Tag Archive | "electoral reform"

It’s Not All Over On Electoral Reform

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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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Boundary report – unsettling reading for MPs

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Boundary report – unsettling reading for MPs

Posted on 13 September 2011 by admin

Few English MPs will escape changes to their constituency borders in today’s Boundary Commission’s recommendations, writes political consultant Lewis Baston.

The Boundary Commission for England (BCE) report published today is unsettling reading for nearly all MPs, including those from the government benches who voted it through with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Few MPs will escape having changes made to their constituency boundaries, and a few will find their seats abolished, or changed so radically that they would have been defeated on the new boundaries in 2010. Some MPs will be pitched into fights against each other.

The proposals implement the coalition government’s new policy on parliamentary boundaries which was enacted in February 2011. The government insisted that the total number of constituencies was reduced from 650 to 600, and that – with four exceptions – every seat had to be within 5 per cent of the average size. Size here is measured by the number of people on the electoral register as of December 2010.

Peculiar boundaries

While the legislation was highly controversial between the parties, the Boundary Commission itself is an impartial body which does not take party political consequences into account. It has to try to create units with the right number of electors that make some sort of sense on the ground, and given the constraints it generally does well.

However, the rules under which the commission has had to operate have created some very peculiar constituency boundaries in some areas, although in general they have tried hard to avoid unnecessary disruption.

Perhaps the strangest new seat is the unfamiliar Mersey Banks constituency, a sort of successor to Wirral South which contains a random piece of Widnes unconnected, even by a bridge, to the rest of the seat.

For Conservatives there is the tantalising possibility of a Tory member for Sedgefield (technically, Sedgefield and Yarm). Tony Blair’s old stronghold is radically altered and grouped with the areas which made the current Stockton South a Conservative gain in 2010.

Gloucester city centre becomes part of the Forest of Dean constituency, an idea that was greeted with dismay when I floated the prospect in a local newspaper.

Political consequences

While the Boundary Commission is neutral, most observers are keenly interested in the party political consequences. In general, the changes seem to help the Conservatives a bit relative to the other parties, but the effect is not dramatic. In some areas, such as West Yorkshire and east London, they will be probably be pleased but in others such as Derby and North Yorkshire there is a lot of disruption for no political gain.

The party that really suffers is the Liberal Democrats, because their seats tend to have smaller majorities and be yellow islands in a blue or red sea. The axe falls on a number of seats the Lib Dems currently hold, including expected losses like Carshalton & Wallington, and Burnley, but also surprises like Westmorland & Lonsdale held by party president Tim Farron and unhelpful alterations to seats including Chris Huhne’s Easleigh and John Leech’s Manchester Withington.

While Nick Clegg personally has little to fear in his redrawn Sheffield seat, the implications for the party are ugly – and we have not even seen what happens to the beleaguered Scottish Lib Dems yet.

More to come

Today is a very important step in the process of redrawing constituency boundaries, but it is far from the end of the road. There are Boundary Commissions for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, which will publish their reports separately between now and January.

The proposals in all these reports, including England, are now open to consultation and there will be a number of local hearings to gather evidence about what people think about the proposed boundaries and the alternatives that will be offered by the main political parties.

The Boundary Commission is keen to hear from civic groups and ordinary people as well as the parties, whether they support or oppose its ideas, and invites responses through its website. It does sometimes revise its ideas and publishes new proposals.

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“Don’t Take No For An Answer: The 2011 Referendum and the Future of Electoral Reform”

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“Don’t Take No For An Answer: The 2011 Referendum and the Future of Electoral Reform”

Posted on 10 September 2011 by admin

Authors: Lewis Baston and Ken Ritchie

The May 2011 national referendum was only the second ever in the history of the United Kingdom. Those who had campaigned for decades for electoral reform were given, finally, a chance to make the case for change as the nation decided for or against the Alternative Vote (AV).

Yet, whilst opinion polls in the months before the vote showed the Yes campaign to have a small lead amongst the public, on polling day it was comprehensively defeated: more than two-thirds of voters opted instead to maintain the status quo. The Yes side won in only ten of 440 counting areas.

