Paul Anderson, Red Pepper, November 1997

Supporters of proportional representation are dismayed by reports that Labour’s long-promised referendum on changing the electoral system for the House of Commons will offer voters a choice not between the current system and some version of PR but between the status quo and a non-PR system, the alternative vote (AV).

At the Labour Party conference in Brighton last month, home secretary Jack Straw, a long-standing opponent of PR, told a fringe meeting that he ‘could live with’ AV. After the conference, several newspapers quoted ‘senior party sources’ as saying that Tony Blair had come round to the same point of view. Party spin doctors suggested that Blair might get his way by appointing Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, the Liberal Democrat peer, to chair the commission on voting systems that is due to recommend a system to be put to the voters in the referendum.

‘The alternative vote is the only system that’s even worse than first past the post,’ Ken Livingstone, the Labour MP for Brent South, told Red Pepper. ‘It exaggerates the representation of whichever party is ahead. We could push it through and then five years later find the Tories winning a majority of 50 with only 1 per cent more of the vote than us.’

Richard Burden, the Labour MP for Birmingham Northfields and chair of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, Labour’s main pro-PR pressure group, said: ‘The manifesto is clear that the voting systems commission will be charged with recommending a proportional system for the referendum. AV is not a proportional system. It gives voters precious little say over the shape of the parliament after an election.’

A Liberal Democrat spokesperson made much the same point: ‘The commitment was to a referendum on a proportional system and the alternative vote is not a proportional system.’

AV retains the single member constituencies of the status quo but changes the marking of ballots from ‘x’ to ‘1, 2, 3’ and so on in order of preference. If no candidate gets 50 per cent of first preferences, the second preferences of the last-placed candidate are added to the other candidates’ totals, a process that continues until one candidate has more than 50 per cent of the votes.

AV is not a proportional system, although it is often mistakenly described as one. It would give greater representation to the centre than FPTP, but would make it just as difficult for small parties to win seats and would force parties to compete even more than at present for the centre ground.

The prospects of AV as a would-be electoral system for the Commons seemed to have been dashed last year when a Labour-Lib Dem consultative committee chaired by Robin Cook and Robert Maclennan agreed that ‘the referendum should be a single question offering a straight choice between first past the post and one specific proportional alternative’. Blair himself ruled out AV as an option because ‘it’s not proportional’ in an interview just before the election.

Labour was first committed to a referendum on electoral reform by John Smith in 1993. The government has promised that the additional member system of PR will be used for elections to the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly, and it is planning to introduce a list system of PR for the 1999 European Parliament elections.

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