Huhne: AV “small step in right direction” BUT not proportional

What is it about Labour? Why are they waiting til the dying days of their last government for X years to propose anything new and radical? Yesterday, LDV posted the news that Labour has, eventually, U-turned on non-doms, and agreed to Lib Dem proposals that they will no longer be able to sit in Parliament.

And then later last night came the news that Labour will put to the Parliamentary vote next week proposals for a referendum to be staged as a step towards replacing the ‘first past the post’ system.

Chris Huhne, the Lib Dems’ shadow home secretary, issued what might be termed a stinging welcome:

If this is confirmed then it is a deathbed conversion to electoral reform from a party facing an historic defeat, which is why scepticism is warranted.

“The Alternative Vote is a small step in the right direction, but it is not a proportional system and it does not give voters real power over both the party and the person elected as MP.

“Only the Single Transferable Vote in multi-member seats would abolish MPs’ meal tickets for life, and we will fight to amend this proposal to give people a real choice for a more significant change.”

But it still leaves the question about Gordon Brown’s leadership: why does he always leave it so late, too late, to act decisively?

He failed to become Labour leader in 1994 because he hesitated; he failed to become Prime Minister from 2003 until 2007 because he hesitated; and he’s failed to become a successful Prime Minister because he’s trapped in perpetual hesitation.

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  • Clegg should make the price for any support for this the addition of a question asking for STV.

    End of.

  • Sorry Mark, in my view AV is actually a WORSE system than FPTP and we shouldn’t touch it with a bargepole.

    The problem is you end up with the least worst option in the constituency, with no guarantee that the overall result will be in any way proportional to first choices (or any other indication of support.) In fact, in some instances it actually exacerbates the disproportionality.

    STV has its problems too – having been elected to a Scottish council in 2007 by STV, I’ve actually gone from being a fan to being concerned about it. Put simply, as a councillor, the wards are more difficult to manage than before and I think most councillors feel more remote from their constituents than before. AV plus, or AMS, at least retains a direct constituency link whilst giving greater proportionality overall.

  • Malcolm Todd 2nd Feb '10 - 10:04am

    I don’t fancy going into an election explaining that there’s not going to be a referendum on electoral reform because Lib Dems refused to back it! Of course, we all know that AV ain’t PR and isn’t necessarily even a better system than what we’ve got now. But change in this direction is still positive (especially as it would then be easier to get preferential voting extended to multi-member council wards); and given the low probability of this referendum actually materialising, I think there’s more to be lost politically by being the ones to bring it down.

  • I’m not sure that it would be a step on the road though. As a party, we have to look at it through a number of lenses. Is it an improvement on the current system? Slightly. Does it enable the electorate to select between party candidates – no. Does it increase proportionality – no.

    It’s a bit like the argument used by some of the “no” campaigners in the 1979 referenda on devolution – it doesn’t go far enough to be effective and is likely to stop moves towards a truly proportional system for a generation.

  • Malcolm Todd 2nd Feb '10 - 12:32pm

    “It’s a bit like the argument used by some of the “no” campaigners in the 1979 referenda on devolution – it doesn’t go far enough to be effective and is likely to stop moves towards a truly proportional system for a generation.”

    An interesting analogy, as the ‘no’ campaign effectively did kill off devolution for a generation! Whereas, now that devolution has been achieved, there is serious engagement by almost all parties with extending and improving it.

  • The second attempt at devolution was preceded by a long process of discussion between all the groups, political and otherwise, who were interested in making it work. This should be the case with electoral reform as well: build public support for it in advance by involving and educating people. This proposal of Brown’s is at best an attempt to bounce us into supporting his continuation in office after the election in the event of a hung parliament.

  • Malcolm – that thought did go through my head after I’d posted! Tony makes a valid point though. The devolution process in Scotland gained pace after the 1987 election through the Constitutional Convention. The key to the success of this body was that it wasn’t driven entirely by the Lib Dems & Labour (remember, the SNP opted out) but that it had representatives from the Churches, COSLA, smaller parties (including the Greens) and a number of other organisations. As a result, when the referendum was held in 1998, most of Scotland was already behind the proposals.

    Brown’s conversion is more political expediency – he knows the Tories won’t support it so he can accuse them of rejecting change, and he knows a large number of Lib Dems won’t support it so he’s able to tie us in knots over it. I suspect the appropriate action would be to propose an amendment to STV, reject the Bill in the Commons if it isn’t amended, but if the referendum ever goes ahead to support it on the basis of its small benefits.

  • Malcolm Todd 2nd Feb '10 - 2:42pm

    KL: I agree with everything you say, except for the bit about voting against the bill if unamended (largely for the reason Mark W gives). I understand that Brown’s reasons for proposing this are utterly unprincipled and that it’s not the way that’s most likely to achieve valuable reform; but I still think the least bad option is to do as (I believe) Huhne has proposed: protect our position by moving an amendment on STV, then vote for the bill and campaign for a yes vote in the referendum on the basis of ‘step in the right direction’. But I repeat, I think it’s unlikely that this bill will get through before the election, anyway, and still more unlikely that the referendum will ever happen.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 2nd Feb '10 - 2:49pm

    If there is a hung Parliament I think people’s attention is going to be powerfully concentrated on the bias towards Labour inherent in the current system. In those circumstances I think it’s very unlikely there would be a referendum vote in favour of a “reform” whose practical effect would be to exacerbate that bias. I think it would be perceived as a transparent attempt to rig further a system which is already unfair, and I think the Lib Dems would be crazy to support it.

