Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
2 February 2010

Brown has missed the chance for real electoral reform

The Alternative Vote can prove even less proportional than FPTP.

By George Eaton

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.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

It said:

Content from our partners
“I learn something new on every trip"
How data can help revive our high streets in the age of online shopping
Why digital inclusion is a vital piece of levelling up

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.

 

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.