This article is taken from Litmus newspaper. Download the Litmus PDF for free from litmustest.org.
The 1997 manifesto was precisely worded. The incoming government was only “committed to” a referendum on the voting system while the removal of hereditary peers was a mere step on the route to a “more democratic and representative” House of Lords.
Then, as now, an electoral system ill suited to multiparty politics was in use for the Commons, and no legislator in the Lords (aside, perversely, from the 90 remaining hereditary peers) has faced an election.
Failure to deliver the two reforms was caused primarily by a lack of consensus on what new system to adopt. The status quo was always more appealing than a step into the unknown. Thanks to the Labour party’s return to the issue during Gordon Brown’s tenure as Prime Minister there is now an off-the-shelf solution for both electoral and Lords’ reform, which the Lib Dems in government wish to deliver.
A move from First-Past-The-Post to the Alternative Vote has three principle attractions. All are achieved without losing the constituency link, which opponents of proportional representation cherish.
First, voters are able to vote for whomever they wish. Never again should a letter come through the door of a Labour supporter in Tatton or Newbury informing them that their vote is a wasted one. Even if the Labour candidate has no chance of winning the seat, supporters can place a ‘1’ against their name, thus registering their true support in the constituencies but knowing that they can still keep out the party they like least.
Second, AV encourages more pluralism. As Fabian Society General Secretary, Sunder Katwala has reflected, “Our current electoral system creates incentives for much exaggerated hostilities between those who you are ideologically closest to. Try talk to Lib Dems and Greens about each other, especially if there is a by-election on! But politics, like society, is becoming more plural, but the electoral incentives are against this. Preferential voting [like AV] changes this.”
Third, it is harder for extremists to gain parliamentary representation. While low turnouts or a 3-way contest risk electing members of the BNP under FPTP, their chances are considerably reduced under AV as voters of mainstream parties all combine to vote against them.
Opponents who like to point out that only one other major democracy – Australia – uses AV fail to recall that variations of this system are good enough for the leadership contests of all three parties as well as for London mayor. It is also wrong to claim that AV exaggerates majorities. It would have done so in 1997 but in other instances, 1987 and 2001 for example, it would have reduced majorities. In any event, these “predictions” assume that voter behaviour would remain unchanged, which is doubtful.
A wholly elected House of Lords must be vastly preferential to the current system. It cannot be right in a democracy for the whole of the second chamber to be appointed. Yes, the traditional untrammelled power of party leaders to appoint has been modified by a separate system for cross-benchers. But the chamber still lacks a fundamental legitimacy.
An elected second chamber would put in place legislators who owe their position to voters rather than party bosses. The Coalition’s approval of “single long terms of office” – similar to Labour’s proposals – will encourage independence of thought once elected.
But it will be crucial in the legislation for the new second chamber that the relative power of Commons over Lords is set out with the former’s exclusive rights over public spending explicitly outlined on the face of the Act.
The principled arguments for these constitutional reforms are clear. But given that the Parliamentary Labour Party is by all accounts split 50/50 on AV versus FPTP and that Labour voters are needed to pass a ‘Yes’ vote, the Liberal Democrats have risked jeopardising the prospects of electoral reform through the attachment of so-called “reduce and equalise” boundary reforms to the Parliamentary legislation.
Nonetheless, Labour should not allow its understandable objections to the abolition of local inquiries and special fixes for Lib Dem seats in the north of Scotland to get in the way of support for a ‘Yes’ vote if a referendum takes place. Taking the progressive stance will also help attract wavering Lib Dem voters.
Despite being seriously wrong on the pace of spending cuts and their Parliamentary tactics, the Lib Dems are right on these constitutional reforms which will improve British politics for the better. The Labour party should put principle above short-term political advantage.
Litmus is a special publication from leftfootforward.org, conservativehome.com and libdemvoice.org in which leading thinkers from across the political spectrum address six key questions facing Britain today.
The Labour YES! Reception takes place tonight in the Obsidian Bar, Arora Hotel, Princess Street, Manchester.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.