Holding a referendum on proportional representation (PR) is precisely NOT the way to create a more equitable voting system (and better government).
That was the upfront message recently passed on to UK electoral reform activists by the former president of the most experienced pro-PR campaign group in the world, FAIR VOTE CANADA (FVC):
Our experiences in Canada with referendums on PR have been rather disastrous… they are a manoeuvre by those opposed to change to make sure we don’t get electoral reform,” explained Réal Lavergne. While agreeing that a referendum might give “legitimacy” to such a change and that two successful referendums on electoral reform in New Zealand thirty years ago proved to be a viable option there, referendums suffer from many weaknesses, Lavergne continued.
(For context, it is very uncommon for PR to be adopted via areferendum. A total of 30 Western democracies (members of the OECD) have introduced PR, yet only two achieved that via a referendum: New Zealand and Switzerland.)
Counting the nuts and bolts of what happened, he said:
There is just a limit to how much people are willing to invest to understand a complex issue like electoral reform. That’s a basic barrier…Public education has been very limited…and focused on how it [a new voting system] might work and not on why the issue … matters to the electorate.
ANTI-PR SIDE HAS TREMENDOUS ADVANTAGE
These Canadian provincial referendum campaigns have had publicly-funded pro-PR and con-PR sides, but “the cons have had a tremendous advantage because the citizens don’t know the alternative — they only know first-past-the post — and so it is a case of the “devil-you-know” versus “the-devil-you-don’t”, concluded Lavergne in a video conference interview from his home in Hull, Quebec.
FAIR VOTE CANADA are true aficionados when it comes to fighting referendums on PR and have even produced an instructional video on the lessons they’ve learned from campaigning in seven unsuccessful ones.
Fair Vote Canada have identified the five main problems associated with referendums:
- Referendum becomes about something not on the ballot
- Party divisions
- Low information
- Misinformation campaigns
- Media bias
This chimes with the negative UK experience. We’ve had only one referendum on electoral reform — and that flopped. (It bears repeating that Alternative Voting is NOT PR.) There were many reasons for defeat:
1) well-financed opponents of AV waged a campaign of fear-mongering
2) for many voters it was a referendum on the Liberal Democrats, not on the proposed voting system
3) AV supporters did a poor job of telling voters what was wrong with the existing system
4) support from the Labour Party, who committed to an AV referendum in their 2010 manifesto, was lukewarm at best. The cause was doomed before campaigning began.
As explained below, Lavergne believes there is a much more viable route to achieve PR than winning referendums and he speaks from experience. In the past two decades, the issue of changing from first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting — the same system we use in the UK — to PR has been on the ballot for a total of seven referendums in three Canadian provinces.
WINNER TAKES ALL / LOSER GETS ZILCH
But while pro-PR / pro-change forces often led at the beginning of the campaigning period, all seven referendums in Canada failed and so “winner takes all”/ “loser gets zilch” elections continue on both sides of the Atlantic.
Another problem that Canadian PR campaigners have had is that getting a majority doesn’t guarantee getting a result. Referendums on PR were won in British Columbia (2005) and Prince Edward Island (2016) but the results were ignored because of failure to reach a supermajority threshold (60% in the case of BC), or because of low voter turnout (40% in PEI).
In the UK, a similar situation happened in 1979 when the then Labour government . Devolution won by 51.6% but on a low turnout (32.9%) and the government decided to disregard the result.
These are sobering figures to digest for those who assume that holding a referendum is the fairest — or only or best or most democratic — way to change our backwards voting system.
The question of how we get to PR is still the subject of ongoing debate; a possible referendum option is certainly NOT yet on the table. But it could be sooner be than expected.
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer is hardly a pro-PR true believer. He might think that proposing a referendum on electoral reform would be a good way to placate the 79% of delegates at the Sept. 2021 Labour Party conference who voted in favour of making PR a manifesto commitment for the next election.
This approach has form with Labour. In the 1997 general election under Tony Blair, Labour made a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on electoral reform. Labour won overwhelmingly, in fact so overwhelmingly that Blair never held that promised referendum. We need to be ready if Starmer suggests it again in 2022 or 2023 and to tell him: “definitely a BAD idea, Sir Keir.”
DO WE NEED A REFERENDUM TO ACHIEVE PR?
There is no British law that dictates we must have a referendum to change our voting system: in the past, it has been changed by Parliament alone. Academic Dr. Dennis Pilon explains: “Our current system of voting (FPTP) was not introduced democratically. In fact, it is a hold-over from a pre-democratic era (in the 1800s) and has been kept in place because it has served the interests of the parties in power at the time and has allowed them to entrench their power.” In short, no referendum brought in our archaic voting system.
So, why do we need a referendum to ditch it?
THERE ARE ALTERNATIVE ROUTES TO PR
Given that there are significant democratic and constitutional problems with using referendums as a route to PR, it is clearly worth considering the two main alternatives:
- Via Citizens’ Assembly
- Via direct parliamentary legislation
THE CITIZENS’ ASSEMBLY
A Citizens’ Assembly is a body formed from randomly-selected citizens to deliberate on important issues. They allow members of the public the time and opportunity to learn about and discuss a topic in order to reach properly informed conclusions.
Well known examples include the Citizen’s Assembly in Ireland on abortion which resulted in a change of the law, albeit via a (well- informed) referendum. In the UK, examples include the UK Climate Assembly and the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland, although neither has had a high public profile.
One of the lessons learned in the PR debate is that understanding of different electoral systems is quite limited amongst the general public (and indeed many MPs). However, when people learn how our electoral system actually works, many are persuaded of the case for PR.
For example, the vast majority of CLPs which have debated PR have come out in favour. A similar trend can be seen in the trade unions, most recently with Unite. It seems likely, therefore, that if the general public engaged with the issue of electoral reform, then a similar outcome is likely.
DIRECT PARLIAMENTARY LEGISLATION
When considering the direct parliamentary route, it is worth noting that the current Conservative government is in the process of changing the voting system (via the Elections Bill) for all local mayoral and police and crime commissioner elections to First Past The Post (FPTP) without a referendum. Indeed, the current Supplementary Vote system for these elections (not PR, but a bit more representative than FPTP) was also introduced without a referendum.
The most obvious route to PR for elections to the House of Commons is via direct parliamentary legislation. This can be delivered if Labour commits to PR in its manifesto. This was backed, as already mentioned, by 79% of CLP delegates at Labour’s 2021 Conference. Given that other opposition parties (except the DUP) already support PR, this means that a Labour-
It is up to us to make sure that they do!
Speaking of videos: here is the video of the 7 Feb. GET PR DONE! Zoom session when Réal Lavergne and Dr. Mark Pack, president of the Liberal Democrats, were our guests.
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