Wednesday, 23 February 2011


The venerable constitutional politics academic Vernon Bogdanor makes some good points in the Guardian:
Democracy is government by the people. The referendum is an instrument, infrequently used in Britain, by which the people are consulted. The electoral system can determine the fact of parties. So it ought to be chosen by the people in a referendum, not by the politicians.

But the options – first past the post (FPTP) or the alternative vote (AV) – have already been decided by the government. Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, has called it "little more than a Hobson's choice". The people, if asked, would almost certainly seek a wider choice. In September 2010, a YouGov poll commissioned by the Constitution Society showed that only 14% believed that parliament should set the alternatives; 40% wanted a wider choice than the government was offering. Among supporters of AV, no fewer than 59% wanted a wider choice. The implication is that advocates of change favour not AV but a proportional system. The coalition, however, is not allowing them to express that choice.

That is a striking contrast with the experience of another Westminster system, New Zealand, where, in 1992 and 1993, there was a two-stage multi-choice referendum which gave voters a wide range of options...

In October 2010 Caroline Lucas, in an amendment to the parliamentary voting systems and constituencies bill, proposed a multi-option referendum allowing voters to express a preference for proportional systems. It was defeated by 346 votes to 17. The Liberal Democrats had declared in their election manifesto that they favoured "a fair, more proportional voting system for MPs. Our preferred single transferable vote system gives people the choice between candidates as well as parties". Yet 54 of the 57 Lib Dem MPs voted against the amendment and one acted as a teller for the noes. Three Conservatives, but no Lib Dems, voted for the amendment.

Last year, during the failed post-election negotiations with Labour, the Lib Dems were apparently offered a referendum on PR. A coalition of the left, therefore, would have given the voters the choice they sought. The coalition with the Conservatives means the people are being offered a choice they do not want by two parties who do not believe in it – a referendum on an electoral system which both the coalition partners opposed during the election campaign.

The last government to propose AV was Ramsay MacDonald's ill-fated second Labour administration in 1931. During the parliamentary debates, a leading Tory reminded MPs of Oscar Wilde's quip that the artist Whistler had no enemies, but was thoroughly disliked by all his friends. The same, the MP said, was true of AV. Little seems to have changed in the intervening years.

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