Whenever a constitutional innovation is proposed, we should ask whether it is a proportionate response to an identified deficiency. To what problem is the Alternative Vote (AV) supposed to be the solution? ‘Political disenchantment,’ say its supporters. The existing system guarantees that most seats are safe, and encourages the parties to focus their attention on a tiny number of swing voters in key marginals. Small wonder, they argue, that turnout is so low.
We should allow right away that there is much in this analysis. There is indeed a disconnection between Parliament and people. The most common response I get on the doorstep is ‘It doesn’t matter how I vote: nothing ever changes.’ Canvassers from all three parties will, if they’re being honest, tell you the same thing. It’s true, too, that most seats are safe: at no election since 1945 have more than 27 per cent of constituencies changed hands. The MPs who represent the 73 per cent – the pocket boroughs, if you like – won’t lose their jobs on polling day; but they will lose their jobs if they are denied the right to stand under official party colours. So, whenever there is a conflict between what their constituents want and what their Whips want, the rational decision is to back their Whips.
As a consequence, entire streams of often very popular opinion are excluded from the legislature. For example, 55 per cent of voters say they want to leave the EU, but just two-and-a-half per cent of MPs agree. The same could be said of a whole series of causes that appeal to the Left (scrapping Trident, wealth taxes) and to the Right (withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights, tougher sentencing). MPs, in short, seem to have more in common with one another than with the people they are supposed to represent.
So the diagnosis is correct; but AV is no cure. Its chief effect would be to push parties further into the middle ground, making them even more like one another and even less like the electorate at large. Under AV you get elected, not by being the most popular choice, but by attracting the most second- and third-preferences: ‘the most worthless votes for the most worthless candidates’ as Winston Churchill put it 80 years ago.
AV is a more intense dose of the medicine that sickened the patient in the first place. What tonic should we prescribe in its place? The single most benign reform wouldn’t require any legislation. Political parties could simply select their candidates through open primaries. At a stroke, they would abolish the concept of a safe seat. While a constituency might remain securely Labour (say), as long as someone else could challenge for the Labour nomination, the sitting MP could not afford to get a reputation for having gone native in Westminster. Open primaries would make Parliament more independent, more diverse and more representative. The Coalition Agreement provides for them to be funded in two hundred constituencies – although something tells me that this commitment has been quietly shelved.
Beyond open primaries, there are several ways to repair our democratic system: citizens’ initiative and referendum procedures; recall mechanisms; the devolution of power to local authorities; scrapping unelected agencies and quangos; leaving the EU; electing public officials, starting with those who run the local police. A change in the electoral system, frankly, is fairly low down the list.
In one sense, of course, first-past-the-post is unfair: it throws up disproportionate majorities and excludes small parties. But AV would be no improvement in either regard. Indeed, as Roy Jenkins admitted when drawing up his proposals for electoral reform in 1997, AV can often be less proportional than first-past-the-post.
Nick Clegg made precisely this argument during the recent election campaign, attacking AV as ‘a wretched little compromise.’ The system his party campaigned for, Single Transferrable Vote (STV), does at least have the merit of being proportional. It seems to work pretty well in Ireland: all the Irish politicians I know are assiduous constituency champions. Indeed, you can learn a great deal about a system from how its opponents criticise it. Irish opponents of STV complain that it forces politicians to do what their voters want instead of weighing up the national interest – which is, when you think about it, an argument against democracy itself. A referendum on STV would have been worthwhile.
But those who have been demanding such a referendum, including the Liberal Democrats and the Electoral Reform Society, are now backing the system they denounced for decades on the nakedly opportunistic grounds that, although non-proportional, it would happen to throw up more Lib Dem MPs.
This lack of principle is what will, I suspect, defeat them. Their hearts aren’t in the fight. In every debate, they sound guilty and apologetic. Both majoritarian voting and proportional representation can be defended in simple language; but it is almost impossible to make a concise case for AV.
Instead of a choice between the systems proposed by the two coalition partners, we are being given a referendum on a system that neither of them offered – while at the same time being denied a referendum on Europe, which all three parties were recently promising. Instead of getting a referendum in response to popular demand, we are getting a referendum because of a deal made by six exhausted politicians in a smoke-filled room. A system that would reward the second-best is itself being proposed as second-best. How apt.