Next year's referendum on the alternative vote is meant to be the pivot on which the coalition government will swivel. The thinking runs that if the Liberals lose then they have no reason to continue their cohabitation with the Tories and Labour is back in the game. I doubt this and suspect that if public spending cuts push us back into recession, mass unemployment and penury will bring Labour back. ( And conversely, if the Conservatives and Liberals manage to build a prosperous society, then their future is assured.)
Still AV excites the pundits, and yet few are noticing something very strange about this pivotal reform: no one actually wants it. Conservatives believe in first-past-the-post, and so do many Labour supporters. Reformers want some form of PR, preferably the single transferable vote so never again do we have a repeat of the 2005 election where Labour secured a comfortable majority with a little over 1/3rd of the vote.
Yet there is no guarantee that ranking candidates in order of preference and then sharing out the preferences of losing candidates until a winner is found (I simplify, I know) will bring a more proportional result. Sometimes it would, sometimes it would install an even more unrepresentative elected dictatorship than first-past-the-psot
As the Jenkins Commission pointed out in 1998,
Beyond this AV on its own suffers from a stark objection. It offers little prospect of a move towards greater proportionality, and in some circumstances, and those the ones which certainly prevailed at the last election and may well do so for at least the next one, it is even less proportional that FPTP. Simulations of how the 1997 result might have come out under AV suggest that it would have significantly increased the size of the already swollen Labour majority. A 'best guess' projection of the shape of the current Parliament under AV suggests on one highly reputable estimate the following outcome with the actual FPTP figures given in brackets after the projected figures: Labour 452 (419), Conservative 96 (165), Liberal Democrats 82 (46), others 29 (29). The overall Labour majority could thus have risen from 169 to 245. On another equally reputable estimate the figures are given as Labour 436, Conservatives 110, Liberal Democrats 84 and others 29, an overall majority this time of 213. On either basis an injustice to the Liberal Democrats would have been nearly two-thirds corrected (their strictly proportional entitlement was 111 seats) but at the price of a still greater injustice to the Conservatives. The Conservative 30.7% of the votes should strictly have given them 202 seats. Instead FPTP gave them 165 or 25% of the seats, whereas AV would have given them on one estimate only 96 (or 14.6% of the seats), and on the more favourable one from their point of view 110 seats (or 16.7% of the total).
Manufactured landslides such as these are not good for those of us who believe that governments always need strong opposition.
No one even bothers to pretend that the Tories and the Liberals are offering AV because they believe in anything so quaint as its intrinsic merits. We are having a referendum because it was the only change to the system their leaders could stomach - just about.
The compromised nature of the reform will have profound effects on the referendum campaign. Put bluntly, AV is an orphan, a motherless child, whom no one truly loves.
There will be no passion behind the AV campaign, no zealots for reform touring the town halls as supporters of votes for women or Scottish devolution once did. You might counter that the public will like it because it is a "typically British" compromise. Leaving aside the point above that AV can in some circumstances lead to more extreme results than the present system produces, I imagine that the AV referendum campaign will demonstrate the typical Briton's love of hypocrisy rather than compromise.
Conservatives will be able to protest their loyalty to Cameron and the coalition, while voting against because Cameron himself is on record as opposing AV.
Leftish reformers will be able to put aside their love of reform, and satisfy their hatred of the coalition, because AV is not a proportional system.
All the passion will be on their side, while supporters of reform will merely have the anaemic arguments of convenience.
Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom (Fourth Estate) and What's Left? How The Left Lost Its Way (Harper Perennial). Living With Lies, a collection of his writing for Standpoint, is available as an ebook.
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