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.
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.