Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Labour should support AV while opposing this Bill

I want to see the electoral system changed - and look forward to campaigning for the Alternative Vote at a referendum soon, even if the date seems very much subject to confirmation.

But, beyond AV, I think the government's bill is badly flawed. Labour reformers must advocate that Labour oppose the Bill in a constructive way. I would be interested what other pro-reform voices think the best approach to the conundrum of this hybrid legislative proposal should be, as I am personally still thinking through what it would mean.

I have no problem with broadly equalised constituency sizes, though size does not explain much of the current electoral bias. But the reduction of the size of the Commons is a poor move for which no decent reason is given. I strongly believe that Lynne Featherstone should be pushing to have the Equality and Human Rights Commission report on its impact on gender and race equality: reducing the House of Commons will almost certainly slow down even recent gradual progress on gender equality, making a mockery of the commitment of every party leader to speed it up. This was not a minor commitment of Cameron or Clegg, and it is not good enough to claim it is an unintended consequence when it is so evidently foreseeable. This impact has had much less attention that it merits.

I am not convinced by the changes to processes of inquiry, even if the status quo is far from perfect, particularly when they are being pursued as a matter of partisan controversy, at odds with British political tradition. And the Coalition should take seriously the issue of voter under-registration before it redraws the political map to write out 3 million potential voters.

In particular, I certainly think Labour should be willing to support and vote for an Alternative Vote referendum on its merits and as a stand-alone measure while opposing or amending the redistricting approach. And I particularly think that we need to do this if Labour is to oppose the Bill on second and final reading.

It would in my view be appropriate for Labour to back AV, while both opposing and offering reasoned amendments on the redistricting proposals, and to oppose the Bill on final reading if these do not succeed. The government ought to be able to carry its hybrid package with LibDem and Tory votes: it has a majority of 78, and I expect it would be carried since it is essentially a matter of Coalition confidence. (I think that will also require a willingness to listen to reasoned and reasonable amendments - particularly in the House of Lords - and that Labour ought to contribute to this)
If it can not carry the Bill, I personally think it would prove possible to secure an alternative Commons majority for the AV referendum to which Labour was committed in its manifesto, and that Labour should propose this..

So Labour should support and oppose aspects of the Coalition's reform on their merits. The Prescottian argument that everything should be opposed strikes me as short-sighted, though it will find some audience. But there is a perfectly valid principled argument for, on the final vote, opposing the package if there are not very significant changes. It is difficult to see why Labour MPs should vote for measures they oppose.

I also think that it would be a strategic and tactical mistake for those of us who think it is important for the party to continue its support for AV, and want to mount a case for campaigning as a party in the referendum, not sitting on a fence, to make support of this Bill the occasion on which Labour has the argument about that.

I am a bit bemused by how strongly Nick Clegg has been playing to the Tory gallery in his attacks on Labour - including specifically over constitutional and electoral reform. The Tory backbenches will be trying to make sure that reform does not pass, while the ability of a Yes campaign to win may well find that the ability to mobilise Labour voters in favour proves decisive. Clegg's current approach is making the job of those in the Labour Party who want the referendum to succeed much more difficult.

I would have thought Clegg must know that, though he gave every impression to the contrary when taking Commons questions on the issue. But I hope that other LibDem frontbenchers, backbenchers and activists can will be thinking about opening an important dialogue how we can try to make sure that members of rival parties can successfully cooperate on this issue.

Civic, non-party campaigners will have a particular role in helping to ensure that engagement does occur in a constructive way.


Sunny said...

I also think that it would be a strategic and tactical mistake for those of us who think it is important for the party to continue its support for AV, and want to mount a case for campaigning as a party in the referendum, not sitting on a fence, to make support of this Bill the occasion on which Labour has the argument about that.

Don't understand this bit - could you elaborate?

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks. Sorry - may be slightly garbled.

The Bill is not Labour's biggest fight. We have no stake in a hybrid deal to reduce the size of the Commons, and change the boundary processes (Tory, hoping for political advantage) and have an AV referendum (LibDem, which we should support).

