The "special relationship" between the United Kingdom and its former colony the United States can extend to the countries' respective politics. British prime minister Margaret Thatcher achieved power just before Ronald Reagan was elected president with similar messaging, while in the 1990s Bill Clinton and Tony Blair both won with shared "third way" politics.
Institutionally, however, there are big differences The U.K. has a parliamentary system, far fewer checks and balances and a far less developed federal system of government. But the countries share (with only a handful of exceptions) one key rule for their elected national legislatures: plurality voting in single-member district elections.
That may soon change. Alan Johnson, a leading contender to lead the Labor Party if embattled prime minister Gordon Brown steps aside, on May 25th announced his support for a national referendum on adoption of the "Alternative Vote plus" electoral reform plan recommended in 1998 by a commission led by Lord Roy Jenkins. The "alternative vote" is the British term for instant runoff voting (IRV). Under Johnson's plan for the House of Commons, IRV would be used to elect the bulk of the seats from single-member districts. Additional "top up" seats would be elected based on voters' party preferences to provide more proportional representation within regions - e.g., provided a fairer reflection of voter intent, along the lines of the mixed member system used to elect the Bundestag in Germany and a growing number of national legislatures. Mixed member systems combine guaranteed geographic representation in single-member districts with additional seats to balance out the distortions of winner-take-all and make every vote count for representation no matter wherever it is cast. IRV will better ensure that the winners of district elections reflect majority preference within their district.
Johnson laid out his support for "AV+" on May 25th in the Times of London. Reacting to a scandal involving money in politics, Johnson said, "We need to overhaul the engine, not just clean the upholstery." After describing how instant runoff voting would work for the constituency seats and the role of top-off seats, he argued that: "The adoption of AV+ would shift the political focus currently concentrated almost exclusively on a few swing voters in a handful of marginal seats. It would end the perversity of the party with the most votes nationally forming the opposition rather than the government, as has happened twice since the war." Johnson's argument closely tracks our reform case in the United States for replacing the Electoral College with a national popular vote and establishing a more proportional system for legislative election.
Johnson's position sparked a lively week of commentary and speeches by nearly every major political figure in the United Kingdom. A referendum on proportional voting remains very much on the table, with a new vigorous coalition pushing for it led by Make Votes Count. Regardless of what happens with the referendum campaign, there is more immediate consensus in the governing Labor Party to support instant runoff voting as a start, perhaps in time for next year's election. Here's a sampling of the week's commentary and coverage:
* David Lipsey, a Labour peer and member of the 1998 Jenkins report on electoral reform, in The Independent on May 30th, with a column entitled "Let the public decide on PR"
Electoral reform on the Jenkins model would precisely address the present problems. Jenkins's first major change was to propose the alternative vote (AV) for constituency MPs. Voters would list constituency candidates in order of preference. Those with the fewest votes would be eliminated and their votes would be transferred to stronger candidates until one candidate had 50 per cent plus one votes. ... One solution to this is to adopt the first half of the Jenkins solution, the AV [Alternative Vote], straight away. A bill to this effect would certainly pass the Commons with Lib Dem and most Labour support. It should survive Tory opposition in the House of Lords. For surely even their lordships would not seek to stand in the way of a measure that would so clearly increase the power of the electorate to decide which individuals deserved to represent them in the new parliament.
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Former cabinet ministers David Blunkett and Peter Hain in favor of voting reform, a news article in the Guardian, May 29, 2009:
Senior figures in the Labour party are moving towards a consensus on the need to accept voting reform as part of a radical change in the political system. Supporters and opponents of proportional representation, writing in the Guardian tomorrow, appear to be converging on the introduction of an alternative vote (AV) system in single member constituencies, allowing the public to rank candidates in order of preference rather than simply marking a cross against one candidate when electing a new MP.
Former cabinet minister David Blunkett... admits he could "wear the alternative vote system if I had to" provided it is not linked with a top-up system of MPs drawn from party lists.... Peter Hain, another former cabinet minister, who believes the present first-past-the-post system is "appropriate for an era of two-party dominance" nearly 60 years ago, also comes out in favour of AV.....He backs the AV option, saying: "The winner has to have more than 50% of voter support; just a third of MPs currently do so. AV retains accountability through the single member seat and produces a better relationship between the votes cast and seats won than the existing system."'
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It's as easy as 1, 2, 3 - Peter Hain's May 28th commentary in the Guardian:
The grubby, self-inflicted disrepute into which parliament has fallen demands not just cleansing MPs' expenses of duck islands, luxury lifestyle items and second home "flipping", but wholesale constitutional reform. There is a yawning democratic deficit and we need to create a politics which is genuinely pluralist and empowering....
AV is much fairer, the single member seat would be retained, and there is less scope for "wasted" votes as electors can express their first preferences which might encourage turnout. There would be less geographic bias which sees either Labour or Tories under-represented in regions where both still have significant support. And it is simple....It is also by far the most practical, and could be introduced quickly in time for the next election. No boundary changes taking years would be required. And it is the only option the Commons has either ever voted for (in 1931), or would now do so, because MPs are unlikely to vote themselves out of their seats - as would certainly be required for PR.
