+++ Labour set to legislate for a referendum on AV to be held after general election

The news from the Labour Party is that they will legislate before the general election for a referendum on PR – to be held after the next general election.

The referendum would be on AV (the alternative vote versus the status quo).


The proposal raises two issues: timing of referendum and choice of options within it.

My own preference on timing would have been for Tony Blair to have stuck to his promises, and Labour to have stuck to their manifesto, with a referendum on electoral reforms years ago. But given where we are now, this proposal is the best of the options realistically available.

A referendum before the general election would allow any Conservative government subsequently elected to say their election trumps the referendum result. A referendum on the same day as a general election would get too entangled with general election debates. Of course, legislation now for a referendum after the general election could be undone by a new government, but it would have to be one with a clear majority. So whilst we can debate the odds of the referendum happening, this route maximises the chances.

As for the question of AV or the status quo, this one will I’m sure trigger many debates within the Liberal Democrats. My own view is that AV is better than first past the post, though not nearly as good as STV. If STV isn’t a serious runner, then it’s better to have AV than nothing, just as electoral reform in Scotland, Wales and London has been better than first past the post. (The choice of regional closed lists for the Euros is a much closer decision, but AV is much better than closed lists.)

It’s also the case that AV is most likely to result in more Liberal Democrat MPs, which means more of a chance of getting the policies we want on not just further electoral reform but also across a range of other policy areas.

By an interesting coincidence, I got through the post this morning a survey from the Electoral Reform Society asking its members – amongst other questions – whether or not the ERS should support AV in a referendum if that was what the choice came to.

UPDATE 2: More in The Guardian.

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  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Dec '09 - 11:55pm

    If AV+ gets put in and people find that far from letting them vote out an unpopular MP it lets such a person in through the back door as a top-up members, it could cause a backlash against PR.

    AV+ is a stupid system capable of manipulation by the simple ruse of standing pseudo-independents at constituency level, so your wins there don’t count as party wins and you get more on the top-up. It does nothing whatsoever to deal with the issue that people want to have a way to vote against particular individuals while carrying on supporting their party.

    STV is superior to AV+ on all levels – if you want smaller constituencies – the only argument for AV+ rather than STV – you can use STV that way, just campaign only in the part of the multi-member constituency you want to be your one-member constituency and try and get enough votes to make a quota from there. Tell people not to transfer their next preferences to your fellow party candidates in other parts of the multi-member constituency, but instead to candidates of other parties who are doing the same thing and standing as such in your one-person constituency.

  • AV would have given Labour an even bigger majority in 1997. It strikes me as more flawed than FPTP.

  • 1. AV is perceived as a “smaller reform”. If AV is rejected, that will be used as the excuse to not have a referendum on STV for a generation anyway, because STV is portrayed by everyone including the Lib Dems as being the fairest system. So the mandate to a bad system cuts both ways.
    2. In Mark’s OP: “The choice of regional closed lists for the Euros is a much closer decision” – surely not? It’s quite likely that if we still had FPTP in the Euros, we would have 0 to 2 MEPs on around 15-20% of the vote. That would be an affront to democracy and the movement has said so since the days of Jeremy Thorpe at the hearings into the first direct elections to the European Parliament. What’s more, the UK would be correctly perceived by the rest of Europe as a rotten borough, subject to old-style massive seat swings on small vote swings.

  • Another Mark 2nd Dec '09 - 12:52am

    So what was the point of all the time and money spent on the Jenkins Report, if it’s just going to be ignored?

    According to the Times it was Jack Straw who persuaded the Cabinet to only allow a referendum on AV, rather than a choice of systems. What exactly is wrong with this man? Throughout his entire career he has been one of the most obstructive, undemocratically-minded politicians I’ve ever seen in British politics. What a surprise that instead of offering us a real choice, Labour want to foist on us a system that is only marginally less worse than the one it will replace, and not proportional at all.

    I despair of this country.

  • Don´t despair of the country, Mark. Just despair of Labour.

  • Mark Wright 2nd Dec '09 - 10:11am

    I agree Mark. It’s true that this is a pathetic drying gasp from a tired Labour Government, designed to roll the dice one more time. They broke manifesto promises on electoral reform 3 times in a row, and at the last minute produce this to try to rescue their reputation on the subject. Utterly shameful.

    Having said all that, if we are offered a choice between AV and FPTP, then we should back AV. It is at least an improvement that prevents vote-splitting.

  • Herbert Brown 2nd Dec '09 - 12:15pm

    “A referendum on PR with a newly-elected Conservative government on the crest of a wave campaigning for the status quo, would surely be quite likely to vote for the status quo.”

    I rather think the scenario the government has in mind is a hung parliament in which Labour is trying to secure the support of the smaller parties!

  • David Allen 2nd Dec '09 - 1:21pm

    “AV+ is a stupid system capable of manipulation by the simple ruse of standing pseudo-independents at constituency level, so your wins there don’t count as party wins and you get more on the top-up.”

    Well, not if you use the simple rule that the top-up is based on the aggregated constituency vote, so that if Bill Duckhouse wins the consituency of Blaggerby Magna as an Independent Conservative, his votes don’t count toward the Tory top-up tally, and he thereby scores another massive own goal for his party!

    Jenkins wasn’t thick, you know.

  • An excellent & sensible summing up of where we are at now. I really wish the Liberals had brought in PR in 1907 but that is the past & we are supposed to be progressives, our faces turned towards the Future. Lets leave refighting old battles to the Old Parties & get on with changing the world as it will be.
    PS, people keep coming out with this line about AV producing an even bigger Labour majority, can we have some figures? Show your working.

