Wednesday 10 June 2009

Why Labour shouldn't propose AV

Over at Liberal Conspiracy, Stuart Weir has an impassioned post arguing that for the government to propose electoral reform in the shape of the AV would be a 'Labour stitch-up'. I am inclined to agree. But aside from the substance of what the government might propose by way of reform, I am struck, like Stuart, by the apparent conservatism of the process by which the government appears to be approaching the whole issue of political reform.

Let's start with AV. As has been widely pointed out, AV is not a proportional system, and so simply does not address the intrinsic unfairness of radical disproportionality between votes and seats. Depending on the distribution of preferences, AV can actually produce even more disproportionate results than the current system.

Compared to PR, I think AV is also likely to put minor, radical parties at a disadvantage. This has its obvious upside: no BNP in parliament. But it has an equally obvious downside: fewer Greens. If, like me, you think the future of progressive politics is Red-Green, you will naturally want an electoral system that allows the latent support for the Greens to come through. I stand to be corrected on this, but my guess is that PR is likely to do this better than AV.

Sunder has proposed a compromise along the lines of AV for the Commons and PR for the second chamber. (Correct me, Sunder, if I am oversimplifying.) But this strikes me as a very unconvincing compromise. Under this proposal, many people would quite reasonably see the second chamber as having more democratic legitimacy than the Commons. What would happen then? Either the second chamber would retain its subordinate status, and many citizens would ask why the more democratic chamber was being overruled by the Commons. There would be a crisis of legitimacy for the Commons. Alternatively, the second chamber would achieve equal status with the Commons. But what, then, if the majorities in the two chambers do not match up? How is the government to be formed?

The compromise of 'AV plus' for the Commons strikes me as more plausible, and preferable to the pure AV proposal. So should Labour put this proposal forward instead?

This brings us back to the second point. Whatever the merits of specific proposals, I think we have reached a point where it is inappropriate for one specific governing party, or even the Westminster elite as a whole, to hold control over the reform process. The process of reform needs itself to address the underlying problem of disconnection and distrust between the political elite and the public. Moreover, if this is a constitutional moment, and we believe in the sovereignty of the people, there is a fundamental matter of principle in seeing that the process of reform is one which gives real, meaningful input to the people.

This is why it is a profound mistake for the Brown government to off into a huddle with a small group of selected advisors and come up with a plan for constitutional reform. That's the mentality of the Treasury technocrat, not the democratic citizen.

For a man who pledged on Monday night to start doing things differently, it is a sign that Gordon Brown still doesn't grasp the huge, qualitative change in his approach to governance that the times demand.

The alternative is for the political elite to let go and bring the people in. The idea of a citizens' convention, as the culmination of a wide and inclusive process of public meetings and consultations, is much preferable as a way forward. The convention would produce a set of proposals which would then be put to Parliament, and to a referendum if Parliament rejected them.

Of course, at the end of the public deliberation, the citizens' convention might come up with a proposal for an electoral system based on AV. So be it. At least then I would have confidence that this represented a genuine, deliberated popular will and not - as Stuart Weir rightly worries - an opportunistic stitch-up by the elite of one political party.


Tom said...

Why do you think AV would keep the greens out? I would have thought, in the current climate where the traditional loose Lib-Lab alliance has broken down over civil liberties issues, the greens would get quite a lot of second-preference votes.

M said...


First, I think you'll find that the Prime Minister is calling for a debate, not a specific set of proposals. Nick Robinson at the BBC reported that last night, and the PM is saying that right now in the Commons.

Second, I disagree that AV would put the Greens as a disadvantage. Imagine you are in a 'safe' Labour seat (under FPTP). Under AV, you could vote for the Greens first and Labour second. If the Greens didn't get in, you wouldn't be risking a Conservative MP.

Third, be careful about PR. Proportional Representation on election day does not mean Proportional Power. In PR systems, smaller parties have more power, in some cases much more power, because the larger parties are reliant on their votes. Perhaps the most interesting instance of this is in the Israeli Parliament.

Finally, we must maintain a link to constituencies. It is a strength of our system often lost in the Westminster village that our representatives can (and should) be an active part of the communities they represent. Taking away that link, as many PR systems would, will make Parliament more distant from the people it purports to represent.

Sunder Katwala said...


My detailed argument was published in Fabian Review - How to reform the electoral system - in 2007.

I have been a long-standing supporter of electoral reform. I have supported PR since 1990, and wrote in favour of electoral reform in the first piece I wrote on joining the Fabians in 2003. I would vote for most PR systems in a referendum, though (to complicate things) I think there is a good principled case for the type of compromise package I advocate, beyond the 'it could happen in practice' pragmatic argument.

