AV and the politics of electoral reform

Stuart Weir
20 June 2008

Stuart Weir (Cambridge, Democratic Audit): If we are realistic, the chances of electoral reform for elections to Westminster are now at least a generation away – unless first-past-the-post (FPTP) elections topple in confusion under the weight of the system’s distortions and contradictions. What can be done to try and rescue the opportunity for change, short of Gordon Brown seizing the moment for overall constitutional change by holding a Citizens Convention that embraces electoral reform as part of his near lost Governance agenda?

Well, I am a convert to the idea that the ice-breaker has to be the Alternative Vote (AV), even though it is even more disproportional than FPTP. The Combining All Our Strength alliance for civil society organisations, in which OurKingdom is a key player, this week held a high-level seminar on the prospects for change, involving electoral experts and Labour and Lib Dem MPs. My sense was that there was a consensus, reluctant on the part of some, around the argument that AV represented the best way forward, almost certainly because it was clear that it was the only likely starter.

Sunder Katwala of the Fabian Society opened a discussion that was held under Chatham House rules (for Sunder's argument for AV see his post in OK) . He argued that reformers had to unite around a first choice rather than continually debating systems; that AV would be no worse than FPTP; that it retained the constituency link that voters liked; and that it was an “honest” system in that it reduced the need for people to vote tactically. He suggested that at least Labour should be encouraged to put a change to AV for elections to the House of Commons in their next manifesto, along with the single transferable vote (STV) for elections to a reformed House of Lords and a written constitution. Hopes that a hung Parliament might lead to electoral reform were misplaced. “It will soon be the anniversary of the People’s Budget and then the Parliament Act. Make these anniversaries the occasion for another Great Reform Act”.

I am concentrating on the politics, not the pros and cons of AV versus STV, which is manifestly a far superior but unfortunately politically very remote alternative, even though the Lib Dems are committed to it. But two points first. It is worth noting that several experts and politicians felt that FPTP might well fall under the weight of its own distortions as it was a system designed for two-party politics in a now multi-party system; and the Jenkins “AV-plus” scheme was said to be a “dog’s breakfast” and/or a “dead duck”.

So politically, it was argued: a) among Labour’s ranks, reformers would accept AV and prominent diehards for FPTP could “live with it” (though Downing Street is said to be decidedly iffy); b) if the Lib Dems had a choice between AV and nothing, they would probably be obliged to accept AV as a possible route to STV later on (and it would give them more seats); c) the Conservatives would remain wedded to FPTP and hostile to AV, even though under current circumstances a Cameron-led party would almost certainly benefit from AV while under FPTP it could end up with a majority of votes in the next general election and fewer seats than Labour in the Commons; and d) genuine consultation and a Citizens Convention, either on electoral reform alone or a wider-ranging reform programme, would be the “cleanest” and clearest route to reform.

Two more suggestions were advanced. The government could introduce a bill introducing AV for parliamentary elections into the next session of Parliament. There would be no need for boundary changes and no need for an election as the change would not be profound enough to demand one (and the electorate would not want one). Most people present felt that the trouble with this was that Gordon Brown did not have the credibility to do so without it being seen as a partisan move; and that the Conservatives would be utterly hostile. It was generally agreed, in fact, that the Conservatives saw AV as a Labour-Lib Dem fix, especially in the light of the Democratic Audit study simulating the 1997 general election under different electoral systems that showed that under AV they would have won even fewer seats than they did. The issue had to be “de-toxed” for the Conservatives, perhaps by a follow-up study now under which they would be seen to gain.

Where else could an initiative come from? There was a suggestion that academics, who had long seen the deficiencies of FPTP, could be mobilised. There was some scepticism about this. What about from within Parliament? Here there was an idea for a possible move. The joint parliamentary committee on the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill was confined to reporting only on the contents of the draft bill and the white paper and discussion of material from the Governance green paper – i.e., electoral reform – was ruled out of order. But individual members could combine to put forward joint amendments to the actual Bill when it came before Parliament.

Also of course reform of the House of Lords, or second chamber reform as we should call it, offers the prospect of reviewing the electoral system for the House of Commons. But for the moment, there was a strong feeling that opportunities had been missed in 1997, 2005 and 2006.

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