Gordon Brown’s plan to introduce Alternative Vote is a cynical exercise. It is also foolhardy and it is likely to alter profoundly Britain’s constitutional landscape, despite its conception as a half-hearted sop to a public disillusioned with politics.
There are three reasons why the prime minister is considering this type of electoral reform and none of them make it a good idea.
First, he wishes to be seen to be doing something to address a so-called ’crisis of legitimacy’ which has afflicted politics since the expenses scandal. There is a flourishing perception that MPs are not sufficiently accountable to the people they represent and that that is the source of corruption at Westminster. Alternative Vote gives the appearance of accountability. After all, we get to make more than one mark on the ballot paper.
Second, whatever the outcome of the forthcoming general election, Labour is destined for a period in opposition. First past the post is believed to work to the advantage of the biggest party. The government has, for the most part of its time in power, been quite happy with a system which worked to its advantage. Now it wishes to change the goalposts.
Third, the possibility of a hung parliament gives Liberal Democrat calls for electoral reform an unparalleled degree of leverage. We are witnessing Brown’s stockinged foot playing coquettishly on Nick Clegg’s trouser leg. The smaller party is in favour of proportional representation, but it will support Alternative Vote as a supposed step in the right direction.
The truth is that it is, decisively, a step in the wrong direction.
Proportional representation would bring to an end a system of government which has served this country well. The formation of government by a single party would become a rarity rather than the norm. Alternative Vote is a staging post along the way. It makes coalition governments far more likely.
The theory is that it allows the voter to express more fully the extent of his political preference. However it also robs the democratic process of its decisive quality.
It is argued that Alternative Vote results in a more representative polity. However it actually deprives the electorate of the ability to make a clear, informed and accountable choice.
Whereas, under first past the post, voters are invited to judge candidates on the basis of a prospectus for government, then hold the elected party to account for the implementation of its promises, where a coalition is formed every party’s manifesto is, to a much greater extent, a moveable feast. The business of government becomes a behind the scenes exercise in brokering deals.
How can a system which is less clear, creates more fudge and muddies yet further lines of accountability help to revive public confidence in politics and politicians? Systems like PR and AV hide the business of government behind even more artifice and mystery. Which is precisely why they fill political aficiandos with such enthusiasm.