Monday 28 June 2010

To PR or not to PR...

I have just spent a long weekend in London (hence no posts for several days), principally to attend the AGM of the Electoral Reform Society (ERS). The main debate was whether to launch immediately "a campaign of education and lobbying against the current voting system and in support of AV and preferential voting FULL STOP, or to continue "and further to use the campaign to promote Proportional Representation by the use of the Single Transferable Vote for future House of Commons and other UK election."

The "full stoppers" argued that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to get rid of the primitive First Past the Post system (FPTP), and that the Tories and much of the Labour Party will campaign against, so there is no guarantee that the referendum will be won. We should not therefore muddy the waters and weaken the campaign by arguing that AV is not really much of an improvement, and that if we want to win we must swallow our reservations and embrace AV with unqualified enthusiasm.

The "continuers" also argued that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, that, following the expenses scandal and the failure of FPTP's USP (that it magnifies a minority into a strong and decisive one-party government) the electorate is genuinely interested in and ready for electoral reform. AV is not a step towards PR, we are not likely to have a series of referendums which enable us to move gradually towards a proportional system, and it would be crazy for the Society (which was originally called the Proportional Representation Society) not to grasp the nettle and put the case for STV to the electorate.

In the end the "coninuers" won. I am one of them, but I do recognise there is a genuine dilemma. The way forward seems to me to persuade MPs to amend the government's bill so that the STV option is included in the referendum, then ask a two-part question:
a) should the electoral system be changed?
b) if it is, which of these options, AV or STV, would you like?

Paternalists and conservatives (small "c") argue that the electorate is incapable of making not one but two decisions on anything so complex. Reformers are more optimistic.


  1. That seems the right line for the Electoral Reform Society to take as a campaigning organization for proportional representation. However I see a high risk in your two-part referendum question. First it will lead to an arcane debate on the merits of AV vs STV: a great switch-off for most voters. Secondly even if STV 'wins', it is likely to do so with a minority of those who vote and even smaller minority of the electorate. Opponents will claim that the majority voted against STV so there is no mandate. FPTP vs AV would focus the debate on the absurdities of FPTP and the beneficial effects (even if far short of PR) of AV.

  2. You are right, there is a great danger of an arcane debate if we try to increase the options. I've mentioned before that, given the chance, we PR enthusiasts are likely to give too much information and launch off into debates on such issues as the relative merits of the different quotas. Indeed there was such a debate at he AGM last week on the "Newland and Britton" versus the "Meek" method of counting! However, I do believe that if we exercise restraint we should be able to clarify rather than fudge the issues. The opportunity to put the case for real PR is too good to lose.