The news from the Labour Party is that they will legislate before the general election for a referendum on PR – to be held after the next general election.
The referendum would be on AV (the alternative vote versus the status quo).
The proposal raises two issues: timing of referendum and choice of options within it.
My own preference on timing would have been for Tony Blair to have stuck to his promises, and Labour to have stuck to their manifesto, with a referendum on electoral reforms years ago. But given where we are now, this proposal is the best of the options realistically available.
A referendum before the general election would allow any Conservative government subsequently elected to say their election trumps the referendum result. A referendum on the same day as a general election would get too entangled with general election debates. Of course, legislation now for a referendum after the general election could be undone by a new government, but it would have to be one with a clear majority. So whilst we can debate the odds of the referendum happening, this route maximises the chances.
As for the question of AV or the status quo, this one will I’m sure trigger many debates within the Liberal Democrats. My own view is that AV is better than first past the post, though not nearly as good as STV. If STV isn’t a serious runner, then it’s better to have AV than nothing, just as electoral reform in Scotland, Wales and London has been better than first past the post. (The choice of regional closed lists for the Euros is a much closer decision, but AV is much better than closed lists.)
It’s also the case that AV is most likely to result in more Liberal Democrat MPs, which means more of a chance of getting the policies we want on not just further electoral reform but also across a range of other policy areas.
By an interesting coincidence, I got through the post this morning a survey from the Electoral Reform Society asking its members – amongst other questions – whether or not the ERS should support AV in a referendum if that was what the choice came to.
UPDATE 2: More in The Guardian.
UPDATE 3: This enthusiasm for an AV referendum didn’t turn into enthusiasm for supporting the Yes campaign when one actually took place.