Posted by David Farrell (May 3, 2011)
The on-going British referendum debate on whether to change their electoral system from ‘first past the post’ to the alternative vote (the system we use to elect our President) should provide some salutary lessons. Almost regardless of the outcome – which most now expect to be a safe majority against reform – the tone of the debate reveals a lot about the dangers of leaping into a reform agenda that has not been properly thought through, and also one that had little if any popular buy-in from citizens at large. The reason for the British referendum was nothing more than a sop by the Conservatives to tie the Liberal Democrats into coalition. There was no consultation with the wider public in advance: the proposal was foisted on the electorate without as much as a by your leave – the ultimate in top-down decision-making.
Two lessons that I draw from this are the following.
First, reform if it is to be introduced must be meaningful; it must actually be worth our while bothering to try and make it. The proposal in Britain to change one non-proportional electoral system (first past the post) with another (alternative vote) was never going to raise much passion. After all what’s the point of replacing one electoral system which is known to be unfair in its treatment of smaller parties with another known to be just as unfair to them?
Second, reform if it is going to succeed must have popular support. Ideally the public should be consulted in advance of the proposal, not least so that politicians can determine that making the effort, and spending the large amounts of time and money promoting it, will be worthwhile.