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Christopher Hall: How AV has been defeated in decades gone by

Christopher Hall is Parliamentary Assistant to a Conservative MP.

The current AV campaigns have seemingly become less about substance and more about style as the May 5th Referendum reaches ever closer, with the battle increasingly being fought in mass and social media fields with support from a whole plethora of celebrity backers. However, we should all not lose sight of the substance of the argument, and on this we would do better to take our cues from history and fact. With this in mind what do the Duke of Wellington, Robert Peel, Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden and William Gladstone all have in common? They have all opposed reckless attempts at Parliamentary or Electoral Reform.

In 1931 Anthony Eden said that:

“..this was almost the last stage in a great series of Reform Bills since 1832. I wonder if it occurred to him what a melancholy contrast is our position in this House this afternoon with that of the great Reform Bill of 1832. At that time a number of Members of this House were attempting to resist a reform for which there was an immense popular demand. To-day we see an unhappy Home Secretary plodding the last tired stage of his course on behalf of a Measure for which he has no affection and for which his supporters have less.”

Sound familiar?

The only Party which has maintained and defended a singular, coherent position on electoral reform is the Conservative Party, which has maintained a preference for the First Past the Post system of elections since its initial inception. However, as their manifestos show, this coherence and maintenance of focus cannot be said of the other two main parties: the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party.

Indeed, the most ironic thing about the proposal of the Alternative Vote system is that within all the election manifestos the only party to propose use of the AV system for a national election were Labour (pages 62 & 63), even though the party is now utterly split on the issue with more than half of Labour MPs defying their leader and opposing AV.

By comparison, if you search the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Party Manifestos you will find no trace of the term ‘Alternative Vote’. On electoral issues the Conservative Manifesto states:

“We support the first-past-the-post system for Westminster elections because it gives voters the chance to kick out a government they are fed up with.” (Page 67)

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrat Manifesto clearly showed that AV is not their preferential system when it declared that:

“Our preferred Single Transferable Vote system gives people the choice between candidates as well as parties.” (Page 88)

So if Labour was the only party to propose a change to AV, and even they’re unsure about it now, where did this sudden electoral love affair with AV come from?

The answer seems to be rooted in history; a history that has been little reviewed or highlighted, but that with a successful No vote, will be repeated on May 5th.

If the Liberals and the left of the Labour Party are true to their ancestry, AV is not the system they are truly seeking, it is but a smokescreen for a debate on the merits of PR vis a vis FPTP. As the Lib Dem manifesto shows, the first preference of the Liberal Democrat Party and the Liberal tradition as a whole, has always been, and remains the Single Transferable Vote System. For the most part credited as a British “invention” (though, in truth, it was also “invented” separately and at around the same time by Carl Andrae in Denmark) — and therefore as the British system of PR — the merits of STV were being debated from the 1850s onwards, most notably after the publication of Thomas Hare’s Treatise on the Election of Representatives, Parliamentary and Municipal and the active and enthusiastic promotion of his system by John Stuart Mill.

From the 1880s onwards, the Proportional Representation Society of the United Kingdom also featured prominently in efforts to promote STV. In large part, Hare’s ideas were dismissed by the British establishment, and it was not until the 1917 Speaker’s conference that any real effort was made to propose the adoption of STV, in combination with AV, for British elections.

"No to AV Yes to PR" is the campaign AV activists should be signing up to, because that is what the Liberal voting reform movement has always been about.

The reason why pure PR, and the Liberals' preferred system of STV, has not been pushed for is that not only is it unpopular with the main political parties and the majority of the electorate, but it has already been voted down on numerous occasions. However, what has not been mentioned by the Yes campaign is that the Alternative Vote system was thrown out to be replaced by a proposed system of STV, which came to a vote on the 4th July 1917 and was voted down 201 to 169 by a majority of 32.

And this is by no means an historical anomaly. During the progress of the Representation of the People Act through the House in 1931 a change to the Alternative Vote system was again put before Parliament and voted down.

The original Liberal position on Parliamentary and Electoral Reform was an admirable one. It was a movement that was based extending the franchise itself to ensure that every citizen was given the right to vote. How they would be turning in their graves to see that the reins of their noble campaign have been taken up for little more than political advantage.

As the great Liberal William Gladstone put most eloquently back in 1870:

“The principle of Parliamentary representation is that we should recognize each constituency as being in itself an integer – as being in itself a community - and what we want in this House is to have the prevailing sense of the community. We do not want to have represented in miniature particular shades of opinion that may at the moment prevail in it...but the sense of the majority, which represents the whole community; because the community is, in the spirit and sense of the Constitution, recognised as being in itself an integral quantity.” (Hansard, Parl. Debs, 3rd Ser., CCII, 147)

During the House of Commons debate Anthony Eden summed up the problem that AV creates within electoral systems when he said in 1931 that:

“The Alternative Vote is, of course, ideal for the political wrangler. The right hon Member for Darwen told us that there is angling for votes now. Of course there is, but under the present method we try at election time, with more or less success, to convince the people that our own views are right. What we shall do under this Bill is different; we shall have to try and convince those who, we know, disagree with us to give us the second best vote. There will be the whole field open to political manoeuvring, just as there was in the Australian elections.”

In 1931 Churchill famously said that:

“The Government have, as it seems to me, rejected without reasonable consideration both the method of Proportional Representation and this method of the second ballot. The plan that they have adopted is the worst of all possible plans. It is the stupidest, the least scientific and the most unreal that the Government have embodied in their Bill. The decision of 100 or more constituencies, perhaps 200, is to be determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates.... This method is surely the child of folly, and will become the parent of fraud. Neither the voters nor the candidates will be dealing with realities. An element of blind chance and accident will enter far more largely into our electoral decisions than even before, and respect for Parliament and Parliamentary processes will decline lower than it is at present.”

Churchill’s analysis of the Alternative Vote system remains as valid now as it did then but this push for the “miserable little compromise” that is AV has become Nick Clegg’s folly. In the run up to the First World War STV and AV were both been defeated on votes by elected representatives on the floor of the House of Commons, and nothing has changed between then and now.

The great Victorian Liberal titan Mr Gladstone, dismissed PR as too complicated, artificial and 'un-English'. Nick Clegg’s opinion of AV has been a running view within the Liberal tradition for almost 100 years, being echoed by the then chair of the then Proportional Representation Society (the forerunner to the Electoral Reform Society) who said in 1917 that AV should not be used as a cover to move for a system of Proportional Representation to be brought in through the back door, but that the debate should be about FPTP versus PR.

The current Liberal Democrats should take heed from the original Liberals and consign the idea of electing MP’s AV to history where it belongs.


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