Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 4 July 2010

It would be smart politics for Labour to back AV

The exact line from Labour on the AV referendum which is likely to be called for May 5th next year is not yet clear. That is perhaps unsurprising given that they are still in the middle of choosing their next leader.

The Miliband brothers seem the most unequivocal in their support for AV. Ed Balls is a bit less full-throated in his support and seems to be trying to position himself in such a way as he could back off from supporting it if he so wished. Abbott and Burnham have both been fairly dismissive of AV (although recently, perhaps sniffing the wind Abbott seems to have changed her tune somewhat) but they are the least likely to succeed.

You would expect me to say that Labour should be in favour of a change. They had 13 years to change the electoral system at Westminster and did not do so. Now is their chance, finally to back it. Jack Straw, one of the principal defenders of FPTP in the previous Labour cabinet has been going around doing his best to make the case against change. There are also other Labour figures who do not want change. There is a risk that they could hijack the debate within the Labour Party.

There are a number of reasons why the party really should be in favour of AV:

1) It was in their manifesto. I know that some will accuse me of hypocrisy given that there was lots in the Lib Dem manifesto that did not end up in the coalition programme but we have had to compromise. Labour is not in such a position and are free to campaign as they choose therefore they will need a very good reason to do an 180 degree turn on this issue just a few months after the election. If they campaign against AV it risks looking like playing politics.
2) Labour consider themselves to be a progressive party. There are often arguments over exactly what this word means but I think a good argument can be made that AV is progressive. It will ensure more people's votes count against the final result thus ensuring the levels of disenfranchisement we have seen for decades will be reduced. The relentlessly negative campaigning we regularly see (of the "Vote X to keep out Y") variety will be rendered largely ineffectual. It will also ensure that at least 50% of the voters in each seat have expressed a preference for the MP. I think they will find it hard to make the progressive case for retaining FPTP. Indeed Left Foot Forward, the Labour leaning self-styled progressive blog has already come out in favour of AV.
3) In those constituencies where Labour and the Tories are close they have traditionally been more likely to get second preferences from Lib Dem supporters who in many cases would ultimately have their second preferences count in the final ballot for one of the two larger parties under AV. I know that the coalition has thrown up an historically rather anomalous situation with the Lib Dems in partnership with the Tories and it is difficult to know exactly how this will pan out but if Labour are smart about how they position themselves in the next few years there is no reason why they should not still be well placed to pick up lots of second places from the Lib Dems. Which brings me to my fourth point...
4) If they campaign against AV then they are basically burning their bridges with the Lib Dems and making a future Labour/Lib Dem coalition or alliance all the more difficult. Even under FPTP it is getting more and more likely that hung parliaments will occur. Under AV they would be even more likely as analysis suggests that the Lib Dems would get closer to their fair share of seats and hence be more likely to hold the balance of power. Allied to this, if they campaign for AV they will be playing clever wedge politics aligning themselves with the Lib Dems in government and isolating the Tories leaving them as the only major party arguing against change.
5) Polls show a majority in favour of changing from FPTP to AV. Admittedly there is a long way to go between now and next May and it is not guaranteed to pass, however it is looking the most likely outcome. Political parties like to be on the popular and winning side in arguments like this. Hence if the referendum passes Labour can appear to be in the political ascendency once more.

I get the feeling that some within Labour are still quite shell-shocked at having lost power and at the fact that the Lib Dems have gone into government with the Tories. Their political instincts are telling them to throw as much mud as possible at the government and to try and wreck its programme if they possibly can. I suppose that is what oppositions traditionally do so I can't complain too much.

But Labour have an opportunity to be so much smarter than this. They should keep their tribal instincts at bay and play this situation for maximum political gain.

That requires them to back a "Yes" vote in the AV referendum.


Tony said...

I don't think, under a new leader, Labour should feel bound to their manifesto commitment to AV. They should campaign for it because although it isn't proportional, at least it is "anti-negative voting" so to speak, which is, as you point out "progressive" and comes as something of a relief to this anti-tory tactical voter. I'm disappointed, as are many others no doubt, that AV is all that is on the cards, but that is where we find ourselves. The thing that irritates me most though is that the boundary review and reduction of number of mps, is based not on population but on registered voters. That these two issues have become linked feels like a stich-up to me: something for the libdems, something for the tories; fuck labour. If both were in the referendum question, as a package, I'd vote no I think. As it stands of course I'll probably vote yes.
At least we can all see the benefits of coalition now, 77% cuts rather than 80% is quite the concession, and will make all the difference to short term aggregate demand...

Tony said...

Ok, I've thought more, and decided that this whole thing stinks. The last time AV was passed in the commons, it was on Lib-Lab votes, but was 'dealt with' by the tories in the lords. Every time the the liberals get into coalition with the tories it splits the party, and I think it's going to happen again; this is all a trap! It's a trap! (we're all doomed, etc.)

Will Straw said...

Spot on, Mark.

As you know, I made a number of similar arguments in my piece on Friday.

In addition to those arguments your point (4) is particularly important. The Coalition has shown that there is a new approach to politics in an era where hung parliaments are more likely (whatever the electoral system). In this new landscape, parties will gain trust and respect where they are able to work together where they share values.

Constitutional reform is an issue that unites many in the Labour party (although not all) with the Lib Dems. The Labour party must therefore show that it is prepared to work with Lib Dems - regardless of the anger felt over their acquiescence with the scale of cuts - on an issue that both parties care about. And while I understand (although don't share) the opposition of some Labour supporters to more proportional voting systems, to my mind there is not a single principled argument against AV and in favour of FPTP so we shouldn't pretend that there are.

That said, pro-reformers in the Coalition (and their supporters) would do well to understand how unfair it would be to place the separate issues of redrawing boundaries and reducing the number of MPs alongside legislation for a referendum.

There may be principled reasons for speeding up the existing redrawing process and also for reducing the number of MPs (although I do not understand them). But if that is the approach that the Coalition wishes to pursue surely it should also include a proper process of registering the thousands of unregistered voters so that we have a sense of the right constituency size based on eligible voters rather than either registered voters or turnout. We will also need to understand why the old principle of not having constituencies go over county borders will be breached (which it will have to if we are to lose 65 MPs). This process will inevitably take longer so there is no good reason for conflating it with enabling legislation for a referendum that will take place next May.

Chris at SOTB said...

Is anyone else thinking that Oliver Stone will be following Labour around like he did Hugo Chavez in 'South of the Border'?

His love of 'new politics' and 'a new left' is deserving of another documentary.