Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Should the UK adopt AV?

There is a debate in Parliament about whether the UK should continue to use the "first past the post" system or adopt an alternative vote system. The big sticking point at present appears to be the fact that the House of Lords is insisting that there be a turnout of at least 40% for the vote to be binding. This is rejected by the government. Details here.

There is crossbench support for voting reform. What is interesting is that it does largely arise from the largest party in the coalition government, the Conservative Party, who oppose AV. Instead, this is a red line in negotiations for the Liberal Democrat Party who have fought for voting reform for sometime now.

I believe the House of Lords is in the right (yet again). A 40% turnout is not particularly demanding. Moreover, this vote will have major consequences for the country. One reason is that the current system is deeply rooted and AV would be a major break from tradition. For something so momentous, it seems only right that a significant proportion of voters voice their views on this issue. A low turnout may well be a public disengaged and unable to understand what is on stake. This is hardly "letting the people decide" as the government states time and time again.

But will this come to nothing? While there is crossbench support for AV, the support is weak amongst the government and it may be tempting to Labour to exploit a possible easy victory in campaiging againgst it. The campaign will already have coalition ministers on different sides so this fissure may be more easily exploited.

The biggest problem for AV supporters is the likelihood of Liberal Democrats selling the reforms. They are perhaps best known for their signed campaign pledges up and down the country to oppose any rise in tuition fees -- only to make the case for trebling the cap on fees as "more fair" than the current system once in office (for the first time in about 60 years).

I think Labour should make the issue its own as the party has much to gain. While Labour can remain highly successful in the current system, AV seems more fair....and more likely to ensure successive governments and coalition governments will include Labour. Quick victories against the coalition today should be avoided in favour of decisive victories in the forseeable future.

Furthermore, with the Conservatives campaigning against the Liberal Democrats may have real difficulty getting their message across as partners in government. AV could become an issue to be defended by the opposition -- and it will be easier for the public to identify with Labour as leading the opposition with the Conservative ministers against the reforms.

Labour should look to the long game and they should seize the opportunity to make AV their own.

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