26 March 2008

The Supplementary Vote Is Better Than Nothing, But Brown Will Have To Be Much Bolder If He Wants To Save His Skin.

Labour are NOT offering the possibility of the Alternative Vote (AV) for Westminster (despite what the newspapers and commentators might have recently suggested).

Labour (Jack Straw) are actually only talking about offering the Supplementary Vote (SV) - i.e. adding the option of a second preference to the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system of electing MPs.

SV, unlike AV, does not ensure MPs are elected by over 50% of voters in their constituency and of course, neither of these systems are proportional representation anyway, so we will still have government majorities on 35% or less of the vote and continued massive under-representation of women and people from lower socio-economic backgrounds in parliament. SV is the same as the system used for the election of London Mayor. For example, Ken Livingstone was elected with just 43% of the vote (both first and second preferences) in 2004.

Despite these negatives, electoral reformers should grab this opportunity with glee. Labour have played with this voting system issue so much since 1997, that we are all weary and cynical about any more promises.

This time however, there is...
real reason for optimism that Labour might actually do something rather than just offer fine words - because their necks are on the block (Livingstone could be the first casualty of Labour unpopularity - though I reckon Livingstone is a good bet at nearly 2-1 against).

Sadly it is pretty obvious that the government's renewed interest in electoral reform is for reasons of self preservation rather than any genuine interest in improving our broken democracy (otherwise they would have done it when they had a massive majority and when change would have been at its easiest to achieve).

All the other constitutional buff about flying flags, votes at weekends, civic duty to vote and MPs free vote on war etc. and even the comically long overdue Lords reform, while important, pales into insignificance.

We should make the most of this opportunity for electoral reform, probably the last we will have for a generation if the Tories win the next election.

Indeed Jonathan Freedland raises the point, that if Brown and Straw are going to lose in 2010, they might as well go out all guns blazing and leave a real legacy of electoral reform.

As Freedland points out, the economy is in the toilet and winning the trust of electors with promises about future jam just won't wash anymore, the voters need to see bold radical action.

The daily Tory press propaganda over the last 10 years has softened the electorate up to the point, where they doubt every achievement of this government and know all it's failures off by heart.

If the Tories can make the electorate believe that the ERM debacle was a Tory masterstroke which ensured economic stability over the last 15 years, then they can make them believe anything (not since Dunkirk has propaganda been so successful).

Labour are never going to get any favours from the press, we should bypass them altogether and deliver real constitutional progress the voters can see for themselves, and that means real radical reform of the electoral system, and quick.

There are, of course, real problems, one I have already mentioned - Labour opportunism. The Tories will squeal to high heaven that Labour is fixing the election and unless Labour are completely transparent they will suffer for this charge.

One way to counter this Tory charge is to establish a Citizen's Jury to decide the electoral system and make it open to the public - even televise it - and state that whatever the jury recommend will be put to the public in a referendum - then for once actually honour your promise and hold that referendum.

This leads me on to the bigger problem - Labour only have two years to do this. There is no way all this can be done before the next general election even if we start straight away, so I suggest that the referendum is held at the same time as the GE, it will boost turn-out and also destroy the Tory charge of Labour opportunism.

A referendum on electoral reform would of course, ensure the support of the Lib Dems, SNP, Greens and all other minor parties for a 'yes' vote for change. Labour would be split, but if Brown backed reform he would bring the vast majority of Labour supporters with him.

All this would be bound to boost Labour support in a general election campaign and isolate the Tories in their 'no' bunker. Even the current most favourable polls show the Tories no higher than 43%. Any referendum for electoral change would be easily winnable. Looking at the current state of the polls, what has Brown and co got to lose? Does anyone really believe carrying on as we are is going to see a Labour government re-elected?


  1. Unfortunately, SV or AV are not better than nothing. They are a step backward. They will stifle diversity even worse than FPTP. They will not help the Lib Dems or Greens, or women or minorities.

  2. Wayne, it is a minor change, but still worthwhile. I imagine SV or AV might help the Greens get close here in Brighton Pavilion and the Lib Dems might well gain 27 seats. You are right that it won't help women or other discriminated groups very much though, but it might double the number of competitive 'marginal' seats from about 12% of the total to about 25%. So at least 1 in 4 electors would live in a seat with some bearing of who gets into government, rather than 1 in 8 at present.