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It’s never pleasant to watch any creature’s death throws. The denial of impending doom can be pathetic, undignified, but the death agonies of this Labour government are farcical rather than pathetic.
The belated conversion to a poor excuse for electoral reform fools no one. Its sole purpose is to entice the Liberals into a post-electoral coalition. There is however a curious unwillingness in British politics to discuss electoral systems. It’s partly the old Whig myth that the British democratic system which emerged from the Glorious Revolution of 1690 (neither glorious nor a revolution) is the best system human minds could envisage. After all, it has survived more than three centuries.
The alternative vote is a system of preferential voting within single member constituencies. For Labour it has two attractions. It favours the big parties in most constituencies and, although it would give some extra seats to the Liberals and to other smaller parties, the big parties would set the pace in any post-election game for power games. One or other of the big parties might even win a simple, overall majority within it. The Liberals, moreover, might be fool enough to buy it as a transition to a more genuinely proportional electoral system. Let’s look at the alternatives and the arguments behind them.
The Tory position is identical to Labour’s previous position. In essence, no change, first-past-the-post. It is simple and easily understood by the electorate. It creates a direct link in the constituencies between the politician and the people, and stable government. It mirrors the great social divides in the world and reflects these in parliament. (That’s not a reason they’ll often articulate but it is at the heart of much Labour thinking.) It was reasonable in the essentially two party system of the UK from 1931 until the mid-1960s. In a two-party system, first-past-the-post facilitates a simple expression of the electorate’s wishes and normally maintains stable government with reasonable working majorities. The best example of it is the United States, which is, and always has been, a two party state. The great positive of the US system however is the primary election, in which the electorate decides the candidates in the formal election.
The real weakness of the UK’s first-past-the-post system is that in the safe seats, Tory or Labour, the party hacks determine the candidate. They select their own mirror image to represent them rather than the electorate and, with limited alternatives, the electorate has too often obliged and returned the monkey wearing the appropriate rosette. That is one of the underlying reasons for the cynical disregard of the electorate which has become the norm in Westminster of late.
The Liberals have long argued for a multi-member, single transferable vote system of proportional representation. We’ll return shortly to that proposition but there is a minor semantic quibble with the Liberals. STV may produce a more proportional outcome than first-past-the-post but it is not proportional. Only a national list system, as operated in Israel, creates proportional representation in a parliament. In that system, every elector casts one vote, for the favoured party (the party, not the candidate), the votes are counted nationally and the seats in the national parliament are distributed proportionally. Very fair, very proportional but, as well as divorcing the politicians from the electorate via a constituency link, this system gives total power to the party apparatchiks who select the party list. This is no system for those who wish openness and accountability and the ability to ditch rotten individual politicians.
So we return to the Liberals’ single transferable vote. I once sat on Edinburgh District Council and listened with bemusement to Donald Gorrie, later MP and MSP for West Edinburgh, extol the virtues of STV. It was clear that he wanted a system which would reduce the number of Tory and Labour MPs and increase the number of Liberal MPs. (STV favours the parties of the centre which expect to gain second and third preference votes from voters from both the other parties.) Whichever of the big parties was out of office, the Liberals would always be the partner of the other party and therefore permanently in office.
There is certainly a smugness, a selfish agenda, in the Liberal endorsement of STV in multi-member constituencies, and yet, I am now a convert. Firstly, we no longer live in a two party system. Like it or not, politics are now more complex. We require a system which reflects that and does not give a huge parliamentary majority to a party gaining less than 40% of the vote. We require a better electoral system, one which is more proportional but which also maintains the link between politicians and a local electorate, which allows relatively small parties with a reasonable local base to secure representation, in which the electorate can vote for the party of their choice but also reject particular candidates who have scunnered them for whatever reason, one in which the party hacks who select do not have more power than the electors who elect. STV is the best bet to achieve that.
Alex. Wood was, many years ago, a councillor and was twice a parliamentary candidate.
The above article was first published in Scottish Review on 10 March 2010:

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