Sunday, 1 May 2011

Tom Harris and the case against the Alternative Vote

No more loathsome piece of flotsam has floated to the surface of Scottish New Labour than the lumpen piece of wood that is Tom Harris” said George Galloway. A little cruel you might think, but Galloway was never adored in Parliament. With some pride, the Member for Glasgow South, not known for being a meek about his politics, displays this quote on the noticeboard above his desk in a small office above the House of Commons.

You can't criticise Tom Harris for being distant or aloof either. The spur for our meeting was very much in the spirit of the age, arising from a 'robust conversation' on Twitter about the Alternative Vote. I arrive in his office on a warm April evening and he asks if I would mind being recorded. Not a question you expect a politician to ask a journalist. But Harris was once a journalist himself, and I'm from a generation of hacks who've grown up with Twitter and podcasting, so although we disagree on changing the voting system, we do have something in common.

Harris is adamant that the current voting system is something that's worth hanging on to. In his view, there's nothing unholy about campaigning alongside Conservatives. Yet although he favours the status quo, like the larger partner in the coalition, he is similarly dismissive of the 'new politics' that Nick Clegg has supposedly tried so hard to champion.

“Give me a break! If the new politics is all about a lack of transparency, back-room deals and cynicism – in other words, everything this government has represented since last May - I'm very proud to say I'm anti the new politics”.

For Harris, the campaign is very much about the political expediency of the Alternative Vote (AV) for the LibDems. There's no love lost over Clegg and he has even less time for the Yes campaign's arguments for moving to AV.

“Clegg says vote no if you want to see more duck houses. This is the man responsible for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority” - to you and me, that's the new body responsible for paying MPs' expenses.

“I mean, what a cretin. They [Lib Dem MPs] must know he was lying through his teeth - what an insult to their intelligence”.

Clegg-bashing aside, I asked Harris what his overwhelming objection to AV was:

“How much time you got? First of all you have to be very careful before you ditch an existing system. First Past the Post has its faults, but it has provided us with a very workable system that's easy to understand, as well as stable government, which people often sneeringly dismiss”.

“Yes, we had Thatcher, but we had Blair too, and if you look across the world stable government is actually quite prized in a lot of areas.

“I'm not saying that coalitions should never happen, but I do genuinely believe that AV will result in a likelihood of more hung parliaments because the Lib Dems will obviously benefit from AV.

“If we have more Lib Dems then we will increase the chance of having hung parliaments.

But if you want the perfect electoral system, go and search for the Loch Ness Monster instead. You'll find that a lot more rewarding and productive”.

I point out that the current electoral system briefly brought us 'unstable' government in the form of a hung parliament. After all coalitions are now the reality of our political system, AV or not. And in terms of outcomes, the only tangible difference would be an increased number of seats for Liberal Democrats, at least based on the 2010 result.

Harris does not buy my argument. “It is a profoundly dishonest campaign to say that AV is in any way an improvement over FPTP”. Indeed, his hostility to AV goes right to the heart of what democracy is all about – and the old tribal attitudes become a little more obvious.

Deep down, Harris tells me he has an instinctive reaction against the idea that we should be encouraging people to dilute their political views.

“Politics should be about taking a stand and being principled. I was speaking to a colleague today, who was going to vote Yes, but whose 87 year old mother is voting no. She was giving him a hard time about it, saying that she didn't want to vote for anyone apart from Labour”.

“In this country we're always being told that politicians have sold out and that the Labour party have sold out, and that we need conviction principled politicians. Are we really going to get conviction politicians under AV?

I am trying to work out whether Tom really does see Westminster politics as nothing more than a rigid two-party affair, and remind him of the well-known statistic that fifty years ago, 96% of people voted Conservative or Labour, yet at the 2010 General Election, 35% voted for other parties. How do we translate this? Don't we need to react to the reality of people voting for other parties by changing our electoral system?

“A lot of people are telling me I should vote for AV because otherwise we will entrench the two-party system. Well, we probably have a two and a half party system”. Whatever that is.

But if I felt my voice was never being heard, wouldn't AV provide some form of redress? Isn't it possible to create an electoral system in which every person's view is represented?

“At the root of this whole argument are a lot of people who say 'I'm not represented, I'm not getting my voice heard'. That's an attitude that goes wider than politics - that if you believe in something then you have the right to be represented by someone who believes exactly the same as you. Well, no you don't. You have the right to go and vote. And if there are other people who outnumber you, that's democracy. Politics is about winners and losers.

“That's maybe not fashionable. But it is democratic”.

That's maybe so. But what if it turned out that AV actually helped Labour?

“If it's for party political advantage I'm not interested” claims Harris. “After the 1992 election even I was tempted to look down the road of electoral reform. I was so discouraged by the fact that we had lost for a fourth time, and that the only way we were going to get into government was through electoral reform.

“But you go for it because it's the right thing to do. You don't go for it because it suits your party for the next five years - that's a ridiculously short term view, and a triumph of tactics over strategy.

There's an incredibly arrogant and short sighted view that Conservatives deserved to be in government for three quarters of the last century and Labour was in opposition for most of it. And that's because we deserved it because we kept losing elections. But the Tories had better arguments. That's how you win elections, and if you keep losing them, you shouldn't be in government.

“I want Labour to win the next election because we've got the best policies”.

So what would the political consequences be if it's a yes vote come Friday 6 May?

“David Cameron will be very unpopular among his backbenchers. And in the Labour Party, I'll accept the result if that's the settled will of the people.

“If it's a no vote, Clegg will be under the same sort of pressure as Cameron would be with a Yes. With the new constituency boundaries facing approval by Parliament at some point in the next couple of years, why would the Lib Dems vote for new boundaries without AV?”.

Supporters of AV say that it is a stepping stone to a more proportional system, and without a yes vote there is scant hope of changing the way we elect MPs. And Tom Harris says he can see how Clegg settled for a referendum on AV from the coalition agreement.

“If he had come out of these negotiations without any commitment to electoral reform at all politically his position would be untenable.

“I understand and agree with that notion the AV is a stepping stone towards full proportional representation [PR] – that's why I'm voting no. I'm absolutely, unequivocally, against PR”.

But Harris thinks that Clegg has the “wrong deal”.

“We know that historically the Lib Dems have never supported AV – they've never stood on a principle in their entire existence. If Nick Clegg doesn't get this it will be bad for him personally.

“The game-plan if they win on 6 May is to start the campaign to get rid of it on 7 May”.


youngdegsy said...

Tom Harris has been spouting rubbish about AV for months, but you correctly identify that he refuses to accept that the public are moving away from binary politics. Two and a half party system? So a party winning 29% of the vote is a whole party, and a party winning 24% of the vote is half a party? Galloway was maybe on to something - basic maths seems not to be a requirement for any old Labour donkey to get selected for a safe seat.

Paul Prentice said...

Yes, I wasn't quite sure what he meant by a 'two and a half party system'. In Glasgow South, it's not difficult for a Labour MP to win under FPTP. Introduce AV, or indeed a more proportional system, and you may start to see his majority under threat - Tories and SNP would all get a more realistic share of votes in that area.

In fairness, he does come across as a good MP, and I don't doubt the sincerity of his views. But he's stuck in 1997 and, dare I say it, the 'old politics'.

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