It is now looking almost certain that next week’s referendum will lead to a defeat of the Alternative Vote. Not many people will lose any sleep over this since not many people are interested in electoral reform, and even fewer are proponents of AV. But I fear that this will be a disaster for those seeking to reform our political system. We can say goodbye to fair voting for a generation at least.
The Conservative leader, David Cameron, played it brilliantly, seducing the LIberal Democrats into coalition by offering them a referendum on an electoral system that isn’t proportional representation, but would give the Liberal Democrats a few more seats. Now that the naive LibDems have been caught in the trap, they have turned nasty, behaving like bad losers, threatening court action against their detractors. How ludicrous they look. How vain and petty. It was their own intellectual dishonesty that got them into this mess.
. I feel genuinely angry about this – not just at the absurd claims made by the No campaign about “letting in the BNP” and other alarmist nonsense. But at the dishonesty at the heart of the Yes campaign led by the Liberal Democrats As Nick Clegg said himself, in a quote that may become his political epitaph, AV is a “miserable little compromise”. Indeed, and it’s miserable that the LibDems have accepted it, not because they believe in it, but because it will probably lead to more Liberal Democrat MPs being elected.
But as Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University has pointed out, had the 1997 or 2001 elections been fought on AV, the result would if anything have been more disproportional. In ‘97, Tony Blair won a 167 seat majority on 44% of the popular vote, a grotesque distortion of the true result. If AV could actually lead to an even more unfair result, you wonder what point there is in voting for it. The Yes campaign responds that, while it isn’t ideal, the Alternative Vote is at least proportional in single constituencies. Voters rank the candidates from one to four, or however many are standing, in terms of their preference. If no candidate has a majority of the vote on the initial ballot, the bottom candidate is dumped and his or her second preference votes are distributed among the remaining candidates. This goes on until one candidate emerges with 50% of the vote. This is arguably fairer than the present system where a candidate can win on a minority of the votes cast.
However, the problem arises when there are 650 seats. Then the AV system fails to guarantee what, for my money, is the only purpose of electoral reform: to ensure that the parties’ representation in parliament broadly reflects the number of votes cast for them in the election. Prime Ministers like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair used their unassailable majorities to pursue their own narrow-minded and destructive obsessions. That gave us the industrial recessions of the 1980s, plus Mrs Thatcher’s poll tax, and allowed Tony Blair to launch an illegal war in Iraq. Had it not been for his inflated majority, we would not have invaded Baghdad in 2003, because parliament would have voted against it, and tens of thousands of lives would have been saved. FPTP encourages megalomania in Number Ten because it allows Prime Ministers to ignore parliament altogether if they want.
Only a system of fair votes can prevent this happening – a system such as the Additional Member System that elects MSPs to the Holyrood parliament. AMS ensures that the composition of the parliament reflects the wishes of the voters. But it also addresses one of the criticisms of other forms of PR, like the Single Transferrable Vote, that they break the link between the elected member and the geographical constituency. AMS does this by having two votes: one in the 73 Scottish constituencies using FPTP, and another based on 8 regional lists of party candidates lists. Using a mathematical formula called the “d’Hondt method”, the regional votes are redistributed in such as way as to supply additional members to each region to balance out the unfairnesses that arise from First Past The Post. Simple.
Well, not really – but it is a creditable system that has served Scotland well. It has prevented one party dominating Holyrood on the basis of a minority vote. But more importantly, it has ensured that minority parties and independent candidates can gain representation. Now, some critics of PR say this is undesirable because it might allow nasty parties like the BNP to gain respectability. But this objection if fundamentally undemocratic. Better to expose these parties to the light of public scrutiny and political accountability, than let them fester in extra-parliamentary obscurity.
There is a kind of electoral Darwinism with PR which ensures that only relatively able politicians and parties survive. In 2003, fed up with the big party monopoly, Scottish voters returned 7 Scottish Socialist and 6 Green MSS, as well as a senior citizens MSP and the redoubtable Margo Macdonald. Unable to cope with the exposure, the SSP collapsed into internal division and acrimony, its leader ending up in prison for perjury. But the Greens are still in there fighting the good fight, as is Margo Macdonald, a national treasure and one of the most distinctive and influential voices in Scottish public life.
The other criticism of PR is that it leads to coalition and government by compromise. But sometimes compromise, or rather collective decision making, is the best way. And coalition isn’t inevitable. The SNP minority government in Holyrood has been more effective than its coalition predecessors. PR has forced MSS not just to vote on party lines, but to engage in serious detailed negotiation over annual budgets. All MSPs are important, and they all have to exercise their consciences on a regular basis. First Past the Post does the opposite: it allows legions of timeserving MPs with safe seats to hang around parliament at the beck and call of their party whips. Prime Ministers in Westminster treat MPs with indifference or contempt because they are not afraid of them.
But of course, the AMS system is not on offer in the referendum. We are stuck with lousy AV. Perhaps it will be a “baby step” towards real PR, but I have my doubts. If I do vote for it, it will be with thumb and forefinger fixed firmly to my nose.