Wednesday, 24 September 2008

The perils of settling for AV

Next Left, via Jonathan Calder reports a fringe meting at the Labour conference at which Norman Lamb said that the Lib Dems would settle for AV if offered by Labour.

Here is why Norman, and anyone else who takes the same view is wrong.

Let's face it, the Lib Dems are unlikely to be in a position of overall majority after the next election. So any electoral reform is going to come about either because of Labour deciding to do the right thing or because they are forced to do so as the price of co-operation with the Lib Dems after the next election.

We might, of course, be in the same position with David Cameron in which case I think we can rule out the principled decision option.

But I think we can also rule out the principled route with Labour as well. There is enough visceral hatred of both electoral reform and the Lib Dems within the Labour ranks that the likes of Peter Hain (who genuinely wants AV) will not rule the day. So change will only happen as a result of the Lib Dems setting it as a pre-condition of co-operation.

As the Scottish Lib Dems discovered when doing a deal in 1999, the junior partner has the right to make 3-4 demands. They must accept the manifesto of the larger party on all other matters. And the larger party can expect to get its way on most things, but has to give ground on three to four key issues. Labour will force the Lib Dems to use up one of these bargaining points on electoral reform. We cannot expect them to throw it in for free both because enough are opposed to change and because they would like, for tactical reasons, to restrict the number of other demands that the Lib Dems can make.

I have long argued that such demands as the Lib Dems might be able to make should be focussed more on systemic change rather than policies. That is because once made, constitutional changes such as the voting system are far harder to unpick. They result in a genuine change of culture which, in turn, results in it being easier to produce sensible policies. Policy changes in themselves may result in fairer and better services, but time moves on and there will be a need for new legislation in these same areas within the a few years and so it is easy to unpick any advances that have been made. If you want to have lasting impact as a junior partner then the changes you demand must be far-reaching. (Having said that, if I were involved in coalition talks then scrapping ID cards would have to be on my shopping list.)

Based solely on history, the UK only experiences a period of minority or coalition government once every thirty or so years. So those who argue for the incremental change model (take AV now and people will soon realise that proper reform - STV - is a logical step), are accepting that it will be another generation before we get where we want to be.

So if the Lib Dems find themselves in a position of strength, it would be lunacy for any who genuinely want fairer votes to accept the compromise of AV.

But there is another reason why neither Norman Lamb nor anyone else should not be seeking to make agreement on AV now. That is the tactical one. Labour has a history of reneging on deals over PR. The Cook Maclennan talks in the mid 90s produced an agreement over a referendum on PR. Labour carried this into their 97 manifesto. The Jenkins Commission duly reported recommending a complete mish mash of a system. Labour forgot to hold the promised referendum on change. They again made a promise in their 2001 manifesto but again failed to deliver. So the Lib Dems need to go into any talks with as strong a bargaining hand as possible. If you have strength you do not concede any advantage. If the only deal that can be done is for AV then we would have to take that, but as a straight change within a 5 year Parliament announced in the first Queen's Speech. Giving any sort of ground now would mean having to concede in talks to a referendum and to delay that would mean that change did not happen until after the next election (and therefore possibly never).

If, like Lembit and others, you genuinely favour AV, then feel free to discuss it. But bear in mind that you do not represent the Party or the majority of its members and that you are talking yourself into a weaker negotiating position even for that which you want.


Wit and wisdom said...

First, we should not be looking to go into a coalition. This is the biggest weakness of all. We should be looking to maximise our vote and our MPs and we could stay in opposition and do far more damage there. My view is that a coalition with either Tories or Labour will be disastrous and we will be betrayed over voting reform. It won't be 'if' it will be 'when'.

Second, we have a political culture which would change under a new voting system as you recognise. AV best reflects what we have now so it might be sensible to introduce it as a halfway house to get people used to PR. The various cock ups and fiascos we have had in the PR elections which have been held in Sctoland and London demonstrate that we have a lot of persuading to do.

Third, is a generation too long to wait to introduce meaningful reform? I'd be quite happy with a 'halfway house'. We don't do revolutionary change in this country and long may that stay so.

Fourthly, and perhaps most crucial of all, we have so far done pretty abysmally in PR elections which have been held so we might pause before we rush hell-for-leather into such a major change as introducing STV with 5 member constituencies. It could wipe us out...AV would allow us to learn how to work the system just as it would the other parties and voters.

STV is like Local Income Tax. Both have become talismans but they are not necessarily perfect. (In fact I'd ditch LIT like a hot stone)

The bottom line should be no coalition with either of the thieving, conniving, lying Tories or Labour. Then we are starting from a position of common sense.

thechristophe said...

I dont actually think AV+ was a mish-mash as you suggest. As wit and wisdom explains we do poorly when the system switches to PR even though we advocate it so highly.

A move to AV would be a great step in my view, getting people used to preferential voting and majority voting without eliminating the constituency link.

Julian H said...

"STV is like Local Income Tax"

No it's not, not in any way whatsoever. LIT is a recent, quite potentially flawed, point in our tax policy. STV is an absolute and permanent point of principle.

We must maintain our intention to give people a wider choice at elections, to promote pluralism and offer the chance to break this ridiculous duopoly in Westminster.

I'd be happy for us to be part of a coalition so long as STV was fully instituted - but certainly not under FPTP as a means of simply 'propping up' either the reds or blues.

Finally - how the LDs do under STV is entirely irrelevant. This is not about shaping shaping the constitution for party-political self-interest. This is, if you'll excuse the sanctimony, about what is best for the country.

Sorry Gordo, I think I've nicked your line there.

James Graham said...

I agree entirely with Alex. Stitching up an electoral system on the basis of coalition talks is deplorable. If we should settle on anything it should be an independent review which will automatically lead to a referendum. British Columbia points us the way forward. The people - not politicians - should have the final say. I'm delighted that ERS have notably been mooting this a lot more recently.

We should be alert to the fact that a lot of Lib Dems who call for the AV option are actually opponents of PR. Simon Hughes and Lembit Opik are two examples. They are entitled to their views but I do wish they would be more straightforward with people rather than making dubious arguments about compromise.

Oranjepan said...

I've got a strong feeling to agree with James Graham! Not though because he offers any specific answers, but because I'm not convinced we have yet stumbled across the perfect answer.

My view is that the electoral system must fit with the constitutional arrangement, so looking at any one aspect in isolation (voting, HoL, devolved powers) is only likely to create additional problems further down the road.

Really we need to understand global politics better and find a way to institute a coherent global system.

Lee Griffin said...

Does anyone still take Norman Lamb seriously? I think he's said one thing of worth in the whole year...the rest has been knee-jerk sensationalism, usually at the expense of facts and reality. The Lib Dem's need to give him a muzzle.