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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35 Responses to “Socialism is Democracy: Labour should accept AV”

  1. Paul Sandars

    RT @leftfootfwd: New post: Socialism is Democracy: Labour should accept AV http://bit.ly/9ytGQ9

  2. Robot J. McCarthy

    repeal progress RT @leftfootfwd New post: Socialism is Democracy: Labour should accept AV http://bit.ly/9ytGQ9

  3. Philip Cane

    Blog @leftfootfwd and thinktank Compass: Socialism is Democracy and Labour should accept AV because of that…? http://bit.ly/9ytGQ9

  4. Vote No To AV

    Blog @leftfootfwd and thinktank Compass: Socialism is Democracy and Labour should accept AV because of that…? http://bit.ly/9ytGQ9

  5. House Of Twits

    RT @leftfootfwd New post: Socialism is Democracy: Labour should accept AV http://bit.ly/9ytGQ9

  6. anyleftiwonder

    I do not accept that a coalition government is here to stay. The electorate did not vote for a coalition – we got one by default !

  7. CAROLE JONES

    RT @leftfootfwd: Socialism is Democracy: Labour should accept AV http://bit.ly/9ytGQ9

  8. Haneef Khan

    Socialism is Democracy: Labour should accept AV, http://bit.ly/dl5CfP #yestoav

  9. Robot J. McCarthy

    Caught red-handed RT @haneefjkhan Socialism is Democracy: Labour should accept AV, http://bit.ly/dl5CfP #yestoav

  10. oldpolitics

    So what I take from this is that

    1) We should support a system that isn’t PR anyway, because PR might be beneficial to the left in some hypothetical way, and
    2) It’s an acceptable debating tactic again to define democracy in a circular fashion to mean “the voting system I prefer”.

    Jolly good.

  11. MS

    Socialism is Democracy: Labour should accept AV | Left Foot Forward http://bit.ly/aKDPkY — Keeping Watch

  12. Shamik Das

    Socialism is Democracy: Labour should accept AV: http://bit.ly/9ytGQ9 writes Zoe Gannon of @CompassOffice on @leftfootfwd

  13. Andy White

    @oldpolitics

    1) the point is that PR best reflects a fragmented party system (where votes are not concentrated in the hands of one or two parties); but with no short-term possibility of PR, the proposed switch to AV would also better represent a fragmented vote than FPTP

    2) in such a short opinion piece it might seem rhetorical, but it’s not as if the intellectual debate hasn’t been explored in depth. Very few academics support FPTP as an effective democratic system. There is more support for AV, in that it retains the features of FPTP which (some) commentators value — single-member constituencies, a tendency to deliver single-party governments (yes, usually) — while tightening up the way MPs are actually chosen in each constituency, and giving voters greater choice.

    Another point which a lot of people have overlooked is just how significant ending tactical voting would be. At the moment, Labour actually stands dud candidates in some Lib-Con marginals, so as not to split the vote. Small parties like the Greens lose deposits and struggle to measure real levels of support because their natural supporters vote tactically for other parties. You cannot underestimate how bad this is for our party system, and in particular for CLPs and similar Labour networks in Conservative heartlands.

  14. oldpolitics

    I think you’re wrong, Andy. AV would disadvantage radical parties – it only “better represents a fragmented vote” if the currently underrepresented party is on the centre ground and good at picking up second preferences. It would further disadvantage a left-of-Labour party (possibly including the Greens), and UKIP.

    Tactical voting would not end, nor would safe seats. Major parties’ safe seats would be a little reduced in number, and Lib Dem seats would become supersafe. I got a leaflet from my local Lib Dems telling me a Conservative vote was a wasted vote because the Tories hadn’t won locally since before the war (sort of true) – fine, had it not been for the Euro-election!

  15. Anon E Mouse

    Since the Labour Party was the only party to stand on this in the election in May this year it would be nice if they actually stopped playing politics and supported the change…

  16. Gordon Gibson

    Yes, ok, but there is a bit of a problem with boundary changes and gerrymandering

  17. Daniel Simms

    RT @Richard28Wood: Should Labour supporters vote for AV (YES) > http://www.leftfootforward.org/2010/09/socialism-is-democracy-labour-

  18. Anon E Mouse

    Gordon Gibson – There may be gerrymandering but the Tories did propose it before the election and more people voted Tory than Labour.

