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Socialism Today 145 - February 2011

The AV referendum: what are the issues involved?

Barring an unexpected upset in the House of Lords the Con-Dems’ Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill will soon become law, paving the way for a referendum in May to change the method of electing MPs to the ‘alternative vote’ system. What position should socialists take? CLIVE HEEMSKERK writes.

DURING LAST YEAR’S student rising, as police chiefs discussed whether to ask for water cannons to deal with future protests in the age of capitalist austerity, the political representatives of the system were also debating how best to beef up their defences – in this case, their Westminster positions – against the growing rage outside.

The constituency re-organisation aspects of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, nearing the end of its legislative journey, are certainly a clear case of Tory gerrymandering. The number of MPs will be cut from 650 to 600 – a smaller parliament is a long-standing Tory goal – and constituency boundaries will be hastily re-drawn (with local inquiries abolished). This will be done on the basis of an electoral register that excludes an estimated 3.5 million adults (rather than, for example, waiting for the forthcoming census returns), reducing, in particular, the social weight of the inner-cities in parliamentary representation. While the overall electoral registration rate has dropped from 97% in 1988 – before the poll tax – to 91% now, a 2010 Electoral Commission survey showed the disproportionate effects, with 31% of black and minority ethnic residents and 49% of private sector tenants not registered, for example. On this basis alone the whole Con-Dems ‘reform’ package should be firmly opposed by the labour movement.

But the provision to change the voting system in parliamentary elections, from ‘first-past-the-post’ to the ‘alternative vote’ (AV) method – provided there is majority backing in a referendum in May – has won support from sections of the ‘left’, from the Guardian newspaper and the Green Party to, unfortunately, the veteran left-winger Tony Benn, John McDonnell MP, and the PCS civil servants union.

The Yes campaign speaks of ‘a fairer voting system’ but AV is no more democratic than the present position, and arguably less so. More importantly, AV will not make any easier the process of establishing a new vehicle for working class political representation, a new workers’ party, the key task posed, on the political plane, by the era-defining struggle against the cuts. From a longer term perspective, an AV system would create barriers – not insurmountable but real nonetheless – to the prospect of a mass workers’ party of the future winning a parliamentary majority. The Socialist Party will be campaigning for a No vote in the forthcoming referendum.

Is AV ‘fair’?

BRITAIN’S MPs are currently elected in single-member, geographically-based constituencies, in which the front runner wins, even if the vote that he or she receives is less than 50% of the votes cast.

In the AV system proposed in the Parliamentary Voting Systems Bill, voters will still elect one candidate from one geographic constituency. However, instead of voting for one candidate they will be able to rank one or more in order of preference. If, after the first preferences have been counted, no candidate has secured over 50% of the votes cast, then the bottom candidate will be eliminated and their second preferences redistributed to the remaining candidates. This process will be repeated until one candidate reaches a majority or, as not every voter will necessarily list second or third preferences, only two candidates remain and no more re-distributions are possible.

Is this a ‘fair’ system? AV has been used in Australia in single-member seats for the House of Representatives since 1919 and has produced election results as disproportionate on occasions as those under Britain’s ‘first-past-the-post’ system. One example was the election that followed the constitutional crisis of 1975, when the Queen’s representative, Governor-General Sir John Kerr, dismissed the Labour government – elected in 1972 after 23 years of Liberal/Country Party rule – which had enacted some Keynesian measures against big business profits and threatened to close US military bases in Australia. The Liberal Party was behind the Australian Labour Party (ALP) in the national vote, but won nearly twice as many seats after votes were re-distributed, legitimising Kerr’s ‘constitutional coup’.

Another example is last year’s general election in Australia which saw the Greens breakthrough to win their first seat – but they polled 11.76% of the national vote to win one seat, out of 150, compared to the now capitalist ALP’s 72 seats on a 38% vote. In contrast, under the first-past-the-post system, the Greens won their first MP in last year’s UK general election with just 1.1% of the national vote (standing in 334 seats).

