Friday, 13 November 2009

Referendum on Electoral Reform Bad Idea with a General Election

I am very surprised that proponents of electoral reform are supporting the idea of a referendum on election day.

Campaigners pressing for a vote on electoral reform have welcomed news from Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw MP that:
"it would be a missed opportunity not to have a referendum on Election Day."
In an interview with the New Statesman the Mr. Bradshaw broke with the government’s stated policy of pushing talk of a referendum into the next parliament. Mr. Bradshaw said:
"if we’re serious about the voters as grown-ups, then let them decide, and I think they’d be perfectly capable of making a decision."
The Vote for a Change campaign and the Electoral Reform Society, two organisations that have been leading calls for a change in how Britain elects parliamentarians have said
"there’s all to play for."
Tessa Jowell MP was among a number of cabinet ministers who earlier in the week mounted a last-ditch effort to include a referendum on electoral reform in the Queen's speech next Wednesday. It is understood that she saw the reform as part of a wider package including directly elected mayors, votes at 16 and primaries for the election of parliamentary candidates.

Mrs. Jowell, the Cabinet Office minister, urged her colleagues
"to recognise that the prize to be won is as the progressive party. The challenge is which party is going to be brave enough and foresighted enough to say we are going to go with these issues.

"If we show that boldness, Labour will be seen as the change maker. It takes brave politics to give power away, and helps people feel more powerful."
However, it will not be an easy referendum to win at the best of times. There isn’t a large majority in favour of Alternative Votes as a poll from YouGov this week indicates that 39% thought we should keep the traditional First-Past-The-Post system whilst 22% favoured Alternative Voting a further 22% favoured another form or Proportioal Representation and 18% said Don't Know (YouGov figures here). With the suggested timing it would be extremely vulnerable to a narrative that it is Labour gerrymandering (c. 1812, American English, from Elbridge Gerry and [sala]mander. Gerry, governor of Massachusetts, was lampooned when his party redistricted the state in a blatant bid to preserve an Anti-federalist majority. One Essex County district resembled a salamander, and a newspaper editor dubbed it Gerrymander) the system before they lose office.

Furthermore, it will get tangled up with the election campaign itself – the referendum will influence the election, but the election will influence the referendum too, and the election is by far the bigger game. A 'Yes' vote will be associated with a moribund and unpopular Labour government, a 'No' vote with an energised and resurgent Conservative party. Further it would be very difficult for the 'Yes' campaign to win the referendum if was held on election day, probably killing the issue for at least a generation.

The image questions in the poll show why it is a attractive idea to the Labour party, but I am surprised the Electoral Reform Society (a group I have had some affinity with in the past - good receptions at party conference) are pushing for a referendum under what would probably be very disadvantageous circumstances for the 'Yes' vote. The alternative, if rumours are to be believed is what John Denham MP is suggesting: Passing legislation now for a referendum on Proportional Representation in a year. The 'Yes' campaign would probably stand a much better chance of winning it then, but the Electoral Reform Society would face the the risk that David Cameron would win power and cancel the referendum - politically damaging, but maybe a price he is willing to pay to keep First-Past-The-Post.

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