Word has it they might:
The idea, backed by senior ministers, has come to light amid growing recriminations within the Labour party over poor campaign strategy and a lack of fresh ideas for attacking Cameron, following Labour’s thumping loss in Thursday’s Norwich North byelection.
Last night, after the Conservatives overturned a 5,000 Labour majority to win the Norwich seat by 7,348 votes, Labour MPs gave warning that, unless the party did more than peddle scare stories about possible Tory spending cuts, it faced a wipeout at the next election.
Cabinet sources have revealed that one idea being developed is to paint Cameron as a leader opposed to a wide-ranging reform of the political system that voters are demanding following the scandal over MPs’ expenses.
As part of this, plans are being considered to hold a referendum on general election day in which people would be asked to support or reject a switch from the present first-past-the-post system to a new model, under which candidates would need to have the support of at least 50% of voters to be elected.
If a majority backed change, a new method of voting called Alternative Vote (AV) could then be introduced at the election after next.
Great news at first glance, but I believe that a referendum would be at risk from the outset, hampered by being associated with this government, which is unlikely to argue its case in a positive way. Running it on election day as well would without doubt be calamitous – with the government almost without doubt likely to be hammered in the general election, how would a referendum fare any better? As others have also pointed out, a referendum would also re-open the argument about New Labour’s denial of one for the Lisbon Treaty – a democratic solution for one problem but not the other? Neal Lawson argues the case for reform:
First, the state is no longer a machine that can be controlled from the centre. We the people have to be part of the process of identifying the problem and delivering the solution. Reform has to be done with us and not just to us. Second, with FPTP, only the votes of a few swing voters in a few swing seats count. As few as 100,000 rather fickle punters decide each election. What is more, the media barons like Rupert Murdoch who are perceived to hold sway over them call all the political shots. This leads to the third problem: democracy is only meaningful if it allows competing visions of the good society to do battle. FPTP doesn’t allow any such competition as the main parties huddle on the centre ground.
The argument to move on from first-past-the-post is sound, but the government’s tentative support for a referendum looks strategic rather than principled. Should one actually happen, do those of us who believe in progressive politics support a quite possibly doomed referendum on AV (which could quite possibly be the last and most cynical act of New Labour’s cynical existence) or do we just reject it because (if successful) the results won’t be any more representative than first-past-the-post? With Cameron openly opposed to changing the voting system, how do we overcome both parties’ separate attempts to bury reform? If there is to be a referendum, both AV and PR should be on the table, and it must not take place on the same day as the general election.