Labour’s cynical pitch for voting reform
Gordon Brown's interest in electoral reform is opportunistic - and he favours a system which will only benefit the major parties
By Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner
The Guardian - Comment is Free - London – 7 September 2009
Labour could be saved from electoral meltdown by a promise of voting reform and by support from pro-reform Lib Dem voters, according to a new YouGov opinion poll reported in Sunday’s Observer newspaper.
Nearly a third of Liberal Democrats would be more likely to switch to Labour if they were promised a referendum on voting reform. In total, 17% of the electorate would be more likely to vote Labour if Gordon Brown promised a referendum on a new, fairer voting system.
If these voters did vote Labour, it might be enough to save dozens of Labour marginal seats. It could deprive David Cameron of an outright majority and result in Labour scraping back with enough seats to form a potential coalition government with the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru, the SNP and possibly some Green MPs too.
This enticing prospest has prompted Gordon Brown to reconsider Labour’s stonewalling on electoral reform. The Observer has also revealed that Brown has initiated cabinet discussions on whether to hold a referendum. Downing Street officials are already looking the pros and cons of a referendum on the same day as the next general election.
The Prime Minister has invited a delegation from the Vote for a Change coalition, which is leading the campaign for a referendum, to meet him and other ministers – several of whom back a referendum as the first step towards a fairer voting system and an end to the first-past-the post (FPTP) method used in Westminster elections.
Call me cynical, but Labour’s latest toying with electoral reform looks a tad opportunistic. Faced with a likely election wipeout, party big-wigs are suddenly scratching around for a way to save Labour seats. Hey presto, they pull electoral reform out of the hat.
This sudden sympathy for a fairer voting method comes after a decade of the government sitting on its hands. It promised reform but did nothing. It trumpted the Jenkin’s Report but rejected its recommendations, which were for the adoption of the Alternative Vote Plus voting system. All subsequent efforts to remedy the bias and corruption of the voting system have been kicked into the long grass by the government.
Is Labour’s new interest in voting reform genuine or just a con? In recent years, whenever the government has been in a tight spot, it has floated the idea of voting reform and other constitutional modernisations such as an elected second chamber – only to quietly drop them a few months later.
Gordon Brown keeps expressing an “interest” in a fairer voting sytem but that’s about all. No policy delivery. He seems to be stringing along election reformers; giving them the impresion of sympathy with their cause, while not actually changing anything.
Are we being conned again? I suspect so. It may all come to nothing – again.
Even if Labour gives the people a referendum at the next election and they vote for change, the result is likely to be a fudge. The Prime Minister is known to oppose genuine proportional representation, where the proportion of seats won by a party closely corresponds to the proportion of votes cast for the party. He favours the Alternative Vote method, whereby electors number the candidates in the order of their preference (1, 2, 3, 4 etc), with the minor candidates being eliminated and their votes being redistributed until a candiate wins the backing of at least 50% of the voters.
This system is an improvment on FPTP but it favours the major parties and would still mean that people who vote for smaller parties, which may get 15% of the national vote, would continue to have few or no MPs representing them. By veering towards the Alternative Vote, Labour seems more concerned with its own party self-interest rather than a genuinely fair and democratic electoral system.
A big anxiety is that Gordon Brown might agree to a referendum at the time of the next general election, but that he might ‘rig’ the referendum question to ensure that the Alternative Vote is the only option on offer. This would be disastrous. If people voted for the Alternative Vote, we would end up with continued non-proportional representation at Westminster. If people voted against, we’d be back to square one with FPTP which, in 2005, resulted in Labour winning a mere 35% of the vote but bagging 55% of the seats. That’s gerrymandering and political corruption on a monstrous scale.
If Labour is sincere about a fair voting system it should hold a referendum on the Jenkin’s recommendations for a genuinely proportional voting system, Alternative Vote Plus. This system would involve electors voting for a constituency MP by numbering each candidate in order of preference. Candidates would have to get at least 50% of the votes to be elected. Voters would also have another 'plus' vote for candidates from a party list, to elect additional 'top up' MPs to help correct any imbalance between the total votes cast for a party and seats it won in the constituency section of the ballot.
This is a variation on the existing electoral methods now used for the Scottish, Welsh and London elections, the Additional Member System. Using FPTP, electors vote for both a constituency MP and for a party. This combines the accountability of single-member constituencies with additional MPs based on the total vote received by each party; thereby ensuring broad proportionality between the number of votes cast for a party and the number of seats it secures. It works well in Scotland, Wales and London, why not for the House of Commons?
The solution is obvious. Let the people decide. We need all-party agreement that there will be a referendum on electoral reform at the same time as the next general election and, if people vote for change, that the subsequent general election will be based on a proportional system. Over to you Gordon, David and Nick. How about it?
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