There is one other important plus. Because the AV is an adjustment to the current system, not (like PR) a wholesale change involving abolition of parliamentary constituencies, there is no case for the referendum rightly promised over PR. Electors would hardly thank parliament for indulging in all the costly paraphernalia of a referendum which invited them to state whether they wanted to confine their vote as now to 1 - or have the option of voting 1, 2, 3....
First-past-the-posters in Labour can live with the AV. So can Labour's PR advocates like Alan Johnson. Liberal Democrats wouldn't champion it, but would probably back its parliamentary passage. There is now a window of opportunity for a Great Reform Bill that may not come around again for a generation, if ever. It should be introduced this autumn and taken through in the coming parliamentary session so that it is in place before the next election. Labour should seize this moment now, ideally with all-party support; but if not, then so be it. Our system is broken and, if traditionalist MPs in all parties are allowed long-grass reform yet again, citizens really will not forgive us.
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Alan Johnson's proposals to reform voting system win Cabinet support, news analysis in May 26th Times of London
Plans to reform the voting system put forward by Alan Johnson are receiving growing support in Cabinet and could be included in the next Labour manifesto, the Times has learnt. Up to 100 Labour MPs have expressed interest in electoral reform, putting the Health Secretary at the forefront of a popular party campaign. This comes at a critical moment after a torrid few weeks for Gordon Brown and the Labour Party. Some suggest that Mr. Johnson is a future party leader. He has indicated that he might be capable of the top job.
Mr. Johnson wrote in yesterday's Times that the public should be asked whether they wanted a more proportional voting system for elections to Westminster, an idea that appeared to have broad support in government. He said that voters should be asked whether they would support an "alternative vote plus" system for choosing MPs, rather than the current first-past-the-post system.
This would mean voters receiving two ballot papers on polling day. The first would be used to rank their choice of constituency MP in order of preference and the second to state their favoured party. Votes on this second ballot would be added up and those that exceeded a 5 per cent threshold would get a proportionate number of seats. Several members of the Cabinet expressed support for the plan but said that the vast majority of MPs must be linked to constituencies. ...
Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, supports the alternative system, although he rejects any form of proportional representation (PR) that would allow backroom deals and disproportionate power for small parties. Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, is said to have an open mind on the debate but would not lead the charge for PR. John Denham, the Skills Secretary, said: "One of the ways we can reconnect politicians with the voters is to increase the power of the voters. Letting people choose the electoral system would be a huge step forward."
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Cabinet minister Andrew Adonis details support for AV plus in The Independent on May 31st:
He [Adonis] is happy to argue the merits of constitutional reform and to defend the nearly forgotten scheme devised by Jenkins. "I strongly support his 1998 report of the 'Alternative Vote plus' system. It is a sensible balance between retaining the primacy of single-member constituencies while allowing an element of proportionality. He regarded it as important to retain the single-member constituency which goes back to the beginning of the representative system in Britain. And I agree with him much more now, having been a minister, than I did before. Constituency MPs who do a conscientious job are a phenomenal powerhouse for their constituents. However, you have to address the fact that first-past-the-post in individual constituencies can produce results that are way out of line with the voting intentions of the public at large, and hence Roy set a 15 to 20 proportional top-up as a fair way of addressing the balance."
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Is this all talk or is change really possible? Time will tell, and Labor leaders may ultimately do too little too late. But the House of Commons is the U.K.'s last bastion of plurality voting due to the fact that its leaders over the past dozen years have been far bolder and more innovative with electoral reform than their American counterparts. During Blair's tenure as prime minister, the Labor government enacted the following policy changes affecting voting methods:
* The United Kingdom created regional governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that are all elected by forms of proportional voting -- mixed member in Scotland and Wales and choice voting (a.k.a, "single transferable vote") in Northern Ireland.
* London established a government with a mayor and city council. The mayor is directly elected by a form of instant runoff voting (candidates must finish in the top two and voters are allowed only two choices). The city council is elected by the mixed member system. The two systems have combined to establish an a likely enduring multi-party politics.
* The UK elects its representatives to the European Parliament by the closed party list form of proportional voting, as will be used in elections this June.
* Scotland adopted choice voting for all its local elections in 2007 and is now expanding its use for more elections.
In the United States, political leaders have been far more cautious, even when confronted with similar incentives to change their rules. In 2004, for example, rather than promote instant runoff voting, then- Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe offered to help raise funds for Ralph Nader to campaign in safe states if Nader would drop out of contesting the election in swing states. Republicans have lost several key congressional seats due to Libertarian Party candidacies, but generally have shied away from IRV as well.
Prominent reform-minded politicians like Barack Obama, Howard Dean and John McCain have actively backed instant runoff voting, but have not made it a priority. The Vermont state legislature in 2008 passed IRV for congressional elections, but its governor vetoed it. A number of major cities have passed IRV, but its progress in more states and cities has been hindered by our inefficient election administration regime where equipment vendors think about profit first and the public interest second. A growing number of localities have adopted proportional systems to settle voting rights cases, but redrawn single-member districts remain the dominant vehicle for trying to enhance representation of racial minorities.
The sudden burst of attention to reform in the United Kingdom suggests that good solutions will rise to the top when the time comes, however. Reformers need to be ready: building a foundation for reform, making an ongoing case to our political and thought leaders and being ready when opportunities arise - as they most certainly will, given the flaws of current rules -- to show that seemingly "exotic" solutions in fact are just common sense.