Sunday 24 May 2009

Is it too late for electoral reform?

I am among the signatories to a letter in today's Observer calling for a referendum on electoral reform to be held on the day of the next General Election.

The Observer has a report noting that Alan Johnson and John Denham (long-time electoral reformers) believe the argument is worth pushing. There is more on the Makes Vote Count blog, noting that Labour voices in favour include Matthew Taylor, myself, Neal Lawson of Compass, former MP Oona King, Young Labour chaIr Sam Tarry, NUS President Wes Streeting, Lance Price and Tony Robinson. (My understanding is that MPs and Peers were not invited to sign the letter, but some will be backing the campaign).

And The Observer editorialises in favour of electoral reform too.

So once more unto the breach for electoral reform?

Andrew Grice in The Independent yesterday noted pressure for a 'big bang' constitutional reform from David Miliband and James Purnell. But Grice argues that, while this might have worked in 1997, it is now too late.

Constitutional reform was a significant part of Labour's first term agenda. The 1997-2001 parliament saw, by some distance, the most significant political reforms since 1911. Yet these were commitments inherited by New Labour; that momentum was not sustained after 2001 as those pluralist advances seemed at odds with the governing style of the administration. And so it is that the government has so often been caught out by its own half measures: freedom of information, party funding reform and the disclosure of MPs expenses all mean we know so many things we would never have known even in the recent past. Yet transparency is not enough if it what is made transparent is not legitimate.

Electoral reform has been seen as one of the missed opportunities of Labour's time in government, despite some valiant efforts to keep the issue alive. The current crisis may - or may not - open the question. There are an enormous number of different agendas being proposed for 'political reform'. None is a panacea, but it will be necessary to think about the links between institutional reforms - such as strengthening the Commons, electoral reform and the role of a second chamber - and broader changes to political parties and in our political culture if we want a more participatory and more pluralist politics to result.

While "I wouldn't start from here" may be correct analysis - but it is always difficult advice to act upon. However, this strengthens the case for an open reform - for the creation of a constitutional convention, where the governing party is clear that it is ceding to citizens the power to determine outcomes, and indeed creating a process and momentum behind a new constitutional settlement which will conclude some time after the next General Election.

The problem of attempting a major reform at "five minutes to midnight" was the conclusion of the first piece I wrote when about to take over at the Fabians was an essay for a Policy Network book 'Rethinking Social Democracy', edited by Matt Browne and Patrick Diamond, which was published at the 2003 party conference season.

This was the conclusion of my 2003 piece, 'Is Britain a progressive country'.

Tony Wright has written that the British seem to think that pluralism is a lung disease. This peculiarly weak conception of what politics is - the belief that compromise is always a dirty word and that power can not be shared but must ultimately reside in one place or the other - has done much to contribute to an excessively centralised and adversarial political system which has lost public confidence and trust. It doesn't make sense to talk about the importance of choice, diversity and responsiveness in public services and then to fail to make democratic politics much more responsive too.


If a week is a long time in politics, there is rarely much point in looking too far beyond the immediate political controversy or crisis. Of course, nobody can make confident predictions about the future. But if we are to take seriously talk of a 'progressive century', then we must also have a longer-term perspective.

Like death and taxes, some facts of political life are unavoidable. No government likes to think about its own political mortality but eventually, one day, its end will come. If Labour were to win the next election and govern for a full term, it would have been in office for 12 or 13 years. And it will only be in the years after Labour has left office, that we will be able to fully assess its legacy in office.

A progressive government which does moe to reshape political debate, create alternative centres of power and change the political culture in Britain would have done much to sow the seeds of its own subsequent political recovery, as well as to define the terrain on which any future administration must govern. But to guarantee these achievements fully, we need to more firmly embrace political pluralism. A genuine social democratic consensus can't rely on social democrats always being in government. There are many different ways to change the British political culture. But if Labour, as it seems likely to do, leaves the electoral system unchanged, it will take a major gamble by leaving the central pivot of the 'winner-takes-all' culture of British politics intact. It will fail to insist that any future British government must have widespread public support or, at least, be 'coalitionable' in party political terms. It leaves the door open for the Right to win, possibly on a low share of the vote and a historically low turnout, and to claim a mandate for a 'slash and burn' ultra-neoliberal agenda.

