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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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Supporters of the Liberal Democrats, Greens and UKIP should vote Yes to AV. For the Conservatives and Labour – the balance of advantage is much less clear

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Supporters of the Liberal Democrats, Greens and UKIP should vote Yes to AV. For the Conservatives and Labour – the balance of advantage is much less clear

Posted on 02 May 2011 by admin

The AV referendum campaign has produced some strange political alignments, more because of its perceived strategic consequences than the nature of the alternative electoral systems. Writing in a personal capacity, Lewis Baston finds that for some parties rational self-interest is clear: supporters of the Liberal Democrats, Greens and UK Independence Party should vote Yes on AV. For others –the Conservatives and Labour – the balance of advantage is much less clear, and may differ between different bits of the party. Arguably, looking only at rational self-interest, the Conservatives should be divided, rather than mostly for No.

How to make a partisan choice on AV

It is not unreasonable to examine the effect a change such as moving to the Alternative Vote will have on the fortunes of the parties. To do so is rational self-interest, but also more than that; its effects on party performance imply consequences for the range of economic, public policy and social outcomes towards which few people are neutral. Given that the difference in terms of democratic values between FPTP and AV is not large, it need not trump a medium-term partisan calculation. What one should ask of such calculations is that they should be rational.

For a Liberal Democrat, supporting AV is a no-brainer. The Liberal Democrats are (and even in 2015 can be expected to be) a fair-sized centre party. If a centre party has enough first-preference electoral support to come first or second (and therefore not be eliminated during the early stages of an AV count), it will tend to attract more transferred votes than its less centrist main competitor and therefore win more seats than it would otherwise. AV also suits the campaigning culture of the Liberal Democrats, in that the party is experienced in the techniques of attracting tactical votes and gathering local and personal credibility for individual candidates, and this is easily adapted to casting a net for second preferences. They tend to have more trouble winning votes in actual PR elections, like the European Parliament, London Assembly and devolved parliaments.

The SNP and Plaid Cymru are also capable of attracting transfers and would probably be helped by AV.

For Greens, Yes to AV is also logical. They are likely, whichever system is used, to hold their Brighton seat but not gain any more in the medium term. The benefits from AV would be in increasing the party’s overall share of the vote, because sympathisers could afford to give them a first preference without fear of letting in a hostile candidate. They would gain the credibility that goes with a significant vote share and encourage more voters to consider the option of voting Green. They would also encourage other candidates to adopt parts of the Green agenda in order to attract second preference votes from Greens, and give the Green Party itself more power in politics by giving and withholding endorsements for second place. For UKIP, AV probably helps for the same reasons as it helps the Greens. UKIP could influence the other parties, particularly the Conservatives, towards its objectives.

For the interests of the BNP – if indeed there is a BNP in recognisable form for very much longer – AV is not an attractive system. They may get a few more first preferences than they currently get FPTP votes, but AV would make it extremely difficult for them to win any seats. It would also be less successful at using AV to influence the other parties, because a BNP endorsement of a second preference for one candidate would be likely to put off more voters than it would encourage (in London in 2008 Boris Johnson repudiated such a dubious BNP benediction). The BNP would be better off with FPTP (which allows it to win on 30 per cent of the vote when its opponents are divided) or PR (which represents minority parties), not AV.

Much of the Conservative Party has displayed a bafflingly intense hostility to AV, on the assumption that it would prevent them winning a majority. This is very doubtful indeed; looking back on the history of modelled AV election results, there would have been no election when a Conservative majority under FPTP would have disappeared under AV, with the possible exception of 1992. The Conservative Party has generally been a very adaptable creature – the secret of its success. Cameron has demonstrated considerable skill in adapting to the situation, as shown in his strategic brilliance after the 2010 election result. The Conservatives are in a position to benefit from AV and Cameron is probably the man to navigate a path to that point.

