There has been some debate on Lib Dem Voice about the merits of the Alternative Vote for Westminster elections, in response to Labour's kite flying on the subject earlier this week.
Some Lib Dems think that a move to AV would be a welcome first step towards proper reform, namely the introduction of the Single Transferable Vote.
Before people glaze over completely, I should stress that the issue is not one of principle, but tactics to achieve reform. For Lib Dems, the principle is one of fair votes, with voters being given the maximum possible choice and having their preferences broadly reflected in the make-up of the legislature. This is why the vast majority of Lib Dems support STV, as the best means of achieving those goals.
The question is whether the introduction of AV would be a step along the road to STV or not. In my view, supporting the introduction of AV would undermine the case for STV and would be a retrograde step in itself.
Let's be clear about this: AV is not a proportional system. Indeed, as the Jenkins Commission highlighted a few years ago, it can be even less proportional than first past the post. Labour would almost certainly have had bigger majorities in both 1997 and 2001. And given the problems which Labour had at the time, I think it's quite likely that the Tories would have had bigger majorities in both 1979 and 1983, and possibly 1987 as well.
I don't understand why some Lib Dems think it's worthwhile swapping one non-proportional system for another, especially when the proposed solution is in some respects worse. The argument is that AV would get people used to preferential voting, that it would result in greater Lib Dem representation and power and thus break open the door to further reform.
I think this argument is dangerous nonsense. Firstly, while AV would indeed be likely to result in more lib Dem MPs, that's certainly not guaranteed. Even if it did, that doesn't necessarily mean that the Lib Dems would be in a position to force further reform. Would we really have had more power with increased Labour majorities in 1997 and 2001?
I also think that accepting AV would kill any demand for subsequent electoral reform, resulting in any move to STV being delayed for at least a generation and perhaps longer. Would my fellow Lib Dems really want to see another non-proportional system for maybe 50 or 60 years?
In Scotland we now have STV for local government, and it's also been in use in Northern Ireland for decades. In both countries it works well (and the evidence last May in Scotland was that people coped significantly better with STV for local government than they did the additional member proportional system for the Scottish Parliament).
Why add yet another electoral system to the many we already have (FPTP would be retained for local government in England and Wales, AMS for the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments, party lists for Europe, STV in Northern Ireland and Scottish local government, supplementary votes for mayoral elections)?
The Lib Dems must make the case loud and clear that STV is the only system which comes in any way close to achieving our objective of fair votes. Accepting AV would be a move down a blind alley. As I've already said in the members-only section of Lib Dem Voice, it looks more like a Trojan Horse than a gift horse.
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