David Miliband talks Sense on the Alternative Vote

Labour Party

As you know I am a supporter of changing our outdated first past the post voting system to something more proportional and fairer.  I therefore think it’s a good idea to have a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) system.  I am, however, totally opposed to the Coalition’s proposal to reduce the number of House of Commons seats to 600, which I, along with many others,  view as gerrymandering for the benefit of the Tories.  Putting the AV referendum and reducing the number of seats in one bill is quite shocking, a blatant bribe to get Lib-Dem MPs to vote for the reduction in seats.

Steve Richards excellent interview with David Miliband in the Independent newspaper (the whole piece is worth reading) says it all:

“Labour’s possible next leader has a direct message for Nick Clegg on electoral reform: “I am strongly in favour of the Alternative Vote, but if the Liberal Democrats want AV they are going about it very oddly. Let us be clear. They need Labour to be in favour of it, yet they support a package that includes other constitutional changes being rushed through to help the Conservatives. It’s student politics and not clever politics. If Liberal Democrats want electoral reform they should think very carefully about supporting amendments to the legislation that we are putting forward. Remember we want AV to succeed and there are Tories who oppose electoral reform who are rubbing their hands about the way the Liberal Democrats have gone about this … if we want AV, which I do, we have to find a way around this.”

My thoughts exactly and demonstrates why David Miliband is the best candidate to lead the Labour Party.

More Tory than Reform

Labour Party

While not on the same scale as the MPs’ expenses disk, the Sunday Telegraph didn’t do badly in getting hold of the Queen’s Speech prior to the event.  (As an aside, I’m not at all sure I approve of leaking matters of such importance in advance – it diminishes the Queen’s Speech itself almost to the point of mockery.  We either have this major event or we don’t).

The economy and Con-Dem cuts are obviously the big issues, made bigger, I suspect, by the disgraceful sidelining of Vince Cable, one of the most able, not to say likeable, members of the Coalition Cabinet.  I am, I have to say, puzzled as to why Vince signed up for what is essentially a hard right Government.

However, my own interest lies, as many of you will know, with the proposed constitutional reform.  And what a package!  The Tories have given away little and got what they wanted.    Although Nick Clegg and the Liberal-Democrats may feels they have of some of what they were looking for, the Tories have, sadly, gained much more.

Reducing the number of constituencies and making them all the same size is Tory gerrymandering of the worst sort.  It will disproportionately benefit the Conservatives. 

It is simply not fair to view hard pressed urban seats with multiple deprivation and the resulting high MP caseloads with leafy suburbs and quiet rural idylls.  Having lived most of my political life in inner London, I do know what I’m talking about.   The Tories are pretending to be fair for their own ends.  My hope now is that the Boundary Commission will stop the worst of the Conservative con.

The Lib-Dems treasured referendum on AV may not be all it’s cracked up to be.  As a supporter of proportional representation, I view AV as very much second best.          

I assume that under the new AV system the constituency boundaries would be those gerrymandered by this Government.  Voters would elect one person to represent them in parliament, ranking their candidates in an order of preference, putting ‘1’ next to their favourite, a ‘2’ by their second choice and so on.  If no single candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, the second choices for the candidate at the bottom are redistributed. The process is repeated until one candidate gets an absolute majority

 The alternative vote is not therefore a proportional system, but a majoritarian one. The only advantage is that each MP would be elected with more than half of the votes in their constituency.

 The only real conclusion to be drawn from these two proposals in Queen’s Speech is that is that the Lib-Dems have sold out on PR, their most treasured and long held policy.  The constitutional reform is purely and simply Tory reform.

Having said all of that, the other three of the five proposals are excellent: 

  • Five year fixed term parliaments
  • Reform of the House of Lords to make it wholly or largely elected
  • Giving voters the right to recall their MPs

Taking away the power of the Prime Minister to call elections will bring Britain into the modern world and end an outdated privilege.

Building on the Labour Government’s abolition of hereditary peers, I am pleased to see reform of the House of Lords to introduce a wholly or largely elected upper house.     

Recalling MPs seems absolutely right and a welcome innovation following all the problems with expenses.

On the Road to Fair Votes

Labour Party

Last year at Labour Party Conference, when Gordon Brown promised a referendum on changing the voting system, specifically holding a referendum on the Alternative Vote system (AV), I was absolutely delighted.  Today the Guardian provided this very helpful demonstration of how AV would work.

My twenty- five years of struggling to get even the very idea of fair votes for the House of Commons recognised seemed at last to be getting somewhere.  When you’re involved in what is often seen as a minority, not to say geeky, campaign it’s sometimes hard to keep your sprits up.  But we have, and we’re finally winning through.

Going that crucial step further, Gordon’s announcement in a speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) yesterday that the referendum will be held in October 2011, was the next thing electoral reformers wanted to hear.  The Prime Minister has now said he will have a referendum, a pledge he will, I believe, do everything he can to honour.  It is now up to Gordon to find the parliamentary time before the expected Easter dissolution.

I understand that some Conservative co-operation may be required to make such time available.  However, Gordon has to come out on top on this one.  Having made such a public commitment, he really must see it through and get the law setting the date for a referendum passed before the general election in order that his target date for the referendum of October 2011 may be met.

Gordon has made it clear that the referendum would be restricted to whether to stick with first past the post or to move to the alternative vote.  There are, I know, those among electoral reform campaigners who think AV is not proportional enough.  I think we must embrace Gordon Brown’s initiative as the only change we are likely to get in the foreseeable future.  It may not go as far as we would like, but it’s much better than first past the post.

We must also all be aware that our opponents do not like PR.  Since there is little that is fair in Tory social policy, it is hardly surprising they don’t want fair votes.  Quoted in yesterday’s Guardian, William Hague showed his usual lack of imagination: “It’s not the voting system that needs changing, it’s this weak and discredited prime minister. New politics needs a new government.”

Things are very different in the Labour Cabinet.  Ed Balls, the schools secretary, is a supporter of AV, as is Home Secretary Alan Johnson, John Denham, the communities secretary, Peter Hain, Welsh secretary, Cabinet Office minister Tessa Jowell, and, last but not least, Ben Bradshaw, the culture secretary.

Though the introduction of AV is the most important policy demanding immediate action, Gordon’s speech yesterday did not stop there.  He also announced that he wants a written constitution by 2015, the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta; a right for constituents to recall MPs if found guilty of corruption: a draft bill introducing a mainly elected Lords; and approval for local government reforms, entitled Total Place, that he said could produce £15bn of savings. He also said he supported votes at 16, but gave no commitment to put the proposal in the Labour manifesto.

I believe constitutional reform is important for its own sake.  Britain is the only country in Europe which does not have a proportional electoral system for its upper house.  On the other hand, I remain to be convinced that a package of changes to the way parliament and other representative institutions are elected will achieve very much in restoring people’s trust in politics, except perhaps for the measure to recall corrupt MPs.  Gordon Brown is setting out a vision for a modern democracy.  As the only real modern, progressive Party in Britain, Labour members have, I believe, a profound duty to support our Prime Minister in this crucially important task.