Written evidence submitted by the Labour
Campaign for Electoral Reform (PVSCB 07)
Labour reformers support the AV referendum.
There is more need for discussion on
various other aspects of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies
Bill as outlined below.
The Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform (LCER)
is in favour of much of the substance of the Parliamentary Voting
System and Constituencies Bill but does not believe that a change
in the electoral system and changes to constituency boundaries
need to be dealt with in one Bill. We believe that the proposals
on implementation of "reduce and equalise" are flawed,
that the reduction of seats has not been adequately discussed
and that the consequences may be a worse service for the electorate
from overworked politicians. Putting all these issues together
in one Bill seems to forget the democratic need on constitutional
reform to move by discussion and consensus, across party and involving
the citizens it will affect.
There is no philosophical, legal, practical
or parliamentary reason for combining the referendum with boundary
changes. While no one can dispute the principle of equalisation,
there is no evidence that the current boundaries cause a major
distortion of the electoral system. Nothing justifies such a hurried
non consensual review. We support the idea of holding the AV referendum
in May 2010.
LCER believes that the following issues need
to be thought about separately:
1. The AV Referendum
Labour reformers fought for the AV referendum
to be legislated upon before the General Election. On 9 February
2010 nearly 300 of the 365 MP who voted AYE to the amendment to
the Constitutional Reform and Governance (CRAG) Bill were Labour
MPs. Unfortunately this fell at Wash Up but made it into the Labour
2010 Manifesto as a promise to the electorate. Labour MPs can
be expected to support the principle of holding of an AV Referendum
to let the people decide, though as we shall argue, this does
not mean endorsing the composite Bill tabled by the Coalition.
2. The Timing of the Referendum
It is important to maximise turnout in the referendum
and this is likely to happen if the referendum is held on the
same day as other elections. When asked in a questionnaire Labour
reformers were keen on holding different elections in the same
year on the same day. However we do note that this may create
problems for colleagues in Wales and Scotland. They have not been
consulted in any real manner during the drafting of the current
Bill. who should have been involved in the discussion leading
to the Bill. We recognise also that in English local elections,
there may be some confusion but maybe more for the Parties fighting
each other but agreeing in the referendum than for the voter.
LCER therefore neither endorses nor rejects the current proposal.
3. The Alternative Voting system
An overwhelming majority, seven to one, of those
who responded to our questionnaire in 2008 would support a one
line bill changing "X" to preference voting (1, 2, 3
|) and most thought this should be done before the General Election
or failing that in Labour's manifesto. Many supported the idea
that this should be done with the Liberal Democrats in either
The most powerful argument for Alternative Vote
was thought to be that it would unravel tactical voting. The LCER
membership also judged that AV was the greatest level of reform
that could win the support of the then Labour leadership. AV would
have different effects depending whereabouts in the country we
were discussing. The majority felt AV favoured the Lib Dems, but
almost as many felt it was politically neutral, with favouring
Labour coming next and favouring the Conservatives only backed
by a few. (The role of UKIP may not have been factored in at that
time.) There was a sizable minority which thought that AV does
not solve the problem on its own without a top up, as in AV+,
and that in order to give first preferences a weighting they could
be used to assess the parties popularity and rights to state funding.
There was split support for the Australian Model
because compulsory attendance is included as well as AV for the
lower house and STV for the upper house. Some voted for it without
the compulsory element and some voted against it because of that.
However there was majority support for AV/STV being the way forward,
by seven to four, ie doing it "the Aussie way".
There is no reason to expect an increase in
spoilt ballots with AV as a single X is still a valid vote, a
first preference. In the Scottish local elections in 2007, voters
used the X, rather than the one, and parties seem to prefer that
voters only voted for their candidates, and where two to give
only a one and a two.
4. Supplementary Vote
Questionnaire consultation on Alternative Vote
versus Supplementary Vote (or as Professor Patrick Dunleavy calls
it "London AV") showed overwhelming preference for AV
to the extent that people wanted to change SV to AV in mayoral
5. Reduction of number of MPs
LCER, probably along with a significant proportion
of the electorate, fear this is a knee jerk reaction to the MP
expenses scandal and is being sold as cost cutting. We believe
that the reduction by 50 seats to 600 is not only arbitrary but
will, together with the boundary changes, massively disrupt relationships
and representation, the logic of which lie at the heart of single
member constituencies. As many have pointed out this would be
the most dramatic reduction of MPs since the 1920s when Irish
MPs left the House of Commons. Voters may as a result of this
process end up disappointed by the larger constituencies with
less logical boundaries and less support from their MP. Patronage
will also increase with a larger percentage of MPs seeing their
role to support the government rather than to scrutinise legislations
and keep government accountable to the people.
6. The Trade Off with Devolution
The UK was until 1997 the most centralised western
democracy. We note that when the Scottish Parliament was created
there was a reduction in the number of Scottish Westminster seats.
In principle a similar argument could be advanced if the Welsh
Assembly were to receive significantly enhanced powers.
This process however seems to be proceeding
without any consideration of the relationship with devolution
or the lack of devolution within England.
