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17 July 2000

Dirty deeds in deepest Devon

Labour's latest ideas for electoral reform are a dangerous stitch-up, argues Stuart Weir

By Stuart Weir

You will not read about it in the British media – which regard it as a subject fit only for anoraks – but behind Labour’s national policy forum in Exeter on 8-9 July lies an attempt at a pretty shabby fix. The fix concerns electoral reform. The whole point of electoral reform is to find, as an alternative to the present first-past-the-post system, something that makes each party’s number of MPs in the House of Commons more proportional to the number of votes cast for each party.

What we are about to get – if Jack Straw and Peter Mandelson have their way – is something more disproportional even than first past the post. It is called the alternative-vote (AV) system, not to be confused with the AV-plus system recommended by Lord Jenkins in his recent report on electoral reform.

The pure AV system looks voter-friendly. It retains single-member constituencies, but voters can give a second choice as well as a first choice. A candidate who wins an overall majority of first-preference votes gets elected. If no candidate achieves this, candidates at the bottom of the poll drop out in turn and have their second-preference votes redistributed until somebody emerges with a majority.

Simple and understandable? Yes, but hardly fair. In 1997, for example, Labour would have won 436 seats under AV rather than the 419 it actually won; the Liberal Democrats would have had 84 rather than 46 MPs; and the Tory ranks would have been yet further reduced from 165 to 110 seats. If you measure the deviation from proportionality in 1997, first past the post registered 21 per cent – that is, one seat in five was “wrongly” allocated – but AV would have raised this to 23.5 per cent.

The beauty of this fix is that it simultaneously pleases the Liberal Democrats and those Labour traditionalists who want to retain first past the post. The fixers have also mollified the big union leaders – such as Sir Ken Jackson of the AEEU – who have never been happy about Labour’s pledge to hold a referendum on any proposal for electoral reform.

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Naturally, none of this was put into words in the formal resolution at Exeter. Instead, delegates at the small Joint Policy Committee on Democracy and Citizenship, held behind closed doors and masterminded by Lord Falconer, agreed a classic Labour fudge. They committed Labour to a referendum, but left the timing open. Not only did they refrain from adopting a formal position on any electoral system, but they also refrained from agreeing that they will adopt any position at all in a referendum, whenever it may be held. The final resolution stressed the need to retain the constituency link and to encourage “stable government” – both regarded as positive features of first past the post – but also agreed “to take account of proportionality of power as well as that of representation”. In case anyone was in doubt what this Delphic phrasing actually meant, Straw was ready to emphasise that AV was now on its way to being Labour’s actual policy.

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So the Jenkins Commission’s compromise, AV-plus, has been junked. AV-plus keeps the directly elected constituency members, but adds a number of “top-up” MPs, unattached to a constituency, in order to reflect the number of votes actually cast. Such extra MPs are a feature not just of the Jenkins proposals, but also of the electoral systems that now operate in Scotland and Wales. Both Straw and Mandelson, however, have stressed the importance of a 100 per cent link between MPs and constituencies, thus ruling out the “top-up” MPs.

The AV system favoured by the deadly duo is used in Australia and Fiji. In the last two elections for the Australian House of Representatives, the Labor Party won most votes, but on both occasions lost out to the close coalition between the Liberals and the National Party. The deviation from proportionality in 1998 was 20 per cent. In Fiji, the May coup was inspired by an AV election that gave Mahendra Chaudhry’s party a parliamentary majority based on one-third of the popular vote.

Quite how far Labour has made a deal with the Liberal Democrats is not at all clear. AV will be perfidy for grass-roots Lib Dems who could possibly be weaned from their traditional attachment to the highly proportional single transferable vote (STV) by the mildly proportional AV-plus – but not by the hard stuff of undiluted AV.

Going for AV would be a political disaster for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The enraged Tories could quite properly argue, in any referendum campaign, that AV was a stitch-up. The damage to Tony Blair’s and the two parties’ reputation for political honesty, and to trust in politics generally, would be immense.

We can hope that it is all just a decoy, a temporary device to buy off trade union and activist hostility to Labour’s commitment to a referendum. But as Mandelson acknowledged in a recent speech to Make Votes Count (the umbrella organisation for reformers), electoral systems are not just a matter of wonkish theology. The way countries vote has a major influence on their politics. As Mandelson said, first past the post was a disaster in Northern Ireland, whereas STV is making a significant contribution to the peace settlement. First past the post perpetuates the winner-takes-all politics of Westminster and leaves us with all the faults of overmighty and highly centralised government.

“Don’t box us in on electoral reform,” was Falconer’s appeal in Exeter. He came away triumphantly with, in the words of the old prairie song, “land, lots of land, and the sunny sky above”. That may suit the fixers, but it looks bad for the health of the nation’s politics.

Professor Stuart Weir is the director of Democratic Audit, University of Essex