Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Fairer voting: arcane psephology or better politics?

On May 5 there will be a referendum on the British voting system. The proposed Alternative Vote method in which candidates are ranked in order of preference is only a minor improvement on the current system — it is not true proportional representation — but it is an acknowledgement that the existing “first-past-the-post” system does not produce parliaments which accurately reflect the national proportion of votes cast for political parties.

In a recent article in The Guardian, Vernon Bogdanor suggests that AV would have had only a limited effect on the outcome of British general elections. Drawing on research at the University of Essex he suggests that only five elections since 1945 may have had different or significantly modified outcomes. Yet if Labour had indeed won the 1950 general election then Britain’s most progressive government ever elected under Clement Attlee would have had a full second term and built on its remarkable achievements such as setting up the National Health Service. Similarly, in 1992 if the Conservatives had not gained a working majority for a fourth term of government then highly problematic policies such as the privatization of rail services may never have occurred and better still, the dynamics of the Labour Party may not have veered towards Tony Blair and the catastrophic New Labour project. And in the most recent election of 2010, research by David Sanders and his colleagues at the University of Essex shows that if AV had been used, the Liberal Democrats could have formed a coalition with either the Conservatives or Labour.

Worries have been expressed that extremist parties might benefit from a change in the voting system but the main beneficiaries are likely to be the Green Party or the Liberal Democrats. The possibility of a so-called “traffic-light coalition” would become more likely with a concomitant marginalization of the political Right and their financial backers (who are bankrolling the “No” campaign).

I am not suggesting that AV is a perfect voting system, or that politics can simply be reduced to the act of voting, but this is a rare opportunity for improving the British democratic process. There are, of course, many other critical issues that should also be addressed such as weak parliamentary scrutiny of legislation, the impact of tax evasion on public finances, the distortion of the public interest by corporate lobbying activities, and the long-term neglect of manufacturing industry. A more representative and responsive parliament doesn't magically solve these problems but it does make a better politics more likely.

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