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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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Dual (duel?) candidacy (9 Dec 2005)

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Dual (duel?) candidacy (9 Dec 2005)

Posted on 09 December 2005 by admin

The Wales White Paper announces the government’s intention to end what is known as dual candidacy for the Welsh Assembly. Dual candidacy is an issue that comes up when you have two different routes into the legislature, as in MMP (AMS) systems. Should, or should not, people be allowed to stand as candidates in both a single member district and on the party’s list?

The populist argument says no – that candidates who failed at constituency level should not have a ‘back door’ into parliament. In Wales it has become known as the ‘Clwyd West question’ because in that constituency three of the four defeated candidates popped up as Assembly Members because they were also on the lists.

Peter Hain, in his capacity as Secretary of State for Wales, agrees. (The link takes you to the uncorrected transcript of evidence to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons, scroll down to Q241 and following.)

Hain has often been a constructive thinker on electoral issues, and has done much to promote discussion of the electoral system within the Labour Party. But on this occasion he is wrong, some of his arguments to the Committee were extremely weak and his remarks were marred by rudeness.

The least defensible part of Hain’s evidence was his rude response to the work of two academics who had researched the use of MMP abroad, which was personally discourteous and also inaccurate.

Peter Hain was presented with the finding from two academics that the only system similar to the one he proposed had been used in pre-Orange revolution Ukraine, and why that was the most appropriate model for Wales. Hain replied:

It is not, and indeed the two academics are wrong because I researched this very carefully. The issue of dual candidacy is one that has proved controversial in many other jurisdictions that have introduced additional member systems, and there are not many that have. This is a fairly unusual system. For example, it was considered by New Zealand’s independent commission on electoral systems and two Canadian Provinces that are planning to introduce the additional member systems and are committed to banning dual candidacy. I draw from that that in those British-type parliamentary systems, New Zealand and specifically in Canada, they are committed to doing this. The somewhat gratuitous reference to Ukraine is wrong, and I suggest the academics get better researchers in the future, similar to the ones I have got.

The reference to New Zealand is flat-out wrong. In 2001 their Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry (yes, a government that held an open review into their electoral system!) in New Zealand was very firm about dual candidacy – in support of the idea.

The committee was unanimous in its view that dual candidacies should continue. Members saw the placement of candidates as an issue for parties to determine. Committee members also considered the alternative would impact unreasonably on small parties who may not be able to field candidates in all electorates. Committee members agreed that parties must have the flexibility to decide where and how members will be placed as either electorate candidates, or on the list, or both. There may be very good reasons for a party’s decision in this regard. The committee also considered that the impact of a prohibition on dual candidacies on smaller parties would be unacceptable. This could be seen as restricting their ability to participate in the democratic process.

There was much more concern in the early years of MMP in New Zealand about the position of MPs elected on party lists who subsequently defect from the party. This led to legislation in 2001 banning party-jumping by list MPs. I might return to the issue of party-jumping among list MPs in due course. The committee’s recommendation on dual candidacy was wholeheartedly endorsed by the New Zealand government, who agreed that a ban would interfere in the proper functions of parties in candidate selection and be an unreasonable imposition on small parties.

While it is true that recent Canadian proposals have included bans on dual candidacy, it is not generally regarded as a problem in most countries – the Canadian debate on MMP may have been influenced by the entirely artificial fuss about the system in Wales. AMS is far from an unusual system, either. It has been used since the 1940s in Germany, and was adopted by several countries in the 1990s (there are fashions in electoral systems as in other things) such as Italy, Japan, Hungary (in a complex variant) and New Zealand.

Dual candidacy is just one of the wrinkles and anomalies with AMS systems – STV is a lot tidier in that there is only one route in. Some countries seem to manage just fine with AMS – presumably because, unlike in Wales and Scotland, some thought has gone into the role and purpose of the list members. Another issue is the partisan split. In other countries (including Scotland) all parties have some list representatives, while in Wales a Labour executive draws its support exclusively from Labour constituency members. This then leads to a temptation, into which Hain has unfortunately fallen, to delegitimise the opposition members (mainly from the lists).

It is certainly not an abuse for candidates to stand in both list and constituencies – it is often a lifeline for smaller parties. Peter Hain would do well to read the New Zealand committee’s conclusions properly, and not use his position to take gratuitous shots at people who do research whose conclusions he doesn’t like.


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