Counterfire is the latest far left organisation to declare for a NO vote in the referendum (on May 5, on the Alternative Vote, or AV). Whilst they rightly attack First Past the Post (FPTP) and advocate proportional representation (PR), they argue (wrongly in my view) that AV would be worse for small parties than FPTP! This, they argue, is because the requirement under AV for a candidate to win at least 50% of the vote would have disqualified both George Galloway and Caroline Lucas in recent elections!
But this is the wrong approach to the issue. Surely the 50% requirement is a modest progressive reform which should be supported in principle — even if it would occasionally prevent a left-wing candidate being elected on a minority vote! Though whether such candidates would actually lose out under AV would depend on the distribution of other preferences.
Caroline Lucas, for example, would be likely to pick up a lot of second preferences in Brighton and might well have won under AV. She is campaigning for a YES vote.
In any case the way to redress injustice against small parties in the is not to defend an undemocratic system but to fight for more democracy.
The comrades stress that AV is not a proportional system, which is true of course. It only deals with the constituency vote and therefore has no mechanism for creating a proportional Parliament. That does not mean, however, that it is not a significant improvement over FPTP — it clearly is.
This is because it allows supporters of small parties to vote for them as a first preference and still express a view on the main parties. It avoids (partially at least) the problem of the wasted vote and means that the votes for small parties can be fully reflected in the election. It also reduces the need for tactical voting.
The article also argues that the issue of voting reform is a distraction from the struggle against the cuts. But it is wrong to counterpose these two issues. Electoral reform has been thrown up by the last election results and it has to be taken seriously by the left. If not now when! FPTP outrageously distorted politics in Britain to the advantage of the ruling class for the whole of the 20th century. If it gets a thumping endorsement in this referendum, as looks likely, it will be set to do so for the foreseeable future.
A YES vote, on the other hand would have a chance of leading to further reform. It would show an appetite for change whilst a NO vote would show an appetite for the status quo. Most of those supporting a YES vote (including most Lib Dems) see AV as inadequate and want to go further towards a PR system.
In the event of a NO vote those who have won it (and in that sense own it) will be supporters of FPTP and will regard it and use it to defend the existing system. Any mention of electoral reform would in future be met with the stock response that “we have had a referendum and that is the end of it”.
The other point which the comrades stress is that the referendum should be used to give the Lib Dems a good kicking. This, in my view, is both wrong as a method of approach and wrong in its assessment of the effects of a NO vote.
Whichever way the vote goes it will cause a crisis in the coalition — it is already doing so. Whilst a NO vote would precipitate a crisis for the Lib Dems a YES vote would be totally unacceptable to a swathe of Tory MPs, who see FPTP as akin to a religion, and could provoke an even bigger crisis in the Tory Party. If you want to use your vote to damage the coalition, therefore, use it to damage the puppet master not the puppet.
At the end of the day, however, the issue of AV, however, should not be judged on the conjuctural effect the outcome might have on the coalition partners but whether it is an improvement (even a very small one) over the existing system and does it have the propensity to open the door to further reform towards a proportionate systemon May 5