Sunday, 30 May 2010

Political Reform Part 2: Electoral Reform in the Commons

Perhaps the most notable reform in the coalition agreement is the AV referendum. AV is not a proportional electoral system but electoral reformers see it as an improvement on the current electoral system. The referendum is also important because it sets a precedent that the electoral system is an important area of debate and because if it passes it is likely to encourage supporters of other electoral systems. AV is not substantially different from First Past The Post. We would still all live in single seat constituencies, as we do now, but we would rank candidates on the ballot paper rather than simply putting a cross next to those we like. If a candidate gets more than 50% of the vote then he or she is elected, quite simply. This would be the fate of a MP like Steve Rotherham of Liverpool Walton, who got 72% of the vote this year. If no candidate achieves 50%+ of the vote, then the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and their second preferences are redistributed, candidates continue to be eliminated until one candidate gets 50%+ of the vote. In theory this should eliminate tactical voting (if I vote for, say, the Green Party, I have no fear of this letting in the Conservatives if I second and third preference the Liberal Democrats and Labour as if the Green Party candidate is eliminated my vote will flow to one or the other). The traditional view has been that the primary beneficiaries of AV would be the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats. For example the Electoral Reform Society used ComRes polls of people's second preferences to calculate the 2010 election under AV and concluded that the Conservatives would have won 281 seats (-26 compared to the actual result), Labour would have won 262 (+4) and the Lib Dems would have won 79 (+22). This result is not too different, but would have given a Lib-Lab coalition a majority, which may well have changed the nature of post-election coalition negotiations more than a fair amount). It is worth remembering however that if the electoral system IS changed it will inevitably change the way people vote. AV would allow the British people to vote in a much more sophisticated fashion and it is likely that they will exercise this right.

Labour has officially supported the system for the last year or, this has been viewed in two ways by commentators, firstly as desiring to change the system in a way which benefits them, and secondly as an olive branch to the Liberal Democrats in case of a hung parliament. Ironically the only party which officially supports the system is now in the opposition. Labour, will, I suspect, be forced to campaign in favour of the change, despite what I suspect will be internal division about it – several backbench MPs will probably oppose it, but the Labour leadership will have to campaign in favour. This will I suspect lead to the odd spectacle of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition (whoever that will be) campaigning alongside, against the position of the Prime Minister. Yet, against the perceived wisdom, the person with potentially the most to gain from AV is David Cameron.

There is a 'natural' cycle of support for a government across a parliamentary term. Just after the election the government is popular as people are filled with hope and optimism, generally even opposition voters are willing to give the new government a modicum of support. By the mid-term the government is usually at a particularly low ebb, as the shine comes off when the government fails to fulfil all the expectations of its supporters. As the election nears however the government usually rises again as the opposition comes in for more criticism as it comes closer to forming an alternative government, and as the effects of government policies become more apparent with time, most of the time however the government loses votes from the previous election. There are occasions where this is not the case, (usually when the opposition is seen as particularly incompetent or out of touch), but this is the 'norm'. Therefore it is likely that whenever the next election is that both coalition parties will lose votes to the Labour Party, and they are also in danger of splitting pro-government voters between themselves. Therefore the most likely outcome of the next election is Labour Party victory (this is by no means written in stone, and there are a tremendous number of variables, but this remains my view). Yet if there is AV Cameron could attempt to create a relationship not dissimilar between the two parties of the centre-right in Australia who form a permanent Coalition. In Australia, they originally had FPTP but adopted AV. The reason was that Australia had one centre-left party (The Australian Labor Party) and two centre-right parties (now known as the Liberals and Nationals, but then operating under different names). AV allowed these two parties to, at one of the same time, compete and cooperate without introducing proportional representation, and allowed them to keep the ALP out of power. 'The Coalition' as this deal is known, often puts up two candidates in each constituency but recommends that voters second preference their partner party. If there is AV Cameron and Clegg, can, however, argue for the re-election of the governing coalition. It is likely that AV would make the coalition's re-election more likely as it is. In Lib-Lab marginal seats like Brent Central Conservative voters will be more likely to second preference the Lib Dems and aid their election, if both parties explicitly campaign for its re-election it will be a big help. The result of this may be a haemorrhaging of voters from the Lib Dem left but the spoils of government despite this may attract their support nonetheless. If Clegg and Cameron can succeed in convincing their voters to second preference each other, they have a much better chance of convincing their voters of stopping their government from being a one-term affair. AV would make it so that the next election is not just a battle for votes, but for second preferences, who wins those second preferences may define the next election result.


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