Opinion: Reconsidering political reform

The country is clearly experiencing a political crisis – the fact is so obvious as to barely need stating. MP expenses, a government with virtually no mandate, a sizeable chunk of the cabinet wholly unelected, including the ‘First Secretary’, Lord Mandelson: all this makes for a sizeable ‘democratic deficit’ – a term the Conservatives are ready and willing to apply to Brussels, but not so much to Westminster.

The Liberal Democrat policy position on constitutional reform is, uniformly, excellent and coherent – Single Transferable Vote, a cut in the number of MPs, a written constitution, committed localism, a great repeal of the many laws restricting civil liberties. I will go on to discuss how the coherence of those policies may be a problem for the party, but first I want to address a few presentational issues relating to electoral reform.

When the media talks about electoral reform, they invariably lead with remarks to demonstrate that they realise how boring the issue is – a kind of “don’t worry, like you ordinary folks, I find all this talk about the electoral system both deeply boring and utterly mystifying” (though probably using fewer words). Not only is this a counter-productive angle for the media to be taking on the issue – it confines discussion of it to self-appointed ‘policy wonks’ and academics – it’s one which is out of step with the British public, or at least could be made to be.

First off, I think there is an increasing interest in the issue – in a recent poll, 56% of respondents said they were in favour of Proportional Representation, for example. Even if you disagree, however, let’s be clear: I don’t find talk about electoral systems particularly interesting, but I am interested in the issue in so far as it is a pivotal one for deciding what kind of political system we have. I daresay written constitutions and bills of rights aren’t particularly glamorous things either, but somehow they become interesting because we identify them as pivotal to the political system.

Electoral reform has to become an issue that the public recognise as pivotal in our political system, because it absolutely is. The problem is, advocates of electoral reform have not been framing it in the right terms. In this regard, I think it would be useful to borrow some of the rhetoric used over MPs’ expenses. In that debacle, a constant refrain issued by members of the public and interviewers alike to still slightly shell-shocked MPs was “if I had done this at work, I’d have been fired”. After a while of hearing that, I realized that the way to characterize electoral reform is to talk of it as MPs’ terms of employment. That might be a more useful angle to take when presenting the urgency of this issue.

To take a step back for a minute and consider the wider political scene, I think the Lib Dems have to realise a number of things about this issue, as regards Gordon Brown’s mooting of Alternative Vote. Firstly, we are unlikely to see the electoral system change twice, unless the first change turns out to be a complete disaster and the second change is back to First Past the Post; or without a significant period of time elapsing in between.

Anyone who thinks Lib Dem support for AV might then lead to a situation where we’d be better placed to demand STV is therefore, in my view, mistaken. I don’t think that situation will ever arise.

Secondly, supporting AV means we are supporting a plurality (that is to say, non-proportional) system which can actually be more distorting than FPTP. In the left/right proportional/plurality continuum of voting systems, AV is to the right of FPTP, taking us further away, effectively, from the party’s stated goal of STV.

Thirdly, the argument that AV is only being brought in by this government for political reasons will be made by the Conservatives time and time again, and it would be both true and effective. The idea of defending Gordon Brown is not one that, I suspect, appeals to most Lib Dems. In fact, in the current political climate, I think it would be incredibly dangerous indeed to be seen to support any action this Labour government takes.

There are some issues on which the Liberal Democrats take a stance that I often feel is too purist. We insist on having things entirely our way, refuse entirely to compromise and, in doing so, marginalize ourselves from the political debate. Given that the electorate itself feels more marginalized than ever, I think this is an ideal issue for the Liberal Democrats to take a “plague on both your houses”, purist, anti-establishment stance.

We have to point out three things: first, Alternative Vote is a typical Gordon Brown fudge, designed to palm the British people off and avoid real change; secondly, the Conservative position of support for FPTP is no better, being driven entirely by cynical self-interest; thirdly, both parties are ultimately still talking about plurality voting systems, as opposed to actual proportional representation, however much they may want to kid you into thinking they’re debating PR.

