Well, the political news is full of the planned Commons vote-on- referendum for electoral reform. This is one occasion where my job and political beliefs as a Liberal Democrat coincide very nicely with my vocation and my research for a PhD in Political Theory – so I hope you’ll permit me to indulge in a little bit of an academic approach to this situation.
The system to be voted on is a classic – the old ‘AV’ system. This is no surprise. Elements of the Labour party have long preferred the Alternative Vote or ‘Instant Runoff Voting’ as the basis for electoral reform (though I suspect that the majority of that parliamentary party has never quite seen the point).
The political motivations of Labour’s move appear to be twofold. Firstly, they hope to show up the Conservatives as visibly opposed to a reform that, following the whole Adventure of the Abused Expenses, may be viewed as a popular measure to hand stronger accountability to the public.
The other reason boils down to electoral mathematics: by building the mandate for electoral reform now, Labour is eyeing a future election where the tories are still broadly the most popular party nationally, but will be unable to build anything resembling Labour’s 1997-2005 unofficial supermajority in the Commons. It’s possible that serious treatment of voting reform could only ever emerge from a vaguely leftist, unpopular government. The truth is that the vast majority of voters for Labour would rather vote for the Libdems than the Tories, and that most (though a few less) Libdems would rather have a Labour government than a Conservative one. Together they’re a (50%+) majority, so at the most basic level the maths of this make sense for Labour. Moreover, the motivation for such reforms evaporate with the promise of political success in the First Past the Post system (FPTP) – why kick away the ladder that let you climb up?
Labour’s political machinations aside, as a Liberal Democrat I can only get excited about any half-serious approach to a change in the voting system. There’s no question that the Libdem preference – Single Tansferable Vote (STV) – would be more proportional in effect, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many of our MPs demurr during the vote on the basis that the reforms don’t go far enough. But there are other grounds for criticism of the AV system, beyond the “it goes too far” or “it doesn’t go far enough” cries that you’ll be hearing for a the next few weeks.
As part of my research, I’m working on something called Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. I won’t go into too much detail here, but Kenneth Arrow basically came up with mathematical expressions of democratic norms, and then asserted that within the boundaries of these requirements there could be no voting system between three alternatives that could guarantee stable and non-arbitrary outcomes.
Well, since Labour’s announcement I’ve been doing some thinking about this, and worked up a couple of examples, and I think I’m ready to assert that the AV system is not capable of increasing Democratic meaninfulness even as we know it has only limited ability to improve the proportionality of electoral outcomes.
I’ll leave it there for now, and put up part two, with all my more academic objections, very soon.