We must stand together to tackle this referendum, says Samuel Dale

The referendum on whether to adopt the alternative vote (AV) system for House of Commons is taking place on May 5 2011. It is an important moment in British politics, which will see two coalition partners pitted against each other. It may be easy to think Labour will therefore have a limited role. Actually, the party has to face some tough decisions on its strategy and policy but must avoid being a bit part player in what will be a pivotal moment.

The first, and most important, question is whether electoral reform, however incremental, is the progressive and fair course of action. By allowing second preferences the alternative vote system will stop the scandal of wasted votes endured under the first past the post system. This means that in a Conservative and Liberal Democrat marginal seat one could still make clear one’s support for Labour but vote Lib Dem second to keep the Tories out and vice versa. This seems progressive – an advance for electoral fairness and an enfranchisement of those in safe seats who wish to make their true choice but not hand the seat to a party they want to keep out.

Furthermore, AV would be a move towards a more representative national picture with vote share being more fairly reflected in seats. Obviously with 29% of the vote and around 40% of the seats it would appear that any move in this direction would be to the detriment of Labour. Actually, electoral studies seem to show that this wouldn’t be the case with AV. But, even if it were, such political considerations should be secondary to the principle of fairness. In an age when national politics has such bearing on local results and the electorate votes for a Prime Minister more than a local MP, any move towards vote share and seat share equalisation is welcome.

One might have thought that the Liberal Democrats would have the most to gain under the system by sweeping up second preferences from the tribal loyalties of the main party voters. But with fewer wasted votes, the Lib Dems may win less seats via tactical voting than they do now. Any system that allows voters to choose who they actually want and rather than obliging them to make a cold tactical decision should be welcomed. The progressive case for the alternative vote is clear. Labour also had a manifesto commitment to back a referendum and would thus be vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy if it changed now.

But perhaps even trickier than a previous manifesto commitment U-turn is the idea of backing the Lib Dems and the ghastly Nick Clegg after their and his betrayal of progressive politics. Their policy is an afterthought to principle, but it would be difficult to support such a party with their current Budget-slashing policies. The temptation for Labour to sit on its hands and let the two coalition partners go head to head is obvious but would be wrong. This type of blind tribalism has to be dismissed if Labour is to be taken seriously. It must not oppose reform as some kind of retribution for Lib Dem betrayal or to spite the coalition.

Equally cynical is the ‘equalising’ of constituency boundaries and reducing the number of MPs. Clearly, this is a ‘reform’ intended to appease the Conservative leadership and allay their fears that AV could reduce their seat numbers. Labour would naturally oppose such a move but if it is, and it will be, put in a referendum with AV then it poses problems. Can Labour campaign for a yes vote yet make clear they oppose part of what they are campaigning for? Probably not. It is too muddled and will make the party look disjointed. We must make a choice: the prize of a dynamic and progressive voting system is too great to be derailed by cynical political ploys. In order to deliver a clear and unified message Labour must back the whole package.

To take political advantage of the divisions in the coalition, Labour should lead the Yes campaign and portray it as a Tory-Labour battle. Clearly this will be tough as it is well known that the Liberals have long backed electoral reform and that they forced the Tories into a referendum. But they must be marginalised in and become viewed as a supporters of the Labour position rather than the other way around. This can only be achieved through a vigorous Labour yes campaign and, crucially, a united party.

Obviously, Labour is divided over electoral reform, as we saw during coalition talks with the Lib Dems. David Blunkett, Tom Watson and John Reid effectively ended Lib-Lab coalition hopes because of their opposition to electoral reform; and yet it was included in the manifesto with the backing of Alan Johnson and the Milibands.

These are real divisions and it will be tough work to get the whole party to back a yes vote. There is a real danger that Labour will look too weak and disunited for a vigorous campaign. And so we need a leader who is strong enough to take the party with them and who is prepared strongly to defend the decision. It is a gamble, but only a definite direction holds a chance of a united yes vote. Any hesitation or ambivalence will lead only to disunity at a crucial time and give the impetus to the Lib Dems.

A united Labour party campaigning with rigour, truth and in the interest of fairness not party interest is the only way to tackle the issues posed by this referendum. The new leader must set out their stall early and take the party with them. Exploiting coalition division is all very well, and lots of fun, but standing on a matter of selfless principle is where Labour is best and this is one such occasion.

Samuel Dale is on twitter.

5 Responses to “We must stand together to tackle this referendum, says Samuel Dale”

  1. Adam says:

    Demanding unity in favour of an issue where the majority of the party – and the party’s voters – are against is deluded. There is no prospect of Labour being united on this issue, and any attempt by those who parachuted the idea into the 2010 manifesto without any reference to what the party wanted will catastrophically damage the party.

    I will be campaigning hard for fair votes: for a retention of the first past the post voting system and against the even less proportional AV system Ed Miliband foisted on the party in his manifesto. I’ll be doing all I can to encourage Labour supporters to vote No. I’ll be exposing the absurd arguments that AV is fairer; that giving second preference votes to the parties with the least support is just; that electoral systems would have avoided the expenses scandal and all the other myths that people like Samuel peddle. And I won’t be alone.

    A leader who tries to impose one message on a party divided over it to a degree not seen in the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats won’t demonstrate strength but irrelevance. What thoroughly stupid advice Samuel.

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  3. Samuel says:

    Party leaders should lead. This tautology only needs to be pointed out to those who accuse elected leaders, chosen by parties with mechanisms to remove them, of forcing themselves on the party. Obviously any collection of people is a coalition of ideas and it is for a leader to shape that coalition into a coherent message. Unity is important if Labour is to be electable again and a leader must make this a key aim, especially over a divisive issue such as the AV referendum.

    I believe AV is fairer than FPTP so I will be backing it and I want the Labour party to back it as well. The above is simply exploring the political path Labour should weave to maximise its appeal and promote its principles. Stupid advice – that’s for you to judge but it’s certainly mine.

  4. If party leaders want to lead, bully for them. They can do that in an individual capacity.

    Labour is a grown-up enough party to agree to disagree on this issue. It might actually be nice for once in my life if we’d agree not to force a position on the membership without any consultation or consideration of whether or not it’s what we actually want.

    For the record, I’m probably leaning towards voting for AV, although I’m still torn on it. I just think it’s outrageous to suggest that the party should officially campaign for a Yes vote just because you happen to think so.

    You want people to vote Yes, you convince them. Same for anybody else on either side. Don’t try to hijack the Labour Party machinery for that without even so much as a by your leave.

  5. AmberStar says:

    If the referendum includes the boundary changes, then it’s a simple decision: Labour supporters should vote “No” unless we are turkeys.

    I do not share the writer’s optimism that this proposed gerrymander will be included in the referendum. I think it will be happening without allowing the electorate the opportunity to veto it.

    So… AV itself. Apparently the writer hasn’t read about the Tories & LibDems agreeing to second preference each other. This could have the result that any Labour candidate who can’t get 50+% of the vote at the first round is out. Why would Labour supporters vote for a system which favours an existing coalition?

    Labourites who favour AV may be living in the past, in a time when it was assumed that LibDems would vote Labour as a second preference & Tories would pick up UKIP votes as second choice. Those days are gone – & unless there is compelling, current evidence that Labour would benefit from AV, why should Labour should be backing it?

    As to charges of hypocrisy… if Labour refused to change policy for fear of being called hypocrites, we would never change policy at all! 😎

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