Thursday, 6 January 2011

Luke Akehurst claims today in an article for Progress (online) that support for the Alternative Vote in the forthcoming referendum is part of the "optimistic, positive and progressive worldview" which "drives Labour reformers."  He goes on to argue that the AV system will be beneficial to Labour because there is a "natural  centre-left majority in Britain that has been held back by a divided party system".  He claims that under AV, the Labour PArty will be "capable of attracting many more first preference votes, and second preferences from other centre and left voters".  He also says that "more democracy and more voter choice is something a centre-left party should embrace, not shy away from".

I  disagree with him on both the merits of AV in itself and of the purported benefits its supporters claim it will bring to Labour's electoral chances.  Firstly, the AV system is not "more democratic".  Many proponents of AV routinely claim that 'it will mean victorious candidates will have won over 50% of the votes'. It will not. It is a perverse system in which the 2nd, 3rd etc preferences of people whose first choice LOST are added to the tallies for those candidates remaining. Why is this regarded as being democratic?  There are numerous other anomalies and flaws with AV but there isn't time to list them here.

Secondly, as Danny Finkelstein pointed out in Tuesday's Times (no point hyperlinking to the pay-wall), the fact that parties will be keen to develop policies and field candidates most likely to appeal to the 2nd, 3rd etc preferences of the supporters of their opponents is likely to emasculate policy development and result in candidates becoming ever more clone-like.

Given that as a party we are currently bemoaning the gerrymandering being foisted upon us by the Coalition Government, we hardly bathe ourselves in glory nor can we take the moral high ground if a large part of our argument in favour of AV is that it could benefit us electorally.  We should not consider such a fundamental move as to change the voting system for Westminster elections for any other reason than that the new system proposed is a marked improvement upon First Passed The Post (FPTP).  A lobbyist for AV tried to convince me of its merits at Labour Conference and as he failed to do so on technical grounds, ended up saying that it was a stepping stone to full proportional representation without which PR would never be achieved.

This again seems a weak argument.  We as a party ought to have the strength of our convictions to argue that of course FPTP is clearly flawed, but that we shall not tinker with the constitution of Britain unless the alternative is a significant improvement.  The debate to be had about whether full proportionality would lead to permanent coalition is an important one.  But that is the debate with which progressive Labour thinkers ought to be having.

  At least FPTP requires voters to put their money where their mouths are and actually back the candidate they think is the best.  There are alternatives out there which we would do well to study.  The German system seems to me to have things about right. In the Bundestag, the constituency link is retained through half its members being voted by FPTP, but the remaining half are selected by a proportional system such that the number of seats won matches the proportion of votes for that party. Before people start bemoaning party lists, perhaps they might take a look at the House of Lords, or ponder for a minute just how 'democratic' party selection procedures are for the Commons.

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