Friday, February 25, 2011

UK politics and the AV: time to consider mini-referenda

A likely outcome of the Alternative Vote system, subject of the upcoming May referendum, is that it would push election campaigns further into the centre ground as MPs try to widen their appeal.

This raises the risk of rogue governments adopting policies for which they have little mandate, as with the UK coalition’s post-election lurch to the right, and raises the question whether AV on its own is enough. Perhaps it should be followed by other democratic reforms, such as mini-referenda?

In 2010, David Cameron campaigned on a safe middle platform but once in office revealed a different face. After the election, we discovered that his policy lab had stitched together a body of old Friedmanite ideas on small government and marketisation, as if they hadn't noticed the financial crash.

Cameron and George Osborne prepared us for cuts in the name of deficit reduction but never mentioned their plans to kill off providers of the “social commons” such as day care centres for the elderly and citizens advice bureaus, or to turn the NHS into a private market and do the same with other public services.

Now there is little the electorate can do, apart from hope the Lib-Dems pull the plug after the May council elections.

How does this relate to AV? The worry is that AV might encourage more of this type of behaviour. MPs in search of second choice voters will have to appeal to a broader range of opinion than they do now, making them unlikely to campaign on unpopular policies. This will increase the temptation to play nice at the hustings then reveal a Frankenstein policy after polling has finished.

AV is a big step forward but perhaps it needs buttressing with other electoral reforms.

Given the heightened political awareness of the moment, why not use new technology to introduce mini-referenda on topics such as Lansley’s NHS reforms? This would modernise politics and help to keep rogue governments in check.

Critics will say that referenda make it harder to adopt tough but necessary changes, such as tax rises, and encourage populism at the expense of minorities. But this depends entirely on how they are used. For example, mini-referenda could be reserved only for high-impact national policies that did not appear in a manifesto, or their use could be subject to approval by a constitutional court.

The current whipping system means that defeat on any landmark Bill risks triggering a vote of confidence in the whole government. Not surprisingly, this is pretty rare and the fear of it explains many current undemocratic practices (such as MP and former GP Sarah Wollaston being told not to criticise the NHS Bill despite sitting on the Bill scrutiny committee). A mini-referendum could act as a pressure valve and help governments to adjust their course as they go.

World events show how quickly democracy is evolving. Britain's unique parliamentary system is the result of centuries of improvements, but whatever the result of the AV vote our system should keep pace too.

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