I argued that this would be a useful move forward, writing in last month's Progress magazine about the debate following Gordon Brown's conference announcement of a manifesto commitment to a referendum on the Alternative Vote.
A heated electoral reform rally on the Brighton fringe showed that the manifesto commitment on the alternative vote has not been universally acclaimed. ‘Too little, too late’? Of course. As Stephen Twigg told the meeting, ‘the right time to do this was 10 years ago’.
The attractive idea of an election-day referendum is off the agenda. But could that have gone ahead had the Electoral Commission been publicly critical, warning that it would be impossible to properly separate or regulate general election and referendum spending?
There is a good argument for government establishing a constitutional convention. Why not legislate now for a spring 2011 or 2012 referendum, perhaps proposing fixed election dates too? Were the Conservatives elected on a ‘trust the people’ slogan, let them explain why they would legislate to scrap it.
The general assumption is that the Conservative Party is united in opposition to any change of electoral system. That is very strongly the majority view, despite the difficulty the current system has presented to the Tories since 1992. But there are some cracks. Not a lot of people know that AV is an issue where 'Red Tory' philosopher king Phillip Blond may well agree with Gordon Brown rather than David Cameron: he said he was opposed to PR but would support a change to AV when taking part in his Demos debate with me at the Compass conference in the summer. Another advocate of electoral reform, from the Hannanite right of the party is Douglas Carswell, who is prepared to go as far as the Single Transferable Vote of LibDem dreams.
My Progress piece also explains why I think the Alternative Vote would mark a significant advance for political pluralism, though this has been strongly criticised by some PR-advocates, including Neal Lawson at that conference fringe debate, and by Stuart White here on Next Left.
I make the following points in its favour:
I think the merits of the alternative vote deserve a fair hearing too. It is a much better system than first-past-the-post. Requiring every MP to seek 50% of the vote is a major advance. The abolition of tactical voting allows every party to poll its full support everywhere – Labour in the south, the Tories in the north; Greens and LibDems everywhere. Never again will you see a ‘can’t win here’ election bar chart. The election might be about the issues, not the horse race. The alternative vote can see off the most prevalent anti-PR arguments: there are not ‘two classes of MPs’; it is probably the most extremist proof electoral system possible; there are no ‘tail wags dog’ possibilities of a ‘hinge’ party permanently in office.
The central argument for AV is pluralism rather than proportionality. Attacks on other centre-left parties as a ‘wasted vote’ will be out (and between UKIP and the Tories too); positively appealing across party boundaries will be essential. Pluralism becoming necessary in campaigns, not just after them, would change our political culture far more than people realise.
I wrote a longer Fabian Essay on this theme back in Autumn 2007, arguing that AV could mark a significant pluralist advance as part of a broader democracy package.
An earlier What is the Alternative Vote? post offers some links and background reading, from a range of perspectives. I think Peter Kellner's 1998 submission to the Jenkins Commission is a good interrogation of the 'disproportionately problem while Lewis Baston of the Electoral Reform Society offers an authoritative and fair account of both the pros and cons, written from the perspective of a supporter of full PR.
In the spirit of fraternal pluralism and balance, here is Stuart White's case for PR, not AV, disagreeing with Peter Kellner's pro-AV argument.