Friday, 12 November 2010


Trevor Fisher, Chartist blog, 11 November 2010

The alternative vote vote on 5 May next, if the bill currently in the Lords is not modified, will be a decisive moment for the proportional representation camp. It could end the hopes of PR and democratic renewal for a decade, possibly for a generation. The bill deliberately polarises debate for or against AV and links AV to gerrymandering constituency boundaries.

The bill as it left the Commons specified that “the next general election [is] to be held on the AV system, provided this change is endorsed in a referendum on 5 May 2011 and boundary changes have been made to reduce the size of the House of Commons to 600”. The boundary changes could fall if the vote is lost, but do not have to. However, the converse is the case: a “yes” vote will empower the gerrymander.

The big issue is however the AV proposition. The opponents of change have a simple position: vote “no”. The “yes” lobby seeks to win support by implying that AV will be a springboard to PR. Nothing is less likely. The next election would be held on AV and once a government is elected by AV it would oppose a move which would threaten its own legitimacy. The opponents of change would oppose any further reforms, and both sides would block further change. Like the Chartists in 1836, the PR camp will find itself blocked by both the Whigs And the Tories.

In effect, a “yes” vote offers nothing to the PR lobby. This is why David Cameron and his supporters can back AV. It changes little, empowers them, and gives nothing to reform – key issues such as the power of the executive are not on the agenda. Indeed, reducing the total of MPs makes scrutiny of the executive more difficult. Which is what the Orange-Blue coalition wants.

The Labour, Lib Dem and Green parties are currently backing a “yes” vote, Labour and the Lib Dems to back their leaders (Gordon Brown invented the position, Ed Miliband had to endorse it, and Nick Clegg is leading the charge for the coalition) though both parties are split. Many Labourites are opposed to any change – for example Andy Burnham – while supporters of PR in both parties cannot but hold their tongues. The Greens seem to think they will gain, though the advantage to small parties in AV is marginal. It is a change which keeps the status quo in essentials.

The Tories are opposed, and Cameron has stated in the past he will vote “no”. He is, however, in a win-win position, and his political skills are dangerously impressive. He really cannot lose whatever happens.

PR is effectively ruled out if the “yes” lobby secures a vote in favour, and PR supporters have to consider a “no” vote. There is no issue of principle involved in voting “no”. There is no proposition in favour of change per se on the ballot paper, only a “yes”/”no” vote on AV. If the government had allowed a vote in principle then a vote on options, it would be a different situation. This was never seriously considered.

The only option is therefore AV, and the issue is whether the triumph of AV would have any benefits for the PR lobby and democratic renewal. I would argue it would not. Once AV is in, it will be in for at least 10 years (if the five-year fixed parliament bill goes through).

The yes lobby argues this is now or never. If AV is defeated, reform is off the agenda. But this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If all the eggs are put in this basket and the vote is lost, the status quo brigade will argue forever the country does not want change. This has to be challenged.

Currently opinion poll and newspaper loyalties are unclear. Some, including Kevin Maguire of the Mirror, think the vote will be lost. Certainly by May the coalition should be unpopular, and Clegg who leads the charge has seen his party’s poll position drop to 9%. For him defeat would be damaging – but not for Cameron. The Lib Dems have to back him. But a strong voice for PR would put his party under stress. It is difficult to see how a campaign led by Clegg could be popular.

How Labour will face up is unreadable. No one wants to damage Miliband. But if the outcome looks to be a defeat, how can Burnham and friends – or Ken Livingstone and the PR lobby – hold the line? It is imponderable, but one thing is clear. There is no automatic progressive support for the uneasy half measure that is AV.

If the PR camp can make a “no” vote a way to keep further reform alive, then PR might survive. At the present, the pressure is to avoid splitting the front and giving the Tory status quo camp advantages. If, as the vote nears, it is clear it will be lost, other options will open up. The PR camp needs to keep its powder dry. There is no case at this stage for supporters of PR to do anything but keep their options open.

Cross-posted from Chartist

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