Whatever the result, Thursday’s referendum will not mean the end of the road for electoral reform in the UK
AV is seen by many as a ‘stop-gap’ measure on the road to true Proportional Representation, but is this really likely to be the case if the Yes campaign is successful? Writing in a personal capacity, Lewis Baston looks at the recent history of electoral reform movements in the UK, and the prospects for further reforms depending on the result of Thursday’s referendum.
The Alternative Vote (AV) referendum on 5 May is, on the face of it, a choice between two slightly different single-member constituency majoritarian electoral systems. Some people can make a choice on that basis. Peter Kellner and Peter Hain, for instance, have always favoured AV, over the options of either First Past The Post (FPTP) or Proportional Representation (PR). Similarly, some others simply do not see the appeal of preferential voting and sincerely favour FPTP. However, no decision is made in a vacuum, and for most of the rest of us the context is relevant when considering how one might vote. There are partisan and strategic calculations at work in the referendum, and one should not be too high-minded about this fact. I have discussed the partisan consequences of AV in another piece.
The outcome, in terms of a simple Yes or No, will have unknown effects on the further progress of electoral reform. The case can be argued either way, despite some efforts on the part of each of the campaigns to suggest that the referendum will close the issue. Arguments about future consequences are all conjecture, but the ‘finality’ argument seems a poor one either way (as it was when it was used to support the 1832 Reform Act). Alan Renwick, for instance argues quite persuasively that it is likely that a Yes on AV will lead to further change because it makes change itself thinkable and because it may well lead to more inter-party agreement and hung parliaments.
But there is an alternative argument. The history of constitutional reform is littered with cases where things that were supposed to be stopgaps lasted for decades – such as FPTP itself in 1918, or the House of Lords after 1911. If AV wins, small-c conservatism will work in its favour – it will be argued that the issue has been decided, and that the new system should be ‘given a fair chance’ or ‘allowed to bed in’. Clegg himself seems to have abandoned his party’s long term goal of PR, saying on 21 April that:
We aren’t going to enter into a Maoist, perpetual revolution… This is a once in a blue moon opportunity to change the electoral system. It’s completely wrong to somehow suggest this is a stepping stone for something else.
This gravely weakens the strategic pro-PR case for voting Yes in the referendum, which depends on the Liberal Democrats’ ability to use an increased incidence of hung parliaments under AV to demand further reforms in future. Someone who is in favour of PR can reconcile themselves to a No vote. FPTP may well be swept away in the 2020s even if it survives 2011, while AV might prove more resilient because it is a more robust majoritarian system. Jack Straw, for instance, favours the Alternative Vote for this reason. It produces a higher measurable level of consent both for single-member constituency representatives and, usually, for a national government. It enables the logic of majoritarianism to be renewed and interpreted for a multi-party system. Straw’s hope is the flipside of David Owen’s fear, that AV will be a roadblock to PR.
From the reformer’s point of view, AV does not have the renewing potential of proper PR, which can unlock fluid political competition. In New Zealand, PR has enabled political positions like neoliberalism and the old left to fight openly for their ideas rather than operate behind the scenes in party caucuses and elite influence. It may not look this way on Friday, but opposing AV could end up being one of the biggest blunders the British right has ever made. AV is a small-c conservative reform: as Lampedusa wrote, sometimes ‘if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change’.
In any case, John Curtice and others have demonstrated that FPTP is increasingly unlikely to achieve what its supporters claim, namely a decisive outcome to a general election (not that it has much of a track record of doing so anyway). Hung parliaments are likely to be the norm, rather than the exception, in the future, and there will be another reforming moment which hopefully will not be sold out, as those in 1997 and 2010 were, by politicians adapting rapidly to the culture of Whitehall. There will most likely be another hung parliament in the next 20 years (probably the election of 2020 will produce one) and therefore the possibility of another go at electoral reform. When politicians talk about ‘a generation’ they actually mean only about 20 years, but they wish to make it sound longer.
Win or lose, the result of this referendum will not alter the disconnection between the electorate and the political system. Problems of low turnout and election results not reflecting the way people have voted will still be with us either way. Reform propositions sometimes emerge better and stronger from initial defeat in this sort of timescale, as Scottish devolution did between 1979 and 1997. This referendum is no more the end of the struggle for real electoral reform than the 1979 referendum was for Scottish self-government (or Welsh nationhood).
Hopefully lessons will be learned this time, just as lessons should have been learned from the Jenkins process. The reform option should not be the product of a ‘wheeze’ cooked up in Downing Street (as it was in 2009) or a compromise that emerges from hasty coalition talks that nobody supported on the way in to the discussions (as in 2010). There should be up-front legislation ensuring that it cannot be allowed to drop down the agenda; reformers would be justified in insisting on this given what happened after Jenkins. Whether a referendum is the best mechanism for public involvement in the process, after this unedifying campaign, is also a suitable point for consideration.
The reform proposition should be the product of due deliberation, but times have moved on since 1998 and there should be some real public involvement in the process of designing the alternative. This might take the form of a ‘preferendum’ on different reform options as in New Zealand, or more likely a Canadian-style Citizens’ Assembly. There is no need for the latter method in particular to be tainted if AV has failed in 2011. It is also more likely to lead to a genuinely different system being offered rather than the imposed choice being between two systems as similar as FPTP and AV.
However, referendum day approaches rapidly. The polls seem to agree that No has a strong lead in voting intention, and a crushing win for No probably would cause the political class to shy away from the subject of reform for longer than a narrow margin would. A narrow win for either side would keep the pot boiling. Even if it were ‘No’, one could argue that it would be winnable if there were a better reform proposition than AV, a better campaign, or a vote at a time when relations between the parties containing substantial numbers of electoral reformers (Lib Dem and Labour) were less poisonous. A Yes vote – with one’s fingers crossed – seems indicated. And that is – probably – what I shall do.