Don't be pessimistic, there is a way

I read this post by Peter Black yesterday and was struck by the pessimism of one part of what he said:

Labour ... are clinging to power in a desperate hope that the Liberal Democrats and other minor parties will join them in an anti-Tory coalition government. However, tempting as that is the numbers do not add up. Such a construct would not be stable and could not get its legislation through the House of Commons. That includes a PR Referendum Bill, which would surely fail to attract the support of all the Labour MPs, leaving Gordon Brown without anything to offer us.

And in this post on his blog today, he seemed at pains to downplay the chances of getting any sort of electoral reform:

Much as I want to see electoral reform these talks are about bigger issues

Gordon Brown is dangling a referendum in front of us but he cannot deliver. The sort of coalition of losers he is promoting would be unstable and would not deliver electoral reform because the outgoing Prime Minister could not deliver his own Parliamentary Party

we [may] get less than electoral reform but will still be able to take a significant step forward

I can see where he's coming from, but these are not good signals, just as what Nick Clegg said to the TakeBackParliament rally yesterday was very open-ended on any commitment to electoral reform. It's clear to me that this line of thinking will get nowhere. So what I want to offer is a better way of looking at it, one that will deliver electoral reform ... which I think should be the main prize to be won from the tight result of this election.


At present the parties are talking at cross purposes.

• For the Tories, the emphasis is being put on a strong and stable government to get the UK out of the financial crisis. There might well be a role for the LibDems in this.

• For Labour, the idea is to maintain an "anything but the Tories" government, which they would of course lead.

But I would have thought that for the LibDems, the purpose is different. There must surely be one primary aim for the LibDems, namely reform of the voting method for the Commons. Other reforms are important too, but they must be instigated by the Commons and so it is right that they only happen when we have a House of Commons in which the number of seats more fairly represents the percentage of the vote obtained by each party. If we try and bundle everything together into one reform package to include fixed-term parliaments, the voting age, an elected House of Lords (and maybe a few other things) the chances of reaching an agreement become more remote. I firmly believe we should concentrate on only one issue: the voting system for the Commons.

There is a majority in the Commons for this reform:

Labour ... 258
LibDem ... 57
SNP ... 6
Plaid ... 3
SDLP ... 3
Green ... 1

Total ... 328

It should also be noted that the "winning post" is not 326. It is 323 because Sinn Fein will not take their 5 seats. It's a small point, but the numbers count.

That is enough to get a referendum bill through. The numbers do not have to remain in place to form a stable long-term government, and it is very unlikely that they would do so because the parties have different agendas on most other matters. They just have to stack up for this single issue.

The aim would be to get this bill through in a matter of months, and to then hold a new election under the new voting system if that referendum is successful.


Having established that there are the numbers to do it, the issue then becomes: What are the options that should be presented in the referendum? In broad terms, there are five possible options:

•  First-past-the-post (the status quo)
•  FPTP, plus additional members (Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament)
•  The Alternative Vote
•  The Alternative Vote, plus additional members
•  The Single Transferable Vote (Northern Ireland Assembly)

If there were just three options, it would be straightforward to ask two questions:

1.  Should the current voting system to the HoC be changed?

2.  If the current voting system to the HoC is changed, should it be to:
          System A
          System B

This would be an elegant solution, similar to the questions asked in the referendum to set up a Scottish Parliament (a Yes/No on the Parliament followed by a Yes/No on tax varying powers) but it relies on whittling down the five options to three. However it is possible, particularly as three options represent the respective positions of the big three parties; the Tories want to keep FPTP, Labour want the Alternative Vote (without additional members) and the LibDems want the Single Transferable Vote.

The other option would be for people to rank the five options in order of preference with a "1, 2, 3 ... " with the outcome decided by using the Alternative Vote mechanism. I think that would be better in terms of breadth of choice, but not as elegant. It would also involve two options which are compromises, rather than what any party really wants. Who would campaign for the two compromise options?


So my conclusion is that the ballot paper for the referendum should contain these two questions:

1.  Should the current voting system to the HoC be changed?

2.  If the current voting system to the HoC is changed, should it be to:
          The Alternative Vote
          The Single Transferable Vote

Now I do not see why any party should object to a referendum in this form. After all, the UK is meant to be a democracy, so this format leaves us the voters to decide.

If the three parties can agree to a binding referendum in this form, followed by a new election at least three months but not longer than a year later, it then frees the parties to form whatever coalition or minority government they can negotiate based on all the other issues.

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Anonymous said...

I'm very glad I didn't take your advice and vote Libdem in Cardiff Central - I voted with my heart and voted Plaid - yes they didn't keep their deposit but at least I didn't end up voting for a Conservative-led Government.
As for PR there is now virtually no chance of change as even the Libdems are now saying it's not a 'dealbreaker' meaning they won't be too disappointed if FPTP is kept, Nick Clegg and friends will be far happier with Cabinet jobs and Chauffeur driven Limos - but they should enjoy it while they can, I can see Cameron pulling the plug within a few months & call a snap election, in which the Libdem vote especially in Wales and Scotland WILL collapse as the Celtic Nations WILL not forgive them, for inflicting a Tory Government on us, when WE in Wales and Scotland DID NOT VOTE FOR ONE!