What does concern me is that Labour should
(i) stick to being pro-AV, not agnostic
(ii) participate in an active way in the referendum on the Yes side, pretty much as a party (with some dissenting minority) not go for official agnosticism
(iii) contribute to effective messaging and campaigning to maximise the chances of winning it.

What that para is getting at is that should people want to argue "even if the Bill is flawed, it is a credibility test of Labour being pro-reform that you back it and swallow the stuff you think wrong, the following would happen
(i) Labour reformers won't unite around that proposition
(ii) Labour reformers will lose to the Prescottian attempt to drop all commitments to anything
(iii) We will have damaged the prospects of the objectives that I think matter.

Hence the proposal about AV referendum itself as the approach to the Bill.

While it may be the leadership contest, party conference, the approach of the next leader, etc which resolve the questions "how should Labour approach the referendum", which is where I want to focus.

Any more sense?

adam said...

I agree with most of this. Even though it is not a form of PR, Labour should support AV on the grounds that it enables voters to openly support their preferred candidate and ensures an element of majoritarianism.

The Prescott argument about the need to oppose (also made to a certain extent by Balls) is ludicrous. What Labour needs, in order to be an effective opposition and plausible alternative government, is to be clear about its values and principles and about the policy positions which flow from those. If this means accepting some elements of the coalition programme, then so be it - this is not only a principled but also a tactical matter, given the need to appeal to both Liberal Democrat voters and (potentially) to the Liberal Democrats themselves.

In this case, that means supporting AV whilst opposing unfair redistricting proposals. The main focus of this opposition should not be on the principle of equal-size constituencies, which is reasonable enough, but on the practicalities (what to do with the Isle of Wight, eg) and on the need to address the problem of unregistered voters. Harriet Harman has been good on this issue and it is something that Labour should be pursuing as a grass-roots party and as a labour movement, as well as in Parliament.

Dale Sheldon-Hess said...

"on the grounds that it enables voters to openly support their preferred candidate"

This is untrue.

Or at least only _limitedly_ true, because if the third-place candidate gets 25% or more of the 1st-rank votes, then tactical voting becomes just as necessary as it is under FPTP. Example:

4: A > B > C
1: B > A > C
1: B > C > A
3: C > B > A

If this election is just A vs. B, B wins 5:4. But when you add C, the winner changes to A: C spoiled the election. At least one of the C-first voters would have to tactically/disingenuously rank B higher than C in order to avoid this scenario, where their least-favorite candidate wins.

The alternative vote is a false-improvement.

Look into approval voting and score voting for real solutions.


Joe said...


You have no problem with equal-sized constituencies?

Can I suggest respectfully that, from a sense of Rawlsian justice, you should, as unequal constituency size redresses turnout imbalances, which are themselves caused by systematic power and resource imbalances.

Not supporting the retention of differentials in constituency size, it could be argued,is to accept a rightwing logic which ignores structural imbalances in society, and think poor people are just lazy.

I've done some initial maths on it at http://thoughcowardsflinch.com/2010/06/28/constituency-size-and-liberal-norms/

Sunder Katwala said...


thanks. will read with interest. my point not made well.

- Support fullest possible registration. not an expert on how to achieve that through most automatic forms possible.

- also think, on balance, a reasonable case for compulsory turning up to polling station, etc as citizenship duty, because of age and class disproportionality issues.

- but, alongside those points, I have no problem with the principle of equal sized constituencies (with more exceptions at margin: eg Isle of Wight, eg county boundaries), which is a principle we mostly have now (exception of Wales). Many Tories believe there is still enormous Scottish over-representation, worth dozens of seats.

I don't think this is the way to achieve it, and the House of Commons reduction is populist silliness which sacrifices what the parties have said to the Speaker's Conference for a cheap headline about saving £12 million.

Tom said...

I happen to be one of Lynne Featherstone's constituents, so am just about to send her an email with a link to your post about the impact this will have on the progress towards more equal representative and a request that she ask the EHRC to look at the impact. If I get an interesting response I'll let you know.