AV tends to help the side of politics which is divided between parties with overlapping sources of support, and – in contrast to most of the 20th Century – this is the centre right. The Tories could go into a 2015 AV election well placed to pick up second preference support from UKIP and Liberal Democrats voters and overturn Labour voting leads on first preferences. While the party in general should not fear AV, if one looks within the party the traditionalist right and Cameron’s opponents may have reason to fear an electoral system that takes Cameron even further out of their influence. The party may have to share power a bit more, and may need to tack a bit to the centre in order to pick up second preferences. The old right may prefer not to take the opportunities that AV provides, and take its chances with a core vote strategy under FPTP.

Another potential worry for some Conservatives (and others) would be that AV might weaken the Union, by representing in exaggerated form a centre-right majority in England and left-of-centre majorities in Wales and Scotland. A future centre-right government might have next to no representatives outside England because the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats would be crushed by preference transfers in Wales and Scotland. Conversely, a Labour government could find itself dependent on lopsided majorities in Wales and Scotland to outvote a centre-right lead in England. Either scenario would put pressure on the constitutional settlement – perhaps another argument for an SNP Yes vote.

The range of interests and views within the Labour Party is, as it should be, varied, because the strategic situation is far from clear. In the short term, a narrow Yes may be best because of the ructions it will cause in the Conservative Party, but looking beyond that, things are more complicated. In the politics of the 1990s and 2000s, AV would have worked strongly in Labour’s favour, and a generation of Labour reformers is accustomed to thinking in terms of a ‘progressive majority’. This is not a permanent feature of politics – AV would probably have expressed conservative majorities in the 1950s and 1980s. It may well not be a feature of politics again for some time.

The Liberal Democrats have a co-ordinated political and communications strategy which reinforces Conservative messages and systematically disparages Labour; even in his 21 April ippr lecture, when he might have concentrated on persuading the undecided Labour vote, Nick Clegg could not resist the opportunity to make a strident partisan attack on Labour. The Liberal Democrats vote of 2015 will have absorbed five years of this and be broadly happy about it. Some polling in 2011 has started to show Liberal Democrats second preferences skewing towards the Conservatives, and that is only logical. Among the stupidest arguments for Yes – though less stupid than ‘Make Your MP Work Harder’ – is that it is in the self-interest of the Labour Party.

 

AV and the coalition

AV would solve a coalition management issue for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, in that they could run candidates in each constituency (satisfying their partisan activists) while campaigning on a more targeted basis and recommending second preferences for their coalition partner. AV can be the glue that keeps coalitions together and prevents realignments, as historically with the National and Liberal parties in Australia. The relationship between Tory and the Liberal Democrats in 2015 is much more vexed under FPTP; actually standing down in a constituency is a much more radical and controversial step than suggesting how second preferences might be used. FPTP might hasten a split in the Liberal Democrats and the emergence of a left-liberal element that could even reconstitute that fabled progressive majority and reactivating the push for electoral reform. How the true believer in electoral reform (or majoritarian rule) should vote is the subject of my next article.

 

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BNP’s Euro success should not shut door on voting reform (9 June 2009)

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BNP’s Euro success should not shut door on voting reform (9 June 2009)

Posted on 09 June 2009 by admin

The two electoral systems most widely discussed for Westminster are both less likely to elect extremists than first-past-the-post

As the dust settles on the county and European election results, one can take stock of what they mean for the parties and politics over the next year and in the long term.

The county elections are probably the more accurate measure of what might happen in the next general election, because they use the same electoral system and the considerations people have in mind when choosing their vote are more similar.

The county results point to the Conservatives being substantially ahead and in a position to win the next general election, although they have less of a margin of comfort than they did last year, when they were 43-23 ahead of Labour in national vote share, rather than this year’s 38-22. While Labour’s vote collapsed, the Conservative vote has been gently drifting downwards.

It is too easy to dismiss the Euro results as a freakish curiosity: while voters perhaps behave oddly in European parliament elections, the results can be consequential and indicative of future trends.

