NEW POLL: should the Lib Dems support AV?

by Stephen Tall on June 10, 2009

For a brief moment last night, it sounded as if the Prime Minister was at last going to seize the reform agenda, and perhaps even promise a referendum on voting reform. The reality is, as so often with Labour, more disappointing than that:

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said he has “no plans” for a referendum on changes to the electoral system before the next general election. … he told prime minister’s questions he had “never supported proportional representation for Westminster elections” and ruled out a referendum.

Labour’s brief flirtation with electoral reform appears to have centred around adopting the Alternative Vote, a non-proportional system of preferential voting which retains MPs’ constituency links while ensuring all elected MPs have the support of more than 50% of their voters. The Lib Dems, of course, favour the single transferable vote (STV) in multi-member constituencies, the purest form of proportional voting which ensures elected representation in accordance with the preference of voters.

Now to start debating the system of PR before the principle of PR is actually on the table is all a little bit arse-about-face. Before we know it the People’s Front of AV+ will be at the throats of the People’s Front of STV (“Splitters!”), while the united forces of First-Past-the-Post gaze on with amusement from the sidelines.

This is one reason why (as James Graham has pointed out) the Electoral Reform Society’s Referendum 2010 campaign and Unlock Democracy’s Citizens’ Convention campaign have both called for voters – rather than the politicians – to be given the power to decide what should happen next with our electoral system.

But, still, this morning’s mini-debate about the pros and cons of the Alternative Vote showed there is no settled opinion within the Lib Dems to the invidious – but perhaps one day inevitable – question, “Should Lib Dems back AV if it’s the only option for voting reform?” As Jonathan Calder noted on his Liberal England blog, the party declined even to debate the issue on BBC2’s The Daily Politics.

Two noted Lib Dem bloggers have this morning put forward their own arguments for the party accepting and rejecting the Alternative Vote. First, here’s James Oates on his Cicero’s Songs blog arguing against supporting AV or any of its variants:

Despite the temptation of our own sectional party interest probably being boosted by adopting AV+, the Liberal Democrats must resist that temptation. A half baked reform is worse than no reform at all. We must take our case to the wider country- which is only now beginning to see how “safe seats” and embedded party interest has corrupted MPs and destroyed the power of the House of Commons to the benefit of the office of Prime Minister.

If we are to be true to our principles and our country we must tell Gordon Brown that he has no mandate for reform, and that the only way that he can get one is to go to the country. During that election the Liberal Democrats can put forward their more thought-out and integrated programme for reform against the gimmickry of the Conservatives and the self interest of Labour.

And here’s Joe Otten on his Extra Bold blog arguing that AV would be brilliant:

Not so brilliant for the Lib Dems, but good for democracy. Not as good as STV of course, but let’s face it, what is? First Past the Post is the cornerstone of the brokenness of our politics. It has the power to subvert all your campaigning efforts for a good cause, making that cause weaker instead of stronger. …

AV fixes all this. It lets you stand and campaign for what you believe in without damaging the causes you support. It lets you vote for what you believe in without having to second guess what the result will be and support the lesser evil. Sure, it’s not proportional. That stinks. But proportionality is not the only important feature of an electoral system. If it were we would support list systems rather than STV. And this is the worst time of all to hold a referendum on a proportional system, when the BNP have just won seats.

And now to turn the question over to you, LDV’s readers – “Should Lib Dems back the Alternative Vote in a referendum if it’s the only option for voting reform?” Here are your options:

  • Yes, it’s better than first-past-the-post

  • No, we should hold out for a truly proportional system
  • No, we should stick with first-past-the-post
  • Other [please state in comments]
  • Over to you…