In a couple of weeks’ time the British electorate will be asked to vote on whether or not to adopt the Alternative Vote system for elections, with candidates ranked in order of preference and bottom candidates eliminated until one achieves a majority vote. The referendum was the price that the Liberal Democrats exacted from the Tories to go into coalition; the Tory party itself is strongly opposed.
The campaign so far has been an ill-tempered, largely irrelevant scrap which has looked like a rather weak proxy for the party politics that the Coalition can’t accommodate – the No campaign being largely made up of the sort of Tory who can’t stand Cameron and the coalition, the Yes campaign supported by Liberal Democrats and parts of the Labour Party.
It looks like a sideshow. I think it is – and here’s why.
Why electoral reform?
You change an electoral system when it doesn’t do its job any more. In the case of the UK, it’s long been obvious that the composition of the House of Commons simply doesn’t reflect the votes cast at a General Election. The Liberal Democrats (and the Liberal Party before them) have been campaigning for change for decades. The system clearly benefits two main parties, with parties on the fringe unable to get a foothold unless they can get a spike of support in particular constituencies. My own MP, Caroline Lucas, leads a party which under a proportional system would have 15 or so seats but is only represented in Parliament because she won a four-way contest with less than 30% of the vote. If you think that the role of Parliament is to represent the electorate, as distinct from allowing the executive to get its way, the current system is a disaster.
So will AV make a difference?
The short answer is, almost certainly not. In a recent Guardian piece, Vernon Bogdanor, doyen of British constitutional experts (and, as it happens, David Cameron’s tutor at Oxford) points out that it would only have changed the results in thirty or so seats. It’s not a proportional system at all. Even Nick Clegg, the author of the referendum, argues that it is no more than a baby step towards electoral reform.
Faced with this, some of the claims of the pro-AV camp are pretty feeble. It will end the corruption of the safe seat, they claim; but the proportion of safe seats won’t change very much. It will make MPs work harder – a bit desperate, that one; it will ensure that there is no repeat of the expenses scandal – irrelevant. Nobody is seriously arguing that this change will ensure a more diverse, representative Parliament. Because it won’t.
And nobody appears to be dealing with the question of what happens if the referendum supports AV – possibly on a derisory turnout. Will this be the impetus for further reform? Unlikely. It seems to me that the political establishment – which has no interest in promoting greater political diversity – will close ranks and argue that this is the end, not the start of the reform process.
Moreover, it’s only one part of a package of electoral reforms. A key part of the package currently before Parliament is a significant reduction in the number of MPs – from 650 to 600. Such marginal gains in diversity that AV brings could well be completely offset by this change. And we’re not being allowed to vote on that.
So where does this leave us?
AV is no more than a tinkering at the edges of political reform. It seems to me, though, that we need far more than this. One of the reasons why I support a proper system of proportional representation is because I believe there is a growing crisis of political legitimacy in Britain, in which Parliamentary politics is the preserve of a steadily narrowing social and political elite representing a narrowing economic and political consensus. Voices of dissent increasingly cannot be heard in Parliament.
Moreover, that political consensus does not represent consensus among the electors. All of the three major parties support market economics and cuts – whether Osborne’s drastic cuts now or Ed Miliband’s slightly smaller cuts over a longer period. Alternative voices are not heard, and the shock doctrinaires of the main parties have to face the simple fact that no political party has ever won a democratic election by offering the sort of slash and burn economics that we are experiencing now. When did we vote for the privatisation of the NHS or the Universities, or the evisceration of local government? None of these were on the agenda at the election, but they are what is happening. The fury of the students who had been sold by the Liberal Democrats is just one face of an electorate that has been systematically lied to by all the main parties.
Of course electoral reform won’t change everything overnight. But in my view it’s a pre-requisite to ensuring that dissenting voices are heard at the heart of the political system. The appeal of AV to the political establishment, in my view, is that it creates the illusion of reform while ensuring that the same people stay in control.
In other words, it’s irrelevant. As a society, we need far more than this bone tossed from the table where the big boys sit.