Nick Cohen

Reformers for the Ancien Regime

Reformers for the Ancien Regime
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Over on Coffee House my colleague Dan Hodges notes that a large chunk of the Parliamentary Labour Party has come out against AV, and speculates that their stand will help the “No” campaign.

 

So it may, but he is missing the true danger to the “Yes” campaign, which lies with its friends rather than its enemies. To be blunt, the supporters of “reform” are at best deluded and at worse rank hypocrites. The alternative vote solves no problems and remedies no grievances. It is an unlovely and unloved electoral system, as the voters of New Zealand showed when their government gave them the chance to choose how they cast their votes. New Zealanders were interested in all kinds of reforms to first-past-the-post but dismissed AV with scorn. Which is all AV deserves because no one in their hearts believes it is the best or fairest way to produce a government, least of all the constitutional reformers behind the “yes” campaign?

  

They believe, as I believe, that the fault with first-past-the-post is that it produces governments with large majorities on a minority of the popular the vote. AV does not solve that the problem because it is not proportional. Indeed in some circumstances, it makes unrepresentative governments more powerful. To understand how imagine a popular party leader heading for a resounding victory. It is not just the people who vote for his party who quite like the look of him. Many of those voting for rival parties will have soaked up the mood of the times. They too will see his appeal and under AV will be able to give him their second preferences, and deliver more seats to his party.

  

This was precisely the position Tony Blair found himself in 1997. Lord Jenkins in his report on electoral reform in 1998 concluded that far from making the 1997 Parliament more representative, AV would have “swollen the already sizeable Labour majority”.

 

‘A 'best guess' projection of the shape of the current Parliament under AV suggests on one highly reputable estimate the following outcome with the actual FPTP figures given in brackets after the projected figures: Labour 452 (419), Conservative 96 (165), Liberal Democrats 82 (46), others 29 (29). The overall Labour majority could thus have risen from 169 to 245. On another equally reputable estimate the figures are given as Labour 436, Conservatives 110, Liberal Democrats 84 and others 29, an overall majority this time of 213. On either basis an injustice to the Liberal Democrats would have been nearly two-thirds corrected (their strictly proportional entitlement was 111 seats) but at the price of a still greater injustice to the Conservatives.’

 

Written byNick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

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