The Alternative Vote system may not deliver what Gordon wants!

Gordon Brown should watch the “too clever by half” trait on electoral reform. The pitfall with the Alternative Vote — which is not a proportional representation system —...

The Alternative Vote or Preferential Voting has been used in Australia since 1918. In 2007 Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister when Labour won 83 of 150 seats in the House of Representatives in Canberra. 

Labour is Australia’s oldest party and first won an outright majority in 1910. However, AV has usually favoured non-Labour parties in Australia where the Liberals are Conservatives as is the National Party or one-time Country Party. 

These two regular coalition partners dovetail urban and rural interests. I have visited Australia twice. I loved what I saw. I was taken with Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane until staying in Perth and visited the respective Parliaments of Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia. Each of the six Commonwealth states has a Prime Minister with Cabinet and legislature. Most use optional voting preference and the others full or compulsory preference. 

Older readers may recall Sir Robert Menzies, the wiliest of Australian Premiers, who founded the Liberal Party in 1945. He headed ten ministries in 18 years before retiring in 1966. His Liberal–Country Party Coalitions didn’t always get the most primary votes. Of course the point of AV is where the subsequent preferences go. 

At a Cabinet meeting following an election in which Labour won almost six per cent more first preferences, Menzies looked around the table inviting colleagues to suggest policies. Various opinions were offered until Sir Robert summed up by saying some Labour policies would be tried as more voters wanted them! The coalition romped home in the next election and he was back as Prime Minister. 

In the Scottish Parliament, Liberal Democrats were the tail wagging the Labour dog until 2007 when the Scottish National Party took the bone and formed a minority government. The elections use an Added or Mixed-Member system with top-up or “accidental” members to reflect regional voting strengths alongside directly elected constituency MSPs.

The 2007 local government elections held that same day used Single Transferable Vote for the first time. Unlike AV with single-member districts, STV requires multi-member wards: usually three or four seats or more. 

It was the price of Liberal Democrat coalition support and Labour weakness. Labour lost control of many traditional Labour authorities and the result in most was No Party in Control. In several cases candidates who got most votes did not get elected. When the preferences were redistributed follow-behind candidates had been shoe-horned in.

In my local ward a Conservative was elected on the first count and Liberal Democrat on the second. The Labour candidate might have got the third seat, but after seven counts the transfers returned another Lib Dem councillor. Overall, for a party so keen on electoral reform, STV proved a bit disappointing.

No electoral system is perfect. Why change one that works and is understood by all and directly connects a candidate with a seat in Parliament or local council ward. True in elections people are voting for a government or local authority. If one wants straight party tickets it can end with the slate system imposed on voters, as in European Parliament elections where the choice of MEP was determined by relatively few insiders.

Parliament’s standing has not been lower in the post-war years. The next election could see some individual constituency surprises. Were AV in place there would be more. 

Altering the voting method seems less important than changing functions and background of those elected. MPs must assert themselves in relation to the Executive. If the Chilcott Inquiry on Iraq disclosed anything it is that there were too many ‘Yes Ministers’ in the Cabinet. 

The experience of MPs before entering Parliament matters. The Industry & Parliament Trust has completed research into the business background of Prospective Parliamentary Candidates that suggests more candidates will have had business and financial experience and local political service compared with MPs in the current House. IPT was set up to give MPs insights into how businesses function and a Co-op MP, the late Sidney Irving, was one of the founder members.

A disproportionate number of ministers these days have had little real experience of the jobs ordinary people do because, after leaving university, they became researchers or speech-writers for ministers before being elected to Parliament. It begins to show when schemes that look good on paper are found not to work in practice. 

An engineer, joiner or plumber at least learns as an apprentice that things have to work and how to repair them when they don’t! Electors want service delivery and a product at the end: not process.

• Jim Craigen was Labour/Co-op MP for Glasgow Maryhill from 1974 to 1987.

In this article

Join the Conversation