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Talking Political PR, UK Style

Reports that former Labour leader Tony Blair is prepared to drop his opposition to electoral reform for the House of Commons and embrace the alternative vote (AV) system have been widely welcomed by the reform lobby. Even the Liberal Democrats, who advocate the single transferable vote (STV) system of proportional representation, are enthusiastic, saying that the apparent move towards AV indicates that Labour thinking is in a promising state of flux.

And, indeed, the reports do suggest that Blair might be in the process of changing his mind in the right direction. After Labour’s 1992 general election defeat, when pressure from within the party for electoral reform was at its height – with an increasingly vocal lobby arguing for the German-style additional member system of proportional representation (AMS) – Blair was one of the most prominent critics of the reformers, whom he believed had given up on Labour ever becoming a party supported by a majority of voters. And he stuck to this position once he became leader, making it clear that he was not in favour of changing the electoral system for the Commons, even though he backed his predecessor John Smith’s promise of a referendum on electoral systems.

For “sources close to the Labour leader” now to suggest that he is no longer so enamoured of “no change” is undoubtedly significant – not least because there’s a strong case for arguing that AV is a staging-post on the long journey from supporting the first-past-the-post (FPTP) status quo to backing some sort of proportional representation. Many of the Labour figures who are now advocates of PR, including the most senior of them, Robin Cook, stopped off at AV on the way. If Blair is taking the same journey, supporters of proportional representation – among them NSS – have good reason to be pleased.

On the other hand, he might not be doing any such thing. The alternative vote actually has nothing in itself to do with PR: it’s an option in its own right. Under an AV system, used for example for the Australian House of representatives, there are single-member constituencies, with FPTP; what is different is the way that voters mark their ballot papers. Instead of placing a single cross next to the name of a candidate, a voter can rank his or her preferences. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote on first preferences, the last-placed candidate drops out and his or her ballot papers are redistributed among other candidates according to second preferences – and so on until one candidate emerges with more than 50 per cent of votes cast.

The advantages of this system are that it retains the link between MPs and their constituencies, but improves on FPTP because each MP has to secure 50 per cent of the vote. But the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. The role AV gives to voters’ second choices puts even more of a premium on political inoffensiveness than currently exists. And AV does little or nothing to ensure that parliament really does represent the spread of opinion in the country – which is surely the most important reason for getting rid of first-past-the-post.

Most experts agree that, under AV, representation of the Liberal Democrats would be marginally increased, but that otherwise the change would have little effect on the composition of the Commons. AV would certainly not give the Lib Dems anything like the share of seats that would be commensurate with their share of the vote, let alone see the election of more minor-party MPs, whether Green, far-left or far-right.

Of course, as Blair argues, there is a real problem with PR, in that it can give minor parties disproportionate influence. But this problem is soluble, through a mixture of thresholds for representation and strict rules to prevent changes of government on the whim of minor parties holding the balance of power. It’s even easier to deal with the other main objection, that PR means an end to the link between MPs and their constituencies or else massive multi-member seats: the additional member system preserves single-member constituencies for most MPs, achieving proportionality by topping up their numbers from regional lists. Of course, AMS would mean radical changes in Britain’s political culture – but that’s precisely what Blair has said he wants. And if it’s good enough for new Labour in Scotland – the party backs AMS for its proposed Scottish parliament – it should be good enough for Westminster too.

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