Don’t Take No For An Answer tells the story of that referendum, in all its blackly comic detail – from duck houses to deathbed conversions.

Yet it is not simply an historical account. It seeks to understand what went wrong for the Yes campaign, and why. It also looks to the future – how to ensure that electoral reform returns to the political agenda and how to run a reform campaign capable of success.

Don’t Take No For An Answer is an analysis of the mistakes made in the past. But it also contains a message of hope – that the chance for a referendum will come again and, this time, those in favour of reform will not take no for an answer.

Published on 16th September 2011 by Biteback Publishing

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What say will voters have in redrawing of the electoral map?

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What say will voters have in redrawing of the electoral map?

Posted on 06 September 2011 by admin

The government’s contentious legislation to reduce the number of MPs and introduce a new system for drawing parliamentary boundaries was passed in February 2011. It set out an ambitious timetable for final recommendations to be voted on by the House of Commons in October 2013, which required some fast work by the Boundary Commission for England (BCE) in particular, which has 502 new constituencies to design. The BCE staff has been hard at work all spring and summer and the Commission publishes its eagerly-awaited ‘initial proposals’ next Tuesday, 13 September 2011. Recommendations for Scotland and Northern Ireland will also be published this autumn, while those for Wales are held up until January 2012.

The English Commission’s proposals will be acutely controversial. Before now, constituencies have always been contained within a single county (except for a few cases of very small counties like Rutland). The new rules will require some constituencies to cross long-established county borders, with a particularly unpopular hybrid between Devon and Cornwall, and several other straddle seats for example in Dorset, Leicestershire, Herefordshire and Northumberland.

Because they impose rigid restrictions on the allowed size of 596 of the 600 new constituencies, the new rules will result in some strange proposals in major urban areas as well. The Commission will have a choice between two undesirable options in places such as Leeds, Stockport, Wakefield and Birmingham where there are very large local authority wards (wards are the traditional building blocks for parliamentary constituencies). The choice is between splitting wards between constituencies, or creating some constituencies that will not reflect any recognisable community of interest and will spill across local authority boundaries.

When I looked at this in June I thought that the Commission might allow some ward splits to make it easier to form seats that make sense on the ground. However, the BCE seems to be strongly opposed to splitting wards and it seems likely that it will avoid doing so, even at the cost of creating some contorted boundary lines.

The new rules also restrict the opportunities for public comment on the outcome. The previous procedure involved public inquiries for all but the most innocuous proposals, while this time there will be no inquiries. The initial proposals will be open to public consultation for 12 weeks from 13 September 2011. This is not a lot of time to absorb a complex set of proposals covering the whole of England. It is also not long for local people, groups and even MPs to devise alternative proposals.

The new more restrictive rules mean that it is quite possible to come up with an idea for your area which makes perfect sense in itself, but is completely impossible because it would force another constituency outside the allowed limits for size. The level of technical skill and work required to make allowable alternative representations may be too much for non-experts to manage without assistance.

The government conceded during the Bill’s parliamentary progress that there would be a number of public ‘hearings’ during the consultation period. The BCE has announced its timetable of hearings for October and November 2011. The hearing for Truro will no doubt be particularly interesting given the unpopularity of the ‘Devonwall’ constituency.

There will be another very short period – 4 weeks – in spring 2012 in which people will have the opportunity to comment on other evidence submitted to the Commission, which will be the only occasion on which the main parties’ plans will be subjected to any public scrutiny.

The BCE has no choice about the law under which it works, and it plans to try hard to make the process as accessible as possible, through the hearings, a special website and a web form through which representations for and against the proposals can be made. But the short timetable and the restrictive rules imposed by the government will make it difficult for the public to make its wishes known during this boundary review.

Read the original post at Democratic Audit

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Whatever the result, Thursday’s referendum will not mean the end of the road for electoral reform in the UK

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Whatever the result, Thursday’s referendum will not mean the end of the road for electoral reform in the UK

Posted on 04 May 2011 by admin

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.

