It’s Not All Over On Electoral Reform

Posted on 19 September 2011 by admin

The possibility of another hung parliament means there should be another chance to change our voting system, says Lewis Baston. First, the cause needs to stop being so insular

The May 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) was a humiliating defeat for electoral reform. By a majority of 68 per cent to 32 per cent, the  electorate voted No. Autumn 2011 may therefore seem an unlikely moment to be optimistic about the future prospects of changing the electoral  system, but I believe the prospects are bright, provided some hard lessons are learned from what happened in 2010-11.

My new book, Don’t Take No For An Answer, is about the future of electoral reform but also a backward look at the referendum when everything  went wrong. It is a blackly comic tale of duck houses, deathbed conversions, megaphones and the rise and fall of Nick Clegg, from zero to hero  and then down to negative territory within one strange British political year. The Yes campaign may have accused No of being dinosaurs, but was itself the campaign that was lumbering towards oblivion.

Winning on AV would have been a tough call even for the best campaign. Although a referendum is usually a demand from people who want  eform, the history of referendums shows that they tend to produce small-c conservative results. AV itself was famously a ‘miserable little  compromise’ that aroused little enthusiasm, and the campaign struggled unsuccessfully to define why the referendum was happening and what problems it would solve. The Liberal Democrats went, between the 2010 and the 2011 referendum, from contributing a quarter of the vote and
general goodwill to a tenth of the vote and huge amounts of scorn. Labour were divided and uncertain, and after some dithering the Conservatives heavily against.

The Yes campaign, disastrously, tried to make the referendum about ‘make your MP work harder’, probably the most misguided and stupid slogan found outside the world of price comparison websites. They were comprehensively beaten by an unsentimental, even ruthless No campaign, which still managed to be more genuinely pluralist than the supposed democracy advocates of Yes.

The optimism about the future is because there will be another opportunity, hopefully in better circumstances than in 2010-11. The question is  more whether the reform movement can change itself enough to win.

Changes in the geography of elections have meant that ‘hung parliament territory’ covers a large part of the spectrum of plausible election outcomes. To win outright  requires the Conservatives or Labour to win a lead of 90 or more seats over its rival, a target the Conservatives missed even when everything was working in their favour in 2010. While in 1964 Labour or the Tories could have won with a popular vote lead of less than 1 per cent, in 2010 the Tories needed a lead of 11 per cent and Labour a lead of 3 per cent to win outright. The numbers may look a bit different in
2015, mostly because we can anticipate fewer Lib Dems elected and very slightly because of the new boundaries that will come in. But both effects are likely to be less dramatic than many Tory or Labour partisans will be hoping.

Far from being lost for a generation, electoral reform may well be back on the agenda within ten years. Another hung parliament will give the Lib Dems leverage to reopen the issue, and will also provide more evidence that FPTP does not produce single party majorities with any reliability. The basic problems – unrepresentative results, governments lacking sufficient consent, low participation, MPs claiming exclusive rights to speak for constituencies despite a majority voting against them – will still be there. The real risk for electoral reformers is not that the issue will vanish, but that it will come around again and another opportunity will be wasted as humiliatingly as it was in 2010-11.

The electoral reform cause needs to be fought more intelligently and flexibly if another bear trap like the AV referendum is to be avoided. Despite the disappointing experience after the Jenkins Report in 1998, when the promised referendum was never delivered, another inquiry – with a guarantee of a referendum – may be better than a reform option cooked up as a Downing Street wheeze as it was in 2009, or a hasty coalition deal as in 2010. The history of referendums suggests that the case for change is usually only won after a national conversation has taken place and a
consensus position evolved, as with the Scottish referendum in 1997 and the Welsh referendum in 2011. The 2011 referendum campaign happened essentially from a cold start. In future, a citizen-led process to involve people other than the usual worthies in devising an alternative system may be the way forward.

Electoral reformers also have to take account of the genuine reservations that people have about change – part of the problem in 2011 is that there was insufficient understanding by the Yes campaign of why people might be unwilling to take a leap of faith, and why arguments about stable government and ‘tried and tested’ fall on receptive ears in troubled times. Trying to pretend that politics and partisanship are not important does not work, particularly on such an intrinsically political issue as the voting system. It was wrong, as a matter of fact and of political tactics,for Yes to
claim to be about ‘people v politicians’.

Between now and the next opportunity, the electoral reform cause has to reform itself – to stop being such an insular, self-satisfied little world. Burying the term ‘democracy sector’ would be a start. It needs to think more strategically about party and interest group politics. There are conversations to have with business, trade unions, and advocates for women, ethnic minorities and the poor. For the Liberal Democrats this should mean thinking about what to demand and how to play the cards they are dealt in a future hung parliament. The chances of getting a result
may be better with a longer run-up and a better proposition than in 2011. There are other reform demands such as the Single Transferable Vote (STV) for English local government.

The Labour Party should be doing its bit to learn lessons as well, and bear in mind that it has never won a majority in an election immediately following its ejection from power. In 1955, 1974 and 1983 the Labour vote fell in each case, with minority government in 1974 only made possible because the Tory vote fell even further. Labour modernisers should consider what a Labour electoral reform would look like, before any hasty talks in smoke-free rooms have to take place. Labour could also show a bit of reforming goodwill by supporting the government’s House of Lords
plan, which involves the coalition parties spending political capital to accomplish a long-term Labour objective.

The Conservatives got the result they wanted in the referendum, but in the long term they may suffer for it. AV would have enabled a soft electoral  pact with the Lib Dems and possibly several terms of power, albeit shared. FPTP is a chancy shot at a term or two of single party rule.

Reform proposals often come back stronger and better after an initial defeat. The devolution Scotland and Wales won in 1997 was much more than the half-baked proposals that lost (or in Scotland’s case won too narrowly) in 1979. Irish Home Rule was more radical, and came closer to victory, each time after the defeat of 1886.

Within six years of Lansbury’s defeat in the women’s suffrage by-election in 1912, women were voting.I look forward to something better than AV being on the agenda before long – and then winning.

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