  • Do you trust Brown and Labour?

    The old saying goes.
    Don’t let the same dog bite you twice.

  • Brown just said on TV he does not want MPs to look at the AV bill line by line, just agree to it.

    Even though they are complicated proposals. MPs should just agree and not ask silly questions.

    If any MP objects, just one, the AV clause fails as there isn’t time to go through the bill properly.

    The man is a joker !!!!!!

  • No David, he’s not a joker, just a bogstandard politician doing politics.

    I really don’t get what all the hand wringing is about. We need reform. Someone’s proposing opening a debate on reform. Once that’s on the way at least we have an opportunity to debate the finer points. It’s not as if we’re having to reinvent the wheel, there are huindreds of precedents to peruse all around us. In fact, aren’t we about the last democracy to hang on to FPTP?

    Let’s just get on with it!

  • Anthony Aloysius St 3rd Feb '10 - 4:30pm

    “Once that’s on the way at least we have an opportunity to debate the finer points.”

    How will you, if the only thing that’s on offer is AV?

    All you’ll really have a chance to debate is whether AV is better or worse than the current system – and you’ll have a hard job convincing those who believe in proportionality that it’s better.

  • Ok, so a feisty debate may show that AV is rubbish and that we really need to look at a wider range of possibilities in order to make sure that reform is worth having.

    My point is that we’ll be discussing it. The media will be full of it and once the genie is out of the bottle the rest is up to us. To my mind almost anything is superior to FPTP, it shakes up the system and that’s a start.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 3rd Feb '10 - 5:52pm

    We have to think about the circumstances in which such a referendum would take place. Barring an overall Labour majority at the election, it would take place only if there were a hung Parliament and Labour continued in government with minority party support – presumably including the Lib Dems.

    Almost certainly that would mean that the Tories had won the popular vote. There would inevitably have been a chorus of complaints from the press about the bias of the electoral system in Labour’s failure, and no doubt vitriolic attacks on the Lib Dems for keeping Labour in power.

    Moreover, given the likelihood that cuts in public spending and/or tax increases would have followed the election, such a government would probably be pretty unpopular by the time the referendum came to be held. And in these circumstances the government would propose changing the electoral system in a way that would further favour Labour. I think the chances of a “Yes” vote would be negligible.

    And I think it’s very naive to think that, if AV is rejected in a referendum, that will somehow open the door to another referendum on STV. It’s far more likely to kill stone dead any prospect of electoral reform for a generation.

  • Well, like with any product, it’s the way you sell’em and there’s no difference when trying to persuade the electorate to buy into your idea.

    The average voter is not going to be swayed by the minutiae of one system over another. We need to sell the notion of a reformed electoral system making our parliamentary system more accountable. Safe seats would no longer exist and MPs would actually have to sing for their supper for a change.

    Whichever system we can persuade the electorate will deliver that, will prevail.

  • Malcolm Todd 3rd Feb '10 - 6:57pm

    Of course, there would still be plenty of safe seats under AV. In fact, pretty much every seat that is safe now would be, at least in the medium term, safe still; and in a single-member constituency you’ll never get to reject an MP without rejecting their party. The difference AV would make would be firstly in the way the marginals fall, and secondly in allowing parties to demonstrate levels of support in seats that they can’t (so far) win, which could make it easier to break through in the longer term. But it’s a very cold dish by then.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 3rd Feb '10 - 11:45pm

    “Whichever system we can persuade the electorate will deliver that, will prevail.”

    As Malcolm points out, there’s no way that AV would “deliver” the abolition of safe seats.

    And of course, in the context of a Yes/No question about whether to replace the current system with AV, it’s nonsense to say that “whichever system … will deliver that, will prevail”. In fact, no system that could deliver that would be on offer.

    Sadly, the reality is that neither of the other parties is going to agree to anything like a proportional electoral system under anything less than cataclysmic circumstances. Because that would virtually abolish government by any single party in the future. I’m sure that both of them would prefer to go down to disastrous defeat in any individual election, rather than abolishing their future prospects of single-party government.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Feb '10 - 10:39am


    The problem is you end up with the least worst option in the constituency, with no guarantee that the overall result will be in any way proportional to first choices (or any other indication of support.) In fact, in some instances it actually exacerbates the disproportionality.

    The second part is correct – AV is not proportional representation at all. AV is just a variation of FPTP’s principle that local minorities should be denied local representation. To put its simply, if you are in a county where 70% vote A and 30% vote B, with ten seats and the vote distribution even, FPTP and AV say the B voters in that county deserve no seats – every seat should go to A. If they are lucky there may be some other county where B voters are in the majority, and it just might be the case that B MPs in county Y occasionally speak out about the interests of B voters in county X. Otherwise, tough, B voters in county X are left voiceless and treated as if they do not exist. There is no-one to speak for their special concerns.

    The first bit is wrong, however. The “least worst option” or everyone’s second choice gets nowhere under AV. AV does not allow for someone who got little support on first choice votes to win by picking up on transfers, because that person would get eliminated early on. AV does not have any mechanism to reinstall eliminated candidates.

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