Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Beware of MPs promoting electoral reform

You’d have to assume that when Ogmore Labour MP and UK government minister Huw Irranca-Davies proposed in the Western Mail last week that a switch from the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system to an alternative vote (AV) system would ‘help restore public engagement with politics’, he was either being ironic or disingenuous.
Under the AV system, MPs would be elected in single-member constituencies as they are now. But instead of placing a single ‘X’ against their preferred candidate as in the FPTP system, voters would rank all the candidates in order of preference (1, 2, 3, etc).
If no candidate achieved more than 50% of first preferences, as is often the case with the FPTP system, second preference votes would be redistributed, then third preferences and so on until one candidate achieved an overall majority.
Under the current system, a candidate can win by a single vote even though he or she might have polled as little as 25% of the total votes cast. With AV, a candidate who finishes a close second in such circumstances might win on second or third preferences. The winner would be able to claim legitimacy having achieved a majority of overall preferences.
On the face of it, AV would be of greatest benefit to the Liberal Democrats since polls consistently suggest that both Labour and Conservative supporters would be more likely to back them as a second preference. So what’s in it for Labour?
Irranca-Davies rambles unconvincingly about his constituents being able to send him messages but the real answer lies in the second preferences of Liberal Democrat supporters. Liberal Democrats are more inclined to give their second preference to Labour than the Conservatives meaning that some second-placed Labour candidates would be able to defeat first-placed Tories.
Although the Tories enjoy a double-digit percentage lead over Labour in all the opinion polls, they would only manage a majority of around 50 seats under the present system. With AV, the Tories might find it impossible to win any kind of majority at all since Labour and the Liberal Democrats might expect to win a dozen or so extra seats each on second preference.
Having found what looks like a get out of jail free card, the challenges for Labour now are how to hoodwink the electorate into believing that AV represents the sweeping electoral reform the party promised before it won such a massive majority in 1997, and how to get away with holding a referendum on the issue before the next general election. Hence the bit of puff in the Western Mail.
The Electoral Reform Society, meanwhile, is pressing for a referendum on the introduction of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, which also works on a preferential basis but is far more equitable in that it minimises ‘wasted votes’ and provides an outcome of proportional representation.
Labour is strongly against STV. It doesn’t suit the interests of Labour MPs like Irranca-Davies whose seemingly impregnable seat in Ogmore, whether under the current system or AV, would appear to give him a well-paid job for life.
He claims he works hard to represent the interests of his constituents, irrespective of whether they vote for him or not. No doubt he works hard, but junior ministers don’t climb the party ladder by representing the interests of their constituents. They make themselves useful to the leadership by putting their consciences aside and slavishly supporting the government in whatever it chooses to do. If proof of this were needed, take a look at his voting record. Are the people of Ogmore strongly against transparent government do you think?
The recent expenses scandal proved that MPs can’t be relied upon to regulate themselves, but there is an alternative system that would remove the need for politicians and political parties altogether. It would help restore public engagement with politics by giving every citizen an equal opportunity to make decisions in government. It does away with self-interest and political corruption. It’s called demarchy and it’s the principle on which Newid is founded.

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