    Also Labour won the 2005 election with 35.3% of the popular vote. The Tories were just a few points behind with 32.3% of the vote but because of the FPTP system Labour had a significant majority with 356 parliamentary seats compared to 198 seats for Tories and that’s not fair.

    Even though the Tories got 36.1% of the 2010 vote they only got 306 seats and while Labour had a result only as good as that achieved by themselves under Michael Foot they still have 258 seats – again it’s unfair.

    Labour don’t like boundary changes because it will reduce their seats but clearly the thing needs sorting – it’s just a sour grapes excuse.

    I realise the problem with PR and not being able to boot the bums out but anything has to be better than this.

  19. LibertyPatriot

    Socialism Alert: Socialism is Democracy: Labour should accept AV | Left Foot Forward http://ow.ly/18WP50

  20. Daniel

    RT @LibertyPatriot: Socialism Alert: Socialism is Democracy: Labour should accept AV | Left Foot Forward http://ow.ly/18WP50

  21. Gabi Schmidt

    RT @LibertyPatriot: Socialism Alert: Socialism is Democracy: Labour should accept AV | Left Foot Forward http://ow.ly/18WP50

  22. cim

    Labour don’t like boundary changes because it will reduce their seats but clearly the thing needs sorting

    But the vast majority of the imbalance between the Con vote/seats ratio and the Lab vote/seats ratio (and for a much larger imbalance the LD vote/seats ratio or the Green or UKIP vote/seats ratios) is caused by different concentrations of support – with a lot of the Conservative vote ‘wasted’ in ultra-safe seats – rather than differences in constituency size. The only solution to that is a proportional system – boundary changes will have minimal impact.

  23. Anon E Mouse

    cim – I agree in theory on the PR side, especially since FPTP has actually given us a coalition (as PR often tends to) but how can one directly hold a politician to account locally?

    In other words how do you get the buggers out under PR?

  24. Andy White

    @oldpolitics

    1) AV would disadvantage extreme parties (those for which mainstream voters have little sympathy, such as the BNP), but not ‘radical’ parties like the Greens or UKIP. The Green vote in Australia is at a healthy 11%, achievable because of AV. While AV doesn’t increase (or decrease) smaller parties’ chances of securing seats in parliament, it increases their ability to influence politics.

    2) AV would, in practical terms, end tactical voting, as I have explained on the LSE blog: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/?p=3915

  25. Anon E Mouse

    Andy White – On tactical voting what if the electorate like the coalition (I do, it seems so refreshing) and go say Tory then Lib-Dem and visa versa in Labour held marginals depending on the chances of stronger coalition party winning.

    One may not be able to ensure the outcome of which of the two would hold the most seats but could certainly it could increase the chances of another coalition and damaging seriously Labour – unless they proposed a coalition with the Lib Dems themselves…

  26. Andy White

    @Anon E Mouse

    That isn’t tactical voting, though — that’s a sincere expression of a voter’s preferences.

    re: the coalition, it has certainly damaged the Lib-Lab link, but I don’t think the Lib-Con link is any stronger at the voter level. Yes, the Lib Dem parliamentary party is now much closer to the Conservatives, but Lib Dem voters remain predominantly left-leaning.

    As for the likelihood of future hung parliaments, in a single-member system (which both FPTP and AV are), this is dependent on context. In some situations, AV makes hung parliaments more likely, in others it makes them less likely. This has little (if anything) to do with what the parties actually propose electorally. It’s more about fragmentation of the vote and geographic concentrations of party support.

    The last election wasn’t hung because the British public magically asked for a hung parliament — they’ve asked, proportionally, for a hung parliament in every election since the war. But now factors have combined to make Westminster particularly susceptible to hung parliaments, regardless of whether FPTP or AV is used (look at the situation in Canada).