  • It is a complicated issue to choose between AV and AV+ but I think the argument is clear that AV is better if you want to progress STV. Anyone who think that the public would be motivated to switch from AV+ to STV needs to get out more.

    The chances of this Labour mess actually getting to the stage of a referendum must be tiny. So it’s very hypothetical question.

    The thing about a different electoral system is that it would influence the way people vote.

    AV introduces preferential voting and gets rid of much of the wasted vote argument, at least at a constituency level. It would also introduce a huge element on uncertainly into the next election. Although people can make assumptions and plot 2nd preferences, in truth no-one knows what would happen. In many/most ? seats the winning party got around 40% of the vote. With 2nd preferences and increased turnout, anything can happen in these seats.

    It is usually thought that AV punishes unpopular parties and rewards popular one e.g. exaggerates anti-government swings. But since this is known, both voters and governments start to modify their behaviour.

    But, actually, if one party did get hammered by AV for a couple of elections in a row, think Labour in 1983 and 1987, then it would make them think more seriously about the benefits of PR system. AV would also increase the number of minor parties and Lib Dems and make a hung parliament more likely.

    If only the Lib Dems had done a deal for AV in 1974-1978. Surely the subsequent history of the Liberal and the SDP would have been more successful.

    The Liberals would probably have picked up half a dozen more seats in 1979, and certainly won about 30 in 1983. Any disputes about Alliance seat allocations would have been irrelevant – both parties could have stood and still lost! David Owen might not have gone mad and it would have made the breakthrough to 60 seats happen in 1987 and 100 in the hung-parliament of 1992, Kinnock accepted PR and the rest as they say, isn’t history.

  • I agree with Paul Walter and others who point out how disgracefull this move is. Remember how arrogant they were about the JENKINS COMMISSION when they got in with a big majority?
    It is also quite insulting to us because they think we will eagerly jump through their hoop.

    In fact I think our MPs should not support this amendment in the bill. Labour have had 10 years to do it under their own terms while they had a majority.And as it is a law requiring a referendum after the next election it can easily be ditched by the incoming government.
    Labour is at its old trick of using the Libdems when it suits them and we should have nothing to do with it.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Dec '09 - 9:09am

    David Allen (in response to my noting the stupidity of the AV+ system)

    Well, not if you use the simple rule that the top-up is based on the aggregated constituency vote, so that if Bill Duckhouse wins the consituency of Blaggerby Magna as an Independent Conservative, his votes don’t count toward the Tory top-up tally, and he thereby scores another massive own goal for his party!

    The problem is when Bill Duckhouse is the unpopular Tory MP, and people want to vote Tory but want Duckhouse out. So Esther (don’t ask about MY salary and expenses) Celeb stands as an independent, and gets in. The people who voted Celeb at constituency level are Tories, they will vote Tory for the top-up list, and since Celeb isn’t officially a Tory, that’s one less Tory at constituency level so one more Tory at top-up level to make up the Tory share of seats as given by the list vote.

    Now you say instead of having a separate list vote, have the constituency vote count also as a party vote. But that’s trying to use that vote to mean two different things. The whole point is that people want to vote Tory but not Duckhouse, and you are saying “No, you can’t do that – in Blaggerby Magna the ONLY choice you have is Duckhouse/Tory if you want to vote Tory”. Why say “No, you can’t do that” when STV lets you do that? If the people of Blaggerby Magna are so committed to the idea of having an MP for Blaggerby Magna and that matters more than maximum choice, well, let them have maximum choice and exercise it in the way they want. If that’s how they feel, they can vote under STV 1 Celeb, 2 Duckhouse, 3 Targett where Targett is whatever Labour candidate says “I am the Labour candidate for Blaggerby Magna in this election for the multi-member constituency of Blaggerbyshire”. Duckhouse can join in, being so committed to the idea of the single-member constituency he can say to Tory voters “No – don’t give your next preference to Moat-Cleaner (the Tory candidate who declares he’s the one for Blaggerby Minor) give it to Targett”. Easy-peasy where’s the problem?

  • You can attack Labour for not changing the Westminster system but, thinking in terms of evidence, is there really evidence that STV will produce a better outcome? One can argue that there is the potential for STV working but that is a far cry from actually working.

    Even with the the current system FPTP, we have MPs not standing for re-election

  • What a load od rubbish, just tell them it is PR or nothing.

    The Alternative Vote
    What is the Alternative Vote?
    The Alternative Vote (AV) is very much like First-Past-the-Post (FPTP). Like FPTP, it is used to elect representatives for single-member constituencies, except that rather than simply marking one solitary ‘X’ on the ballot paper, the voter has the chance to rank the candidates on offer.
    The voter thus puts a ‘1’ by their first-preference candidate, and can continue, if they wish, to put a ‘2’ by their second-preference, and so on, until they don’t care anymore or they run out of names. In some AV elections, such as most Australian elections, electors are required to rank all candidates.
    If a candidate receives a majority of first-preference votes (more people put them as number one than all the rest combined), then they are elected.
    If no candidate gains a majority on first preferences, then the second-preference votes of the candidate who finished last on the first count are redistributed. This process is repeated until someone gets over 50 per cent.
    AV is thus not a proportional system, and can in fact be more disproportional than FPTP.

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  • By It’s Brown vs Brown on electoral reform | Mark Pack on Sat 23rd January 2010 at 12:15 am.

    […] Party, the Prime Minister and Chief Whip are in disagreement over Gordon Brown’s plans to legislate for a referendum on AV (which would be held after the general […]

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