I support PR. There, I said it. In fact, I said it time and again throughout the election campaign and I haven’t changed my mind. What I have never been very keen on (and indeed made clear during the campaign) is AV. There are two reasons for this:
1) AV is not PR – it doesn’t produce results which are proportional to the choices of the electorate and therefore isn’t much of an improvement on FPTP. There is a common assumption among AV supporters that somehow AV delivers MPs with at least half of the electorate’s support. This isn’t true, because it wrongly assumes that second or third preferences are equivalent to first choices. As a Labour supporter, I would now put Labour first, Green second and only if pushed very hard, Lib Dems third. If that third choice is counted towards the eventual total of the Lib Dem, does that mean my support was as fulsome as those who chose Lib Dems first? Hardly. But that is a “benefit” that AV claims. What AV can produce, therefore, is a “least worst” candidate and I fail to see how this improves democratic representation.
Our current party system is badly suited to AV because all parties set out their stall in contrast to the others. The nature of the two and a bit party system we have demands that parties look for differences rather than common ground. We don’t have variations on the left and right. This makes preferences much less appropriate here, because in reality, the choices are so few. AV just isn’t appropriate in the UK and of itself, isn’t enough of a change to encourage the formation of smaller parties which would broaden the spectrum.
2) It has become clear that this proposed AV referendum is as far as we are going to go down the path of electoral reform for the foreseeable future. I completely refute the view that this is somehow a stepping stone to PR. The country and our politicians will not support another change in five years time. One election with AV then switch again? Not realistic. Two? Well then you are talking about 10 years before the next change. It’s terribly naive to see AV as the first step along a path to properly proportional voting. What we should be offered is a choice of systems at the same referendum. I hate the patronising implication that people couldn’t understand any more than a single option presented to them at one time.
So, after much consideration, I will not be supporting AV at any referendum. It doesn’t improve significantly on the current system and it rules out proper change for a generation. Clegg and the Lib Dems have been sold a pup. And as an aside, I won’t be told by Lib Dems that I am backing away from an election promise – six million pots calling the kettle black, I’m afraid.
I was initially pleasantly surprised by some of Nick Clegg’s speech on the “new politics” today, even if cancelling things that don’t yet exist hardly constitutes groundbreaking reform along the lines of universal suffrage. There is a need to renew our political system and reconnect people to politics, but looking deeper into the substance of the speech, the tangible actions proposed seem a little underwhelming.
On government involvement in everyday life, he made some important statements about pulling back from a database state, but this primarily involved scrapping initiatives that would probably never have been implemented anyway – compulsory ID cards, children’s registers and fingerprinting, for example. Not seeing something that the public haven’t seen up to now will not be felt as a seismic shift in everyday life. However, I will happily give him credit for recognising that government has become overbearing in some areas of life and checking this is a positive move.
There were some loose ideas about handing control of hospitals and schools to people, with echoes of the “Big Society”, but this is not political reform, it is policy reform, and the two are very different. We will need much, much more information about how we are supposed to control our public services (and how this will improve them) before this can be judged. It is also nothing to do with reform of the political system.
And it was on the reform of that political system that Clegg’s speech was both more important and much more disappointing. Behind the rhetoric lay, well, not very much. A referendum on AV is not the groundbreaking change to our voting system we require – it’s a massive fudge from a Liberal Democrat who has always said proportional representation was essential. AV is not proportional, just slightly more equitable. It doesn’t mean that parliament reflects the first choice wishes of the people any more than First Past the Post. A partially elected House of Lords, especially with the proposed interim appointment of coalition peers is another halfway house which will improve virtually nothing. We need a fully-elected, proportional upper chamber with a clearly defined role. Another proposal, on cutting the number of MPs, doesn’t make any sense at all to me. The speech was full of fine words about giving people more control, but having less MPs serving the public across natural boundaries of local authority control will make it harder for people to connect to their representatives. It’s Tory gerrymandering and it does Clegg no credit to promote it as a great, liberating reform.
So, look ahead two years and what will have changed because of the ideas in this speech? What change will ordinary people actually notice in the way politics works? I think very little. There may be a slight change in the ballot paper come May 7 2015 (Clegg’s date for the next election), but with Cameron actively campaigning against AV, don’t bet the farm on it. It remains to be seen whether the policy proposals turn out to be more profound than the political ones.