Link to piece on original site

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The New Constituency Map of Britain

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The New Constituency Map of Britain

Posted on 19 December 2010 by admin

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Lewis Baston argues that the proposed “reduced and equalized” constituency boundaries could have unintended consequences for the Coalition government

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How Pressing is the Case for Further Equalization?

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How Pressing is the Case for Further Equalization?

Posted on 19 December 2010 by admin

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Lewis Baston explains the key issues surrounding the equalization of constituency size in the UK in the wake of the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Bill.

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Liberal Democrats could lose twice if AV fails in referendum (13 May 2010)

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Liberal Democrats could lose twice if AV fails in referendum (13 May 2010)

Posted on 13 May 2010 by admin

Favourable boundary changes may mean Conservatives have last laugh in Lib Dems’ campaign for electoral reform

The coalition agreement combines a referendum on the alternative vote (AV) system with reducing the number of MPs and rewriting the rules for drawing constituency boundaries. The parties’ interests point in opposite directions – the Conservatives would prefer a boundary review but no AV, while it would be in the Liberal Democrats‘ interests to have AV but not a boundary review – and it is not clear whether the Tories will get their new boundaries regardless of whether AV passes in the referendum.

If the Tory proposal to cut the number of MPs from 650 to 585 was implemented, the average size of a constituency would rise from 70,000 to 77,000 voters. The Tories have insisted the current rules – where variation around the average is tolerated in the interests of not having constituencies crossing county boundaries, splitting wards or with bad internal communications – would be replaced with a rule allowing only 3%-5% variation.

Wales would lose proportionately the most seats, falling from 40 MPs to about 28, with Scotland and Northern Ireland falling too. All regions of England would be reduced slightly, although the south-east would lose least (three seats out of 84) and the north-east most (four out of 29). New constituencies would be unfamiliar blends of territory, such as a seat crossing the Devon-Cornwall border, one spanning a ferry route to the Isle of Wight, and a vast Highlands and Islands seat in Scotland.

The Conservatives will gain a little from the change. Each boundary change tends to abolish a few Labour seats and create a few Tory ones, as population tends to decline in industrial towns and grow in suburbs and the countryside, although the “depopulated inner-city” constituency’ is a myth: Manchester Central has more than 90,000 electors, for instance.

The smaller seats are in Wales, Glasgow and industrial boroughs such as Wolverhampton (plus the occasional Tory shire seat such as Kenilworth and Southam), while many inner London seats are oversized. The Conservatives are also hoping that local detail will alter boundaries in their favour, because they control the most local authorities.

The coalition also plans to accelerate individual electoral registration (IER), already timetabled by Labour, to be phased in by 2015. IER will make the electorate fluctuate in size more than at present (as it has in Northern Ireland), and risks worsening under-registration of young people and city dwellers. A boundary review using inaccurate numbers that are further skewed during the IER phase-in would face allegations of gerrymandering.

The Tory policy will mean continuous change in boundaries – more than 100 seats will grow or shrink by more than the tolerated variation each parliament. This disruption of the relationship of MP to constituency will undermine the Lib Dems in particular, because they rely on personal votes. If AV fails at the referendum, but we get new boundaries, the Tories will have had the last laugh at the expense of their partners.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/may/13/coalition-alternative-vote-liberal-democrats

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Hung parliament: what happens now? (7 May 2010)

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Hung parliament: what happens now? (7 May 2010)

Posted on 07 May 2010 by admin

The predicted results offer many scenarios for Westminster and the next inhabitant of 10 Downing Street

Election night 2010 was extraordinary, and it is still not really over. As dawn broke on 2 May 1997, there was no doubt that Tony Blair would be heading to Downing Street and leading a majority Labour government; but while it was obvious by breakfast time on 7 May 2010 that there would be a hung parliament with no overall majority, the rest of the story was far from clear.

