In this guest post, Jessica Asato of the Labour Yes campaign, and Fabian vice-chair, argues that Fabians should vote Yes in Thursday's referendum on the Alternative Vote. (The Fabian Society does not take a collective organisational position on the referendum, or any other issue. We are inviting the No campaign to respond with a counter-argument for a No vote).
In two days time Fabian members have a historic opportunity to change politics in Britain by voting for a fairer, more democratic electoral system.
Britain’s first national referendum in 36 years gives us the chance to end a system where two-thirds of MPs are elected to the green benches despite a majority of their voters supporting another party. 50 years ago, when First Past the Post was in its heyday, 95% of voters supported Labour or the Tories. But since then voters have increasingly rejected the two main parties – last year a third of the public voted for a party other than the top two. Either we recognise that the public are doing something different and change our system to match, or we continue to see MPs elected on ever-decreasing amounts of the vote.
The Alternative Vote will give MPs back their legitimacy by ensuring that they aim to get a majority of voters support. It will also mean that in some seats MPs will have to reach out to more voters. That means more activity on the doorstep and fewer safe seats – politics will become more competitive again. Changing to the Alternative Vote will also help to shift the centre of gravity away from the 1.6% of the electorate who decide the outcome of General Elections in marginal seats. This means politicians will have to focus on what the majority of the electorate want, not just swing voters. As Ed Miliband has argued, AV will force parties to admit where there is agreement between them, leading to a different, less confrontational politics.
This important referendum shouldn’t be reduced to giving Nick Clegg a kicking. His broken promises have already seen his party nose dive in the polls and the best way to punish him is by voting Labour in the local, Scottish and Welsh elections on the same day. The desire to break the coalition is understandable, but as Ken Livingstone has said, why be mean to the monkey when you can really upset the organ grinder?
The fact is that David Cameron has far more to lose from a Yes vote than Nick Clegg has from a No. It is his city donors who have funded 99% of the No campaign and his staff who run the operation. The Tories know that the progressive vote is split under First Past the Post and AV will help to reunite it. Under AV, in many places across the country, voters can first time vote with their heart and their head, giving their first preference to their real choice of political party while ensuring that the right do not slip through with a minority of votes as Thatcher did throughout the 80s.
The Labour movement has more of a claim to be electoral reformers than the Liberals. It was Labour’s early leaders, including Keir Hardie, who saw reform as a way of empowering the many not the few. It was Labour who fought to give women the vote and to end the system of ‘one person, several votes’ in 1948. It was Labour in Government who introduced different electoral systems in Scotland, Wales and London.
A Yes vote on May 5th would stand within this radical, reformist tradition. Use this once in a generation opportunity to change politics for the better.
Jessica Asato is Director of the Labour Yes Campaign. If you have a few hours to help the campaign on May 5th please sign up here. Like all Fabian outputs, this piece represents the author's view, not the collective view of the Society as a whole.