Electoral Reform Society’s about turn on AV

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ERSBy Stephen Newton

Take a look at the website of the Electoral Reform Society today and you may be forgiven for thinking that the ERS has always been a keen supporter of the alternative vote. But not so long ago the society was dead against AV, stating clearly that:

“‘AV is not a proportional system, the society does not regard it as suitable for the election of a representative body, e.g. a parliament”

Very soon after the coalition agreed to hold a referendum on AV, the ERS website went through a rapid Orwellian cleansing so that today one could be forgiven for thinking not only that the ERS thinks the alternative vote is a fairer vote, but that the ERS has always felt the alternative vote was a fairer vote. Sadly, for the Ministry of Truth the internet is not so easily censored and the society’s original position on AV has been preserved by the Internet Archive’s Way Back Machine. The society’s revised guide to AV billed as “all you need to know about the system on offer in next year’s referendum”, gives voice to none of the society’s previous concerns. In a clever fudge, the ERS claims to have “long argued that AV is the best system when you’re out to elect a single winner”. Yet the next parliament will not consist of a single winner, but of at least 600 winners.

The fundamental fear with regard to AV is that it will produce an even less proportionate parliament than first-past-the-post. This acknowledged lack of proportionality has even been used by the Labour Yes campaign’s Will Straw to present Labour’s no brainer case to campaign for AV. Citing the “world’s leading expert on referenda” Staw claims that in every election since 1997 Labour would have gained more seats under AV. In 1997, Labour won 63.4% of the seats in parliament with just 43.2% of the vote. The Jenkins Commission estimated that AV would have delivered more than two thirds of the seats in parliament to Labour in 1997 and Labour Yes argues, with a straight face, that this would have been a fairer outcome.

Back in November, I complained to the BBC after it described AV as “a system of proportional representation”. The BBC has agreed that it was mistaken and that it will not refer to AV in this way again.

The only argument for AV is that it is quick and easy to implement and the charitable interpretation of this situation is that electoral reformers lost their bottle at the time of the coalition was formed and went for this easy option as a stepping stone. However, referenda are rare in this country and it is unlikely that we will be asked to ditch AV for something more proportional any time soon. The closer one examines the alternative vote, the more it looks like a gerrymander designed to create more Lib Dem MPs while continuing to lock out smaller parties like the Greens and UKIP. However tempting, Labour should not be party to that gerrymander.

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