Doubt over the last few results, which are still trickling in, means it remains to be seen what sort of hung parliament we will get. The difference between the Conservatives having 314 and 306 seats is a crucial one: if their numbers manage to tick up to 314, there is really no prospect of forming a non-Conservative government. The combined forces of Labour and Liberal Democrats would still be outnumbered by the Tories, and the prospect of a deal spanning Labour, Lib Dem, SNP, Plaid Cymru and one or more flavours of Northern Ireland MP lacks credibility. The only option would be for Gordon Brown to resign and David Cameron to form a minority government before parliament meets.

However, if the Conservatives fall short in the remaining marginal seats being counted and end up at around 306, then the combined Labour and Lib Dem benches would outnumber them. Though Labour and the Lib Dems would still be short of an outright majority, they could probably govern if the political will were there. The constitutional position is clear: Gordon Brown is entitled to stay in Downing Street and explore his options, even if the situation appears unpromising and the rightwing press is keen to push him out.

Given the political realities, Brown could also give other Labour figures some time to find common ground with the Lib Dems and smaller parties, a process that seemed to be starting as the results were coming in, with Harriet Harman and Peter Mandelson speaking out about electoral reform and “progressive” politics.

The chance of getting electoral reform may be a distant one, but it is the best on offer.

The surprisingly bad results for the Lib Dems may well discredit Nick Clegg’s confrontational approach towards Labour. But the leader and the party would need to find some loopholes fast in their previous talk of a party with a clear lead in votes and seats having a mandate.

There is no real need to hurry. The Queen’s speech is not until 25 May, and government can continue to tick along in election purdah mode for a couple more weeks. A transition period is perfectly normal practice in most other democracies, and the world will not come to an end if there is no quick outcome.

Whatever the result, there will probably be discreet talks about how to organise the formation of the government to minimise the potential for controversy around the Queen’s role in the process, and probably also to provide reassurance if the markets have serious wobbles (although it is open to the Conservatives to play hardball).

A consideration that will loom rapidly is the possibility of a second election, later in 2010 or in 2011. A minority Conservative government would find this attractive, and probably face no constitutional problem in calling another election. A tenuous Lib-Lab coalition, on the other hand, would want to try to run for longer, to make sure that electoral reform happens.

While British precedents suggest that a second election would probably be won by the Conservatives with an overall majority, there are no certainties, and a minority government would probably be unable to remap the constituencies to its own advantage, as a majority Conservative government would do.

The British constitution gives considerable advantages to an incumbent that should not be given up lightly. While the decision-making work of government is care and maintenance only, the central institutions of No 10 and the Cabinet Office can be used to prepare a Queen’s speech agenda with which to face parliament. And, if necessary, they can work on coalition deals on policy or personnel – just as they would do on an intra-party basis for a re-elected majority government.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/may/07/hung-parliament-what-happens-now

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We need a better choice than AV (29 September 2009)

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We need a better choice than AV (29 September 2009)

Posted on 29 September 2009 by admin

Gordon Brown’s manifesto commitment to a referendum on the Alternative Vote is too little, too late for electoral reformers

Labour retains some shreds of its constitutional reform programme that was part of its appeal in 1997, and Gordon Brown’s speech at conference on Tuesday featured three significant promises on reform. We have the most detail on the longstanding policy of ending the absurdity of hereditary peers and introducing an elected second chamber. Another, the ability of electors to “recall” erring MPs by forcing an election, has also been trailed but is a minor and possibly dangerous concession to populism.

The other announcement is a genuine surprise. The 2010 Labour manifesto will contain a promise to have a referendum early in the next parliament on one form of electoral reform, the Alternative Vote (AV). This is welcome, but can only be greeted by constitutional reformers with the very thinnest of smiles. AV is a weak reform, and the promise at this stage of something in the Labour manifesto reminds one of Hunter Thompson’s cruel simile of a candidate making promises “like a farmer with terminal cancer bargaining for a loan on next year’s crop”. Even if Labour’s malaise enters spontaneous remission and Brown is still Prime Minister a year from now, this is pretty mild fare.

