Wednesday 30 September 2009

The People Have Spoken – Let’s Ask Them Again

It's a familiar scene from many a childhood. You're on holiday and both you and your sister both want the top bunk. There's no sense to it, but even today, as an adult, you empathise with the desire to sleep five feet above the floor, though you still cannot fathom the reason. The fair way to decide is obvious – the toss of a coin. You call and you lose, but still that top bunk beckons. There's only one hope.

'Best of three?'

Whether your sister agrees to this displacement of the stochastic goalposts depends largely on whether she a big sister or a little sister. I rarely got to throw the coin again; I have heard tell of families that made it to best of five – though never best of seven.

But that's not how they do things in the Republic of Ireland.

On Friday, the Irish will go to the polls for the second time on the Lisbon Treaty, taking an approach to democracy that is not so much 'best of three' as 'last past the post'. Because if the 'yes' camp wins this second vote, having lost the first, there will be no third round decider; no extra time followed by penalties. If the people approve the treaty this time, then that will be an approval, regardless of what they have said before. If they reject it, then who knows? The pundits say that the whole treaty will be thrown into doubt, but I don't see it that way. If the Irish government has the barefaced gall to ask for a second referendum, then they must surely feel a diminishing embarrassment in asking for a third, and then a fourth. It's a close vote, and eventually they must get lucky. And, to quote one famous Irish political force, they only need to get lucky once.

Such electoral tomfoolery would never occur in the UK, of course. Well, it might if Gordon Brown's speech at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton yesterday is anything to go by. For in that speech the Prime Minister put forward a proposal to adopt the Alternative Vote system.

Brown's justification is that 'there is now a stronger case than ever that MPs should be elected with the support of more than half their voters, as they would be under the Alternative Voting system'. Now I'm no fan of proportional representation – you only have to look at the certainty that Angela Merkel would remain German Chancellor last weekend, regardless of the vote – but let no one be fooled into thinking that that's what Brown is proposing. The idea behind proportional representation is to make parliament better reflect the opinions of the people. The idea of the Alternative Vote is to make the number of votes recorded better reflect the makeup of parliament.

Let me explain the basics. The Alternative Vote system retains the constituencies we have now. Within a constituency, however, instead of voting for a single candidate, the voter lists all the candidates in descending order of popularity. If no candidate gets more than 50% of first choice votes then the bottom candidate is struck of the list and his or her second choice votes are allocated to the remaining candidates. The process continues until one candidate has more than 50% of the vote, and they then win.

So Brown is right that no MP will be elected on less than half of the vote, but not because MPs have become innately more popular. It will be just like in Ireland. If the establishment does not get the result it wants on the first round (an MP with more than half the vote) it goes back to the electorate and asks them to vote again, and again and again. Admittedly we don't actually have to traipse out to the polls multiple times, like they do in Zimbabwe, but the principle's the same.

In terms of the makeup of the House of Commons, the differences caused by this change in the voting system are likely to be slight. Even the Electoral Reform Society says that 'the alternative vote is not actually a proportional system'. In most English constituencies, the split of the transferred votes is likely to be broadly the same as the split between the two leading parties. Both will get more votes, but whichever led after the first round is very likely to be the first to pass 50%. Small parties, which do get seats in proportional elections like those for the European Parliament, are guaranteed to have their votes transferred. In their second votes UKIP voters, by and large, will revert to their tribal type and vote Tory. Similarly, BNP voters, will, by and large, vote Labour. Even if the minority party voters vote with bizarre unpredictability on their second choices, it won't be their favoured party that gets the seat. For those of us who despise the BNP even more than we despise proportional representation, it's a good thing – but it requires no change to the voting system.

There will be some changes to actual results. Where Liberal Democrats are second to one of the major parties then the transferred votes may be sufficiently skewed to mean that the Liberal candidate passes the 50% post first. (This may well be part of the reasoning behind Brown's proposal of the system.) There's a chance too that the Greens will do well in their targeted seats. But in general, the distribution of seats in the Commons will be little changed. All that will change will be MPs' ability, in imitation of Alan B'stard, to brag to their constituents about their enormous majorities.

Gordon Brown has offered us a referendum on the reform, but it is unlikely that things will come that. I'm not suggesting that Labour would break a manifesto promise to hold a referendum on any issue – perish the thought – but the likelihood is that Labour will not get an absolute majority at the next election. So far, the Tories are not supporting the Alternative Vote – though I wouldn't be surprised if they did, given that Tory MPs would benefit equally from the illusion that they were more popular amongst their constituents. If there is a hung parliament then the Liberal Democrats will probably form a coalition with Labour (tempted, not least, by Brown's offer of slight reform). But if the Liberals are true to their values (and a whiff of power is surely not enough to distract them) then they'll insist on a referendum on full proportional representation, and Brown's half-hearted proposal will be forgotten.

But if this reform does not go through, what then will the politicians do to persuade themselves that we love them? The obvious solution, which has been mooted, is to introduce compulsory voting. That might not change the proportions, but a 12,000 majority would suddenly a 20,000 majority, on a whopping 100% turnout. It would require no new ideas, no peace treaties, no improvements to the NHS and no tax cuts, and yet suddenly all politicians would see a huge jump in popularity.

Surely there can be cross-party support on that?

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