Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 30 June 2000
The word around Westminster is that Tony Blair has decided to come out against proportional representation for the House of Commons and in favour of the system known as the alternative vote. If so, he should think again. AV is the worst possible electoral system for general elections – much worse than the first-past-the-post status quo – and it would almost certainly be disastrous for Labour in the medium term.
Of course, it is not difficult to see why Blair might be tempted by AV. He is in a bit of a hole. As things stand, it looks as if the leaders of the big trade unions, who are opposed to PR for the Commons – even the diluted version recommended by Lord Jenkins's independent commission on the voting system – will succeed in getting a motion to ditch Labour's promise of a referendum on electoral reform on to the agenda of this year's party conference in Brighton. If it is debated, it stands a good chance of being passed, largely because the union barons will put their block votes behind it.
That would be a disaster, not only for Blair but also for the Labour Party. A defeat of the leadership by the block vote is the last thing the party needs in what could be the last conference before a general election. It would wreck Labour's relations with the Liberal Democrats, whose continued co-operation is predicated on the referendum being in Labour's manifesto. And this, in turn, could switch Lib Dem voters off the idea of voting Labour tactically to keep the Tories out. Result: dozens of Labour seats lost unnecessarily, possibly even a Tory victory.
In the circumstances, it would be surprising if Blair were not casting around for something – anything – that might keep the union barons at bay and the Lib Dems on board. And at first sight AV looks as if it fits the bill.
For a start, it is not a system of PR – which means that it could well be acceptable to the unions and those Labour MPs who object to PR. Under AV, single-member constituencies are retained. All that changes is that voters do not mark their ballot papers with a single "X" next to the name of their favoured candidate but instead rank the candidates "1, 2, 3, 4 ..." in order of preference. Unlike any PR system, AV would not necessarily result in a reduction of the proportion of seats won by Labour. Indeed, all the evidence suggests that Labour would have won even more seats in 1997 had AV been in place.
At the same time, AV would also almost certainly increase Lib Dem representation. Not by as much as a PR system, granted, but it might just tempt Charles Kennedy into acquiescence, particularly if the prospect of further change is not ruled out.
Here it is worth remembering that the system recommended by Jenkins was "AV-plus", in which AV would be used for single-member constituencies and topped-up from lists of candidates in mini-regions to make the overall result more proportional. It must have crossed Blair's mind that AV on its own might be saleable to the Lib Dems and other supporters of PR as a first step toward introduction of a Jenkins-type system.
All of which would be fine and dandy – were it not for the fact that AV on its own is so flawed as an electoral system. Its main effect would be to ensure that results in marginal seats were determined in most instances by the second preference votes of supporters of third- or fourth-placed candidates.
In nearly all the Labour-Tory marginals that decide British general elections, that would mean Lib Dem voters deciding whether they would rather keep Labour or the Tories out.
AV would reinforce the already stifling trend in British politics toward lowest-common-denominator politics. And, as Lib Dem voters' second preferences piled on the agony for whichever of the major parties they disliked more, it would also exacerbate the in-built tendency of FPTP to yield landslide election results
Although in 1997 this would have benefited Labour, throughout the 1980s, when Liberal and Social Democratic Party voters generally saw the Tories as less bad than Labour, it would have given Margaret Thatcher even more commanding majorities than she actually won. The chances that AV could deliver a Tory landslide at the election after next or the one after that should not be dismissed lightly.
In short, far from yielding a House of Commons that more accurately reflects the spread of party support across the country, AV would make the Commons less representative. It is not a step toward proportional representation but a step away from it – and as such deserves nothing but contempt from democrats.
Cross-post from Gauche