I’ve been a PR man longer than I’ve been a PR. Electoral reform is in my blood: my Great-Grandfather probably knew Lloyd George. I learnt my alternative systems at the knees of the masters, having been part of the King Crewe at Essex University in the early 80’s. I may be a Reformer (indeed, I’m a member of the Reform Club), but I am also a classic Liberal. And that means that I nail my colours firmly to the fence. Here’s why.
FPTP is a perfectly sensible system. It is robust, easy-to-understand, and has stood the test of time. In a situation where there are only two parties and all constituencies are of equal size there is, in fact, nothing to beat it. But life’s not like that. The number of voters per constituency ranges from a Scottish low of 21,837 to an Isle of Wight high of 110, 924. The more realistic variation ranges between 60,000 and 80,000; nevertheless, so much for one person one vote. This variation, plus the growth of multi-party politics, means that invariably the majority of votes cast in a constituency have not been in favour of the winning candidate. And as we add up all the FPTP winners to find the largest party, it often leads to governments whose “mandate” consists of most votes not having been cast in their favour. So, FPTP in a modern context is clearly not proportional and doesn’t in anyway produce a result that represents the majority feeling across the country.
So AV is the answer? Er, no. Classic reformers look to the wider picture. We would like to see a properly reformed upper chamber (I’ll start there rather than with a written constitution, proper disestablishment of church and state, etc, etc). We would like to improve significantly local government and to push decision-making down to the most appropriate level. Only when the upper and lower levels of the political sandwich have been reformed should we address the meat of the issue: the House of Commons. This, we believe, requires radical reform. For one thing it needs to be dramatically reduced in size, down from 650 to around 200. Ideally the wide variations in constituency size could be ironed out by introducing multi-member constituencies. And before I hear people spitting out their tea at the prospect of losing the traditional link between MP and their constituents, let me remind them that we have, in all but name, a presidential voting system. The vast majority of people cannot name their local MP, and the vast majority cast their vote for whom they want to be prime minister. And what does the link between MP and constituent actually mean in practice? Often it is a mixture of Citizen’s Advice and local councillor. In fact, MPs often find that their constituency work would be far more effectively managed in the hands of properly-trained experts. The electoral reform debate needs to start by being more focused towards improving local government. Only after that can we start to think properly about how many, and what sorts of, people we need in the second chamber to create, scrutinise and oversee legislation.
Proponents of AV describe it as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get electoral reform. It isn’t. It is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to kick any real reform into touch. If it does go through, then we’ll be stuck with a poor system that merely scratches the surface of what’s really needed. We would also set a precedent that any substantial electoral reform would require another referendum. But if it fails to go through then we’ll be stuck with an out-dated and unfair system for the foreseeable future.
And all this means that on May 5th I will not beat about the bush. I will come straight to the point without any of that typical Liberal shilly-shallying. Without a doubt I will almost definitely vote Yes. Or maybe No.