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid it's your numbers that don't altogether stack up Syniadau. You have assumed all Labour MPs are in favour of voting reform. In fact, there is every reason to think that the overwhelming majority are either apathetic or actively hostile to replacing FPTP - otherwise we would have got rid of it by now. That knocks your already marginal majority straight out the window.

Neither Labour nor the Conservatives will offer a reform that would remove their ability to govern alone (and no party would have won outright under PR since Eden in 1955). So realistically getting rid of FPTP is unlikely - which is unfortunate given the mauling it has received as of Thursday night.

MH said...

Two things to say to that, Huw.

First, Labour made a manifesto commitment to a referendum on the Alternative Vote, therefore it is something that all Labour MPs have accepted (perhaps with misgivings, but accepted nonetheless) and it will be subject to a three line whip.

Second, there might be a few Labour rebels who defy the whip, but then again there are Tories who believe in electoral reform (STV in fact) who might also defy their whip. See the CAER group website.

Peter Black said...

What doctorhuw says!

Anonymous said...

"First, Labour made a manifesto commitment to a referendum on the Alternative Vote, therefore it is something that all Labour MPs have accepted (perhaps with misgivings, but accepted nonetheless) and it will be subject to a three line whip."


Remember, there are Labour MPs who support fox-hunting, yet have stood on manifestos promising its abolition. There are Labour MPs who oppose the European Union to a far greater degree than UKIP ever have, yet have stood on manifestos pledged to greater European integration. There are even Labour MPs who have fought bitterly against Gordon Brown, yet have stood on a promise to prop up his government (although that did no good to Charles Clarke).

The idea that Labour MPs have just been elected on a manifesto promising a vote on AV (which is not of course proportional representation) and therefore will obey some kind of whip on it is simply wrong. I really think you're clutching at straws on this.

MH said...

I'm not sure what the link to Tom Watson's article proves, Huw. There is no suggestion that he will vote against a referendum that includes the option he believes in. He could just as easily be making the case for which way to vote in a referendum.

In fact he doesn't mention AV, he is making a comparison of just two options: FPTP and PR in various forms.

As for your examples. Fox hunting was a free vote, not whipped ... that's a crucial difference. And it is pretty evident that apart from noising off from some quarters, Labour got their way on Europe and Gordon Brown is still there. To me, that shows that MPs will noise off when there is space for them to do so, but when it becomes an issue of survival (i.e. of remaining in or gaining power) they know what they have to do, and do it. Even if through gritted teeth.

Labour can vote for the referendum in the form I've proposed precisely because it includes the option included in their manifesto. They will reckon that a referendum will deliver them AV, and they believe AV will be to their advantage. They don't want any element of PR and AV doesn't give it.

So clutching at straws? Not at all. The numbers work for it to happen, in fact the tightness of the numbers is what allows it to happen. Isn't the bigger question why LibDems seem so reticent to grasp this once in a generation opportunity?

Terry said...

I can see the Liberals making a deal with the Tories and being rewarded with three seats in the cabinet, and saying that PR can be got later.

What are the Lib Dems FOR? If they don't stick up for the only policy that makes them unique, they will be toast. There will be no point in anybody ever voting for them again.

Anonymous said...

Why would Labour want both options on the referendum? They only want it to be a straight choice between FPTP and AV.

MH said...

Terry, I agree. It would be nothing short of a betrayal of everything they've stood for, and everyone who voted for them.


Anon, If there were only those two choices on the ballot there are bound to be some people who would vote to keep FPTP because they really want STV rather than anything else. Either that, or they wouldn't turn out to vote at all.

The beauty of asking the questions in the form I suggest it that it first allows people to say if they want a change, and all people who want to see a change can vote for it. Only then does it become a question of what to replace FPTP with.

Robert said...

Labour has stated they will legislate for reform, so either your not looking or your own minds are made up.

Labour has said PR is on the books if you talk to us.

And nope I did not vote New labour that would be worse then voting Tory these days.

But I think it does look as if the Liberals would sell out to the Tories, I suspect all the talk now is what Jobs they can get, do not get me wrong if it's between Tory liberals and brown I'd take anything but Brown

Unknown said...

Looking at it long term, a Con-Dem coalition could be good for us. Although the tories did better in Wales than for many years (an interesting analysis is this BBC Scotland, which compares the Scots tories still being seen as an 'English' Party, and the success of Nick Bourne in forging a new Welsh identity for Welsh Conservatives

COn-Dem will kill off the lib dems in Wales. In the next election ( which I still think is likely in October) then Labour will do even better in Wales than last time, and we will still end up with a Tory UK Government. 5 Years of pain, and as we know, disproportionate pain in Wales, and labour voters will be there for conversion!

And as you have said previously, MH, this scenario will resonate even more emotively in Scotland, and will be a big boost for the independence movement.

Once Scotland goes, can we be slow to follow?

Unknown said...

Bt the way - the the Wales bit for the Why didn't the Scots Vote Tory is at about 39min 30s.

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