Socialism is Democracy: Labour should accept AV

This week MPs have voted in support of a Bill which would mean that next May the country would get to decide on whether they want to stick with FPTP (first past the post) or switch to AV (Alternative Vote). While this may not have been the choice many of us who support a more proportional system wanted we shouldn’t underestimate its significance.

This week MPs have voted in support of a Bill which would mean that next May the country would get to decide on whether they want to stick with FPTP (first past the post) or switch to AV (Alternative Vote). While this may not have been the choice many of us who support a more proportional system wanted we shouldn’t underestimate its significance. It is for this reason that on Wednesday Compass published a major report calling on Labour to back the Alternative Vote referendum and push for a more meaningful proportional voting system.

In Compass’ latest report, Socialism is Democracy, Neal Lawson argues that any renewal of Labour as a party of real power must be predicated on the alignment of socialism and democracy. Electoral reform, far from being an issue for the chattering classes is of central importance for any people or organizations that want to see a more equal society.

Lawson argues that:

“Democracy is the means by which the powerful are kept in check to stop them becoming more powerful. It transfers power from the wallet to the ballot box.”

By extension Lawson asserts that the Conservative Party are currently opposing electoral reform because they are happy for an elitist society to prevail.

What’s more, the report demonstrates why electoral reform makes greater equality more likely.  As Lawson goes onto say:

“FPTP (first past the post), because its outcomes rely on the votes of a few swing voters in a few swing seats, tends to concentrate political power in the hands of the already powerful… PR, on the other hand, precisely because it makes every vote count, disperses power. The academic Arend Lijphart argues that consensus democracy produces ‘kindlier, gentler policy outcomes including greater redistribution from the wealthy to the poor.”

Indeed the pamphlet argues that democracy is, as such, both the means and the ends of a socialist society.  It is now time, as Lawson puts it, to drop the myth of 1945 – that socialism is what Labour governments do – as strong Labour governments alone won’t get us there and instead embrace a more plural, more proportional system of government, recognizing that to create a more equal society we need to create a fairer electoral system.

Furthermore, Lawson explains why we have to accept that coalition government is here to stay and that a more proportional system is not only desirable but increasingly essential:

• First, the number of people voting for the two main parties has declined from around 97% in 1951 to 65% today;

• Turnout has fallen, down from 80% in the immediate post-war years, hitting 59% in 2005, before recovering slightly in 2010;

• A third of the electorate did not vote for the two main parties; and finally

• There has been a dramatic decline in marginal seats from 180 seats in 1970 around to only 86 seats.

The likelihood of securing big majorities and strong single party governments is being reduced by these decisive trends – the public are delivering coalition governments even under a FPTP system.  It is now time for our electoral system to catch up with the public.

The AV is far from the perfect electoral system, but a yes vote at a referendum next year will show decisively that the way we elect officials, our democracy, is not monolithic – it can change and that such a change is both necessary and desirable.

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