My main arguments
1. Any supporter of PR should broadly support any form of PR that can command a consensus. Anybody who is "STV or nothing" or "PR but not STV" is contributing to a significant reason why reform fails.
- Here, AV+ is a difficult issue for some, because it is a hybrid system. It would mostly elect majority governments on minority votes.

2. I would support AV+. There are differences between AV+ and AV (in 15% of the seats in the Commons). I am not sure they are fundamental, in that both tend towards majority governments.

There are advantages to AV+, particularly in the treatment of smaller parties, though AV and AV+ naturally share many features.

The disadvantages of AV+ are that it introduces some arguments (complexity, two classes of MP) which might make the reform argument more difficult. It involves redrawing all constituency boundaries.

3. I don't agree with the point about legitimacy. This assumes that proportional representation is the only source of legitimacy. But there are different objectives here.One case for majoritarian systems is that they offer a clearer choice of governments; the central case for PR is about the representativeness of the assembly. Almost all systems make some trade-off here (eg PR thresholds) to avoid disproportionate governing power for the smallest minorities.

Majoritarian systems can and do have a strong sense of public legitimacy (for example, those which directly elect a head of government, particularly where there are other checks and balances); part of the argument here would be that individual MPs would have greater legitimacy under AV because they need a majority of their local vote.

PR is one solution to majoritarian excesses - and I think there are many advantages to it. But the case around 'elective dictatorship' set out by Lord Halisham in 1976 is rather different if one introduces measures like devolution, an entrenched bill of rights, a legitimate second chamber with revising powers, stronger and legitimate local government. I think it is odd that the debate has mostly ignored these reforms and has not been placed in the context of a broader constitutional settlement.

Sunder Katwala said...

Stuart Weir is fully entitled to make his impassioned plea against AV. However, a year ago, after helping to convene a seminar at which I spoke he wrote on Our Kingdom that he was convinced of the case for an (imperfect) compromise around AV:

"I am a convert to the idea that the ice-breaker has to be the Alternative Vote (AV), even though it is even more disproportional than FPTP. The Combining All Our Strength alliance for civil society organisations, in which OurKingdom is a key player, this week held a high-level seminar on the prospects for change, involving electoral experts and Labour and Lib Dem MPs. My sense was that there was a consensus, reluctant on the part of some, around the argument that AV represented the best way forward, almost certainly because it was clear that it was the only likely starter".

This followed an earlier impassioned post against AV a couple of months earlier.

Stuart White said...

On the claim about the Greens: the critics above may be right. As I said, I stand to be corrected on this.

Sunder: I am not sure why you think it relevant to quote what Stuart Weir said about AV a year ago. As you make clear, the context was completely different. Back then, he might reasonably have thought - and I might well have agreed - that AV was the best way forward given the implausibility of anything else. But since the context has changed, and the system is open for much wider critical interrogation, it is entirely appropriate for Stuart to take a stand for the electoral system he prefers. I don't see how you get any leverage in making the case for AV by citing this statement of Stuart's.

On the point about legitimacy: I think you are being very optimistic in assuming that the Commons will continue to be seen as properly superior to the second chamber when the latter is elected on the basis of PR and the Commons is elected on the basis of AV. Since people disagree about which electoral system is in principle the most democratic, some people will see the second chamber as having greater democratic legitimacy. Every time the Commons proposes something that the PR-elected second chamber opposes, a large body of citizens will argue that the Commons is potentially overruling the 'genuinely' democratic second chamber. It seems completely predictable that this will lead to a drawn-out crisis of legitimacy for the Commons.

Stuart White said...

Tom: more specifically on the Greens issue. My claim was not that AV would 'keep the Greens out' but that they would do less well under AV than PR. Though, as said, I stand to be corrected on that.

Sunder Katwala said...

The Greens would do best under Scottish/Welsh style PR. They would do less well under AV+, but probably better under AV+ than AV.

But AV does rather a lot to unlock red-green (and yellow-green and perhaps blue-green influence).

(i) There is no "wasted vote" argument and no "don't let X party in" argument, and none of those silly bar charts on any side. So every party can poll its full support everywhere - including supporters of minor parties, and supporters of large parties (eg Tories in the north-east, Labour in south-west) where they are weakest.
(ii) There is a change in the nature of elections. The leading candidates need 50% of the vote. Anywhere that the Greens have 5-10% of the vote, they become serious players. Instead of saying they are a waste of space, all would-be MPs have to appeal to those voters, and perhaps to the party and its candidates too. (eg, we saw this in London in the Mayoral election).
(iii) AV is bad for pariah parties (eg the BNP). There is a centrist bias in the need to win majority support. But it does not necessarily follow that the Greens could not do this - they are often a generally popular party among those who do not vote for them. I think they would do better in places like Oxford and Brighton where they have a stronger base, but can not prove this.

