2011. A year that won't be forgotten by campaigners for electoral reform. The year of the AV referendum. 'Electoral reformers' were full of optimism after the 2010 general election. For the first time in a while, a party that supported proportional representation was in government. Would the Lib Dems seize the opportunity to implement reform? Would their larger Conservative coalition partners block a fairer voting system? The rest was history...
I started campaigning for electoral reform after a surge in support for a change in our voting system after the 2015 general election, the most disproportionate in British history. For the first time, there is mass support for a more proportional system. Unfortunately, MPs seem a bit more reluctant. I wonder why.
To find out the levels of support for electoral reform in the House of Commons, campaigners have set out on a mission to find out what every individual MP thinks about our voting system, and whether we should change it. As we expected, a few were in favour but many were sticking to the party lines. There seemed to be a common thread through the replies we were getting from some MPs. How strange, I thought, that MPs were sending such similar replies: what a coincidence.
From these template replies, one quote in particular featured in almost all and stood out to me:
"The British electorate overwhelmingly voted to retain FPTP in 2011 and I believe this was the right decision."
I have a number of problems with this.
1. We didn't vote on whether to keep First Past the Post, we voted on whether to change to AV
The 2011 AV referendum, although resounding, was not an endorsement of First Past the Post. It showed that the British public (at that time) preferred FPTP to one of the alternatives which could possibly take its place.
2. AV is not a proportional system of electing MPs
Although many would argue that AV gives a more satisfying result for voters, it does not solve the problem of disproportionality in First Past the Post. Ultimately in many cases AV delivers less proportional results and smaller parties and alternative opinions are left unrepresented. In fact, even David Cameron said in 2011 that he would 'take on the myth' that 'AV is more fair and more proportional than the system we have currently'. He's right, AV isn't proportional. Lets pick a voting system that is (there are lots to choose from)!
3. The AV referendum was four years ago, times have changed
Public opinion has shifted on electoral reform. Since the AV referendum in 2011, the most disproportional general election in British history has thrust the electoral reform debate out into the open. In this parliament, 4 million UKIP voters are represented by one MP. 1 million Green voters are also represented by only one MP. The Conservatives won every seat but four in the South West. The SNP won every seat but 3 in Scotland. As you can imagine, lots of people aren't happy.
In the context of a fair and proportional voting system, the 2011 referendum is a complete irrelevance. By citing this public vote as reason for their faith in FPTP, MPs are deliberately misleading the public in the hope that we will go away. It is up to us to correct this myth, to pressure MPs to face up to the huge public support for proportional representation; a recent poll showed that 74% were in favour of PR, and after the general election half a million people signed petitions calling for a change to the voting system in just a matter of days.
AV is not PR and MPs know it. Don't let them weasel their way out of this debate.