Fight for genuine PR

Peter Manson recommends a 'yes' vote in May 2011

The voting system labelled a “miserable little compromise” by Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg during the general election campaign is to be offered to voters in May 2011 in a referendum.

Clegg’s description of the procedure, which, as deputy prime minister, he is now advocating, is, if anything, a little too generous. The alternative vote system (AV), whereby electors rank candidates in order of preference, at least has the merit of ensuring that overwhelmingly candidates will not be elected without gaining some kind of support from a majority of voters in a given constituency. That is because the votes cast for the least popular candidates are redistributed according to their supporters’ second, and lower, preferences until a candidate has over 50% of the number of ballots cast. So, unless huge numbers of voters fail to express more than a first preference, the winner will be elected with majority support.

However, since each ballot paper will usually contain several votes, that is not saying much - it would be quite normal for two or more candidates to receive the votes of a majority of electors, however grudging. Imagine, for example, a constituency where there are four candidates - Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem, plus the British National Party. It is perfectly conceivable that many electors would cast a vote for each of the mainstream parties (in whatever order) just to keep out the BNP. Each would receive a total exceeding half the number of valid ballot papers if all preferences were counted, but there would be no guarantee that the candidate with the most overall votes would win - the one to exceed 50% first (after, say, the redistribution of the BNP candidate’s second preferences) would be declared elected.

It goes without saying that AV is not a form of proportional representation. In fact under AV it is just as difficult, if not more so, for smaller, ‘extremist’ parties to win seats. That is because it tends to favour parties in the centre - most voters of both right and left would give their second preferences to a party seen as ‘moderate’. Which is why the Lib Dem leader has been so easily ‘converted’ to this “miserable little compromise” and shelved his party’s long-held demand for PR.

According to the Electoral Reform Society, if the 2010 general election had been held under AV, the Tories would have had 26 fewer seats, while Labour would have won four more. The Liberal Democrats, however, would have gained 22. But such projections must come with a health warning: while it is true that many voters whose first choice is either Labour or Conservative would give their second preference to the Liberal Democrats, voters often behave differently according to which electoral system is employed. Nevertheless, Labour would also be expected to gain marginally, since more Lib Dem electors would probably give second-preference votes to Labour than to the Tories.

The ERS is enthusiastically advocating AV because, unlike the current ‘first past the post’ elections to Westminster - where, for example, less than a third of current MPs have majority support from local voters - for the first time most will have a “real mandate” under AV, since more than 50% of electors who turn out on polling day will have voted for them. But this not only ignores the fact that the candidate elected may not be the only one with ‘majority support’ or even the highest number of overall preferences. It also passes over the other “quirks” of AV, pointed out by comrade Moshé Machover in his article, ‘Proportional representation and Brown’s opportunist ploy’ (Weekly Worker April 1). These include the fact that a candidate most detested by a majority of voters can still be elected and that an increase in first-preference votes may decrease a candidate’s changes of being elected under AV.

Nevertheless, comrade Machover is correct to state that FPTP is even worse. But, just as the ERS seems unconcerned by the possibility that AV may not always reflect the intention of voters, so the defenders of the status quo are wilfully oblivious to the inherently undemocratic nature of FPTP. According to former Tory leadership contender David Davis, while AV is “something that may give us permanent instability”, the “current system almost always delivers a clear result. It pretty much always reflects the mood of the country.”

Of course, it is evident that the May general election did not deliver a “clear result”, yet the ensuing coalition seems, for the moment at least, to be far from unstable in its vigorous promotion of capital’s interests. And Davis knows full well that FPTP does not “always” reflect “the mood of the country”. Not only do parties elected to government almost never enjoy majority support: they sometimes cannot even boast of a plurality (more votes than the second-placed party).

For its part, The Daily Telegraph also ignores this blatant democratic deficit: “Fewer things could be sillier than holding a nationwide vote on electoral reform, in a country historically well served by its existing system, just as that country is facing a traumatic contraction of the public sector.” The Telegraph views the referendum as a “disruptive” “distraction”, but on balance a price worth paying for the cuts coalition and one that prime minister David Cameron was right to get out of the way as soon as possible (July 3).

However, just as the Tories uphold the current system because it is more likely than the alternatives to give them a majority of seats, Labour politicians condemn the coalition’s parallel proposal to roughly equalise the size of parliamentary constituencies because they know that would cost their party. Shadow justice secretary Jack Straw slammed the equalisation plan as an attempt to “gerrymander” boundaries. Of course, boundary changes can be unfairly fixed, but you could just as easily say that the current unequal sizes are ‘gerrymandered’ in Labour’s favour.

Other proposals to be contained in the same bill that provides for the referendum are measures to reduce the number of constituencies from 650 to 600 and to ensure fixed-term parliaments (an improvement on the current situation, where the timing of a general election is determined by the party in office in its own interests - although it goes without saying that a truly radical, democratic change would mean annual fixed-term parliaments).

Another genuinely democratic reform would be the introduction of an electoral system that produces proportional representation. The CPGB favours the party list system, such as the one operating in South Africa, where the whole country is regarded as a single constituency for purposes of election to the national assembly. The 400 assembly members are elected from party lists according to the percentage of votes recorded for each list. And there is no minimum threshold which a party must reach. In 2009, for instance, several smaller parties won a seat by virtue of receiving more than one-400th (0.25%) of the total votes cast.

There were 17,680,729 valid votes cast in the 2009 South African election, which meant that each contesting party was guaranteed an MP for every 44,202 votes it received. In fact, it is possible under this system for a candidate to be elected with fewer votes than 0.25%. That is because each party’s total was, obviously, not exactly divisible by 44,202 and there was a ‘remainder’ of hundreds of thousands of votes, which translates into a number of unallocated seats. These are awarded to the parties with the highest ‘remainder’ - votes not counting towards the totals for MPs already elected. In the event, the African Peoples Convention picked up an assembly member, despite having won only 35,867 votes (0.20%) across the country.

In other words, the party list system, if run without undemocratic barriers such as artificial minimum-percentage thresholds for election and the requirement for large deposits to be paid (one of the reasons why the South African far left claimed it was unable to stand in 2009, although in truth, given the political will, it should have been able to overcome this), would represent genuine PR and allow the (admittedly meagre) support for socialists and communists to be reflected in parliament. This would help us develop our organisational  muscle and increase our political impact.

But PR - let alone the genuine PR represented by the party list system - will not be on offer in next May’s referendum. Nevertheless, there are reasons why we should advocate a ‘yes’ vote in favour of AV, despite its dreadful limitations. First, a change of voting system will demonstrate that there is nothing sacrosanct about the current UK electoral procedure. But secondly, and more importantly, it will allow the genuine preferences for parties marginalised by the current political system to be reflected in recorded votes. Because casting a first preference for a ‘no hope’ candidate is unlikely to cost a voter’s second favourite victory, such first preferences under AV are much more likely to register a smaller party’s actual support than is the case with votes cast for it under ‘first past the post’.

That is why the CPGB, while continuing to advocate full PR without restrictions, will recommend a ‘yes’ vote for Nick Clegg’s “miserable little compromise” in May 2011.