Should there be a referendum on changing Britain’s voting system? Alan Johnson and others have mooted such a vote. Last weekend a report in the Observer said that “cabinet sources” were floating such a vote was being planned. Some suggestive talk of an earlier referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV). In which case, next year’s election could be fought on the new rules. And today over at Labour List another call is made, as part of the site’s “ideas day”, for a referendum, although this time on the AV+ system proposed by Lord Jenkins.
I don’t expect any of this to happen; but if such an early vote is called, here’s my prediction: despite a recent YouGov poll for the Fabian Society showing clear support for a proportional voting system, it will be lost. And here’s why: a pre-election referendum would turn quickly into a pro- or anti- Labour referendum. Bluntly, Gordon Brown doesn’t stand a chance of winning a referendum this autumn on any subject on which he is on the opposite side to David Cameron.
The Brown problem would be reduced were a referendum held simultaneously with a general election, as the Observer suggested might be being planned. But then other forces would come into play. A referendum would be asking people whether to keep or ditch the voting system they had just used to pick their MP. I believe that most people would not vote to weaken the legitimacy of the election vote they had just cast. What little evidence we have suggests that – as with referendums generally – the status quo would end up asserting itself. This is just another example of the much broader theme i outlined in my recent essay “Down with People Power” in Prospect.
In the late Eighties and early Nineties, surveys consistently found majorities favouring proportional representation (PR) over first-past-the-post (FPTP). But when the standard PR-versus-FPTP question was put to voters in the BBC exit poll on election day in 1992, the latter triumphed. OK, that was 17 years ago and much has changed, but I would be willing to wager that a referendum on election day 2010 to introduce PR, or even the AV, would fail. Any takers?