Sunday, 4 October 2009

AV or not AV? That is the question. Or is it?

When Gordon Brown announced in his speech to the Labour Party Conference last week that a referendum on the alternative vote (AV) electoral system would be held after the next election (if Labour won), did he really mean AV? Or was the term simply a lazy shorthand for all possible flavours of AV+ (AV plus top-up seats to increase the proportionality) with the exact composition to be decided on later? Or more worryingly, was it another exercise in triangulation designed to kill off any real prospect of reform?

If it was the last of these then I can understand the anger of people like Neal Lawson of Compass who wanted the referendum to coincide with the next General Election. However, the problem with that strategy is that the issue of proportional representation (PR) could become subordinate to the other main issues at the election. Then there is the other problem of double jeopardy. Either scenario for a referendum will mean that two separate electoral hurdles must be overcome before electoral reform can become a reality. With four possible permutations available (YY, YN, NY, and NN) but only one (YY i.e. Yes to a Labour government and Yes to voting reform) that will actually deliver change, the odds are not good. So was that part of Gordon's cunning plan?

The issue of PR in our electoral system has long been a controversial one, particularly for those on the political Left. Maybe it is because some on the far left were never really true democrats in the first place, and only ever saw democracy as a means to an end, not an end in itself. For them it was about the acquisition, appropriation and maintenance of the reins of power, albeit for what they perceived to be the common good or the liberation of the working class. That position, however, is no longer tenable, if it ever was.

21st century Britain is crying out for a modern democratic system. You only have to look at the disaffection of many voters, and the lack of any real policy differences between the main parties to see that the current electoral system reduces the amount of pluralism within politics, rather than increasing it. It places 90% of electoral power in the hands of 10% of voters in the 100 most marginal constituencies and effectively disenfrachises most of the rest. It is therefore not fit for purpose, and is most certainly not democratic.

It is against that background that many of us in the Labour Party have long been waiting for Gordon Brown to take the initiative in this area. So when he finally broke cover, the relative modesty of his proposed reforms has left many of us underwhelmed. However, much of the criticism regarding Gordon's announcement and of AV in general has been about its perceived lack of proportionality. So while Simon Heffer writing in The Daily Telegraph thinks (wrongly) that AV is a form of proportional representation (PR), many others such as Neal Lawson and Mark Thompson at Left Foot Forward dislike it because it is more disproportionate than the current First Past The Post (FPTP) system. Meanwhile, back at The Daily Telegraph, Janet Daley seems to hate AV because she thinks the Tories would never be able to win under it (as incidently does Heffer given his apparent paranoia over the "threat to put a centre-Left coalition in power for perhaps decades to come"). Of course the point both Daley and Heffer fail to acknowledge is that if the Tories can't win under AV or PR (even in coalition) it is probably because more than 50% of the electorate hate them. In which case they don't deserve to be in power in the future just as they probably didn't for much of the recent past either.

The reality is that the proportionality or fairness of AV+ depends fundamentally on the number of top-up seats that are included. The greater the number, the greater will be the proportionality, at least for the three main parties. The argument that is then presented to counter this is that top-ups give too much power to the party leaders in their appointment, but this is another red herring. If the top-up candidates are selected from the highest placed runners-up in each constituency and ranked in priority based on their proportion of the first preference vote, only the voters can ultimately decide which candidates get chosen for the top-up seats, not the party leaders.

The advantages of AV+ are that it means that each candidate needs to garner the support of over 50% of the electorate relative to his/her nearest rival in order to win. So fewer constituencies will be safe seats and almost everyone's vote will count towards the final decision. This should help to increase voter turnout and improve the democratic credentials, support and legitimacy of whichever candidate is selected. However, there are three other important factors that most people tend to overlook when considering the merits of any type of electoral reform.

Firstly, you cannot judge the merits of a proposed electoral change for the House of Commons (HoC) without considering how such a change interacts with the electoral process for the upper chamber (assuming we ever get one). The two bodies should be designed to work in unison, with each complementing the other and each compensating for the deficiencies of the other, not merely reproducing the political balance or composition of each other. A bicameral system only serves any real purpose if it introduces a separation of power or powers, and creates constitutional checks and balances. If each of the two arms of the legislature is a carbon copy of the other then all you are doing is adding extra cost for no additional benefit.

Secondly, people wrongly assume that if electoral reform is implemented everything else will stay the same, that the constituency boundaries will be the same and the amount of tactical voting will be unchanged. Neither of these are true. If the voting system changes then the Boundary Commission will inevitably change the size, shape and demographic of the constituencies in order to make the outcome of any election fairer. People's voting strategies will then be influenced by both of these changes as they seek to maximise the impact of their vote.

Finally there is the elephant in the room that no politician will talk about. That elephant is the Parliament Act of 1911 and its 1949 amendments that give the House of Commons ultimate supremacy over the upper chamber. It's justification is the greater democratic legitimacy of the elected House of Commons (HoC) over the unelected House of Lords (HoL). But if the HoL is reformed into a democratic chamber elected by PR using the list system, and the HoC remains with FPTP or merely changes to AV or AV+, how can the Parliament Act continue to be justified? The reformed HoL will have at the very least equal democratic legitimacy, and so should have equal power and status. Unfortunately, many MPs will never countenance such a transfer of power, and presumably neither will many of them countenance any real electoral reform either. In that respect these MPs demonstrate their true anti-democratic credentials.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of Brown's speech, though, was the one reform that was glaring by its omission. What exactly is the Government's policy on House of Lords reform? Until we know that everything else must be put on hold?

It is clear that real electoral reform requires a reform of both Houses of Parliament and of the constitutional settlement under which they operate. AV+ has many attractive attributes in this respect.
It maintains the constituency link for most MPs as in FPTP. This will also help maintain the independence of local parties and their candidate selection.
It means every vote will count in many more constituencies, so voter turnout should increase, and there will be more marginals.
Marginal constituencies will be as attractive as safe seats to the winning candidate(s) because these constituencies will return two candidates, not one.
It is more likely than PR to generate a House of Commons with a parliamentary majority for one of the major parties, and therefore avoid the constitutional messiness of ever changing coalitions.

But AV+ also has a number of drawbacks:
It is still not truly proportional. A party will probably still end up governing with less than 50% of the popular vote.
It still disadvantages the small parties.
It fails to address the West Lothian question.

However all these drawbacks could all be compensated for with a reformed HoL elected on the list system. In such a chamber it is unlikely that any one party would ever achieve a majority of votes or seats. Therefore a coalition between the dominant party in the Lower House (i.e. HoC) and other smaller parties in the Upper House (i.e. HoL) would be necessary, provided of course that the Lower House could not steam-roller its legislation through using the Parliament Act. That is why the Parliament Act must eventually be repealed.

The constitutional settlement that I have arrived at could also be enhanced with a number of other refinements.
Disenfranchising voters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland from one of the two Houses (personally I favour the Upper House) effectively nullifies the West Lothian question.
PR for the Upper House is more amenable for fixed term parliaments.
Mid-term elections to the Upper House would increase democratic accountability. I would elect a third of members every two years.
Term limits of six years for the Upper House would increase the independence of MPs and decrease the power of the party whips and the executive.

So, Gordon, if you really are committed to electoral reform I expect to see much of the above in the next Labour manifesto. After all, what have you got left to lose?

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