So, at long last, after much to-ing and fro-ing and walking to the edge and walking back again, Gordon Brown has committed the government to legislating for a referendum on electoral reform.
The proposed reform is, of course, the Alternative Vote (AV) and not, as many of us have argued for, a system of Proportional Representation (PR). Still, it is hard not to feel some sympathy for the Labour party's 'AV centre' in this debate. When they are not being hassled by PR enthusiasts like me to their left, they are up against a stone wall of conservatism, resistant to any change, within the Labour party itself.
Thus, in today's Guardian report, we hear Tom Harris MP telling us that electoral reform is 'an issue for half a dozen Guardian readers in [my] constituency.' In other words: this is a middle-class issue of little interest or relevance to working-class people.
All those in the Labour party who oppose electoral reform, and especially PR, should take time out from reading The Guardian to take just one look at that sparky publication, The American Political Science Review. They should look at an important paper by the political scientists David Soskice and Torben Iversen. Its called ‘Electoral Institutions and the Politics of Coalitions: Why Some Democracies Redistribute More than Others’, published in the American Political Science Review 100 (2), 2006, pp.165-181.
The gist of the article is that PR systems give you higher social spending and lower economic inequality than Westminster-style majoritarian systems (controlling for other variables). It thereby demolishes – or at least seriously challenges – the assumption that I suspect underlies a lot of opposition to PR in Labour ranks: the assumption that prospects for progressive policies are maximised in the long-run by having an electoral system in which Labour has a fighting chance of forming a parliamentary majority. That’s a piece of Labourist romanticism which – so Soskice and Iversen imply – has no basis in fact.
As I argued in an earlier post, the case for PR is not only that it is fairer in the way it apportions seats in relation to votes. I agree with Peter Kellner and others that this is not necessarily a decisive consideration. It is also that it has better long-term consequences for policy outcomes than majoritarian electoral systems. That, at least, is the finding of the Soskice-Iversen study.
For those of us who support PR, Brown's proposed referendum on AV puts us in an awkward position. I don't know whether to laugh, cry or cheer. On balance, I am currently inclined to agree with Lisa Harker's analysis at Liberal Conspiracy and support the proposed referendum as offering an improvement on the present system. I also understand Sunder's argument that it could help to pave the way for a more proportional system. However, like some commentators in the thread at Liberal Conspiracy, I also think it entirely possible we will get stuck with AV and that yet another chance to change the political system fundamentally in a progressive direction will be squandered.
If it is squandered, then Labour's opponents of reform will bear a large share of the responsibility. So, to those in the Labour party who want to present electoral reform as an issue of relevance only to bourgeois liberal Guardian-readers (like me), I say: how dare you oppose a system that – on the evidence of Soskice and Iversen’s study – is better for social spending and economic equality, for the material interests of working-class people?
For those readers who are unable to access the APSR article directly, I include here a further description of its contents from my earlier post, 'Why we should endorse PR':
'The main result of Iversen and Soskice's analysis is striking. They find that, controlling for other relevant factors, PR electoral systems generate more redistribution and inequality reduction than majoritarian systems. (Australia, with its AV system, is included in the analysis as a majoritarian system.) The effect is substantial and statistically significant. (The chance that the statistical association they find is pure fluke is less than 5%.)
Why is this? Well, a large part of the answer is that PR systems simply generate more years of centre-left government on average than majoritarian systems. To be sure, left-wing parties rarely govern alone in PR systems; they hold office in coalitions with other parties. But periods of government by coalitions with gravity to the centre-left are far more common in PR systems than are periods of single party rule by the left in majoritarian systems.
Iversen and Soskice explain this finding in terms of a theoretical model which looks at how different electoral systems affect the possibilities of cross-class/cross-party governing coalitions. The basic intuition is that under PR systems, middle-class centre parties are drawn to coalitions with left working-class parties, making for centre-left political domination. By contrast, under majoritarian systems, the same middle class group tends to prefer straight right-wing parties to straight left-wing parties - this tending to be the restricted choice on offer. This produces a politics in which the centre-right is dominant.'