Tomorrow by close of voting the British electorate – or those who can be bothered to turn out – will, in all probability, have decisively rejected the first opportunity in decades to reform their voting system. They will also, in so doing, have put the chance for further reform on the backburner for many years to come. This is not a cause for rejoicing, despite the increasingly hysterical note of the less than salubrious ‘No to AV’ campaign. If Britain had already been neatly equipped with an equitable and representative voting system, then there would be nothing to complain about in tomorrow’s likely result. But it is not. It has instead a demonstrably unrepresentative system whose strains have become ever more apparent in recent successive elections.
It is scandalous that a voting system which delivers strong majority government on a mere 36% of the vote (as First Past the Post did for Labour in 2005) continues to operate in a would-be liberal democracy. It is a national disgrace that thousands of votes in a significant proportion of constituencies amount to little more than window dressing, giving their owners no share whatsoever in the outcome of a general election. It is wholly unacceptable that a party scoring 23% of the vote should be delivered a mere 8% of the seats in the national legislature (the Liberal Democrats in 2010, and it matters not a jot that their share of the vote may, a year later, finally have come down so dramatically that it at last meets the share of seats they once won!). Yet all of these undemocratic features are the regular characteristics of the First Past the Post system that our two major parties are desperately seeking to maintain in tomorrow’s referendum. There are dictators in Africa who could probably claim more popular support than some recent British governments!
The one shred of respectability that could conceivably be attributed to FPTP is that it delivers strong governments. Quite apart from the extraordinary misnomer that ‘strong’, single party government should be regarded as a good thing in a pluralistic democracy (Putin, after all, delivers strong government in Russia, but I don’t notice British politicians leaping to praise his beautifully liberal leading of that nation), the 2010 election even managed to rip that last, vacuous defence from the mouths of its proponents.
So why is the tide running so strongly in favour of retaining this system that has seen the unrepresentative nature of British government increase, while the electoral turnout from voters who no longer believe their votes can affect which party governs has so markedly declined (from 78% in 1997 to 61% in 2005, and a very slight increase to 65% in 2010)? It is partly because of a brilliant, disreputable, manipulative and utterly unprincipled No to AV campaign, but it is also partly the consequence of placing FPTP against what is possibly the least attractive replacement system, the Alternative Vote. In engineering this referendum, the Coalition have betrayed the principles of electoral reform they sought (reluctantly, in the Conservative case) to pursue. The Liberal Democrats in particular, whose raison d’etre in recent years has been to campaign for a more equitable voting system, have allowed themselves to be so comprehensively outmanoeuvred that they barely deserve to remain a serious contender for national power. How a party whose leader so memorably dismissed AV as a ‘miserable little compromise’ could then have accepted it as the only alternative to FPTP beats most of the best brains in politics. Never mind student fees; when Nick Clegg held the dealer’s hand in the coalition negotiations with a Conservative leader desperate to form a new government, he baulked at the only prize his party would find worth receiving. He allowed AV on the electoral reform referendum.
AV is not, in fact, quite the dastardly system its opponents are portraying. It retains some of the strengths of FPTP – single member constituencies for example. Through the ability to vote for candidates in an order of preference, it offers the chance to see elected representatives who are not simply the choice of a minority of voters in their constituencies (in 2010 only a third of MPs actually achieved majority support). MPs even use AV to elect the Speaker and the chairmen of the Select Committees. AV is stringently opposed by a BNP which knows it will be further marginalised by a system which is more likely to reward consensual candidates. MPs wishing to hold their seats under AV, after all, need to appeal to undecided voters who traditionally occupy a centrist political position. The argument that AV will encourage MPs to work harder and reflect the needs of their average constituent rather than pander to often unrepresentative activists in their party committees is a credible one. Yet despite these virtues, the same people who so lamely allowed just one, readily attacked system to appear on the electoral reform ballot have also manifestly failed to argue the case for AV with anything like the strength it deserves.
I am a citizen of a well known democracy whose electoral victors represent the views of under 40% of her citizens. The last chance for at least a generation to change that comes tomorrow, and for all the flaws of the AV system on offer, it not only represents a better and more democratic system than the one we currently use, but it keeps open the chance for further, much needed reform. We reject that at our peril.