AV is not a proportional system. Following the 1997 election Tony Blair established a commission, headed by the former Labour right-winger and Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Jenkins, to study alternatives to first-past-the-post. The Jenkins Commission eventually proposed an AV-plus system, with 80-85% of MPs elected on an individual constituency basis but with others elected on a ‘top-up’ basis to create greater proportionality, similar – although with a more restrictive threshold – to the systems used for the London assembly, Welsh assembly, and Scottish parliament elections.

The Commission considered a simple AV option, noting approvingly that one of its ‘formidable assets’ was the fact that "there is not the slightest reason to think that AV would reduce the stability of government; it might indeed lead to larger parliamentary majorities". (Voting Systems: The Jenkins Report, October 1998) But as the Commission’s ‘remit’ included ‘relieving disproportionality’ – the Jenkins Commission was set up Blair and the then Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown purposely to find ways to entrench and consolidate the process of transforming the Labour Party into New Labour, to make coalitions the ‘new normal’ – so AV was rejected because, "in some circumstances… it is even less proportional than first-past-the-post".

Electoral reform and the workers’ movement

THE DEBATES AROUND the Jenkins Commission, and earlier discussions on electoral reform by the ruling class and their right-wing shadows in the workers’ movement, are instructive, particularly those that took place when the Labour Party was a ‘capitalist workers’ party’ (with pro-capitalist leaders but with democratic structures that allowed the working class to fight for its interests), not fully under the control of the ruling class.

The 1970s, for example, saw the emergence of a Conservative Campaign for Electoral Reform, following the shift towards the left within the trade unions and the Labour Party as a result of the enormous class battles under Edward Heath’s Tory government of 1970-74. A key Tory supporter of electoral reform, the MP Sir Anthony Kershaw, stated its aim at the time: "I feel that electoral reform is necessary if the country is to be run democratically and not against its wishes by a militant minority" (Obituary, The Telegraph, 30 April 2008) Tory representatives welcomed, and noted, the AV-created disproportionate landslide defeat of the Australian Labour government in the 1975 general election.

The experience of Chile was also pondered, where Salvador Allende had initially been elected president in 1970 with 36% of the vote and, under the pressure of the masses, nationalised over one third of industry (the Popular Unity parties subsequently increased their vote to 44% in the March 1973 parliamentary elections, the last elections before the military coup which overthrew Allende in September). Electoral reform, in other words, was explicitly seen as a means to stop the possible coming to power of a Tony Benn-led left Labour government ‘on a minority vote’. (This period, and the 1970s debates on constitutional reform, are discussed in more depth in an article by Peter Taaffe, The Brutal Face of Toryism Behind the ‘Liberal’ Mask, reprinted in Socialism Today No.113, November 2007)

As The Economist remarked in a later debate on electoral reform, summing up the calculating attitude of the capitalists to the different forms of parliamentary democracy, there are "many faces of fairness". The task is to "ask, in each case, what function the elected body serves, what they want to achieve… and is it worth the upheaval" to change the electoral system. (1 May, 1993)

Marxists, in contrast, have always been champions of the widest democracy, including its extension to the economy and society as a whole. The working class has always had to fight for democratic rights like the right to free association (including trade unions), free expression (including workers’ papers), even the ‘rule of law’ against the arbitrary exercise of power and, of course, the right to vote and universal suffrage. Extending and deepening democracy within capitalist society strengthens the working class and its organisations, necessary both for the task of ending capitalism and the building of a new, socialist society. But when it comes to parliamentary systems, the workers’ movement too must look at who is proposing what, why, and in whose class interests.

So could socialists consider supporting AV in the forthcoming referendum? One possible argument is that it would help the development of a new workers’ party, the absence of which is a critical factor today. The transformation of the Labour Party has given the Con-Dem government a freer hand for their brutal measures. Just to compare the meek acquiescence of Labour councils now to the battles conducted in the past shows the consequences of this change. Although they eventually capitulated to Thatcher’s dictates, leaving Liverpool and Lambeth councils to fight alone, at one point 20 Labour councils were preparing to resist the government in the battles of the mid-1980s.

