We need a better choice than AV (29 September 2009)
Gordon Brown’s manifesto commitment to a referendum on the Alternative Vote is too little, too late for electoral reformers
Labour retains some shreds of its constitutional reform programme that was part of its appeal in 1997, and Gordon Brown’s speech at conference on Tuesday featured three significant promises on reform. We have the most detail on the longstanding policy of ending the absurdity of hereditary peers and introducing an elected second chamber. Another, the ability of electors to “recall” erring MPs by forcing an election, has also been trailed but is a minor and possibly dangerous concession to populism.
The other announcement is a genuine surprise. The 2010 Labour manifesto will contain a promise to have a referendum early in the next parliament on one form of electoral reform, the Alternative Vote (AV). This is welcome, but can only be greeted by constitutional reformers with the very thinnest of smiles. AV is a weak reform, and the promise at this stage of something in the Labour manifesto reminds one of Hunter Thompson’s cruel simile of a candidate making promises “like a farmer with terminal cancer bargaining for a loan on next year’s crop”. Even if Labour’s malaise enters spontaneous remission and Brown is still Prime Minister a year from now, this is pretty mild fare.
The Alternative Vote (AV), which Gordon Brown has come to support, is a simple reform. The current system asks voters to mark an X by a single candidate (implicitly saying that the voter opposes the other candidates in equal measure). Under AV, voters choose their favourite candidate with a 1, next favourite with 2 and so on. If no candidate gets a majority of 1 votes, the 2 votes for the lowest-placed candidate are taken into account, and so on until someone gets to 50%. Nothing else changes – constituencies will be exactly the same.
AV is simply an accommodation of the present system to circumstances where two thirds of MPs are there despite a majority of their local voters having voted against them. The electorate clearly no longer believes that a choice of two parties is adequate. AV broadens political choice a bit, makes tactical voting much less significant, and encourages a more honest and pluralistic relationship between large and small parties. To win marginal seats under AV, a party will need to build bridges with supporters of local minority parties and not pretend to have all the answers.
Additionally, AV is probably the most extremist-proof electoral system ever devised, as – other than people who support the party – most voters will make sure the BNP is ranked last on their ballot.
AV is not perfect by any means. By the same token, it is still poor at including minority points of view (Australia has AV and a very rigid two-party system) and means almost as many safe seats as first past the post (FPTP). But overall, as I have argued elsewhere, the Alternative Vote is better than FPTP, and introducing it would be a big step forward.
A promise to legislate for AV would have been solid progress. A referendum on AV is a different, and much worse, proposition.
In principle, a referendum should offer a choice between two fundamentally different options. AV is another, rather better, species of majoritarian system that preserves safe seats and the monopoly on local representation enjoyed by each MP. It is only worth going to the people with a real choice – between a majoritarian system and one based on the idea of proportional representation and extending electoral choice.
This is, after all, what Labour offered in 1997 and what the Jenkins Commission came up with in 1998. In itself, the change from voting with an X to voting by ranking candidates 1, 2, 3 is a very small shift; and voters could be forgiven for asking why it’s necessary bother with a referendum.
Perhaps worse, the practical difficulties of winning an AV referendum look prohibitive. It is an arithmetical fact that to win a referendum needs 50% plus one vote. Under our current ridiculous system, a party only needs around 35% of the vote to form a majority government. Even in 1997, Labour did not have anything approaching 50%.
The party, in good pluralist fashion, realised that compromise was necessary to build referendum-winning alliances for devolution in Scotland and Wales. Where might the Labour party – or that part of it which likes the policy – find allies to win a referendum for AV in the face of predictable vitriol from the Conservatives and most of the media?
The Liberal Democrats will probably end up recommending a “Yes” vote, but will tick the “no publicity” box and avoid appearing on platforms with Labour ministers; the Greens and electoral reform campaigners will be dismissive, and civil society groups will not help. It could be made to seem like a Labour fix without actually helping the party much – a perverse outcome if ever there was one.
UKIP might be on-side, but they may be the only allies out there. “Vote yes, because Gordon Brown and Nigel Farage want you to” is not a compelling slogan. The risk is that, even if Labour scrape back in again, an AV referendum will fail, and take down with it any alternative to Tory hegemony that might be based on the support of only one potential elector in five.
There is still an opportunity to get something better. A referendum bill will need to go through parliament. The Liberal Democrats, if there were to be a hung parliament, would be in a position to press for a better outcome than AV – either adopting a proportional system, or handing the job of design of the system to a democratic Citizens’ Assembly rather than keeping it in Whitehall.
By calling for an AV referendum, Brown has at last gestured in the direction of a new politics and that is welcome, both for Labour and for reformers. It is more than the Conservatives will ever do and does establish a clear difference between the two big parties on democratising Westminster. But Brown would have better to offer a radical reform straight away and gain the credit for bold leadership and pluralism, rather than a messy compromise or a half-measure. The more radical option is also more likely to mobilise broad support and win the referendum. An AV referendum may smell like a win for constitutional reformers, but victory itself is still a long way further on from here.