The Liberal Democrats have a real chance to outflank both major parties here: call for what the Makes Votes Count campaign has been arguing for – letting a citizen’s jury decide what the best electoral system is, and then put that in a referendum, either at the next General Election or before.

We have to frame our argument as follows: we’ve seen what happens when MPs set their own pay and expenses; why should they be the ones who set their own terms of employment, too? I’m confident that Single Transferable Vote would come out of any genuine citizens’ panel as the recommended voting system; there is a wealth of evidence and information provided by the likes of Make Votes Count, the Electoral Reform Society and many academic studies to demonstrate that that is the case.

We can then frame things like this: if the Conservatives are so confident that FPTP is the best electoral system, independent of party self-interest, and the same of Labour with AV, why won’t both parties agree to let an independent jury of ordinary people decide?

Earlier on, I talked about how the coherence of the Liberal Democrat position on constitutional reform might be a problem; let me explain. The proposals for a written constitution, bill of rights, massive shift in power back down to the local level, cut in the number of MPs and so forth best make sense when taken as a package to be implemented simultaneously. A comprehensive new settlement that, once and for all, settles the constitutional problems we have.

There are two consecutive problems with that idea. The first is that, looking over British history, it time and time again shows that reform of our constitution has traditionally been piecemeal and short-termist – a sticking plaster is put over the problem in the expectation that ‘that will do for now’.

The second is that, in truth, unless the Lib Dems win an outright majority government (and there’s a debate to be had over whether it would be coherent for the party to accept such a result given its rejection of the plurality electoral systems that would give it one) constitutional reforms are likely to be gradual compromises agreed on as part of a coalition deal or somesuch. In view of the fact that neither the Labour party nor the Conservatives (though if it had to be one, I suspect it would be Labour) looks even remotely likely to agree to a wholly new and comprehensive constitutional settlement, the party may have to accept that its entire programme may not get implemented in one stroke, in which case contingencies must be made.

We can’t pretend it would make sense to introduce STV into a system where MPs are still half-policymakers, half-glorified councillors, because of the change in relationship that MPs would have with their new (multiple-member), huge constituencies. There would need to be a concurrent cut in the number of MPs, and greater power given to local councils too.

Personally, I have virtually no idea how to solve this quandary. Most liberals seem to agree that a written constitution and bill of rights are, in the long term, desirable, and that the status quo needs radical reform. However, implement a few piecemeal reforms and the danger is that the impetus behind the issue goes away. Given how precious political capital is, it would be better to get the entire package through in one go, and yet the only scenario in which the Lib Dems would have the power to do that would probably be, as I have already pointed out, an unjust one for us to be in, according to the party’s own policies. This is probably a long-term issue, but it’s one the party needs to make its mind up on now.

* Leo Watkins is a Liberal Democrat member in Hammersmith and Fulham.

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  • Another Mark 13th Jun '09 - 3:01pm

    Very good post, and I wholeheartedly agree with you. Unfortunately my experience of this country tells me that in the end, nothing sensible will happen at all and we’ll all be disappointed again. I’d love to be proved wrong, though, and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

  • Tony Greaves 13th Jun '09 - 3:16pm

    Why are we in favour of cutting the nmuber of MPs which will inevitably reduce the quality of local representation and involvement of the public?

    Tony Greaves

  • Darrell,

    I agree people like the constituency link, but i don’t think they like party lists. STV would mean no MP is safe, and avoids creating two classes of MPs, among other things.

  • Great post man. I agree with pretty much every point made here, especially this..

    “…looking over British history, it time and time again shows that reform of our constitution has traditionally been piecemeal and short-termist – a sticking plaster is put over the problem in the expectation that ‘that will do for now’.”

    This is a huge, historic crisis and it is going to be swept under the rug yet again unless our party can get its message sorted.

  • Sorry Leo but that’s pompous crap. Writing in 1950s English doesn’t make something valid.

    Since Watkins Jnr, chose to write his post in Billy Bunter speech let’s do what any what toffey-nosed public schoolboy would do.

