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Thinking electoral reform has a future in our lifetime is plain potty

First Past the Post (FPTP) is here to stay in House of Commons elections for quite some time. Electoral reformers need to get used to that. AV may have been the electoral reform that nobody really wanted but Proportional Representation (PR) would have fared little better. The case for PR is more substantial and has many enthusiastic advocates,  but quite a few who were pro-AV are anti-PR, the public would still have been unmoved, and the Clegg factor would have been even more decisive. It’s not that the public will never vote for constitutional change. They did vote for devolution, second time around (just about, in Wales) because it gave them more power as well as more politicians. Unfortunately, electoral reform doesn’t give the people more power, it just shuffles it about a bit.

That’s why the Clegg factor would have been even worse. PR would have meant they could never be sure of getting rid of Mr Clegg. The Yes campaign disputed that AV would mean more coalitions but they surely couldn’t do that with PR. Indeed as we moved from a two-and-a-half party system (fewer in Scotland and Wales) to a multi-party system over time, voters would have less and less control over who got into government (as opposed to parliament).

Sunder Katwala suggested three possible theories for AV’s defeat: the “silly question” theory (the British people just aren’t interested in electoral reform); the “Clegg factor” and “it was Yes wot lost it.” Sunder goes on to develop the “it was Yes wot lost it” theory and promises also to look at the impact of how the referendum was called in his next instalment. We don’t discount that the Yes campaign made its prospects worse. So too did the circumstances of Clegg demanding a referendum at a time not of Labour’s choosing and just as he made himself Labour voters’ least favourite politician. But, as well as the Clegg factor, we do indeed suspect the question of electoral reform will always be a “silly question” in Sunder’s terms (though we note he does not himself seriously address the possibility.

You have to ask, had we been debating proper PR, how would the battle lines have been drawn differently? The Tories would still have been against. The Lib Dems in favour. But the split in Labour would have been very different. Tom Watson, leading defender of FPTP in the past, made this clear in the AV campaign, and he was a crucial figure in putting the AV commitment into Labour’s manifesto when Gordon Brown proposed it (not because he believed in it, but because, utterly wrongly, he thought constitutional change was the right response to the MPs’ expenses scandal).

The vested interests in opposing change would simply have been stronger. Under PR, the broad churches that are Labour and the Tories would be prone to splits: Labour’s Left would see a viable Red or Green future, and the Tory Right less downside to working with UKIP. Party loyalty would diminish. So broad church leaders would fight to preserve their churches. On AV, Labour agreed to face both ways but on PR the party machine may well not have remained neutral although it would not have prevented dissenters campaigning the other way. Certainly the Leader and at least half the shadow cabinet would have been with the majority of the PLP in the No campaign.

And yet it would still have been Labour voters that needed persuading.

So let’s face reality. Forget electoral reform. It just ain’t going to happen.

One Comment

  1. Electoral reform will come again because FPTP doesn’t work in a multiparty democracy.

    Next time we should follow the New Zealand example. The referendum question should be a non binding question ‘do we want to change the voting system.’
    There would be a much better chance of getting a YES result, because the referendum would be all about FPTP, which is difficult to defend.

    With a YES vote, in even a nonbinding referendum, we would be on the road to PR. This should be a system akin to AMS. We should ditch preferential systems such as STV.

    For an ‘AMS’ PR system that avoids the problems inherent in party lists, where all MPs are constituency MPs, google DPR Voting

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