How should the left vote in the referendum on May 5th on an Alternative Vote (AV) system of election for Westminster?
Alan Thornett argues for a yes vote in support of AV as the best option available on the day – and since the referendum will in effect be a choice between AV and the present system of first past the post (FPTP).
Labour is divided over AV with Miliband and the shadow cabinet in favour but with many prominent individuals such as Prescott and Straw against.
Labour strongly opposed the bill itself through Parliament mainly because it was linked it to a reduction of MPs and the redefining of constituencies. The referendum, however, will deal only with AV.
There are widely differing views on the left over AV as well. The Green Party and Plaid call for a yes vote whilst Socialist Party, Respect, the Green Left and the CPB call for a no vote. The AWL appear to be divided on it. The Labour Representation Committee is balloting its members with a recommendation for a no vote.
The CPB argue for a no vote on the basis that it is not PR and that it would favour the Lib Dems. The issue involved, however, is not whether the change to AV would swing the advantage towards any particular party but whether it is a gain for democracy, although a small one, over the scandalous FPTP system we have at the present time.
Under this system, in the 2005 general election, Labour only polled 35.2% of the votes cast but for this they got 55.1% of the seats in Parliament – way above their proportional entitlement. The Tories polled 30.7% of the vote and got 32.3% of the seats – just above their proportional entitlement. The Lib Dems polled 22.1% of the vote and all they got for this was just 9.6% of seats – less than half of their proportional entitlement.
This meant that it took 26,000 votes to elect a Labour MP, 44,000 to elect a Tory MP, and a huge 96,000 to elect a Liberal Democrat MP – nearly four times as many votes as those needed by a Labour MP. Such a system is indefensible.
It also meant that around 70% of voters cast votes which make no difference whatsoever to the outcome since they were in safe seats of one kind or another, while the election is won or lost in a minority of marginal seats. It is also a major contributing factor to falling turnout. Why bother if your vote will make no difference?
AV is not a proportional system, of course – the CPB are right about that – it would not produce a proportional Parliament in which the number of MPs would correspond to the number of votes each party obtained in the ballot box. That would still have to be fought for.
It would, however, bring about a number of improvements, at least at constituency level:
* It would allow voters to express their genuine preferences without the pressure to vote tactically and non-mainstream candidates could stand without fear of splitting the vote. This is because the votes of the lower placed candidates are redistributed until a candidate emerges with over 50% of the vote. It therefore benefits small parties more than FPTP does.
* It would undermine, at least to some extent, the ‘safe seat’ situation which disenfranchises large swathes of voters at every election.
* It would ensure that all MPs are elected on the basis of majority support (at present only a third of them achieve this).
Some people argue for a no vote on the basis that a yes vote would set real electoral reform of Westminster back for a long time. I would argue the opposite: that a no vote would be seen as an endorsement of FPTP and thus entrench it as a voting system.
The Tories along with the Labour dinosaurs in the no campaign defend FPTP because it gives the two parties Buggins’ turn in running the country to the exclusion of anyone else including the Lib Dems, outside of a hung Parliament and the possibility of a coalition.
This is no doubt the reason for the dire situation in the unions over this issue with most union leaderships calling for a no vote. The no campaign is claiming that the vast majority of the major unions are lining up against AV.
The Financial Times has reported that at least five trade unions – including the GMB, Aslef and the Prison Officers’ Association – will send out anti-AV leaflets to their members and that they had joined the official No2AV campaign dominated by the Tories. Unite is also campaigning against AV.
GMB General Secretary Paul Kenny said his union had ‘long held the policy that the tried and tested first-past-the-post is the system that should be used for general elections for the UK Parliament.’ He said first-past-the-post delivered strong, single-party government, was easy to understand and had a ‘strong constituency link’.
The only two unions which have declared for AV at the present time appear to be the CWU and the PCS, which is advising its members to support AV.
None of this, of course, whatever the outcome of the referendum, negates the need for PR in order to establish a democratic system of election. A yes vote should be seen as a small step in the direction of further reform and the campaign for a democratic electoral system based on PR should be stepped up.
This is not workers’ democracy, of course, it is bourgeois democracy, but while we live under a capitalist system we are entitled at least to a system of election in which the number of MPs correspond to the number of votes a party receives in an election.