If there is anything the Labour Party has stood for since its inception, it is power to the people. And all through our history, that has meant reforming our electoral system to make it fairer and more democratic. It might be tempting to think of the current campaign for the Alternative Vote as a primarily Lib Dem interest, but if anything, we should own this fight. It is at the heart of our tradition and of our values.
At Labour’s very inception Keir Hardie and other Labour founding fathers recognised that First Past the Post can become deeply unrepresentative and unfair if there are more than two parties in contention for a seat. Back in the 1950s FPTP worked well, because almost everyone voted either Labour or Conservative. Now two in every three MPs are elected on a minority of the vote – sometimes less than 30% – and governments are formed with 35% of the popular vote. If as a party we believe in democracy, we have to face up to this problem.
We have in the past. AV was in our manifesto in 2010, and 80 years ago the Labour government of 1929-1931 actually passed a bill to establish the Alternative Vote – only to have a Tory-dominated House of Lords block it before it could become law. Before that we were at the forefront of the fight for women’s suffrage, demanding it back when it was opposed by Liberals and Conservatives both.
In 1948 we finally won the battle to abolish the unfair system which gave business owners more than one vote, and allowed people with degrees to vote for a university as well as a constituency MP. We reformed the system again before the 1970 election to lower the voting age from 21 to 18. We pushed through direct elections for MEPs and devolution for Scotland and Wales – and used FPTP for neither of them. All the way through, the aim was greater democracy and a fairer and more representative parliament.
That is what AV gives us. It is not a radical revolution. People can still vote for one candidate if they like, and MPs still answer to a single constituency. But they would not be able to rely on a minority hard core of support when the majority don’t want them. With a higher threshold MPs would have to make a broader appeal, and more of us would have votes that counted. That would make it easier to throw genuinely unpopular MPs out and change the government decisively, and let people vote how they want, rather than tactically. It is not a perfect system, but is a step towards the greater democracy that is our right.
Labour has nothing to fear from a system which makes gives more power to the voters. No-one can say with certainty how they will act in the future, but AV will tend to help broadly progressive forces, which have long been more divided than those on the right. Electoral modelling suggests AV would have given Labour more seats in every recent election, and could even have denied John Major a majority in 1992. As for 2010, the British Election Survey concluded that AV “would have radically changed the arithmetic of post-election coalition building” and significantly increased the chance of keeping the Tories out of power.
The Tories have done the maths. They know exactly how much AV would harm them, and that is why they are so desperately opposed to it. Under AV at least ten seats that are now Tory would have been represented by Labour, and others would have been taken by the Lib Dems. No wonder one Tory MP described AV as “a dagger at the heart of the Conservative Party”.
The other party that would suffer would be the BNP. With the move away from the main parties, there is a real prospect the BNP could win a seat with 20% or 30% of the vote under FPTP, even if 80% of the voters wanted anyone else but them. The No campaign would have us believe that would be representative and fair. But there is no racist majority anywhere in Britain. That is why the BNP are fighting alongside the Tories to defeat the referendum.
The arguments against AV rely heavily on a handful of misleading myths. AV does not undermine one person one vote: it’s just like an election is several rounds, with each person having one equal vote in each round. It is the same system used to elect the leader of the Labour (and Tory) parties, local councillors in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and union officials – as well as hundreds of other officers in clubs churches, and NGOs. Presidential elections in 24 counties use systems very like AV, with the top two candidates going to a second round. Nobody is seriously suggesting those elections are illegitimate because people get more than one vote.
Nor is AV going to give power to the Lib Dems through endless hung parliaments – in Australia they have had just two since they introduced AV in 1918 – in the UK we’ve had seven since 1910.
AV is not perfect – but it is deeply in the progressive and democratic tradition of Labour. If we want a system that it truly for the many and not the few, we should all get out to vote Yes today.
Ben Bradshaw is the Chief Spokesperson for Labour Yes and MP for Exeter