Right now, both the electoral arithmetic and the workings of the first-past-the-post system itself are heavily stacked against our political opponents. But an attempt at reform will not be credible if we wait until it is five minutes to midnight, and seek to construct some sort of last minute deal to try to secure another year or two in power. We need to act sooner - from a position of strength - to underpin a progressive and pro-European consensus in British politics. Which is not to end on a point of defeatism. Rather it is about having the confidence to put in place the building blocks if we want a progressive century.

I can at least claim consistency in also having argued for electoral reform - making a case for the (non-PR) Alternative Vote to unlock the reform stalemate, as part of a much broader pluralist settlement - at the height of the Brown bounce in the Autumn of 2007, and again in much less auspicious circumstances at the start of this year.


Doktorb said...

This is an issue which needs big pushes over a number of years.

Push one - introduce AV for existing constituencies for the general election following 2010. Inbetween 2010 and the following, ask a committee to review what is the best option for subsequent change:

1] Pre-1999 European Parliament constituency style constituencies with STV
2) Reduce MPs by around 10%, continue using AV
3) Something else? (Dare I say None of the above!)

All this could have been sorted out years ago, when Blair was at his peak, when the Tories were unable to organise an Opposition. The bus may not be missed entirely but it is turning a corner...

Anthony Painter said...


I've blogged on this also this morning and advocate AV but I'm very sceptical about PR as a solution to current crisis of politics- a gulf between voters and representatives. AV would improve the situation. Multi-member constituencies and elite bargaining on government formation could well make it worse.

Pr is a red herringI'd be happy to hear your views. For me: primaries with limited expenditure, AV, addressing the relationship between Parliament and the executive, more individualised party funding, a change in behaviour of representatives all seem to be more fruitful propositions to address this poltical morass.

Jon Harvey said...

A reasonable step would be AV for House of Commons and PR (Open list STV) for Upper Chamber.

Sunder Katwala said...

Thanks for comments. Am in broad agreement. I left out the link to my Autumn 2007 piece on how to reform the electoral system.

I have been a supporter of electoral reform since I first came across the issues, certainly a year or two before the 1992 election, when I was 18. I strongly think PR is preferable to the British system, but I also think reformers risk splintering in a debate about preferred systems rather than a reform strategy.

Where the current crisis is relevant is that it could be used for a constitutional convention type moment (of the sort Brown seemed to suggest before taking power, and which has turned into a tidying-up exercise of very limited impact).

I now think there is both a strategic/pragmatic case for AV, but also (in the right broader reform package) a good argument for it being good to have a pluralist majoritarian system for the Commons, within an entrenched written constitution and with a PR-elected second chamber. I don't think the parts can be seen in isolation. (While Jenkins is excellent as analysis, the weakness of Jenkins' own AV+ scheme as advocacy was to try to do everything in one place - the electoral system for the Commons - whereas the debate is a different one if we can have a more pluralist constitution with many more checks and balances).

Advocates of the current system tend to be much less informed. In particular, I can not see why any supporter of the current system should find AV a weaker system. Most answers to this (eg it would always result in a coalition) are often simply misinformed.

I agree with Anthony that electoral reform is not a panacea. (While there are PR systems which can lead to disconnection, I see little or no chance of getting eg a regional PR list system in the UK). In many ways, getting electoral reform is the result of political and cultural changes, as much as a source of them. But I do think that an electoral system which necessitates cooperation between parties (which AV does, as do various PR systems) would be one important supporting stimulus to some of the other changes - eg open primaries - which Anthony suggests.

Anthony Painter said...

I like the point about different aspects of the system serving different functions a lot. Certainly, what Sunder proposes would entrench a more independent Parliament which I see as a virtue.

I'm less concerned about inter-party cooperation as that presents issues of it's own. However, it is healthy to have a dynamic within the system that forces parties to engage with the ideas and policies of other parties. AV does this and potentially at a local level. Labour needs to engage more with liberal/ ecologist thinking in my view. A more involved democracy could well achieve that.

Charlie Marks said...

This issue should have been dealt with in the nineties - but there's definitely more interest in electoral reform. Do I recall a manifesto promise to a referendum on the matter? Never to late to be kept...