Belfast Telegraph

Prime Minister should leave the goalposts where they are

Gordon Brown's latest constitutional wheeze, the 'Alternative Vote' is a recipe for a hung parliament. It must be opposed says Owen Polley

Today MPs decide whether to hold a referendum on the introduction of 'Alternative Vote' for the Westminster elections. It is part of Gordon Brown's new plan to rehabilitate the damaged reputation of Britain's politics. It is also a spectacularly bad idea.

How can an electoral system which affords less clarity, demands more fudge and disconnects lines of accountability between the electorate and its government help to revive public confidence in tarnished institutions and discredited politicians?

Of course, we are accustomed to Alternative Vote (AV) in Northern Ireland because it is used in council and Assembly by-elections.

Like AV's close relative, Proportional Representation (PR), it is popular among politics aficionados, who relish its complexity, its labyrinthine twists and the strange vocabulary of 'surpluses' and 'quotas'.

However, if the Prime Minister really wants to tackle the 'crisis of legitimacy' which has afflicted politics since the expenses scandal, tinkering with the voting system is the wrong way to go about it.

Proponents of Alternative Vote argue that it allows the voter to express more subtly the nuances of his/her political preference. After all, he or she gets to vote on down the ballot paper, rather than simply mark an 'X' against a favourite candidate. But it is also a system which robs the democratic process of its decisive quality.

It is argued that AV will produce a more representative House of Commons; however it is more likely to deprive the electorate of its ability to make clear, informed and accountable choices.

Make no mistake, although Alternative Vote is not a proportional system, it is a staging-post along the route to PR. Its introduction has the potential to change very profoundly the United Kingdom's constitutional landscape.

Proportional Representation practically guarantees hung parliaments and coalition governments, whilst Alternative Vote makes them substantially more likely. Introducing AV is a decisive move towards making government by a single party a rarity rather than the norm.

Whereas, under first-past-the-post, voters are asked to elect candidates on the basis of a prospectus for government and subsequently hold the successful party to account, in a coalition every party's manifesto can become a moveable feast. Under a coalition, the business of running the country depends on deals, brokered behind the scenes. Every policy decision is a product of negotiation, compromise and, inevitably, fudge.

In the Republic of Ireland, or Germany, political cultures have developed around the likelihood of coalition and the potential for indecision is commonly perceived as a deficiency in the system.

In the United Kingdom, coalition has historically been the exception rather than the rule. And the clear-cut nature of our democracy is generally believed to be a strength.

Why then does the Prime Minister wish to change, so hastily and casually, the fundamentals of the British constitution?

The cynic might point out that Labour is destined, almost certainly, for a period in opposition.

The Government was quite happy, for most of its time in power, with a system which worked to its advantage. Now, in the final days of his premiership, Gordon Brown wants to shift the goalposts. Then there is the Liberal Democrats' longstanding support for a proportional system. Nick Clegg has announced that his party will support Alternative Vote as a move in the right direction.

Is Labour engaged in a game of political footsie with the Lib Dems, in order to attract their support in the event of a hung parliament?

We have to suspect that Brown's motives are not entirely pure. He reacted with barely disguised hostility to a programme of practical parliamentary reforms, proposed by Labour MP Tony Wright's committee, which is designed to give politicians powers of scrutiny, removed by successive governments.

MPs' reputations are far more damaged by a common perception that they are emasculated by party whips, preoccupied with expenses claims and unable or unwilling to hold the executive to account, rather than any popular disillusion with the electoral system.

The House of Commons can help repair its relationship with the public in a variety of ways, but voting for a referendum on Alternative Vote is not one of them.

Rather than demystifying politics and empowering voters, it simply complicates the connection between parties, representatives and their supporters.

Owen Polley is a unionist blogger and political commentator

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