Over on Coffee House my colleague Dan Hodges notes that a large chunk of the Parliamentary Labour Party has come out against AV, and speculates that their stand will help the “no” campaign.
So it may, but he is missing the true danger to the “yes” campaign, which lies with its friends rather than its enemies. To be blunt, the supporters of “reform” are at best deluded and at worse rank hypocrites. The alternative vote solves no problems and remedies no grievances. It is an unlovely and unloved electoral system, as the voters of New Zealand showed when their government gave them the chance to choose how they cast their votes. New Zealanders were interested in all kinds of reforms to first-past-the-post but dismissed AV with scorn. Which is all AV deserves because no one in their hearts believes it is the best or fairest way to produce a government, least of all the constitutional reformers behind the “yes” campaign.
They believe, as I believe, that the fault with first-past-the-post is that it produces governments with large majorities on a minority of the popular vote. AV does not solve that the problem because it is not proportional. Indeed in some circumstances, it makes unrepresentative governments more powerful. To understand how, imagine a popular party leader heading for a resounding victory. It is not just the people who vote for his party who quite like the look of him. Many of those voting for rival parties will have soaked up the mood of the times. They too will see his appeal and under AV will be able to give him their second preferences, and deliver more seats to his party.
This was precisely the position Tony Blair found himself in 1997. Lord Jenkins in his report on electoral reform in 1998 concluded that far from making the 1997 parliament more representative, AV would have “swollen the already sizeable Labour majority”:
A "best guess" projection of the shape of the current Parliament under AV suggests on one highly reputable estimate the following outcome with the actual FPTP figures given in brackets after the projected figures: Labour 452 (419), Conservative 96 (165), Liberal Democrats 82 (46), others 29 (29). The overall Labour majority could thus have risen from 169 to 245. On another equally reputable estimate the figures are given as Labour 436, Conservatives 110, Liberal Democrats 84 and others 29, an overall majority this time of 213. On either basis an injustice to the Liberal Democrats would have been nearly two-thirds corrected (their strictly proportional entitlement was 111 seats) but at the price of a still greater injustice to the Conservatives.There were other problems too – Tories in Scotland and socialists in Surrey would still have wasted their votes under AV – but let us stay with Lord Jenkins’ objection and relish the hypocrisy of the “yes” campaign. We now have supposed constitutional reformers lobbying for a change to the electoral system that can exacerbate the worst features of the old regime they claim to oppose. They know this. They have read the Electoral Reform Society’s pamphlets and argued at meetings in draughty halls about the virtues and vices of various electoral changes. Yet they persist in recommending that the public vote “yes” for a system which Nick Clegg once described as “"a miserable little compromise”.
Eventually, even the nodding dogs of the BBC are going to have to ask them why they are abandoning principles they have supported for decades, and recommending that voters support a system they once opposed.
I have heard only two honest answers, which both reek of desperation. The first is that any change is better than no change, even if it is a change for the worse. The second is that AV referendum was all Cameron would offer the wretched Clegg, and they are stuck with it.
The moment of danger for the “yes” campaign will not come when old Labour MPs announce their support for the status quo, but when journalists start exposing the fraught and insincere arguments of the supporters of “reform”.
Cross-posted from the Spectator