Why Labour and Unions must campaign for AV

I am going to make an assumption here right from the start. And that is most people reading my blog are probably coming from an instinctive left wing/liberal persuasion. And I ask readers who fit into that category to start with a thought experiment.

Strip away all your tribal loyalty to whichever party you support, strip away your preconceptions about different electoral systems and what you think about the issue of electoral reform. Do away with any personality based conclusions you have. Done that? Right now think about what is your central core belief about why you are a leftwing progressive activist?

My answer is about making the world a fairer place. I don’t want to live in a world where some people don’t have what they need, and others have more than they could ever use. I don’t want to live in a world where children’s life chances are determined by the postcode of their parents. Simply I don’t want to live in a radically unequal society. The informs all of my politics, this core belief is what shapes the way I view the world.

I imagine most of my readers are these!

I would imagine that most of you reading this probably come to a similar conclusion. As, I’m sure, would most members of the Labour Party, The Green Party, the Diaspora of “I’m more of a pure lefty than you” leftwing parties. Heck I would probably say most members of the Liberal Democrats would probably answer along these lines (even if the Tory Jnr leadership of their Parliamentary Party would disagree). Now we would probably all disagree about how to do something about this, and what our ideal society would look like. But this underlying assumption, on a woolly kind of a level is probably something virtually everyone on the left can buy into.

What, you might ask, has this got to do with the AV referendum? Well I’ll tell you, it is because the kind of political system we have materially effects what kind of a society and economy we have. Put simply the more plural and proportional the political system the less unequal the society.

Don’t just take my word for it, don’t just take the evidence of your own eyes if you contrast public policy in multi party western European countries like Sweden, Holland, Belguim, Norway, Germany, Finland, Denmark et al with majoritarian ones like the UK or America (Does anyone really think that outcomes for the poor are better in the UK than in Sweden?!?!?!?).

Rather look at what people who have actually studied it have to say. Look at academics Iverson and Soskice said in their seminal paper “Electoral Institutions and the Politics of Coalitions: Why Some Democracies Redistribute More Than Others”, or Vicenzo Veradi’s paper on the same subject “Electoral systems and income inequality”.  For a good blog putting this in layman’s terms check out what Next Left had to say, but basically they show how in multi party, more proportional systems income inequality is reduced and broad social democratic outcomes are more likely to occur.

So for me that is “Game, Set and Match”, I’m “in politics” to make the world fairer, and more proportional multi party systems are more likely to deliver that. Before I even look at any other arguments that is the silver bullet, the killer argument which ought to mean the left support changing our political system.

I do wonder why anyone in Labour is opposed to pluralism and electoral reform. The obvious answer is dogmatic tribalism. People supporting Labour simply because they support Labour. And therefore not caring what they do as long as they are successful. I guess if this is what you think that as long as Labour are in full majority control periodically then that is an “end” in itself.

This probably explains some of the Labour hostility to electoral reform but it does not explain it all. I guess a much bigger factor is there is a whole generation of Labour Party Activists who remember the great reforming Labour governments of 1945-51 under Atlee and theWilson Government of 1964-70. Having seen what can be achieved by a majority Labour government I think some people are reluctant to give up on that possibility.

But the truth is the world has changed, both in terms of British society, public voting patterns. But most crucially in terms of the Labour Party. If 13 years, and three election wins (including two substantial landslides) of New Labour have taught us anything it is that a radical, reforming, majority, socialist, Labour majority government just isn’t going to happen any time soon (if ever). People think differently now and the fragmentation of the vote, the breakdown in traditional communities and class led voting patterns mean politics has changed and is going to continue changing.

And anyway the Labour party already is a coalition; a coalition of the Right Wing Mandlesonian “free marketers”, the Social Democrats and the Democratic Socialists. Except there is no formal “coalition agreement” which makes sure the left factions have some actual say in Labour Governmental policy.

We have not moved on much from this...

And lets not kid our selves about what the British electoral, and frankly parliamentary system is. We didn’t have a revolution, we didn’t think about what would be the best and fairest political system and build that. No the entrenched elite, our Aristocracy et al gradually seeded the minimum possible about of power and influence downward. It was a fudge and a compromise and is one of the reasons why the British people are so disenfranchised.  If you tried from scratch to come up with a decent and fair political system I doubt it would look like what we have in the UK.

It is for all these reasons and more why if we want a better, and more progressive UK the Labour Party and the Trade Union Movement have to campaign for a Yes vote in the forthcoming AV referendum. It is a once in a generation chance to change our politics for the better, and whilst AV isn’t perfect a “NO” vote will mean we are stuck with a regressive, broken political system for the next 30 years or so.


17. November 2010 by Ralph Ferrett
Categories: Activism | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 7 comments

Comments (7)

  1. Pingback: More from the Labour Grassroots- “Why Labour and Unions must campaign for AV” | Yes to Fairer Votes – Birmingham

  2. Several good points about political pluralism. The trouble is, the Lib-Dems have become polluted. Voters will not trust them again in our life time. They are a dead parrot.