    ” Cripes! Mr. Quelch please don’t ask me to parse it”

    “Bunter, thogh wilt, or it’s six of the best and the slipper for you”

    “Um, Ok sir, cripes, I’ll try. But it’s hard when Leo is being so silly and self-important. Watkins Junior said this,Mr Quelch; ‘The Liberal Democrat policy position on constitutional reform is, uniformly, excellent and coherent – Single Transferable Vote, a cut in the number of MPs, a written constitution, committed localism, a great repeal of the many laws restricting civil liberties.”

    “What do you make of that, Bunter?”

    He’s a nice boy, Sir! It’s sad he’s so naive, sir, please don’t cane him! He’s only little and he really swallows the stuff the older boys give him. He honestly believes that the reason Blears, Kennedy, Opik and the rest stole all the tuck money was the problem with the school rules. He can’t believe they are just greedy thieves. It’s sad. sir. It’s just that he worships Mr Rennard and believes anything he says. He thinks the rules must bave been wrong, sir, because he thinks Mr Rennard would never fudge the numbers”

    “You should know about greed and fudge, Bunter, now parse it or it’s the cane”

    “Leo’s ideas are crap, Mr Quelch. Us boys just want politicians to stop fiddling their expenses. We want them to stop stealing our tuck boxes. Forgive my language sir, but fuck “commited localism”. Just STOP dodgy expenses. STOP “winning here” STOP dodgy deals in Dolphin Square. STOP big tellies for Opik Jnr and STOP Watkins pretending that you need to change the law to make people honest!”

    “Quite right, Bunter. If people are crooks you cane them. You don’t change the school rules. They need to be spanked”

    “Yipee, sir, can I smack Ming, Lembit and Kennedy Jnr first or do we have to leave it to the voters?”

    “Leave it to the voters, Bunter, It will hurt them far more”

  • Herbert Brown 14th Jun '09 - 12:04am

    “He’s only little and he really swallows the stuff the older boys give him”


  • It certainly is not pompous crap, Ash. Making such judgmental suggestions and discrimination on what may or may not be his background is out of line.
    You people should feel bluddy lucky that people our age (the next generation of political leadership) are still taking a passionate interest in the political system at a time when it is seen to have betrayed the British people.
    Step off!

  • ash,

    Your problem is, any serious point you were trying to make was quite obscured by your way of making it. Perhaps i was “writing in 1950s English” and “Billy Bunter speech”, perhaps i am a “toffee-nosed public schoolboy”; firstly, that’s my right; secondly, it in no way affects the logicality of my argument. I’ve always thought that the problem is usually with people who use ad hominem attacks, rather than those they use them against.

    Still, you raise an interesting point. Personally, i think dysfunctional institutions create corrupt and amoral politicians. Clearly you think that, were MPs more virtuous, the system wouldn’t matter. My beef is, the system is undemocratic, deficient in checks and balances and almost wholly unaccountable. I agree with Lord Acton’s famous aphorism, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, clearly you do not. We’ll just have to agree to differ.

    To those who have raised the question of whether a cut in MPs is actually a good idea,

    I’m basically persuadable either way on this question, but i can’t help feeling that if we had a) proper devolution of power to local council level, and b) an elected House of Lords, we wouldn’t need so many MPs. Currently they’re half-glorified councillors, half-national legislators. I think they should only be the latter, and i don’t see why we’d need 640-odd of those.

  • Andrew Turvey 22nd Jun '09 - 1:55am

    Interesting post, but I’m a little alarmed that you dismiss the reformist trend with such ease.

    The process of reform has been remarkably successful in Britain. We haven’t had a revolution in modern times – there has been a relatively seamless transition from feudalism to liberal democracy which no other country has acheived. There is no reason why further constitutional reforms couldn’t be similarly successful.

    I would also note that reformed voting systems have made considerable headway in the last twenty years – we now use List PR for GB European elections, STV for Scottish councils and top up PR for Scottish, Welsh, N Irish and London devolved bodies. I’ve no doubt it will come to Westminster – the two party FPTP system has essentially broken down and more and more people seem to realise this.

    AV would be more democratic than FPTP as the member elected would better reflect the political views of his voters.

    Party Proportionality is not the only consideration in voting reforms – possibly not even the most important. The relative power of voters and party officials is also crucial.

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