I expect the Norwich North by-election could be rather bizarre under FPTP and excessively dominated by tactical claims between 3 or 4 contending parties. I suspect the Greens might have more chance in it under AV. It would certainly do better at selecting an MP fairly in a seat where 3 or 4 parties might poll 20% or more.

Sweet and Tender Hooligan said...

Interesting stuff.

AV is just neither here nor there, proportionality is where any electoral reform would derive its fairness and potentially in time improve the connection between voters and voted for.

The ‘two class’ argument is often made, but never actually explored. In Wales we have it, I have yet to see any evidence to suggest that regional AMs less busy or deemed second class in anyway. Indeed, the Welsh Conservative leader is a regional AM.

The question of ‘party a’ doing well is redundant. It should not form part of the lexicon, it should be of no concern almost to the debate. The constitutional make up of system must not be seen as ‘left or right’ wing – but robust and clear for citizens to feel part of and consensually able to vote in or out governments.

This is the inherent problem though, I recognise that. Proposing a system in the narrow confines of the least pluralistic parliament in the UK means it is poisoned by short term party advantage. What is so disappointing is that even Brown knows he only has a year left, yet he merely offers timid reforms even now.

Tom said...

Stuart: I agree the Greens would probably do better under PR than AV, along with every other small party.

I wasn't particularly clear in my initial post, but I think what I was trying to say was that I think the greens would probably benefit proportionally more under AV than other small parties. I can't imagine UKIP, the BNP, the Christian Party or any of the others getting second-preferences from across the political spectrum as the Greens would.

Newmania said...

I have said it before but just so you little plotters know we know ....

1Q: Why does the Labour Party suggest AV ?
A: No mystery ;because the Conservative Party is traditionally the second choice of relatively few voters and they therefore wish to count weak second preferences as on a par with strong first preferences .
2 Q: Why should they be?
A: No reason except the calculated advantage to Labour.
3 Q: Why now ?
A: To put the Conservative Party on the back foot because Brown needs anything .
4 Q: How do we know?
A :There will be no referendum
5 Q :Why now?
A: New Labour achieved 16% of the popular vote under the almost as dreadful PR system having enjoyed a huge majority under the old system for ten years .
6 Q: Why was this momentous principle was forgotten for ten years?
A See above
7 Q Is the current system unfair ?
A: No .We all get one vote, we all see all the Parties and we all understand the consequences.
8 Q :So whats Labour’s problem.
A :See above
9 Q: Why Does Sunder Quote London
A: It was held during a period when Labour were at what then seemed a historic low ebb. Labour’s candidate has an atypical history of far left authoritarianism and as such appealed little to Liberals
.10 Q So why quote this atypical election ?
A It is the only one and because you would like to make a misleading case for a gerrymandering measure designed to retain power for possible the most hatred administration of my life time .


If we like referendums how about the referendum we were promised ?Why not let the English decide their own voting system for the English Parliament that would have to follow ? Why not correct the boundary commission lag so as to hand the Conservative Party the 50 seats plus they are due and stop counting Scottish and Welsh votes twice .
Why not a partly PR HOL to stop tactical voting or open Prinaries to stop Labour parachuting Liberals into socially conservative workng classs areas ( end of BNP)
If people feel so strongly that ,despite their wish to vote Lib Dem of Green, they wish more strongly to support the Labour Party on the basis that they hate the Conservatives, they are at liberty to do so( too much Liberty ).

If they do not feel that strongly then a Conservative win is an accurate reflection of the feelings of the voters.

One vote each. Simple fair and English

Stuart White said...

Thanks Tom and Sunder for further comments, which I think are very helpful.

Newmania: although I don't share your conclusion, I like some of the reasoning along the way.

I don't think its 'cynical' to think that Labour politicians might be fixing on AV for partisan advantage. Why do the Tories oppose electoral reform? Calculation of party advantage. Why do the Lib Dems always prefer PR? Calculation of party advantage. Why expect Labour to be any different? The political science shows that just about any place, any time, anywhere, politicians will approach electoral reform in the spirit of what gives party advantage. There's nothing terribly corrupt about Labour playing the game along with everyone else. However, once we realise this is the game that all party politicians are playing, that's a good reason to take it away from them and give it to a neutral citizens' commission.

Newmania said...

The last 'neutral' was Roy Jenkins . Not from where I am standing.

Chris Paul said...

The Euro List PR things was and is cracked. The BNP polled 132,094 in my region, whereas there were around four times this in wasted "spare" votes for parties 1-4 and wasted votes for parties 6-12. It was an 8-seat constituency. Cracked.

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