    I’m a tribal Labour voter and will remain so because, whatever the sophistication of your arguments, we get one vote. I am not alone on the Left, surely, in never, ever wanting the Lib-Dems to come anywhere near power again.

    If we are to have AV or some other form of PR, the Left should move towards the Greens (and vice versa). It is the only alternative coalition worth considering.

    • Hi Kevin,

      Thanks for visiting my blog. It is a tricky one. Clearly the Lib Dems have got brand contamination now. But the question for me in politics is about outcomes, and outcomes for the most vulnerable in our society. I am a member of the Labour party and have supported them all my life but this is never, and never will be, an end in it’s self.

      I support the Labour party because they off the possibility of being the engines of change to create a fairer, better, more equal and egalitarian society. If the Labour Party cease to be that engine I would look elsewhere, or if some other barrier is put in place that prevents us from being that engine I will look to change it.

      The evidence, both anecdeotal and academic is that our political system is a barrier. Britain is an unequal place, and becoming more so. This is despite 13 years of Labour government. A big part of the reason for this is the FPP electoral system that forces Labour to narrowly chase middle class, middle england, swing voters in swing seats. If we want the Labour party to inspire again we need to change the rules of the game to allow this.

      On the green thing I agree and hinted at it in another of my blogs here:-


  3. I agree that the elecotoral system we have influences the way we do politics. I think that the combination of winner takes all elections and the acute tribalism of political activists (and I include myself in this) makes it very difficult for us to have consensus politics in the UK. Even where there is a consensus it must be dressed up with flowing divisive rhetoric.

    I also agree that AV increases the prospect for a fairer society as you define it. I think it does so in two ways. Firstly, in increases voter power and decreases the power of party managers. This is good in itself and in turn weakens the influence of those interests who can afford to fund political activity or lobbyists. With more power voters standing behind their MP, MP’s are also empowered to stand up to their whips and to the Government.

    The second way that AV helps is by increasing the influence of smaller parties. Smaller parties may not win many more seats under AV than they do under First Past the Post but as candidates have to reach out more than a narrow fringe of floating voter candidates and parties will have to reach out to smaller parties. Policies put forward by the main three parties will have to appeal not just to people in marginal seats who might change their vote but to those who currently give their vote to smaller partiest.

  4. I joined the Labour Party in 1960 as a Young Socialist and within a couple of years I became a fan of PR. Why? Because in those days we selected election candidates and Party officials by exhaustive ballots and it seemed logical to me then that if such a system was good enough for us, then it should be used in all elections. Then we changed to ranking would-be candidates and officers in order of preference by putting 1, 2, 3 etc against their names and having just one ballot. It’s the system we us today and I have never heard one Party member complain about it, yet some still want to retain ‘first past the post’ for local and parliamentary elections. I cannot understand why.

    Of course the proposed AV system is flawed and I, for one, will never put a number against a far-right, Liberal or a Tory candidate. Blair had a great chance to change the system in the late-1990s when the Jenkins’ report was published, but didn’t take it. Then Brown promised AV if Labour won the 2010 election. It’s what we’re stuck with and, at the end of the day, it’s fairer than what we have now — it’s as simple at that.

  5. What would the result have been in Oldham if AV was in place?

  6. Hi Ralph
    As usual your powers of reasoning are on track and you have my attention with your sound arguments.

    I too am tribal in that I want the kind of government that created the Welfare State and the NHS 2 beautiful humanitarian victories for social justice that are envied around the world. After all caring for the vulnerable in our societies is a mark of our civilised status.

    However my anger at the Lib Dems and the liars and cheats in the new orange book order is hard to swallow. They desire this as a way of ensuring they are no longer shut out of UK PLC. I’d like to see it denied them.

    I am also dissapointed in the Labour Party at present although a life long supporter. You mention the inequality of todays society and ED & Co have the mark of the oxbridge crowd written all over them. They speak in soundbites have cultured accents and come from the elite. Trying to tell them apart from all this networking crowd is sometimes very hard indeed, they are all socialy connected public school elitist.

    My support for the 1st past the post ie NO vote is perhaps wistful. I recall listening to Harold Wilson debating with Ted Heath and the clear difference between them. This made it easy for inverted snobs like me to choose who I felt was on my side. I also wish to see giants appear like Tony Benn Michael Foot Dennis Skinner ad I’m Waiting perhaps in vain !

    Nowadays politics is filled with versache suits loud ties and media savy spin. I guess I’m clinging on to the wish to see real radical politics rise up from its long sleep.

    Im not closed off yet to either view I’m unsure , your views are the best I’ve seen to explain the yes now I must search out an equaly qualified political thinker to expouse the No arguments.

    One thing is sure a very low turn out, as no one has become engaged in this debate. I saw a debate on TV with no politicians on the panel just a bunch of celebs , I hit the off switch. I cant stand this new idea of getting a catwalk model or a footballers views as im not persuaded by these people and am not celeb obsessed.

    So the jury is still out for me and I feel that although some people in the world will rise up and face real danger for democracy we are complacent and I expect a turnout of 15% that will decide the issue for us all, at a time when there are far bigger issues to concern us.

    Attacks of Benefits , Attacks on Public Services , The Destruction of the NHS etc…………

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