Brown has missed the chance for real electoral reform

The Alternative Vote can prove even less proportional than FPTP.

So, 13 years after Labour first promised a referendum on electoral reform, Gordon Brown has finally guaranteed to hold one. Reform is now on offer, but of the most limited kind possible.

Brown's first mistake was to reject the bold option, favoured by Alan Johnson and others, of holding a referendum before or on the day of the general election -- with the result that a referendum is now unlikely to take place.

His second mistake was to adopt the Alternative Vote (AV) as his system of choice. AV has the benefit of eliminating the need for tactical voting by allowing electors to rank candidates by preference but it is not a proportional system.

Indeed, it can produce even more distorted outcomes than first-past-the-post (FPTP). The Jenkins Commission found that, had the 1997 election been held under AV, Labour's majority would have ballooned from 179 to 245.

It said:

A "best guess" projection of the shape of the current [1997-2001] 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).

Had Brown come out in favour of proportional representation (PR), he could have begun a realignment of the left and ended the stranglehold of a handful of marginal voters on British politics. Instead, he has left Labour open to charges of cowardice from reformers and of opportunism from opponents.

Brown's Damascene conversion to electoral reform is transparently motivated by a desire to win over the Lib Dems in a hung parliament, but it is unlikely to achieve even this. Many Lib Dem MPs fear that a referendum on AV could settle the issue for a generation, ruling out any lingering possibility of PR.

Brown's political fudge has ended up pleasing almost no one.


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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood