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Making votes count

The struggle for electoral reform must be a high priority for the left, says Billy Bragg, alongside our resistance to cuts in public services

June 16, 2010
4 min read

Already there are those on the left who are condemning the coming debate on electoral reform, arguing that it will be a distraction from the real battle over cuts to public services. Unfortunately, there are plenty of sitting Labour MPs, wary of a more accountable voting system, who will agree.

However, we will be making a serious tactical mistake if we dismiss electoral reform as something that does not interest traditional Labour supporters. The present first-past-the-post system allowed Tony Blair to take our core vote for granted, ignoring the needs of safe Labour seats, instead shaping policies that might attract floating voters in a few dozen marginal seats in ‘Middle England’. New Labour assumed that people in places like Barking and Dagenham had no one else to vote for. How wrong could they be?

It took a huge effort by anti-fascists and local party activists to defeat the BNP, but they were not the root of the problem. They were able to gain a stronghold in east London because the people there felt that the Labour Party no longer listened to them.

Those who fear that proportional representation would allow the BNP to win representation should take comfort from the results in Barking and Dagenham. Once people see the reality of the politics of hate, they throw the racists out. We can trust voters to see through the lies of the BNP. Furthermore, PR will give voters other, more progressive ways of expressing their anger and frustration with the main political parties. The pluralism that has accompanied PR in Scotland and Wales has moved the centres of political gravity there to the left.

Disenfranchisement cannot be remedied by rigging the voting system to keep the BNP out, nor by edicts from above. People need to be convinced that politicians are interested in their concerns and that will not happen as long as the political establishment is able to take votes for granted. You cannot hope to create an equal society unless everyone’s votes carry the same weight with politicians.

That’s why the coming referendum on electoral reform is crucial to those of us who want to live in a fairer society. Yes, we will have to fight Tory-Lib Dem cuts in the traditional way – and new ways. But we must also take up the cause of proportional representation if we hope to finally see the progressive majority govern this country for the benefit of all.

The alternative vote

The alternative vote (AV) is sometimes seen as a compromise between keeping the present first-past-the-post system and moving towards a form of ‘true’ proportional representation, writes Michael Calderbank. Known as ‘instant run-off’ voting in the US, the system keeps single member constituencies but voters rank the candidates by order of preference. When a candidate is eliminated, the subsequent preferences of their voters are transferred to those left in the race, a process that continues until one candidate has more than 50 per cent of votes. Its supporters – like Labour MP Peter Hain – argue that it strengthens the legitimacy of parliament because it means that every MP would have been supported by at least half of the voters in their constituency.

AV isn’t proportional representation. But it would mean that people no longer face the dilemma of voting for their preferred party or for one with a realistic chance of winning the seat. So Green, left or independent candidates would not need to fear that they could split the vote by standing and let in a right-wing party. The Lib Dems would be the most likely to gain, but is unlikely that smaller parties such as the Greens would see their tally of MPs increased under an AV system. Some Conservatives believe that it could hurt their chances of forming a majority government in the future, fearing that it would enable a natural alliance to emerge between Labour and Lib Dem voters.

AV alone is not enough to eliminate ‘safe seats’, although it is likely to expand the number of marginals. While many electoral reformers think it does not go nearly far enough, many would welcome a yes vote on AV in a referendum because it would represent a rejection of first past the post, and represent a first step towards either the single transferable vote or alternative vote plus forms of PR.

For more info see the activists’ guide to PR on the Electoral Reform Society website: www.electoral-reform.org.uk