Ironically, as the Lib Dems and Tories dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s on a power sharing agreement it sounds like the turning point in the negotiations was the Tories promising to implement a policy that only appeared in the Labour parties manifesto: to hold a referendum on the AV voting system.
By offering this the Tories are making a big concession to the Lib Dems although it is worth pointing out that the AV voting system is by far the least proportional of the four voting systems that have been discussed and I summarised in my last blog post. As it is still a single candidate electoral system it means that the big two parties could still benefit from it, pushing out smaller parties that have a loyal but small following who may miss out of the second preference votes (I’m thinking in particular of the Green’s after they won their first seat last week).
Despite it being the least proportional it is still a major concessions by the Tories. It is easy to see why this would be unpopular for them and their supporters, the left-wing vote in this country has been split between two parties in the past – Labour and the Lib Dems. Under the AV system it is likely that in many places the second preferences of these voters would stay on the left and therefore push out the Tories who relied on their opponents being split. It is therefore impressive that they are offering any sort of deal on this issue even if it is for the least reforming of the possible systems.
It is also worth noting how feeble it therefore was of Labour to also offer a referendum on this, they were likely to gain the most from such a system. It leaves the single constituencies that tend to help bigger parties more. They also had the least to fear from a stronger Lib Dem party as they do share more values with them than the Tories do.
Have a Proper Referendum or None at All
I must be honest and say that in general I am not a big fan of referenda, I’d rather our elected politicians would make the decisions on our behalf so this may sway my views but I really don’t think that having a AV vs. FPTP referenda is a good idea. It is pitting two very similar against each other. I also can’t see any of the main political parties getting behind the AV cause. The Lib Dems don’t really want it, preferring the more proportional STV system. The Tories will see it as a threat to ever getting in power again and Labour will be caught up in a leadership battle and the woes of opposition and won’t be too fussed about supporting an issue that they probably think was forced upon them after the expenses scandal. One group of people that will almost certainly be vehemently against it will be the Murdoch-lead press who will see it as a challenge to their ability to dictate who will win the election.
It is almost like we need to employ some really clever people to go away and think about what the best system for our country will be… oh wait… we already did that. The Jenkins Commission reported in 1998 that the best system to keep stable governments with an increased proportionality would be the AV+ system. Similar to the one that we will have a referendum on but with an additional proportional element.
If politicians are going to insist on ignoring experts advice and hold a referendum, at least give the public the option to select the recommended AV+ system. At the same time the referendum could include the STV system, sponsored by Lib Dems, could be included to allow people to really get behind the system they wanted.
Of course with no really backers to its name the AV system would probably fade into obscurity but I think it could still play a crucial role in Electoral Reform. With 1 traditional and 3 reforming options in my proposed referendum there is a large risk that the reforming vote will be split evenly between the 3 and therefore lose. The AV system would be an excellent solution to this problem and allow the electorate to select the system that they really feel is best for the country.