    We shouldn’t decide to support AV on the basis of whether or not it delivers more hung parliaments, but on the improvements it makes upon FPTP at the constituency level: MPs forced to work harder to win support of a majority of his/her constituents, more marginal constituencies, and no incentive to vote tactically.

  27. cim

    In other words how do you get the buggers out under PR?

    Depends on the PR system. STV makes it very easy to remove individual politicians without harming their party if you still want to vote for it. Open-list PR is still fairly good as long as the parties don’t cynically put up exactly as many candidates as they can win places for (which can backfire horribly in the event of a late surge in the polls, so they probably won’t).
    Closed-list PR is terrible for exactly this reason and I’d rather have a decent non-proportional system than that.

    what if the electorate like the coalition

    Then loyal transfers between LD and C is not (under AV) a good way to keep it, since it benefits the conservatives enough that they get a significant outright majority (yes, I know, 100% transfers is ridiculous).

    The best guarantee of coalition (FPTP, AV or even under PR) is a significant rise in the number of seats won by the Lib Dems, but not by the Conservatives, which just means tactical voting for the Lib Dems under FPTP and in AV (oddly) tactically preferencing LD over C as a Conservative-leaning coalition supporter in a LD/C marginal (and voting honestly otherwise).

  28. Sophie Bryce

    RT @leftfootfwd: New post: Socialism is Democracy: Labour should accept AV http://bit.ly/9ytGQ9

  29. Mr. Sensible

    I have to say i shudder somewhat if coalition politics is to be the order of the day given what we’ve got.

    When clegg sold himself for a seat in power, that wasn’t exactly democratic, was it.

    I certainly do not support full PR; it reduces the accountability within constituencies. AV is an improvement, but I am still not in favour of it and will vote against.

    Add to that the gerrymandering of constituency boundries as highlighted by someone else.

  30. Charlie Holden

    RT @leftfootfwd: Socialism is Democracy: Labour should accept AV http://bit.ly/aKDPkY

  31. John Slinger

    Why is a system which gives weight to the 2nd, 3rd, etc preferences of those who voted for the candidate who LOST the first round (on 1st preferences alone) somehow fairer than FPTP? In a seat where the BNP were standing and were knocked out in round 1, this would mean their voters’ 2nd, 3rd etc preferences would immediately be added to the pot. How is this fair and how is this democratic? I believe in PR, not some weird labyrinthine system. As we may be about to discover with the Labour leadership result, AV can also result in the person who lost decisively in round one actually winning thanks to preferences. Often, as in this campaign, voters want to support one candidate, because they feel that person would be the best. That’s simple: I think you’d be best at the job, so I support you by giving you my vote. Under AV, we’re effectively expected to choose whom we support (1st preference) and then rank those who we have already effectively said we do not feel are up to it, in order of preference. Perhaps I’m missing something, but this seems strange and not an improvement on FPTP (for all its flaws).

  32. cim

    John Slinger: I too would much prefer PR, but nevertheless I think that AV is a far superior method for single-seat elections to FPTP and worth supporting on its own merits.

    Taking the Labour leadership election as an example, it’s possible that if EM and DM were the only candidates, then EM would win under FPTP. It therefore seems silly that by adding three additional candidates who are not themselves going to win, DM wins because in general those three candidates take more of EM’s potential FPTP votes than DM does.

    AV can also result in the person who lost decisively in round one actually winning thanks to preferences

    You can’t assume that AV first preferences are the same as the FPTP votes would be for the same candidates, though. If the leadership election was being held under FPTP, then a lot of the first preference votes for DA/EB/AB would probably end up instead being FPTP votes for EM or DM.

    In FPTP, the voter has to work out which the top two likely candidates are, and vote for the one they prefer (and if they guess wrong or choose not to do so, then the effect of their vote is identical to an abstention)

    In AV the voting system automates this for the voter so all voters can vote honestly and have a more identical influence on the election outcome.

  33. Darren Bridgman

    @tscholesfogg ok I understand 140 char is not an easy way to have an argument my link is to a lab blogger for support http://bit.ly/9PtgyD

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