The Alternative Vote referendum – A ‘miserable little compromise’?

As Lib Dem and Tory MPs look on the referendum on the alternative vote (AV) in May with trepidation and anxiety, most people wonder what it is actually about.The Con-Dems’ Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill has passed into law. The number of MPs will be cut from 650 to 600 and constituency boundaries will be re-drawn.Across Britain and Northern Ireland, there will be an opportunity to vote on replacing the current first-past-the-post voting system in parliamentary elections with AV on 5 May.Bob Severn from the Socialist spoke to Clive Heemskerk, from the Socialist Party’s executive committee, on what this referendum represents.

With the Tories opposed to AV and the Lib Dems only lukewarm in its support, why is there a referendum to change the parliamentary electoral system to AV in May?
The Lib Dems have historically supported a proportional representation system (PR) but AV is not more proportional than the current system. As is widely known, Nick Clegg called AV a “miserable little compromise”.

But the Liberal Democrats’ pro-free market leadership – the so-called ‘Orange Book’ group which is ideologically committed to ‘market solutions’ – had to offer something to their party activists to persuade them to join the Tories in the most vicious austerity government in generations.

A referendum on AV was the least they could get away with.

So the referendum isn’t about ‘cleaning up politics’, as the Yes to AV campaign claims?
There is a concern amongst sections of the ruling class over parliament losing legitimacy following the MPs’ expenses crisis. Especially in this ‘age of savage austerity’, there is concern among the political and economic establishment that they are stoking up difficulties if the instrument of cuts, parliament, is seen as ‘illegitimate’.

They remember, for example, that the poll tax was imposed on Scotland by a Tory government which only had ten MPs elected out of 72 Scottish MPs. This added to the anger felt by Scottish workers when the poll tax was introduced.

So some sections of the establishment may well hope that a change of electoral system, even though AV is the most minimal change, will create the impression of a more democratic system and secure the acquiescence of the victims of austerity to ‘the will of parliament’.

But it won’t work – tinkering with the parliamentary voting system won’t deflect the tide of opposition that has begun against the cuts.

How does the AV system work compared to the current first-past-the-post system?
The system being proposed is still constituency based. You still elect one MP per constituency.

But instead of just putting a cross against one candidate’s name, voters will number the candidates in order of preference, if they want to. If no candidate gets over 50%, the candidate who comes bottom is eliminated first, their second preferences are redistributed and so on, until all the other candidates have either been eliminated so there are only two left, in which case the top person is elected, or the preferences take someone over 50%.

Is it possible for socialist or workers’ candidates, for example Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) candidates, to gain out of the AV system?
It is possible for victories to be achieved in any system. The Socialist Party’s sister organisation in Australia, one of the few countries that has an AV system, has won council seats, for example.

But Australia also illustrates how AV is not a more proportional system. The Australian Green Party is not a threat to capitalism but it is perceived to be more radical than the Blairised Australian Labour Party.

Yet in last year’s general election, while the Greens won 11.76% of first preference votes compared to 38% for Labour, they only won one seat, out of 150, against 72 for Labour.

Ironically, the Green Party in Britain also won its first ever parliamentary seat last year, under first-past-the-post, with just 1.1% of the national vote.

So there’s no evidence that AV will make it easier for smaller parties to make a breakthrough. An AV system may increase a first preference ‘protest vote’ for TUSC candidates – before preferences are transferred on – but it doesn’t make it easier to win seats.

This would particularly be the case for a mass workers’ party that was a threat to the capitalists’ political representatives. In such a polarised election the forces behind the competing capitalist parties, the media etc would have the option of backing their favourite capitalist party, then making sure they mobilised voters to use their subsequent preferences against socialist or workers’ candidates.

The first-past-the-post system actually makes it harder for capitalist parties to achieve such unity in electoral terms.

Why shouldn’t the labour movement take advantage of those divisions?

But couldn’t AV be used to block out the most right-wing candidates? For example, in the 2008 London mayoral election the Socialist advocated a number one vote for a left candidate and a number two vote for Ken Livingstone, against the Tories’ Boris Johnson.
Ken Livingstone lost that election because of the general disillusionment with the record of New Labour in government. But also because he had failed to use the momentum of his election victory as an independent in 2000 as the basis for building a new left political formation that could have transformed the political situation in Britain, dominated as it is by the absence of any mass vehicle for working class political representation.

So even if Livingstone had been elected in 2008, it wouldn’t have solved the cuts catastrophe facing workers in London. He wouldn’t have followed ‘the Liverpool road’ and led a mass campaign of defiance of the austerity agenda.

It would have been ‘Red Ken’ implementing the cuts rather than ‘Blue Boris’.

That example actually illustrates the real issues involved in electoral reform debates. You can have an extremely democratic system but unless there’s a vehicle for working class representation it is not going to resolve anything.

The USA, for example, is far more ‘democratic’ at a formal level than Britain. California, with a population of 40 million – less than Britain’s population – has 7,000 elected bodies with different jurisdictions, ranging from the state governor and the state legislature, to city mayors, city boards of supervisors or councillors, and school district boards, to mosquito abatement boards, and so on.

That is far more than the number of elected councils, assemblies, parliaments and so on that exist in Britain. But this hasn’t solved any of the problems of American workers as there isn’t a workers’ party to vote for.

That’s how we need to look at electoral systems in this particular situation facing Britain today. Will a change to AV make it easier to help establish a new workers’ party? There’s no evidence that it will.

It may allow some more protest votes, but it won’t resolve the issue of getting candidates elected, getting a new mass workers’ party off the ground, or enable such a party of the future to challenge the capitalist parties as a governmental alternative.

Are there electoral reforms that socialists could support, such as proportional representation?
In the present situation, where there isn’t a vehicle for workers’ representation, we would support electoral reforms which made the establishment of a new mass workers’ party easier, or which boosted the electoral performance of a pre-formation of one such as TUSC.

A proportional representation system, such as that which exists in Ireland, would make it easier. Even the system that operates in the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly and the London assembly is better than AV.

There are constituency representatives elected, but then there is a second vote for party list candidates, which ensures slightly more proportionality.

But there are variants even within the same type of electoral system. The additional members system is particularly favourable for smaller parties in Scotland where in some of the regional seats a left candidate only needs 5% to 6% of the list vote to be elected.

It’s a higher threshold in Wales, with fewer additional members per region, where a 10% to 15% vote is needed to be elected from the regional lists. The labour movement needs to look at each system in its context, and ask the question, ‘does it aid the struggle for working class representation?’ The AV proposal in the referendum on 5 May doesn’t.

Another electoral reform would be to borrow from the demands of the Chartists back in the 1840s, who were fighting for universal suffrage. They also included the demand for annual elections “since members of parliament”, in the words of the Charter, “when elected for a year only, are not able to defy and betray their constituents as now”.

A democratic reform like that would shake up the parliamentary system – we would be fighting a general election now on the Con-Dems austerity programme, not a referendum on AV! – and would not hold back the establishment of a mass party that fights for the working class.

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