The 1979 European election produced a Conservative landslide, and the campaign was marked by ludicrous Labour infighting, a prelude to the divisions and disaster of the next four years. In 1984 Neil Kinnock proved that Labour was not dead, and in 1989 Labour inflicted Margaret Thatcher’s only defeat in a national election. It was the first pillar of her rule to crumble; a botched reshuffle, the resignation of the chancellor and a stalking-horse challenge followed by the end of the year – and in 1990 she was out.

The 1989 election was also interesting for the 15% of the vote for the Greens, and the Conservative tilt to Euroscepticism. In 1994, John Major did not do quite badly enough to trigger a leadership challenge. In 1999, the Conservatives’ win, and the vote for Ukip, helped take joining the euro off the agenda, and the low turnout and strong vote for smaller parties was a sign of what was to come, confirmed by the fragmentation of the vote and the weak performance by both main parties in 2004.

The 2009 European elections will surely be notable for more than confirmation of existing trends away from the two (or three) principal British political parties.

The pre-eminent fact is the astonishingly low Labour share of the national vote, at 15.8%. Winning at the last general election in 2005, with 36% of the British vote on a 61% turnout, showed that Labour was on thin ice. Euro 2009 may be an important point on a long-term declining trend in Labour’s vote and vote share that has only been briefly interrupted for decades (in 1966, 1997, and arguably 1992).

The working-class vote is decreasing and becoming less unionised, less cohesive, less loyal to a party and less inclined to turn out.

New Labour found a new, but fickle, group of voters to add to the declining existing Labour electorate, but accelerated the alienation of the old core vote. Now the New and Old Labour electorates are bleeding away at the same time and the remnant of Labour stands cruelly exposed, unable even to win a plurality in Wales.

It seems a particularly severe case of the malaise that has afflicted the centre-left in other EU countries, including France and Germany (although Spain’s socialist government did not do too badly against a poor economic backdrop). However, the saving grace for the left of British politics is that the Conservatives are winning by default rather than because of a surge in their own support.

The 2009 elections present a possible future for British politics in which the Conservatives enjoy a huge parliamentary majority with only 35-40% support from the voters and a progressive vote divided between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Greens, plus a more rightwing fringe vote split between Ukip and smaller parties, such as the English Democrats and the BNP.

This is, after all, what happened in a number of places last Thursday – including the former Labour county of Staffordshire, where the party is now fourth placed in seats, its three councillors outnumbered by four Lib Dems and four Ukip politicians, not to mention 49 Conservatives.

Labour is probably protected from such an extreme wipe-out at Westminster level because it has a number of very safe urban seats, which would withstand even huge swings, and the party’s Euro vote seemed to hold up a little better in some of these areas than it did in the counties.

The short-term reaction in some Labour circles, driven by an understandable dislike of the BNP, has been that the European results should end discussion of electoral reform for Westminster.

This would be a very short sighted approach. For a start, the systems most widely discussed for Westminster – namely the Alternative Vote (AV), and AV with a small proportional top-up as recommended by the Jenkins commission (AV+) – are both less likely to elect extremists than the present first-past-the-post system.

Other more proportional systems, such as the Single Transferable Vote (STV), create incentives for parties to campaign everywhere and not neglect areas; electors who feel ignored are vulnerable to the appeal of extremists.

It is notable that although there was disenchantment with the governments and traditional parties in Ireland and Malta, which use STV, in the European elections, the reaction did not produce a swing to extremism.

However, a longer term perspective would suggest that the next centre-left government after a Tory victory in 2010 might well not be a single-party Labour majority (and if it is, it might be based on a share of the vote too small to qualify as popular consent).

Electoral reform is more important than ever for the future of the centre-left in British politics because the progressive side will probably never again be marshalled behind a party as it was behind Labour in 1995-2003. Labour’s future needs to be plural and coalition-building, and electoral reform is a key part of that future.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/blog/2009/jun/09/bnp-voting-reform

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