal to populist contempt for gravy train-riding politicians. Could there be another unspoken rationale for this, in the possibility that the introduction of AV could pave the way for AV+? If you reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600, then, in a second wave, the number of constituency MPs is reduced still further to 500 or so, you could in theory add back the 100 or even 150 MPs that have been cut in the form of AV+ proportional top-up MPs.

Cameron could well have dangled this carrot. This is speculation, of course; but it’s certainly the case that a phased reduction in the number of constituency MPs does keep the door open for AV+. This is not the official strategy, as such, of the mainstream electoral reform movement, which likes to see AV as a stepping stone towards STV. But maybe Cameron, in concert with Clegg, sees AV+ as a better bet and an easier sell, given the Tories’ deeply entrenched protectionism towards their safe seats. PR Plan B, perhaps.

So while the AV-cum-constituency-resizing option is a bastard offspring from the conjoining of long-cherished hopes for PR and unflinching Conservative attachment to single-member FPTP, the reduction in the number of MPs creates a possible future opening towards AV+.

Does this give us sufficient confidence to vote for AV in the May (or should that be September) referendum? Will our endorsement of AV really be a vote for a back-room, Westminster-elitist political fudge and compromise that nobody really wants (except perhaps less than 50 per cent of the parliamentary Labour Party)? The Electoral Reform Society’s own report on AV concludes that the system “leaves some of the core problems of British politics as it is currently constituted unchanged”.

There is a third option to voting either for AV or against it, and that is voting against the referendum itself. This third option is to spoil your ballot paper, or just not turn out to vote at all. This may well be the choice of a large minority – or even majority if the Lords succeed in postponing the referendum from the date in May chosen to coincide with the parliamentary and assembly elections in Scotland and Wales, and the local elections in many parts of England. The Labour Lords are at least right in the matter of principle: the whole deal has been concocted by self-interested party politicians, and there has not been adequate discussion and consultation on the measures, either in Parliament or throughout the UK as a whole.

It is the people who should decide, not parliament. But parliament has already decided: it’s either AV or FPTP. The only other option that remains available for the people is not to vote in the referendum at all. Voting either yes or no is an endorsement not just of a voting system, but of the whole disenfranchising system of government in the UK: of politicians gerrymandering and re-engineering the system of UK democracy to ensure they retain a permanent hold on power. 

To find out more about this campaign urging voters to spoil their ballot on referendum day, visit the facebook page of 'A V-sign to Westminster'. 

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