Comment: Cross-party consensus builds for ‘yes to AV’ vote

Conservatives are more open-minded about voting reform than one might think.

By Edward McMillan-Scott

A cross-party meeting on electoral reform in Westminster on the eve of Nick Clegg’s announcement about the proposed ‘PR Question’ heard the arguments for more choice than Alternative Vote (AV) or First Past the Post (FPTP) as well as proponents of the coalition approach and those who favour the status quo. Most of us there in favour of a fairer system now simply want to get behind ‘Yes to AV’. Here’s why.

We circulated a ‘Summer Reading List’ on PR which shows the complexity of the issues with links to the most significant studies from the Jenkins Report of 1998, which proposed AV-Plus to the Ministry of Justice’s 2008 ‘Review of Voting Systems’, which proposed no particular system.

The gathering was mostly Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, as well as academics and representatives of the various electoral reform groups and NGOs. The thoughtful tone reminded me of meetings in the run-up to the 1975 referendum on continued membership of the European Community. Those too were chiefly made up of Tories and Liberals, because at that time both parties were officially – and genuinely – in favour of EC membership, while Labour was divided.
Much interest will focus on the personalities and the nature of the campaign, which will officially open once the Electoral Commission has approved the question in mid-party conference season, as well as the effect of the outcome on British party politics and especially the coalition. So far, there has been little debate – except on the political blogs – about whether ‘AV or FPTP’ is the right question and I suspect things will stay that way.

Although I have long argued in favour of the Single Transferable Vote (STV), like other speakers such as Douglas Carswell MP and Keith Best, the former Ynys Mon MP and chairman of Conservative Action for Electoral Reform (CAER) , my feeling is that the consensus of the meeting was to support the coalition approach.

Indeed, a representative of the Electoral Reform Society – itself a forceful advocate until now of STV – said that its board had decided to unite around the pro-AV camp after consulting the membership. A powerful argument is that the choice between the status quo and what looks like proportional representation (PR) will provoke debate in Britain which will make a truly proportional system an easier sell in the future.

The meeting was chaired by Peter Kellner of YouGov, who was a member of the Independent Commission on Proportional Representation , and himself believed to be a supporter of AV. It was sponsored by CAER and myself, as vice-president of the European Parliament with responsibility for democracy and human rights, and held on Wednesday July 21 at the European Parliament’s current London home. This autumn the London staff of the parliament and the European Commission move together to the refurbished former Conservative Central Office – to be named Europe House, or maybe Thatcher House!

Ryan Shorthouse of Bright Blue , “an independent organisation passionately committed to promoting a fairer, more socially just Britain” argued that we should not consider the question of party advantage, and indeed the issue was hardly raised, despite the publication the day before of Lord Ashcroft’s incendiary study of voting intention in the marginals. This “revealed a Liberal Democrat meltdown in marginal seats, pointing to potential gains for the Conservatives” and may do something to re-shape the traditional Tory leadership adherence to FPTP. It did not, of course, take into account the likelihood that the next election will see fewer but more equal-sized parliamentary seats and for a fixed term.

While I was leader of the Conservative MEPs, I organised a seminar at Central Office on PR and then ran a campaign to persuade the membership that “while we dislike PR, we can win with it” before the first national election under PR, the 1999 Euro-election: and we did win. Actually, I was surprised by the open minds of many Conservatives.

It is going to be an interesting few months.

Edward McMillan-Scott (Yorkshire & The Humber) is a vice-president of the European Parliament. He was leader of the Conservative MEPs 1997 – 2001 but joined the LibDems in March after protesting about David Cameron’s new EU alliance.

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