Opinion: Avoiding cynical electoral reform

At Prime Minister’s Questions this week, David Cameron hammered Gordon Brown over the reports that, faced with an almost certain general election defeat, Labour is finally ready to introduce some form of proportional representation into the electoral system.

Of course, the Conservatives are perfectly within their rights to complain that this seems like a rather cynical move. It’s been over 10 years since the Jenkins Commission recommended reform of the voting system to the AV+ System for Westminster, and we haven’t heard a sniff of it since.

The reason? Blatant self-interest by a sitting Labour government who surprised themselves with their landslide victory in 1997 and who didn’t want to risk compromising their majority in the subsequent 2001 ad 2005 elections.

Turned on its head we now see the same, self-interest at work. Faced with a generation in the political wilderness, the Labour Government is now finally prepared to think about PR.

The Tories for all their protests are also acting out of self-interest rather than what is right. By retaining the current first-past-the-post system they see a chance to reclaim power for the next 10-15 years; they don’t care how this system disenfranchises voters and smaller political parties, or how it distorts the balance of power in favour of a minority.

So the Tories are going to fight a vicious NO CAMPAIGN against proportional representation, whilst the YES CAMPAIGN is going to be spearheaded by a dying Labour Government, with no moral authority and a complete absence of public trust.

As Liberal Democrats, and long-term advocates of electoral reform, how do we approach this topic?

Learning lessons from the Euro elections and the debacle over the Lisbon Treaty, if we pick up the mantel and fight the YES Campaign alongside Labour, the Liberal Democrats could easily be pulled down with the death throes of the Brown government. Conversely if we sit on our hands and do nothing, we could miss our last real opportunity to effect meaningful change in the electoral system for many years to come.

My personal opinion is that we shouldn’t shy away from a cause we believe in because it’s politically inconvenient, but we need to change the way we talk about electoral reform. We need to ensure it doesn’t become synonymous with cynicism, to keep it from being remembered as a cheap electoral trick to keep the Tories out. We must at all costs protect the integrity of the term.

We need to start attacking the first-past-the-post system with simple numbers. For example, in the 2005 general election, 65% (almost two-thirds) of the electorate voted for change. They didn’t get it and they didn’t get it because of the current first-past-the-post system.

It’s a simple fact, easy to understand, easy to deliver as a sound-bite. Yet I cannot recall hearing it from anyone on the Lib Dem front-bench any time in the past four years. If it has been said, then it hasn’t been said nearly enough!

Maybe it’s because they fear the comebacks, or worry that we’ll have to admit that PR is going to result in coalition governments. But surely it’s better to have a country governed on the consensus of two or more groups representing a true majority of the electorate, rather than to govern the country based on the will of a small minority? Why does this remain such a difficult point to put across?

I understand that the party is trying to focus on doorstep issues like housing, protecting jobs, helping people back to work, and avoiding repossessions – but who are we kidding? Short of a hung parliament, Britain is not going to really benefit from Liberal Democrat policies without meaningful and just electoral reform. So let’s step it up the agenda!

* David Parkes is a Liberal Democrat member in the Brussels & Luxembourg chapter and a member of DELGA.

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  • “If we pick up the mantel and fight the YES Campaign alongside Labour,”

    There is no YES campaign to fight alongside anyone. No proposals. No Bill. No draft Bill. No plans” for a referendum before the next election.

    Just a “consultation”. Which is exactly what Labour said there would be on the Jenkins proposals 11 years ago.

  • The only appropriate strategy in the event of a referendum on Alternative Vote is to oppose it, but on the grounds that it is a typical Brown fudge which won’t give us real reform. We won’t get to change the voting system twice – it’s better to hold out for STV, because even AV+ would be problematic. We can attack both FPTP and AV, in my opinion, because neither is Proportional Representation, and make clear the obvious benefits of PR. The Tories will bang on about weak coalitions, but of course the countries that Do use STV aren’t afflicted by those problems – Ireland, for example. Countries that are, like Italy, use list PR, which i hope we oppose.

    We have to frame the electoral reform debate in terms of it being MPs’ terms of employment. We have to pitch it to the public that MPs should not be setting the terms of their own employment, just as they shouldn’t be deciding their own pay and expenses. Therefore, we need a citizen’s jury to deliberate on the different electoral systems and to put what it thinks the best one is to the country. I’m fairly confident that, if we have that, the argument for STV can be won.

  • David Parkes 11th Jun '09 - 1:09pm

    Likewise I prefer STV, though I equally I can’t see it being placed on the agenda.

    The Jenkins Commission Report is the likely fall back for the thrust of any Electoral Reform proposals to be delivered in time for the next General Election, as no-one in government is going to make time for a new consultation.

    The Jenkins Commission considered STV but rejected it (for reasons detailed here http://www.archive.official-documents.co.uk/document/cm40/4090/chap-6.htm).

    Still, like Carrion, I tend to agree we need to argue for the best solution.

    PS: For the record I disagree with the The Jenkins Commission’s conclusions on STV, choice can never be oppressive.

  • I am with Anthony Hook ( Yesterdays daily view ) on this one. If the choice is just AV or FPTP then we must support AV as the better option
    We have a short window of opportunity while the public think things need to change – and while Labour still has the power and will to make it happen.
    Tories will push reform into the long grass.

  • Agree with the above and also agree with those who have their cynicism chip tuned to max herefordbullcrap mode emanating from the prime minister. Its a cover at present for for his own misfortune which Bagehot in the Economist this week highlights more with reference to Mandelson – the guy is running the govt and enjoying it – so expect no great rush to HoL reform?

  • Agree with the BigotBasher

    To give the impression of backing Labour in a cynical move to “rig” the voting system would have two effects:

    a) to kill meaningful electoral reform for a generation
    b) to kill the Lib Dems for nearly as long!

    Keep away !!!!

  • Aye. Watching a series of cross benchers absolutely fillet the Coroners Bill passing through the report stage and the Treasur bench in the Lords conceed point after point makes you wonder doesn;t it….

  • “Turned on its head we now see the same, self-interest at work. Faced with a generation in the political wilderness, the Labour Government is now finally prepared to think about PR.”

    That makes no sense. Under any form of PR, Labour would do worse than under FPTP (surely the EU elections showed this well). If there is any self-interest from Labour on this issue, it would be Brown trying to turn himself into a reformer, and therefore give his popularity a boost.

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