Electoral Reform: This is not how it was supposed to be

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So there is a referendum coming up. Who knew? Who Cares? Certainly not those more concerned with a few nuptials down at Westminster Abbey. With turnout anticipated to be no higher than 40 per cent nationwide, the value and purpose of this referendum must be seriously questioned. Are we being given a fair choice and does this referendum really matter?

The answer to this first question must surely be a resounding no. A useful comparison to the UK’s process of electoral reform is that of New Zealand [1]. Like the UK, New Zealand used to use the highly majoritarian first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. Like the UK, this began to produce hugely disproportional results as class and social boundaries altered and voters began to look toward other parties apart from the major two, with little reward. Like the UK, electoral reform began to become a major issue through the late 1980s and into the 1990s as turnout declined and frustration grew with the inadequacies of FPTP.

In the UK, the Jenkins commission was established in 1997 by Labour to investigate electoral reform, with its judgement being that the best system for the UK would be “AV +”, a system similar to that which New Zealand uses at present. This recommendation was of course ignored by Labour as they had benefited handsomely from the disproprtionalities of FPTP and therefore were loath to change the format of general elections.

In New Zealand a Royal Commission was established, similar to the Jenkins Commission, with similar recommendations toward a fairer electoral system. The difference here was that the government found itself forced to confront the issue, with the result being a referendum was held in 1992. This referendum was composed of two parts, the first simply asking voters if they wanted to keep FPTP or not. The second part then asked voters that if FPTP was to be discarded, which of four options would be their preferred system. After voters decisively rejected FPTP and seemed to support mixed member plurality (MMP), a referendum was proposed to be held alongside the 1993 General Election, with widespread public education programs initiated to ensure maximum possible knowledge, where MMP beat FPTP narrowly and the electoral system was altered for future elections.

This laboured example serves to illustrate the shoddy and unpalatable way in which the British public have been presented with electoral reform. We have not expressed a concrete desire for electoral reform and if we had been, there is no indication that we would have chosen AV was our preferred alternative, but yet this is the situation we find ourselves in. FPTP or AV (a “miserable little compromise” in Nick Clegg’s words)? We have not been given a formal chance to express our support for or against FPTP, or any other electoral system for that matter, and yet we have had this referendum thrust upon us. It is no wonder that there is widespread bafflement and disillusionment with a referendum conducted in this limited and confusing manner.

The nature of this referendum would seem to fit seamlessly into the “modus operandi” of the British state. This can be summarised as a reluctance to decentralise power and to trust the public to make important decisions or give people real power, otherwise known as the “Westminster Model”. This is without doubt a top-down referendum, with the two possible results being; 1) the status quo maintained or 2) limited reform which will quash the need for more radical reform. Although it will always be difficult to separate a referendum from the party-political context, this referendum seems impossible to consider on its own merit; the manner of its conception, behind closed doors as part of the coalition talks, tells us all we need to know about the grubby reality of the process. Public consultation was not even an afterthought; this is just merely another piece of coalition “real politick”, something the Conservatives certainly didn’t want and the Liberal Democrats have had to be reluctantly grateful for.  The “Yes” and “No” campaigns have also been guilty of misleading the public about what the real issues are here [2]. The “No’s” insistence that AV is too complicated to understand couldn’t be more patronising or belittling to voters if it tried; I am sure those who voted in the recent Student Union elections weren’t left dizzy with confusion at the prospect of ranking the candidates in order of preference. The “Yes” campaign’s insistence that AV will remove MP’s “jobs for life” and hurt the BNP are more than a little dubious. Both campaigns are frightened to stray from this negative campaigning mindset, the “No” campaign not even attempting to defend FPTP, whilst “Yes” are still trying to mobilse the “anti-politics” sentiment rather than attempting to outline the greater fairness of AV.

It is abundantly clear that this referendum is vitally important though. Even though the way it has been constructed and presented is crass and manipulative, it is still the first chance that the British electorate has been given to make a judgement about the electoral system we use to elect our MPs in a way that cannot easily be ignored. For those long-term campaigners for electoral reform a yes vote is paramount, even if AV is not their preferred system, a no vote would see electoral reform crushed for perhaps a generation. The adoption of AV is seen by many in this camp as a stepping stone on the path towards the holy grail of proportional representation, a fear of many in the No camp who view the possible dismantling of FPTP with alarm, as the certainties of the past are swept away. Nobody really knows what the result of this unwanted referendum will be; the polls swing wildly, a minority of a disinterested electorate will in early May deliver a momentous decision for British electoral politics. As Cicero once said, ‘Nothing is more unreliable than the populace, nothing more obscure than human intentions, nothing more deceptive than the whole electoral system’.

Article by Jordan Marshall. Edited by Patrick English.