Voting system to change so things can stay the same

Stuart Weir says next year’s AV referendum is an ugly and undemocratic manoeuvre

Next year’s referendum on the alternative vote could be a Frankenstein monster that the big parties have created between them. It is already being sucked into the usual, petty party political squabbling that does so much to damage political life in Westminster and then cast its baleful influence across the UK.

For the Westminster parties the idea is that the AV referendum should be a passive replicant of change, a symbol of reform that will in fact leave them safe from the democratic challenge of pluralist politics. The public is allowed only a choice between two majoritarian systems, one of which is marginally superior to the other.

The basic aim of all the pre-election positioning and now of the coalition’s proposal has been to keep the three parties in or near power, albeit on altered terms. In short, the referendum is an ugly and undemocratic manoeuvre to diffuse popular discontent while permitting an adjustment of the status quo that the coalition parties, especially the Tories, held dear: equalising the size of constituencies and reducing their number.

The proposed referendum itself denies the public a choice of a proportional system even though it is presented as giving people the power to decide. As Gerry Hassan has shown its timing will exploit and disrupt elections in Scotland and Wales – a sign of Westminster’s disdain for national politics elsewhere in Britain, even though their elections are indeed proportional.

At the same time the legislation enabling the referendum in 2011 yokes it together with two major changes: to the population size of constituencies, and the way this is counted. The latter prematurely relies on electoral rolls that urgently require reform. These alterations would be better taken separately from the referendum. The Coalition is exploiting the fact – a shameful one for the opposition – that Labour can hardly complain after 13 years of neglecting the unwarrantable unfairness of a system which it must take responsibility for having preserved despite all its waffle about reform.

But we at OurKingdom can and should criticise the replacement of one cynicism by another, having done our best to inject principles into British politics.
Despite all this, a majority of us will personally support the Yes campaign. In the course of the Referendum Plus debate those who do will explain why and others, like myself, why we disagree. But we are all agreed that we want the debate to look outwards to the wider democratic issues that surround the referendum.

In particular, we intend to consider the referendum choice in the context of a new electoral system for a reformed second chamber. We will also ask about the ability of the House of Commons to hold the executive to account.
Ours will not be a ‘wonky’ debate – thsat is, a debate dominated by technical arguments. But we recognise that technical questions can and will have a profound effect on outcomes. The political consequences and legitimacy of the process are at present incalculable, and will depend on the turnout, the size of the majority either way, which party or parties are best placed to exploit the final decision and the wider political culture in all the parliaments and assemblies of the UK as they look ahead.

This article originally appears in OurKingdom online news magazine , and which has started a new section to debate the AV referendum: Referendum Plus

Stuart Weir is founder of Democratic Audit at the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex and book reviews Editor for the OurKingdom online news magazine

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