It has been confirmed that the PM is going to announce plans for a referendum on the Westminster voting system. Following a period of discussion within the Government and the Labour Party (lukewarm environments at best for electoral reform at best, more often rather hostile!) he is going to propose that the Alternative Vote (AV) system should be introduced for future elections.
It is definitely to be commended that there is any discussion of change within the system, however the proposed measures do not offer a genuine attempt to reform the problems which exist. In the 1997 General Election Manifesto, Labour stated "We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system".
The key element of this commitment is "proportional". The promise had partly been made in advance of possible coalition talks with the Liberal Democrats, which following the landslide were not needed. Labour did go ahead with the independent commission, leading to the Jenkins Commission Report. Tellingly for the current proposals, the Jenkins Commission specifically rejected AV as it did not provide for proportionality. Indeed, had AV been used in the 97 election then Labour's already swollen majority would have been increased even further, primarily at the expense of the Tories (see Chapter 5 of the Report).
And this is where the great difficulty of effective and legitimate electoral reform arises, as political calculations outweigh arguments for fairness and proportionality. The Conservatives oppose electoral reform because they fear it generally impacts negatively upon them, even though it often could help them. Indeed looking at the Scottish context where a proportional system is used for Holyrood elections, the Tories are the third biggest party, in stark contrast to their Westminster standing in Scotland. The Lib Dems obviously support purer electoral reform as they have the most to gain from it, however they need to work on making their arguments look less motivated by their own interests and more about improving democracy.
The challenge of course within the Labour Party is that it has the most to lose. Generally changes in the system would impact upon Labour's support - for example following the introduction of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system to Local Government elections in Scotland, Labour lost overall control of a large number of Councils (although it did remain the only political party to retain overall control of any councils). Furthermore, real changes to the voting system, such as introducing STV or similar systems which lead to an increased likelihood of coalition governments, require changes in political psychology on the behalf of the parties themselves, as they contemplate the realities of working with erstwhile political rivals.
Coalitions are not the sole preserve of proportional systems. With latest polling indicating that the Tories' lead could be down to 7 points, the reality of a hung parliament and the Lib Dems deciding the next Government is very real. I know that I am not a particularly partisan person, but I don't want to see the Tories win the election. However, the idea that they could win by 7%, a clear victory by any standards, and yet not actually 'win' because of the imperfections in the voting system embarrasses me and definitely does not increase the legitimacy of the system. Likewise coalitions do not have to be 'bad' things. From a progressive political standpoint, a proportional system could create a fertile environment for long term progressive coalitions between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, with possible roles for smaller centre-left parties. Admittedly under Clegg the Lib Dems are now closer (at least in presentation) to the Tories, but the reality of a progressive coalition is one that could provide for very real and sustainable changes in Britain.
It will be interesting to see where the debate goes from here. Since the issue has arisen it has been noticeable that there has been a growth in expressions of support from Labour elected representatives, including Cabinet Ministers such as Ben Bradshaw. However, there is a great deal of opposition from large sections of the Labour Party and more-or-less the entirety of the Conservative Party, and this could impact upon any changes. At least the existence of a debate is to be welcomed - there is no doubting that our political system is suffering from an existential crisis and must adapt to regain the trust and support of the electorate. Proper reform of the electoral system is not the sole answer to this crisis, but it would serve as one element of a revitalised and re legitimised democracy.