The Labour Party always had the potential to act at least as a check on the capitalists. The consequences of radicalising the Labour Party’s working class base was a factor the ruling class had to take into account. Now the situation is completely different. Without the re-establishment of at least the basis of independent working class political representation, the capitalists will feel less constrained in imposing their austerity policies.

In this situation a more proportional electoral system would increase the chances of an electoral breakthrough by a new workers’ party or a pre-formation of one, such as the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), an electoral alliance involving leading left trade unionists like the RMT transport workers’ union general secretary Bob Crow, along with the Socialist Party, the SWP and Solidarity – Scotland’s Socialist Movement. But would AV further the development of a new workers’ party?

Would AV help a new party?

SOME SUPPORTERS of a Yes vote say that AV would help by removing the argument created by the first-past-the-post system that standing socialist candidates ‘lets in the Tories’. It would be possible, the argument goes, to call for a first preference vote for TUSC, for example, and then recommend a second preference for the Labour candidate to avoid the risk of a Tory or Liberal Democrat victory.

But AV would not make it easier for a socialist candidate to actually win a seat. The closest the Socialist Party and its predecessor organisation, Militant Labour, has come to winning a parliamentary seat under first-past-the-post was in the general election of 1992 when Dave Nellist, the MP for Coventry South East expelled from the Labour Party, stood independently. The Labour candidate won the seat with 11,902 votes, ahead of the Tory candidate with 10,591 votes and Dave a further 40 votes behind on 10,551. If just under 700 Labour voters had voted for Dave instead he would have won the seat. But almost certainly not under AV.

The Liberal Democrats came fourth with 3,318 votes. Their candidate would have been eliminated and the Liberal Democrat voters’ second preferences re-distributed to the top three candidates. If the Tory candidate was in third place, their preference votes would have then been re-distributed. In the polarised context of the general election of 1992, it would have been highly unlikely that Dave would have secured sufficient preference votes to have gained first place when re-distributions had finished.

Since 1992, it is true, with Labour no longer a capitalist workers’ party, there has been a long-term erosion in voters’ ‘identification’ with political parties. Socialist Party candidates in local elections, for example, while winning many votes from those who would otherwise not vote at all, have often been able to win ‘protest votes’ from people who would ‘normally’ vote for other parties (and have secured victories under the first-past-the-post system).

But a protest vote is not the same as voting for a governmental alternative. AV would give a greater opportunity than first-past-the-post for the capitalist parties to ‘gang up’ and swap preferences against the candidates of a future mass workers’ party. Certainly, if a mass workers’ party existed, why should it not take advantage of the splits between the capitalist parties that the first-past-the-post system can not so easily overcome?

There is, of course, no ‘pure’ electoral system not open to manipulation by the ruling class and their political and legal representatives. The Socialist Party’s Joe Higgins was elected as a member of the Irish parliament (TD) for the Dublin West constituency in 1997, and re-elected in 2002, under the multi-member constituency single transferable vote (STV) form of proportional representation. But Dublin West has been one of the most re-drawn constituencies in Ireland in recent years and, in 2007, with a legal dispute ongoing that the number of TDs it elected was one short under the constitutional norm – a full quota would have ensured another victory for Joe – he was narrowly edged out. (He then went on to win a seat in the European parliament in 2009 in another multi-member STV election).

AV, however, is far less than ‘pure’. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, socialists will seek to gain the best advantage possible from the electoral terrain that exists. Militant, predecessor of the Socialist Party, had three MPs elected as Labour candidates in the 1980s – Dave Nellist, Terry Fields in Liverpool, and Pat Wall in Bradford – under the first-past-the-post system. Our sister party in Australia has won council elections under the AV system there. But it would be wrong to give any support to the idea that a system that could be used against the workers’ movement in the future is more ‘democratic’.

What is the alternative?

THE QUESTION ON the referendum ballot paper will effectively present a choice between the current system and AV: "At present, the UK uses the ‘first past the post’ system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the ‘alternative vote’ system be used instead?" Doesn’t a No vote guarantee a further delay in the development of a new workers’ party, as once again workers turn to vote Labour against the Con-Dems?

