Saturday, 20 February 2010


Advocates of proportional representation have been divided over their response to Gordon Brown's promise of a referendum on the alternative vote – with some, among them the Electoral Reform Society, seeing it as a great opportunity, and some extremely sceptical.

The excellent Open Democracy website has carried a telling exchange (start here) between Stuart Weir, former editor of New Socialist and the New Statesman and co-founder of Charter 88 and Democratic Audit, and Andy White of the ERS. Weir's latest contribution is very much to the point:
As I understand the position of the Electoral Reform Society, they regard Brown’s statutory pledge for a referendum giving people the choice between FPTP and the alternative vote (AV) as some kind of brutal instrument that will burst open the logjam on debate on electoral reform, an ice-breaker, the thin end of a wedge; and as AV is a preferential system – i.e., it asks people to list their preferences rather than to deliver a single vote – it will ultimately pave the way for the single transferable vote (STV), their own long-term goal, as STV is also a preferential system.

My objections to this strategy are of two kinds – first, practical, secondly principled.

Practical You should campaign for what you really want and put the case for PR.
1. Arguing the merits of AV over FPTP will simply give AV more legitimacy in the public mind – especially through the emphasis on the fact that every MP elected will have more than a 50 per cent majority – thus glossing over its essentially unrepresentative nature and making it harder to win the debate for PR;

2. The emphasis on the single constituency will entrench still further the traditional, but damaging, attachment to the idea of the “constituency MP” and make the transition that the ERS envisages to the multi-member constituencies that STV requires to work even harder;

3. The ERS will tarnish the very campaign for a more representative or “new” politics by its association with a blatant example of the worst “old” politics of narrow political manipulation;

4. The ERS is tugging other democratic NGOs along in its slipstream, among them even Unlock Democracy which is committed in principle to PR, but is polling its members on the choice between FPTP and AV.
Principled The Brown referendum is a rank abuse of power. The referendum does not give the public a full choice of alternative electoral systems and denies them the opportunity of choosing PR because Labour believes is not in the party’s interests. I believe that it is dishonourable to back this course for any organisation that deems itself democratic.

I do not think this belief is “spiteful”, as Andy White says. I hope that he will not think me spiteful when I also point out that he adopts a contradictory position on the Jenkins Commission’s advocacy of AV-plus. He commends the ERS’s hostility to the Jenkins proposal back in 1998 while I and others “enthused” over it. (Well, that is not quite right. I reluctantly thought it was the best offer reformers would get.) But what does White then go on to argue ? – that AV could become “alternative vote plus” with the addition of a proportional top-up list! So has the ERS reversed its then policy? And if so, why not campaign for AV-plus now?