The Alternative Vote (AV), which Gordon Brown has come to support, is a simple reform. The current system asks voters to mark an X by a single candidate (implicitly saying that the voter opposes the other candidates in equal measure). Under AV, voters choose their favourite candidate with a 1, next favourite with 2 and so on. If no candidate gets a majority of 1 votes, the 2 votes for the lowest-placed candidate are taken into account, and so on until someone gets to 50%. Nothing else changes – constituencies will be exactly the same.

AV is simply an accommodation of the present system to circumstances where two thirds of MPs are there despite a majority of their local voters having voted against them. The electorate clearly no longer believes that a choice of two parties is adequate. AV broadens political choice a bit, makes tactical voting much less significant, and encourages a more honest and pluralistic relationship between large and small parties. To win marginal seats under AV, a party will need to build bridges with supporters of local minority parties and not pretend to have all the answers.

Additionally, AV is probably the most extremist-proof electoral system ever devised, as – other than people who support the party – most voters will make sure the BNP is ranked last on their ballot.

AV is not perfect by any means. By the same token, it is still poor at including minority points of view (Australia has AV and a very rigid two-party system) and means almost as many safe seats as first past the post (FPTP). But overall, as I have argued elsewhere, the Alternative Vote is better than FPTP, and introducing it would be a big step forward.

A promise to legislate for AV would have been solid progress. A referendum on AV is a different, and much worse, proposition.

In principle, a referendum should offer a choice between two fundamentally different options. AV is another, rather better, species of majoritarian system that preserves safe seats and the monopoly on local representation enjoyed by each MP. It is only worth going to the people with a real choice – between a majoritarian system and one based on the idea of proportional representation and extending electoral choice.

This is, after all, what Labour offered in 1997 and what the Jenkins Commission came up with in 1998. In itself, the change from voting with an X to voting by ranking candidates 1, 2, 3 is a very small shift; and voters could be forgiven for asking why it’s necessary bother with a referendum.

Perhaps worse, the practical difficulties of winning an AV referendum look prohibitive. It is an arithmetical fact that to win a referendum needs 50% plus one vote. Under our current ridiculous system, a party only needs around 35% of the vote to form a majority government. Even in 1997, Labour did not have anything approaching 50%.

The party, in good pluralist fashion, realised that compromise was necessary to build referendum-winning alliances for devolution in Scotland and Wales. Where might the Labour party – or that part of it which likes the policy – find allies to win a referendum for AV in the face of predictable vitriol from the Conservatives and most of the media?

The Liberal Democrats will probably end up recommending a “Yes” vote, but will tick the “no publicity” box and avoid appearing on platforms with Labour ministers; the Greens and electoral reform campaigners will be dismissive, and civil society groups will not help. It could be made to seem like a Labour fix without actually helping the party much – a perverse outcome if ever there was one.

UKIP might be on-side, but they may be the only allies out there. “Vote yes, because Gordon Brown and Nigel Farage want you to” is not a compelling slogan. The risk is that, even if Labour scrape back in again, an AV referendum will fail, and take down with it any alternative to Tory hegemony that might be based on the support of only one potential elector in five.

There is still an opportunity to get something better. A referendum bill will need to go through parliament. The Liberal Democrats, if there were to be a hung parliament, would be in a position to press for a better outcome than AV – either adopting a proportional system, or handing the job of design of the system to a democratic Citizens’ Assembly rather than keeping it in Whitehall.

By calling for an AV referendum, Brown has at last gestured in the direction of a new politics and that is welcome, both for Labour and for reformers. It is more than the Conservatives will ever do and does establish a clear difference between the two big parties on democratising Westminster. But Brown would have better to offer a radical reform straight away and gain the credit for bold leadership and pluralism, rather than a messy compromise or a half-measure. The more radical option is also more likely to mobilise broad support and win the referendum. An AV referendum may smell like a win for constitutional reformers, but victory itself is still a long way further on from here.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/sep/29/gordon-brown-electoral-reform

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