But that does not take into account perspectives for the era ahead. The Con-Dems are embarking upon the worst cuts in a generation, in a new world situation where there is no way out for capitalism except by attacking the conditions of the working class. Mass resistance is inevitable – and that will transform working peoples’ outlook. Labour will re-gain ground electorally but that does not mean that a force rooted in the mass opposition to the cuts will necessarily be ‘squeezed out’ on the electoral field.

The experience of elections during the anti-poll movement is instructive. While Labour soared ahead in national opinion polls, it was not the only electoral outlet for the mass opposition to the poll tax. The Scottish National Party triumphed on a ‘We’re not paying the Poll Tax’ platform in the November 1988 Govan by-election, overturning a 19,509 Labour majority just 17 months after the 1987 general election (and then refused to support mass non-payment!). The Greens won 2.29 million votes, a 15% protest vote in what is still their highest ever vote in a UK election, in the European elections in June 1989 – as the first poll tax bills were sent out in Scotland and registration began in England and Wales. All this was in the context of the Labour Party still being seen by many workers as ‘our party’, and after a decade of Tory rule.

The 1990 local elections, five weeks after the mass anti-poll tax demonstrations, confirmed this trend. Labour had just made a dramatic by-election gain in the safe Tory seat of Mid-Staffordshire and was ahead by over 20% in national opinion polls. The same polls showed that, as a general sentiment, the government was blamed for the poll tax rather than local councils who were implementing it. (NOP Review, July 1990) But that did not mean that individual councils were let off the hook in the local elections that followed in May. Labour performed poorly in councils where they passed on government cuts to their funding in higher than projected poll tax bills (Rawlings and Thrasher, Parliamentary Affairs, 1991) – while, of course, threatening draconian action to collect the tax – and only increased its national share of the vote by 2%. Significantly Labour’s best West Midlands performance was in Coventry and the only Metropolitan borough it gained was Bradford. In Liverpool, although the overall balance of the council Labour group had shifted to the right after the High Court’s removal of the 47 councillors who defied the Tory government from 1983-87, many councillors still supported non-payment – backed by MPs Terry Fields, Eric Heffer and Eddie Loyden – and Labour consolidated its position against the Liberal Democrats.

Outside of the Labour Party, however, there were only a few anti-poll tax union candidates in 1990, some of whom recorded votes of 20% or more, but the aftermath of the movement showed – if belatedly – what could have been achieved by a wider electoral challenge. The newly-formed Scottish Militant Labour (SML) won four seats on Glasgow council in May 1992, just weeks after another Tory victory in the April 1992 general election (in which Tommy Sheridan came second in Glasgow Pollok with 6,287 votes, 19.3%). In all, from May 1992 to February 1994, SML polled 33.3% of the total votes cast in 17 local council contests with Labour (36.1%), winning six.

The political impact of the anti-poll tax movement was muted by the limited character of the issue and, more generally, by the ideological triumph of capitalism after the collapse of Stalinism and its impact on workers’ consciousness and their organisations, including the transformation of Labour into New Labour. But the next period will be completely different to the 1990s.

The sense of foreboding for the future that grips the more thinking strategists of the ruling class is shown in the debates on the lessons of the Geddes Axe which have taken place amongst Tory historians, not only on how this post-first world war slashing of state spending prepared the way for the 1926 general strike, but also in its political consequences. The early Labour Party, a new workers’ party then, emerged on the back of the attacks on the trade unions in the first decade of the twentieth century but was still a ‘minor party’ when the Geddes Report was published in December 1921. But the Geddes cuts were a major factor in a surge in support for Labour, whose seats rose from 59 in 1918 to 142 in 1922.

The next period will see era-defining events, with great upheavals in consciousness and institutions, including the trade unions, as the impact of the cuts savagery unfolds. The question of independent mass working class political representation will once again be posed. But AV will not aid the struggle to bring such a formation into being and therefore socialists should campaign for a No vote in May.


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