7. Equalising of constituencies
LCER and the Labour Party supports the principle
of equal constituencies as set out in the People's Charter
drawn up by the Chartists. However we believe that equalisation
should be based on the population over 18 rather than the registered
voters. This may be about the same figure in settled communities
but will diverge widely in urban and particularly inner city areas
where mobility is high. It would be a good exercise to check mobility
against constituency size. Population mobility has implications
ranging from changes in parliamentary representation, impact on
local economic growth, housing markets and demand for local services,
including the workload for MPs and capacity to resolve casework.
The argument that Labour in government did nothing to increase
registration does not apply because there is a fundamental and
continuing underestimation of the actual population in some areas.
This may amount to as many as 3.5 million who for mobility, multi-let
accommodation, language, age, ethnicity or disability reasons
are not reflected in current registers of voters. This does not
apply only to Labour constituencies. Some MPs say that the majority
of those who contact them and visit their surgeries are not on
the register, while living in their constituency. It has been
suggested that there is need for a new statutory body to work
proactively with local councils to increase voter registration.
Voter registration is not part of the Electoral Commission's remit
and local councils will be unable to invest much in it in the
current climate of spending decisions. Although councils have
a vested interest in an accurate estimate of residency numbers
as this affects their funding from national government.
8. Representation in Parliament
Following the Speaker's Conference, it has been
suggested by the Fabian Society and the Centre for Women and Democracy,
that the proposed reduction in seats following the "equalise
and reduce" policy may mean that women, ethnic minority and
other underrepresented groups lose out. We would argue that impact
assessments are important in relationship to equality of participation
and representation as well as budgets.
9. Local identity and distinctiveness
It is important that boundaries are not imposed
according to an arbitrary formula but which respect established
patterns of community and form coherent geographical units. Ignoring
local authority boundaries, will dilute the very local characteristics
which lie at the heart of the argument for the need for single
member constituencies. We can see no principled case for the proposal
in the Bill which seeks to protect County boundaries but to ignore
District and Unitary boundaries, or to ignore ward boundaries.
The likely outcome of this process is to reduce the extent to
which Parliamentary constituencies are seen to relate to identifiable
communities or MP are able to work closely with local government.
It is worth nothing that one reason often given for choosing AV
over more proportional systems is that voters prefer MPs to represent
an identifiable area. It is ironic that this Bill effectively
encourages the Commission to destroy seats based on identifiable
and often urban centres.
While it is impossible to predict with any accuracy
the outcome of this process it is at least a real possibility
that the it will reduce the diversity of representation in the
South East, South West and East of England, particularly it could
contribute to virtually eliminating Labour in regions where nearly
20% of the vote already gives Labour only 5% of the seats. We
are as reformers also concerned about the lack of Conservative
representation in urban areas, the north, Wales and Scotland.
10. Boundary Reviews
In the absence of Public Inquiries, the recommendations
of the Boundary Commissions will not be properly exposed to full
scrutiny and counter-proposals to scrutiny and cross-examination.
This may lead to more judicial reviews should people believe this
infringes the European Convention of Human Rights. Although Inquiries
have been seen to be mainly about party interest in fact with
so many changes planned genuine local considerations could be
missed under the proposed arrangements. The Coalition's decision
to remove any weighting to ward, District or unitary boundaries
makes it much more likely that proposals will be produced which
offend the local sense of identify with their MP that most voters
prefer to see. There are also concerns being raised about the
ultimate role of the Minister in deciding whether or not to accept
these boundary commission recommendations (in England).
11. Bias in the current system
Although at first glance the current voting
system seems to help Labour it may be that adding up the votes
received for each party is not a meaningful exercise. The vote
for any party means different things in different categories of
constituencies because we are not voting for a Prime Minister
or even a government party but an individual MP. In most constituencies,
except for rare three-way marginals, there are two clear parties
in contention except in majority (safe) seats. This means, in
England at least, we have three two-party systems, Conservative
v Labour, Conservative v LibDem, and Labour v LibDem. In safe
Labour seats, turnout is low which underestimates the Labour total
vote. Settled and more middle-class voters may vote even where
their vote does not count under the current voting system. In
Conservative v LibDem seats, Labour tactical voting squeezes the
third placed Labour candidate's vote. Only in marginal constituencies
where Labour is in contention do we see an honest reflection of
Labour support. These changes will not change this bias unless
we introduce AV where at least the tactical vote can be seen for
what it is. A similar analysis can be done for the other parties'
vote. Larger Conservative seats with settled communities may well
reflect the actual population whereas the argument for smaller
urban Labour seats is that the registered vote is not the same
as the population were mobility is higher.
12. The inevitability of this Bill being
For the first time in recent years there is
a historic majority for this Coalition Government in both Houses
of Parliament so there are few checks and balances. It is likely
therefore that the Bill will go through without much amendment.
It is therefore important that specific objections to individual
parts of the Bill are subject to scrutiny and given the time they
need to be discussed at every stage and not written off as party
tribalism or oppositionalism for the sake of opposition. We incidentally
agree with the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that
the Government's timetable for the Parliamentary Voting System
and Constituencies Bill has denied an adequate opportunity to
scrutinise the Bill before second reading.
3 September 2010